28 June 2020

Lend Me A Scene

Last month, you read my blog article about the creation of "St. Paddy's Day" and the process of brainstorming that story. Today's topic is about the concept of borrowing for a story.

Some writers say borrow from the best. I say borrow whatever works best for the story you are writing. Borrow from wherever it is and from whoever wrote it. I'm not advocating that you should plagiarize someone else's writing, you understand. What I'm talking about here is borrowing the concept of that writer's idea or scene and putting that idea or scene into your own words to use it to best advantage in the story you are currently creating.

4 of the 9 stories in this book are in
my 1660's Paris Underworld series
This brings us to "Green Eyes," the 9th story in my 1660's Paris Underworld series. This is the one I sold to AHMM in May of this year. It is the 47th story the editors of that magazine have accepted over the years, but at the same time I'd prefer not to also think about the prior rejected submissions, nor those sure to come in the future.

For this 9th story in the series, it went like this. I needed a story line and a character arc. Then, I remembered a scene from the memoirs of Eugene Francois Vidocq. Vidocq as you may or may not recall, spent the first part of his life as a master criminal in France and the last part of his life as the Director of the French Surete catching criminals. Literary Note of Interest: When Victor Hugo wrote his novel, Les Miserables,, he loosely based the two main characters, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, on the two parts of Vidocq's life.

Anyway, in his memoirs, Vidocq wrote about trying to locate a robber so he could arrest the man. After much searching without success, Vidocq decided to try a different method. He was fairly certain that the criminal's wife knew where her husband was hiding out, but would not be willing to tell anyone the location. So, he devised a clever scheme relying on the emotion of jealousy as a catalyst. Enlisting the help of a female criminal who owed him a favor, Vidocq had this female pad her stomach area under her dress and go to the robber's house with a story. The now pregnant-looking female told the wife that she needed to see the wife's husband. When the wife asked what business the female had with her husband, the female patted her ample stomach and replied that the wife's husband knew what business, and then left.

Vidocq, who had been staying out of sight, watched while the wife locked up the house and walked briskly away. As she went through the winding streets of Paris, he followed her until she found her husband. Vidocq then promptly arrested the previously hard-to-find felon.

Okay, if that idea worked for Vidocq in real life, surely in my 1660's Paris Underworld series, I could use something similar for one of my main characters (the Chevalier) who needs to locate the thief who stole his money. The narrator for this series is a young, orphan boy trained as a pickpocket. He is rather incompetent in his occupation, which usually gets him into trouble, plus in previous stories, he has also proven himself to be an unreliable narrator. Being naive and lacking experience in life, he doesn't always realize that some events and actions he witnesses are not quite what they appear to be.

At the opening of "Green Eyes," the orphan sees a man steal money the Chevalier has hidden away in the old Roman ruins where the orphan, the Chevalier and Josette live together in the criminal community on the bluffs above Paris. Later, when the thief becomes hard to find, the Chevalier turns to Josette and some well-placed padding. The orphan boy/narrator, who has a crush on Josette, surreptitiously follows the Chevalier and Josette as they follow after the wife. Not being in on the full plan, what the boy observes confuses him and raises his own emotions. For me to tell more would spoil the story and the ending, so look for "Green Eyes" in a future issue of AHMM. Evidently, the borrowed scene worked great.

How many of you have borrowed an idea,  scene or action from another author because you really liked it and saw a way you could use it in a story of your own? Let us know how well it worked out for you.


  1. You know what they say, RT: Good artist borrow, great artists steal. Or as I prefer to think of it, I get inspired by those who've gone before :-) .

  2. Congratulations on your story - and on 46 others to AHMM. That is a most interesting detail about how Hugo conceived his two main characters. Of course, all sympathy is with Jean Valjean!

  3. I love this kind of column, RT, because such a behind-the-scenes look at a story is something only its author could provide. And yes, congratulations on your impressive sales record at AHMM!

    Looking forward to reading this story in a future issue.

  4. 47. Wow.
    Re borrowing: I took a classic idea (and I do mean classic; there's stories in ancient China, India, Middle East, etc.) - a woman disguised as a man accused of impregnating another woman - and used that in "Sophistication", where a trio of retired silent film actors move to Laskin.

  5. Being your first reader I can tell everyone that this is a fun story. And yes, I have often borrowed from other writers. On July 15 I will be writing here about a story I wrote which was inspired by a story by our own Janice Law.

    Here is something I wrote years ago on a related theme:

    Lawrence Block once explained that he got a phone call from writer Brian Garfield telling him how much he had liked a novelette Block had recently published in Hitchcock’s.

    What he said next was faintly unsettling, however. “I liked it so much,” quoth he,”that I managed to figure out a way to steal it.”

    “Steal it?” said I. “Steal it?”

    “Oh, it’s a legitimate form of theft,” he assured me. “You’ll see when it comes out.”

    I countered by quoting Oscar Levant. “Imitation,” I pointed out, “is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

    “Couldn’t agree with you more,” said Brian, and rang off.

    Block prefers the term creative plagiarism to legitimate theft, and when he read the story he agreed that that was what Garfield had accomplished. “His story directly derived from mine, but he had so adapted the idea as to create a completely different story.”

  6. Now that was interesting. Way to go with your sales.

  7. Great column, RT. Good writers steal story ideas all the time but manage to hide their crimes. The spark for my first published Weegee short story, The Dead Man in the Pearl Gray Hat, came from the excellent nonfiction book, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, by Christopher Bonanos. Weegee was a well-known 1930s-40s freelance crime photographer in New York City. His photos now hang in museums. (You might recognize the title of one of his books, Naked City). In Flash, Bonanos recounts Weegee’s claim that he would follow around guys wearing a pearl-gray hat (commonly worn by the “soldiers” of organized crime families) with the wild idea he’d actually photograph a murder in the act (the soldier being either the killer or the victim). Weegee was a notoriously unreliable narrator about his own life, so who knows if he really did it. But we know he never succeeded (otherwise his photo would have made the front page of every tabloid in the country). But for me his grim quest sparked the germ of story that eventually saw its way into Mystery Weekly.

  8. Playing with a story idea taken from another writer is a well honored tradition in European fiction; it is so prevalent (and obvious) in some instances that scholars spend a lot of time analyzing what sort of commentary is involve in the borrowed version on the original. I just think it's a good way to jumpstart a story and give an idea a new twist.

  9. I can't think of anything I've done to date that has borrowed an idea or premise. A few times I wanted to when watching a movie or reading a novel and wondered why they didn't take a different direction.

  10. I have a story coming out in a flash fiction anthology whose idea came from something I read in a book of "true" stories of witchcraft back in High School; about a Medieval "sorcerer" who said he grew two small humans and a fruit tree in a large jar (what could possibly go wrong with that?) I added a couple of larger humans and a magic link between the four of them and I had my story!


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