Saturday, June 20, 2009

Inspiration or Plagiarism

By Christine Thackeray

A few days ago I was driving around in the convertible with my youngest. I LOVE summer and was feeling the freedom of no school, open afternoons and general abandon. As we passed the police station sipping soda's and not really in the mood to go home just yet, we noticed the little old community thrift shop. It's run by volunteers and only open from noon to four so I've never walked in the door, but Will and I decided to hop out of the car and give it a try.

The store was once a pre-WWII home. Its front door is made of plywood. We pulled it open, not sure what to expect inside when a smile exploded across my face. The front hall was overflowing with books, floor to ceiling, literally. My nine year old continued into the main store and found a pair of shorts, a cool t-shirt and a bag of bendable dinosaurs, but I didn't make it past the racks and racks of thick, juicy volumes of every genre. I left with an armful of historicals- most published in the seventies and eighties. I wanted to add more color to my writing and was hoping to pick up some brilliant phrases.

In one book it said that a red cloud of dust clung to the horses' hooves and trailed behind like a dragging scarf. Another spoke of the wide plains around them with little mounds of basalt cresting about the flat terrain like fish at sea. The last spoke of two stallions fighting in South Africa, partly in anger and partly in play. The horseman didn't break them up because they were stallions that knew when to stop. Mares, he thought, were a whole different matter. When they fight, they often injure or even kill each other. (Aren't people the same way?)

Later that night I told my husband how delighted I was with each find. I've been struggling with that first scene in my Herod book and I think having stallions fighting and using the mare line would be a brilliant way to begin, symbolically foreshadowing the issues with Salome, Herod's wives and mother-in-law all leading to various executions. As I spoke, my husband turned to me and asked how I could do that without breaking copyright. Wasn't it plagiarism? I laughed and told him that it was far closer to inspiration. But the line is important to understand and not to cross.

About ten years ago Nora Roberts accused bestselling romance author Janet Daley of plagiarism. She said, "In none of the known cases was the copying one or two phrases. It was, particularly in the case of Notorious, several entire scenes and passages. It was not an isolated case, but a chronic one, spanning years and involving thirteen books." Sadly, cases like this are not uncommon. Many of the accused claim the stress of deadlines and personal problems as the cause but it is clearly stealing.

One the other hand, there are a number of phrase books on the market that give you various descriptive phrases of body parts, facial expressions, landscapes, clothing, etc from different works. They are a great resource and often when writing they simply encourage you to think of textures or the shape of teeth- things outside the realm of your average modifiers to brighten your writing.

Lately, I've chosen to create my own phrase book. I added "One Note" to my computer, an awesome MS application which allows you to categorize information. As I read rich descriptors or original verb/noun combinations, I've begun copying them down and categorizing them for later use as the examples above. My hope is not to merely repeat them but to become more adept at mimicking their depth and beauty like painting the classics and then using similar brushstrokes to create your own masterpiece.

Of course, the concern is losing your own voice and becoming instead a patchwork quilt of other writers- that would be just ugly. Sort of like the disconnected historian who simply quotes source after source without ever tying it together. Michael Evquen de Montaigne put it this way, "The bees pillage the flowers here and there, but they make honey of them which is all their own." It's my hope that through pausing and appreciating writing, I'll be able to make my own more sweet.

Do you do this too?


Rebecca Talley said...

Fantastic post, Christine. Great idea to write down these quotes and then work to make them your own by twisting and tweaking them. It's similar to changing old, tired cliches into something fresher and more vibrant.


Anne Bradshaw said...

I really like these ideas, Christine. For many years now, I've kept phrase jottings in notebooks. But I like the sound of your One Note thing and would love to know more about it and where to get it. Sounds much easier to access than my stack of scruffy notebooks!

Shauna said...

I used to do this alot. But it got to the point it was downright distracting. Distracting from the pleasure of reading a book and just dissolving in the words and story, and distracting from writing because I was spending so much time on quotes! I finally just kept my favorite framed on my desk and gave the others to someone else to browse and keep or get rid of as they wished.
It is a truly wonderful idea, as I find I write better with an assignment or specific, concrete inspiration that I can refer back to as needed. I'm sure that in the future when I get back to writing I will start another!

Cindy Beck said...

Loved the phrase book idea. I'll have to try that!