Inspiration, Derivation, Plagiarism – The Fine Lines in the Murky Fog

Where do you get your ideas? 

This may be, aside from when will you finish your book?, the most-asked questions of writers. It’s one we all struggle with.

Some will say – and I am among them – that we can find inspiration everywhere. In old photos, in overheard conversations, from NPR broadcasts, from books we read. In fact, I think most fiction writers will tell you that. Sometimes, it seems like the ideas come so fast and thick that we’ll never get them all down. And some of them – the most ephemeral, the ones we doubt – will drift away, maybe to find another home with another writer at another time.

In Founding Brothers, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian Joseph J. Ellis gives credit for the structure of this book to author Lytton Strachey. Ellis says:

My problem, at least as I understood it at that early stage, was a matter of scope and scale. I wanted to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . His (Strachey’s) animating idea, a combination of stealth and selectivity, was that less could be more. (p ix)

Ellis already had the idea for the book he wanted to write; however, the scale was an issue. It always is, when you deal with history. What he needed was the example, the tacit permission. Once he had that, the Pulitzer wasn’t far behind.

That may not be the example you were thinking of. But consider the TED talk I heard this week, by Steven Johnson, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” Here, Johnson makes the point that in the 18th century, no scientists or inventors kept things to themselves. They shared their ideas in salons and coffee houses and colleges and pamphlets and books. They had large circles of acquaintance and friends with whom they communicated regularly. This gave them freedom. This inspired innovation. As Johnson says, Benjamin Franklin “sent his ideas out into the world so that they would attract the attentions of the ingenious.”

Here’s the thing:  ideas cannot be conceived in a vacuum. Again, as Johnson pointed out in his TED talk, epiphanies that are truly original hardly ever happen. Instead, “more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new.”

soapboxWithout Ron Chernow, there would be no Hamilton. Without the novels of Jane Austen, or the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters, there would be no romance genre today. Without Dracula, there could be no Twilight. (Remind me to hop in my TARDIS and go stop Bram Stoker, okay?). But without the myriad legends and cultural tales of vampires, there could have been no Dracula, either. And where did those legends and stories originate? They had a cause, once. There was inspiration, and no doubt centuries of re-tellings and innovations by successive generations.

Writers – whether we write fiction, nonfiction, or both – are readers. As we read, we get ideas. I can’t tell you what some of my historical books look like – barely legible scribbles in the margins where my imagination starts to take over and push past the sentences on the page to a totally different meaning and view. Oh wait, I can! Here’s a photograph of my copy of Founding Brothers, chapter 1. Those notes sparked the desire to know more about not only the Burr/Wilkinson Conspiracy, but also a nascent Federalist plot in the early 1800s to have New England secede from the United States (also, not surprisingly, something Burr may have been part of). And I still want to know more about that – so I’m reading about it now. Before you ask, yes, most of my historical books look like this. 🙂 73019443_1593261380815453_4079028731337768960_o (1)

Historians, fiction writers, scientists . . . if you do research, if you’re a professional or even a very gifted and devout amateur, then at some point you’ll be inspired by something you’ve read or heard about. BUT. Being inspired is one thing; being derivative is another entirely. So we’re clear, I’m defining derivative as “Imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc., and usually disapproved of for that reason” (Google).)

220px-Cassandra_Clare_City_of_Heavenly_Fire_book_coverFor an example of this, just go Google ‘Cassandra Clare criticisms’ and see what pops up. Forget the bad writing (and the incest storyline, which I still don’t get; were they, or were they not, brother and sister and who, precisely IS Jace and which freaking Shadowhunter family does he belong to, because I still don’t know!), and focus on the plagiarism charges instead. Very eye-opening. I begin to see the reason why I loved her Infernal Devices series more. But is the Mortal Instruments truly derivative? If you didn’t know she’d written a Harry Potter fanfic/ romance novel about Ron and Ginny (ewwww, right?!), would you think the Mortal Instruments series was, essentially, Harry Potter fanfic? (I’m off to take a shower now, with bleach. Ugh. Seriously. RON AND GINNY???)

Okay. I’m back.

Now, I admit, I read the Mortal Instruments series before I even knew Clare had written that fanfic. I didn’t see echoes of Harry Potter then, and I still don’t (of course, I haven’t read the fanfic, and no, I never will! EWWWW!). But sadly, with Cassandra Clare, it’s not just the Harry Potter fanfic (ewwww!) – she was also sued by fantasy novelist Sherrilyn Kenyon in 2016 for plagiarism. The charges (according to Clare’s website) were dropped at a later time, but still . . . the taint remains.

As I try to explain to my students, the lines that separate inspiration from derivation from plagiarism are fine indeed, lost somewhere in a murky gray swampland covered in fog. Sometimes, it’s clear as day – you steal three paragraphs from three different sources and turn them in as your original essay (dear students, please stop doing this, for there’s really no sport in it anymore for me). Sometimes, it’s great – you see a way to improve an existing idea or technology, and as long as you’re not violating any copyright laws and you’re creating something new and better, why not? But is that derivation – or inspiration? And does that depend on the end result?

If you’re wondering why I’ve spent the last 1100 words wandering around in this murky realm . . . frankly, so do I . . . no. Truthfully? It’s because for the past few months, I’ve been toying with the idea of returning to graduate school.

More and more, I want my doctorate in history.

It’s a scary thought, for a number of reasons – the most important being that I haven’t been in school in ten years, and the second most important being that I never did a thesis. Normally, your thesis in some way lays the groundwork for your dissertation – at least, that’s always been my assumption. But I couldn’t think of one, back then. I was pretty sure my little obsession with the Kimmel disappearance didn’t qualify as a thesis (even if I could have pulled it together in a year, which I now know I couldn’t have).

But now . . . that’s changing. I’m tired of lying in wait. And more importantly, as I dig and read and work and investigate, as more and more ideas come to me, as more and more questions beg to be answered (either by me, or by me finding that someone else already has), I realize that I really, really want to do this. And my big question is:  are these ideas, which insist on keeping me up at night (one decided to arrive at the most inopportune time of 11:45pm Tuesday night, as I was trying to sleep) worth investigating? Are they original enough? Am I being inspired by the works I read – or am I going over well-trod ground? Is there anything new there?

I suppose time – and a hell of a lot of groundwork and research – will tell.