IHOSE header

“This is treasure trove indeed." [BLUE]

Every August, online Sherlockians can count on the John H. Watson Society Treasure Hunt taxing their knowledge of the sacred writings.  Having just ended its fourth annual treasure hunt on September 1, we interviewed “The Napoleon of Questions” behind the event, Margie Deck.

I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: How did the John H. Watson Society Treasure Hunt get started?  Have you been associated with it since the beginning?

Margie Deck: The Treasure Hunt, along with the John H. Watson Society as a whole, was the brain-child of the late Don ‘Buttons’ Libey. He was a brilliant, enthusiastic, friendly and kind man.  He conceived the Treasure Hunt in 2013 as an individual competition. I read a posting he made at Welcome Holmes about the society and the hunt. My first thoughts were that I wanted to give it a try, and, instead of going it alone, I wanted to try it as part of a team made up of some of my Sherlockian friends from The Sound of the Baskervilles. I wrote to Buttons asking if the JHWS would consider adding a team division to the hunt; he readily agreed.  Our Sherlockian friendship began at that time, and I was fortunate to enjoy working with him until his passing in early 2015. 

The first Treasure Hunt was insanely difficult and wonderfully entertaining. I have no idea how many hours we worked on it but, in the end, the SOBs prevailed--and my SOB team mate and best friend, Sheila Holtgrieve, and I were solidly hooked on the process. I believe that first year two teams and one individual, the very clever Denny Dobry of Reading, Pennsylvania, actually finished it.

Buttons was posting a weekly quiz for the JHWS at that time. Sheila and I started doing those each week in order to practice for the next Treasure Hunt.  With Buttons’ urging, I began a puzzle column for The Watsonian; we discussed quizzing and the Treasure Hunt process often.  Buttons wrote the 2014 edition of the hunt, and the SOBs earned High Honors that year as well. 

In late December 2014, Buttons asked me to write the 2015 Treasure Hunt. I declined because I wanted to be a contestant one more time, and, to be honest, I was a little nervous about the whole idea. I made a commitment at that time to write the 2016 edition. When he passed away suddenly in March, it seemed only right that I volunteer to write for 2015. He had previously asked me to do so, and I wanted to help the JHWS continue. His loss was a crushing blow for me personally and for the society. It literally takes a dozen people to do all the tasks he took care of for JHWS. I miss him every day.

I wrote the 2015 and the 2016 edition; I’m very proud of the work. I like to think Buttons would be proud of it as well.

IHOSE: How have you seen the treasure hunt change over the years?

MD: The main change has been the number of participants actually submitting an entry. We have doubled each year, and I’m hopeful 2016 will be our best year yet in number of competitors. One thing I have loved about the Treasure Hunt is that it has been an international competition from the beginning. Having teams from various countries makes our competition unique. In 2015, we added teams from Canada and the UK to compete with our returning French, Italian and American teams. This year we added competitors from The Sherlock Holmes Society of India. I hope the growth continues.

One change I instituted is the scoring by points. Each question is, of course, one point unless it has more than one element, and then each element has a point. I believe in the 2016 edition, questions range from one point to up to four or five points. I added this simply to make the hunt more competitive. Holmes said playing the game is its own reward but I think we still like to win. The points help mix it up a bit.

The other changes in the hunt are in the writing process. Buttons crafted his hunts with lengthy threads where one answer was required in order to have the needed information to answer the next question.  The threads were good fun, but I made the decision to not use them. His threads required the use of a specific edition of the Canon due to the need for specific page numbers and word counts. I thought we might have more competitors if any edition of the Canon would suffice as a reference. Also, Buttons’ hunts required access to a great deal of the scholarship, including the old and new series of The Baker Street Journal and The Baker Street Miscellanea. When I was a competitor, I did not have access to those publications, and I found it difficult to work on the threads without them at hand. So, again, I hoped to increase our numbers by not requiring that access.

