17 August 2015

Creative Plagiarism

Have you ever stolen a idea for a story or book from another writer? No. Of course not, that's plagiarism, you say. You are exactly right. However, we all know in reality there are only  thirty-six literary plots. Or maybe only twenty. Or perhaps only seven.
  1. Wo/man v nature
  2. Wo/man v wo/man
  3. Wo/man v the environment 
  4. Wo/man v machine/technology
  5. Wo/man v the supernatural 
  6. Wo/man v self
  7. Wo/man v God/religion
I could continue with twenty master plots like quest, adventure, pursuit, escape, revenge, love, sacrifice… but you all get the idea. Maybe it is true but writers and even readers know that it's the shading, the ins and outs, the grays bleeding into the black and white that we all turn to as we write. We read something that we consider good book or story and when we finish the story or book we sometimes say to our self, I like that story idea or plot and then we wonder how we might have written it.

Soon we play the "what-if" game. What if John Doe had done this and Jane Doe had done that?  What if the storm had happened earlier? What if Mr. Smith had not been murdered but Mrs. Smith was the one killed?  And the next thing you know, a whole different story is taking place in your mind. And guess what you're not stealing, but you're likely doing what the gifted writer and teacher, Lawrence Block calls "Creative Plagiarism" in his book TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. And I've spoken those words, telling lies for fun and profit, many times and in classes or article writing give Mr. Block the credit although I have no idea if he was the first to coin the phrase.

I've tried to remember when a story inspired me so that I used some "creative plagiarism" to write a story.  I can only remember one instance although I imagine there could be more. The only similarity came when I read  a Bill Pronzini short story in an anthology. I can't tell you the story's name or the anthology or collection the story was in. I only remember there was a hit and run accident. And a hit and run accident was the only thing I used in my short story "The Man In The Red Flannel Suit."  That was a Christmas story published in an anthology titled SANTA CLUES. I do remember at the time my story idea was more or less going along with Bill's story, but by the time I got that idea inkling off the back burner it was entirely different from what I originally thought. The only thing left was the hit and run and that accident was altogether a different animal.

The only two other "creative plagiarism" stories came from songs. One song written and sung by Kenny Rogers called "Scarlett" and was about a young man falling in love with an exotic dancer. One night he goes into the club and Scarlett is gone. It breaks his heart because his fantasy was that she loved him. The nightclub people can't tell him where Scarlett has gone because dancers come and go, always looking for brighter lights. 

I couldn't get the song out of mind, well, I couldn't get Scarlett out of my mind. What happened to her? Did she leave and move to Houston? Dallas? Las Vegas? Was she kidnapped?  Was she murdered? 

Scarlett rattled around in my brain for two or three years and one day popped up as a short story, titled "Scarlett Fever" in the DEADLY ALLIES anthology. It's  still one of my favorite short stories. The other story inspired by a song is titled "The Confession." It was published in the MURDER HERE, MURDER THERE anthology. Since I personally knew the singer/songwriter, Thomas Michael Riley, he gave me permission to use as much or as little of the song as I wanted. It was a great "what if" idea.

If any if you have used any "Creative Plagiarism" ideas you may confess them to me. I won't tell anyone, I promise. 


  1. Great piece, Jan. And remember the old saying, "Good artists borrow, great artists steal." I've seen it attributed to several people so I'm not sure who to attribute it to.

  2. You're right on the money, Jan. There are only so many plots/variations on themes/etc. It's all in the shading. I've said it before, but I used a 3000 year old plot device (woman disguised as man, accused of knocking up a girl) in "Sophistication". It still works.

  3. Country music is chock full of story ideas! A few years ago, a blog that unfortunately no longer exists challenged people to write a noir flash story based on the country song of their choice. My story, "The One I Loved," was based on George Jones' "The Corvette Song". After the story was published on the blog, I sold it & that's the only time I've ever been paid for a reprint when I wrote the original for free.

  4. In my current work-in-progress, the idea of an epilogue where the narrator returns some decades later to his childhood neighborhood (where the creepy action of the story takes place)is "lifted" from C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner's story "Call Him Demon."

  5. Paul, I agree with you.
    Eve, that sounds like a story I'd like to read. Can I get a copy somewhere?
    Elizabeth, exactly right. Country music is all great stories. And we could probably write a shirt story about any of them.
    Jeff, sounds good and creepy.

  6. Jan, like you, I find inspiration in odd events. And I love your title Scarlett Fever!

  7. Good column. A few years ago I read a story which I am sure I listed as my best of the week on Little Big Crimes but I can't find it now. The plot was a young man who becomes obsessed with a woman who killed several of her lovers. When she gets out of jail on a technicality, he marries her. Stuff happens.

    I thought i knew where the plot was going. I was wrong, so I rewrote it my way. In my story there is a woman who writes love letters to a very bad convict, who then gets out of jail. "The Accessory" made it into EQMM and i just found out yesterday that it made the list of Distinguished Mystery Stories in BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES, edited by James Patterson and Otto Penzler.


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