Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Blog Chain - Inspiration or Plagiarism

Quote of the Day:
There are only two things to write about: life and death.
~Edward Albee

Time again for the Blog Chain. The fabulous Christine answered before me, and our wonderful Cole Gibsen, who is returning to us after a long absence, will be up next.

Annie chose our topic this round. She wanted to know...

Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much? Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea?

My answer – yes, and no. I love the quote above, because it is so simple, but so utterly true. Everything you could possibly think of to write about, no matter what genre, deals with something involving life or death. So yes, of course, I am often inspired by real-life events, songs, poems, lines from or titles of books. In fact, as a sometime historical writer, I very often look to real-life events for inspiration.

But no, I don’t ever worry that I am ripping off the story too much. As several others before me have said, once you start to create your story, your own creativity takes over. It becomes your own. To be honest, I think you’d have to try really hard to actually rip something off.

For the most part, when I am inspired by something, it is more about how my object of inspiration made me feel then the actual, literal words in a song or story. I’ll listen to a song and a dozen images will pop into my head…like possible scenes in a movie that would work well with that song for background music. I’ll see a tragic news story and think of how a fictional character might react in the same situation. But I don’t ever feel like I want to tape the newsreel and write it down word for word.

As others have said…you can’t copyright an idea. And everyone is going to have their own take; you have ten writers with the same idea, you’ll end up with ten very different stories with similar elements. Look at all the “Cinderella” type stories out there.

Now, when you go too far, like John David California did with his “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye…that is another matter. But even this situation had to go to court in order to prove wrong doing.

Annie also asked...What if your research is overtaking your originality?

Really, I don’t think this is possible, for all the same reasons I listed above. I could research the same thing as ten other people, and we’d all come away inspired by different elements.

If this does happen to you, stop researching. If you are researching to the point that your own creativity and originality is getting lost, you are bordering on plagiarism. Research to that degree shouldn’t be necessary in any case. Research is necessary to get certain facts straight, to get the setting or mannerisms or clothing of a certain era or event correct. To add the little details that help bring your story to life. Your research should support your original idea, help to make it realistic…it shouldn’t overpower your own work.

Be inspired by real-life events, news stories, songs, poems, other written works…take whatever elements that touch you about those things and use them in your own way. If you are researching those things to the point that you have no original thoughts about them, you are going too far. Stop researching or find something else to write about.

In other words, take the idea, the situation, or the emotions a situation or work of art has inspired, and run with it. But don’t copy and paste. Don’t research so much you might as well be copying and pasting because all that’s left in your mind is someone else’s thoughts. Where’s the fun in that anyway? :)


Cole Gibsen said...

Great post! And I completely agree - when you submerge yourself in research (especially for fiction) you might lose your voice in the process. Well done :) Now I'm up...eep.

TereLiz said...

Very thought provoking topic. While I never worry about borrowing too much from life, and even the experiences of others in my fiction, researching has its pitfalls. Too much researching can have an adverse effect on the style I've been trying to cultivate since I spent so many years writing academic papers. I don't want to slip back into research mode's formal, passive sentences, and I don't want to accidentally use the same wording when I'm trying to crank out prose.

Sandra said...

That's exactly how I view research too--as a way to get the little details right.

Thanks for posting!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Michelle, so true we are amazingly so unique and our spin on the exact same nugget that starts our head spinning will be entirely different than the next person. The key is to BE CREATIVE in our own right.

christinefonseca said...

That really is a great quote! Nice post. And it really does come down to being true to the story, doesn't it..

Kat Harris said...

This is how I believe writers should do research:

Check out the facts, pay attention to your emotional response to the facts, walk away from the facts, write your scene accordingly.


Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I love your totally common sense advice at the end to stop researching if you are getting too deep into it and losing your originality.

Jessica said...

LOL! No fun in that at all. :-)

TerriRainer said...

"But don’t copy and paste." (Yeah, I just did that)...that line is PERFECT!

It always amazes me how much alike we are when it comes to writing, especially when it comes to music.

:) Terri

Annie Louden said...

For the most part, when I am inspired by something, it is more about how my object of inspiration made me feel then the actual, literal words in a song or story. I’ll listen to a song and a dozen images will pop into my head…like possible scenes in a movie that would work well with that song for background music.

Yes! This is exactly what I mean when I say I'm inspired by music. I guess I am just so paranoid that I think someone else will miraculously have read my story and heard the song, and they'll think, "Hey, wait a minute... these are similar!"

I also love what you said about research, how it's more to get the facts straight. Awesome post!

Sarah Bromley said...

Excellent post! Like others have said, yur comments about research are spot on--good insight.