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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
Displaying items by tag: novel writing
One of the things I'm still struggling to get my head around as a writer is the strange phenomenon of writing a novel and then, maybe weeks, maybe years later, seeing that same plot written in another author's book.
I'm not talking plagiarism here. Though the plot lines might sound remarkably similar these stories get treated in very different ways by their various authors.
Years ago I wrote a novel I called The Violin, inspired by my experience playing a Stradivarius at college. The thought of all the emotion that had passed through that instrument throughout its 300-year lifespan stayed with me long after my experience and formed the basis of my novel about a violin haunted by the ghost of its original owner.
I spent a year writing that book. I loved the story and couldn't wait to submit it to an editor. I was convinced it was totally original.
The week I finished the manuscript I walked into my local book shop and there on the shelf was Anne Rice's latest novel, The Violin - about a centuries-old haunted violin. What were the odds?
A couple of years ago a book came out that had the exact same climax scene as one of my earlier manuscripts.
Recently I came across a book that has nearly the exact same story line as my first published thriller, Run To Me. My version: A woman suffering PTSD after the death of her son saves a runaway boy from killers. His version: A woman suffering PTSD after losing her entire family, saves a runaway boy from killers.
How does this happen? Are writers clairvoyant? Is it evidence of Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious? Do ideas float around in the ether and get picked up by more than one of us at time?
Elizabeth Gilbert touched on this subject in her book, Big Magic:
"I believe our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses but also by ideas....Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest....but if you are not ready or available, inspiration may indeed choose to leave you and search for a different human collaborator.... This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open up the newspaper and discover that somebody else has written your book or...produced your movie...or patented your invention..."
Certainly an interesting way to look at it, but I'm not sure it fully explains the phenomenon.
They say no idea is truly original and that all stories have been written before. But every now and then the similarities in what authors produce lead me to wonder if some greater power is at work in our psyches.
Is it just me, or have other authors had this experience? Have you ever written a story and later stumbled on a similar plot line written by someone else? Do you have any theories on how this happened?
Readers: Have you ever come across a story notably similar to another you've read? Did the similarities put you off, or did you enjoy the different take on the subject?
Actually, to date, I’ve only set two of my novels in Maine – Run To Me and Hit and Run – but my most recent thriller, Die For Me, is set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is still in the northeast of America and holds many of the same resonances for me.
The setting of a book can be as important as any character. In fact in stories like Castaway, The Martian, and others it IS a character as it provides the necessary element of conflict the protagonist must battle.
So why Maine and the northeast U.S. for my thrillers? Well, apart from the area's extensive forests, foggy hollows, and long dark winters - all great for establishing mood in a story - there were other factors that drew me.
In my debut thriller, Run To Me, my heroine is suffering PTSD after failing to save her young son’s life during a mugging. In the two years following his death she gradually withdraws from those around her – her husband (who in fact blames her for what happened), her friends, the rest of her family, and even her job.
She eventually winds up living alone in the cabin she helped her father build as a teen. By placing that cabin in the woods of northern Maine I sought to make her as isolated physically as she felt emotionally. When danger finds her in her retreat from the world, she must face it entirely alone.
In my second novel, Hit and Run, I again returned to Maine as my setting. Only this time my aim was to make use of the natural dangers of this rugged environment.
My opening scene is my heroine standing at the top of a waterfall about to step off before something stops her. I actually visited such a location in Maine (the photo for this blog post) and can say with all certainly that moment standing at the top of those falls was the inspiration for my opening scene, as well as the one in the story’s climax.
In Die For Me I use the more ‘civilized’ setting of Cape Cod, an environment I still feel possesses hints of those same potentially dangerous elements. In placing my characters in this more familiar world I hoped to highlight one of the story’s messages: that we sometimes find danger in places – and people – where we don’t expect it.
This element of characters in isolation, forced to confront danger with no outside help, is one I’m drawn to again and again. Which probably explains why the story I’m currently writing, while set in Australia, takes place on an island in the middle of a hurricane where the residents are cut off from the outside world.