However, I do want to honor the scholarship and I do include some scholarship questions. When I write questions that require going outside the Canon, I spend some time on the internet looking for the sought answer. I do not use a question from outside the Canon that I cannot find an answer for with an internet search of some sort.

IHOSE: Have you already started working on next year's devilish questions yet?  How far in advance do you start?

MD: Actually, as the plan is now, I will be a competitor again in 2017. The amazing Michele Lopez of the Uno Studio in Holmes of Italy has agreed to be Treasure Hunt Master next year. He is a driving force within the Sherlockian community in Italy, and his team scored High Honors in the 2015 Treasure Hunt, and Honors in 2014. He has written some of the weekly quizzes at JHWS and I know he is going to be a terrific hunt master.

Asking Michele to write next year’s hunt was my idea; I think all volunteer organizations need a healthy spirit of rotation in order to thrive. Taking a break should help my creative process and keep my question writing from becoming stale; it is also good to be reminded what it is like to be a competitor. I hope to come back as Treasure Hunt Master in 2018, or 2019, depending on how things work out.  Should something go awry with our plan, I will write in 2017 if needed. Hopefully, I will have plenty of notice as it does take some time to craft the questions.

In 2015, I did not know until March, of course, that I needed to write the hunt, so I had from March 15 to July 31. I finished the final draft about July 20th. For 2016, I knew that I had a year to prepare.  I started drafting ideas in October, and writing questions in earnest in January; the final draft was complete around July 1. For my writing process, I need about six months. I do not know how long it took Buttons to write the first hunt; I know he did the second one in a month. I would not be able to do it in a month.  But then, he had read the Canon from beginning to end every single year for thirty consecutive years. He knew his Holmes and Watson.

The time it takes to finish somewhat depends on the time my proof reader has available to work with me.  While I believe Buttons worked alone, I do not want to.  For 2015, my friend, the very astute Melissa Anderson of the Peoria-based Hansoms of John Clayton, worked with me, and in 2016, my SOB teammate Sheila Holtgrieve and I were back working together.  

IHOSE: Can you describe the question making process for us?

MD: For me, the first step is, oddly enough, the last question. “What is the treasure for the year?” must be answered first. Once that question is sorted, I spend a great deal of time just reading. When something seems interesting to me, I make a note, and then go back to reading. Like most people I know, I have a stack of Sherlockian books in the house. I open one at random, read a few paragraphs, make a few notes, close it, pickup another one and do the same thing. Before long, I have a stack of notes about things I found interesting from different sources. I take those topics to the Canon, and start searching for the applicable parts of the stories. I often get side-tracked. I will be reading a story, looking for one thing based on the notes I made, find something else more interesting, and start working on it. Once I am clear on the idea for the question, then I start working on the wording. The question must not be too easy but it must be answerable. This year I chose a quote from the Canon for the theme, and then crafted the questions in a manner that reflected the theme.

Once I have some questions written, I share them with my proof-reader. Besides the standard check-for-grammar-typing-spelling-errors, I ask my helper to apply a three-part assessment to each question:

  1. When you read the question, do you understand what you are being asked to find? 
  2. Do you see something in the wording that gives you a clue as to where to begin to look for an answer?
  3. Does the answer I have seem appropriate for the question as written?

If the helper cannot answer yes to each of the three questions, then I re-write it until she can. One question this year was re-written at least six times. Sheila went one step farther this year and drafted some question ideas as well; while she didn’t actually write questions, her ideas were very helpful. Being a three-year veteran of the hunt, she has some mad quizzing skills and I trust her instincts.

When I have 100 questions written, I read the document out loud to see if it actually flows. Reading aloud engages a different part of the brain than reading silently; Sheila and I read it aloud in June, and found two errors that had been on the thing for months that our eyes simply didn’t ‘see.’ It is an interesting process. I like that you used the word ‘devilish’ when referring to the questions. As a matter of fact, Sheila referred to them the same way. I have no idea why I can write them that way.  I just can.