Interesting facts I learned about Maine in my research:
Northern Maine has been called the last remaining wilderness in the eastern US and is home to more bear and moose than people.
There are only 8 roads in the entire northern half of the state and they’re all owned by logging companies. To travel some of these roads you have to get a key to open the gates.
Recently I watched the movie ‘Their Finest Hour’ about an English film company tasked with producing an uplifting patriotic film about their country’s involvement in World War Two. The part I found most interesting as a novelist was how the three screenwriters went about creating a plot for their film.
For years, in choosing the plots for my novels, I’ve obsessed about finding just the right one, the story I was ‘meant to tell’. I used my own feelings regarding a premise to guide me in deciding whether to develop it further. I thought the more passionate I felt about an idea, the better the story would turn out.
To an extent that’s true and I still believe it. However after watching Their Finest Hour and seeing how those screenwriters went about creating a story, I’m starting to expand my thinking on this.
These three writers were simply presented a topic by their producer and told to go off and come up with a plot. They were given three elements they had to include: the story had to feature two English sisters, it had to have an uplifting ending, and somewhere in the middle somebody had to save a dog.
That’s all the writers were given. Nobody asked them if this was a topic they felt passionately about. Nobody cared if this was a story they ‘had to tell’. And yet they managed to put together a film that made audiences laugh and cry and cheer.
So I realize now that creating a great story needn’t only be about what an author personally loves. I’m thinking that, as a professional writer, I should be able to create a moving story from any marketable high concept premise whether it’s my particular passion or not. In the same way I, as a professional violinist, could play the music of composers I didn’t particularly like (even Strauss!) as musically as I did my personal favorites. I brought the same training and knowledge of my art to play all music equally well.
The trick I think is to make from that marketable idea something you do feel passionate about. The passion isn’t in the idea itself perhaps but in what you bring to it, your own personal take on the subject.
I'd love to hear other's takes on this.
Helen van Rooijen
It often works for me. At EW sessions I'm often surprised when I can write on the given topic and even take it to a complete - if rough - story. Thanks for the idea. I'm at a pinch and will try this to get past the block. So far I've just gone back and edited hoping that the next bit will come - now I'll drop the seat of the pants (plus general plot) method and work more on the toss ideas into my mind and let the plot develop more. I'll let you know.... ps I do plot out a whole story but I also let it happen along the way. It's hard working on my own with no 'bounce-off ' That's why I love the retreats. Cheers
Thanks for that, Helen. Yes, I get a lot out of brainstorming ideas as well. I confess I do have more trouble than most writing to a given prompt. I think I need to 'loosen up' more!
Winter is approaching here in Australia and I’m in my element! After a long dry summer, plagued with bush fires, the rains have come, the landscape is turning lush and green, and I’ve settled into my most productive time of the year writing-wise.
I know lots of people hate rainy days but I love them. (There’s actually a name for people like us – pluviophiles!) Somehow – and I haven’t yet figured out why this is so, so if anyone has any idea please tell me – rainy days make it so much easier to slip into the ‘fictive dream’, the world of my story.
During winter I rise at 4:45 and am at my desk working by 5am. The world is so quiet at that hour. No distractions, no interruptions.
I work for about 90 minutes and by the time I’m done, the sun’s coming up so I go for a walk. In the still morning twilight it’s easy to remain in the world of my story so I always carry a notebook and pen to jot down any ideas that come to me.
After my walk I have breakfast and go back to my desk for another 90-minute session. This means that most days my goal of writing 3 solid hours is accomplished by 11 o’clock.
As well as capitalizing on quiet, scheduling my writing early in the day puts it foremost in my mind. I do it before I’ve checked my emails, read the paper, or engaged in any social media. An approach put forward in books such as Deep Work by Cal Newport and Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod & Steve Scott.
After my writing is done for the day I can relax. Though I do aim to get in a bit of study and reading in the afternoon, these are ‘second tier’ tasks that aren’t as crucial. With my most important work behind me, I can be more flexible and enjoy impromptu visits from my grandson or time with friends.