IHOSE: What was your inspiration for the mixture questions that were added to this year's hunt?

MD: The mixtures idea came from the quote used for the theme—“…that mixture of imagination and reality which is the basis of my art…”  I was telling someone about the chosen theme, and I said “Here, I go. I’m going to mix things up,” and the idea for the structure just popped into my head. 

IHOSE: Sherlockian research and mentions of Holmes in other writer's works have appeared in questions from time to time.  How far do you allow yourself to stray from the Canon when making the questions?

MD: As I’ve noted before in this discussion, I want to honor the scholarship in a few questions, and occasionally something really interesting relating to Holmes and Watson will pop up in another, non-Sherlockian text. When I find something I would like to use, I use Google, or a similar search engine to see if I can arrive at the information online. If I can, then I start working with the information to craft a question. If I am directly quoting another writer, I try to make it very clear so the treasure hunter can see that he or she has the option of searching for those exact words. 

IHOSE: Have you had any upset participants when a ruling didn't go in their favor?

MD: My experience has always been positive. Actually I think the only person ever even a tiny bit snappy about the Treasure Hunt was me; I was fussy with Buttons about a certain question pertaining to a proper noun in 2014. If anyone were to be grumpy with me, I would probably write it off to “third-week fatigue” and just go on. That was certainly the case with me, Buttons, and that proper noun. I understand it.  I have yet to have a truly rotten experience with a Sherlockian about anything.  

For those of us that read Brad Keefauver’s blog at Sherlock Peoria, we know that he has had some opinions about the Treasure Hunt, and, last year, he wrote a piece calling me out a bit for going too far to help someone with a question about the Treasure Hunt. His words were blunt but he was absolutely right. I appreciate the honesty.

IHOSE: What is your favorite Canonical story?

MD: Most of the time, my favorite is "Charles Augustus Milverton," but I like "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" quite a bit, and I have a soft spot for "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." I guess that means that I am unable to name just one. I can tell you that "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" is my least favorite, except for that one line about Watson never failing to play the game. Love that!

IHOSE: The John H. Watson Society Treasure Hunt is available all over the world because of online communication.  What are your thoughts on the rise of online Sherlockiana?

MD: In 2003 I discovered the online group Welcome Holmes, and it changed my life.  Talking with Sherlockians from everywhere became an integral part of my life; when I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2006, I joined The Sound of the Baskervilles, and added the fellowship of a local group. I would not want to give up either way of having Sherlockian friends.

Now, ten years later, online communication has exploded and it seems quaint to think there was a time it wasn’t available. Since BBC Sherlock became a force on the net, I feel happily over-whelmed by it all. I’ve given up trying to keep up, and as a tiny fish in vast ocean, I enjoy what comes my way and do not worry too much about the rest. I have never really enjoyed Sherlockian pastiche and therefore I tend to pass up the fanfic, and I don’t participate in Facebook, so I miss a lot. I have made some lasting, wonderful friendships online and I’m grateful for that. I understand there are some dust-ups online from time to time between various mind-sets about what constitutes being a Sherlockian. I stay out of the fray. I think online Sherlockiana is a blessing.

[Editor's note: follow Margie on Twitter at @pawkypuzzler]

IHOSE:  Is there anything else you would like to share with the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere readers about the John H. Watson Society or its treasure hunt?

MD: I appreciate your time and attention. I hope you will consider forming a Treasure Hunt team next year. Or perhaps joining The John H Watson Society—the publications are amazing.  Or both!

Margie Deck is a member of The Sound of the Baskervilles and The John H. Watson Society. She also volunteers for Sherlock Seattle.  She has been interested in Holmes since 2003, and active in Sherlockian societies since 2006.

The John H. Watson Society was established in 2013 and is always seeking new members at all stages of involvement in Watsonian, Sherlockian and Holmesian interests.  Their publication, The Watsonian, is published on a bi-annual basis.  The society also publishes members’ longer works as part of their Fiction Series and Monograph Series.