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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
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!
Today was to have been the start of our annual autumn writing retreat, a week-long escape I and as many as a dozen other authors look forward to.
For the first time in the twenty-one years since we began running these events, our retreat has been cancelled due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Not a huge catastrophe in the greater scheme of things but I'm going to miss the group energy, shared discussions, and brainstorming sessions we held each night. (Not to mention the laughs!)
So in honour of our missed reunion I'd like to share my recipe for Cheese Onion Bread which I make every time we go on retreat and which has become somewhat of a tradition.
To the authors who were signed up to come this year, make up a batch and, as you eat it, pretend you're sitting in the hall at Trinity. And since we're all social distancing anyway, make this a week to get as much writing done as you would have there.
We'll be together in spirit!
Cheese Onion Bread (1 loaf)
1 1/2 cup warm milk
1 tbsp. dry yeast
2 tbsp. honey
1 tsp. salt
1 cup tasty (cheddar) cheese, grated
1/2 cup spring onion, finely chopped
whole wheat flour
Whisk milk and egg together. Stir in yeast and honey, and allow to stand until yeast dissolves.
Add enough whole wheat flour to form a thick batter and stir 100 times.
Cover and let rise for 50 minutes in a warm place. (At Trinity I set it beside the wood stove!)
Stir in salt, cheese and onion. Add enough flour to make a dough (Sorry, I've made this recipe so many times I don't know the exact measurement but it's roughly about 1/2 kg (1lb) or 4 cups total - including what you put in to make the batter)
Knead dough until 'earlobe' consistency. (About 10 mins)
Return to an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 30 mins.
Punch down and let rise a further 20 mins.
Shape into a cob and allow to rise on an oiled baking tray as oven heats to at 180C/350F.
Bake 50 mins or until loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
All right, so I’m not self-actualized. Reader feedback means something to me. I love checking out my Goodreads reviews and gain inspiration from reader comments.
When someone tells me they loved my book, that they couldn’t put it down, that it made them cry, or it’s one of the favourites, it does more than just make my day. It gives my whole creative system a shot in the arm. Writing becomes not just work, but a joy again. The words pour out.
They tell me it shouldn’t be this way. That we writers should be intrinsically motivated. ‘Write for the process not the pay-off.’
I won’t go so far as to call that B.S. There may well be authors out there who just write for themselves and never show a word of their work to anyone. But for me it’s simply not enough. More than that – it just doesn’t make sense.
Yes, I love writing for its own sake. And even if I had no hope of being published again I would probably still do it. In the same way I would talk to myself if there was no one else around to listen.
But art is about communication. The artist has something inside them, infuses that something into their work, and then sends it out. The person who views the painting, reads the words, or hears the music feels something in response. If there’s no-one on the receiving end, what’s the point?
As a violinist I used to spend 4-6 hours a day practicing scales, exercises and pieces. Yes, it was satisfying in itself, but only because I knew it was bringing me one step closer to my ultimate goal: to walk out on stage and perform for an audience. To give my music to someone else.
The biggest thrill I could get as a musician was moving my listener to tears. The same holds true for me with writing. And I think this explains why so many emerging authors are often depressed. They keep asking themselves, when will someone see my work? When will I have the chance to fulfil the purpose behind all my efforts?
So, readers, please don’t stop giving your feedback. If you loved a book, or even if it let you down in some way, let the author know. I can honestly say I pay attention to all feedback and if more than one reader had the same issue with something in my book, I guarantee you I’ll give it some thought the next time around.
If you don’t feel comfortable posting a review on Goodreads or Amazon, send the author a FB message or contact them via their website. You might just be providing the incentive that helps that author write their next book.
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.
Only 7 days left of my Goodreads Giveaway for my latest suspense novel, DIE FOR ME.
Enter free for your chance to win one of 100 Kindle copies on offer.
(Giveaway ends 26 Feb, 2020)
I'm currently out at one of my favourite places for the start of our week-long winter writing retreat. I'm continuing work on the first draft of my latest novel, trying to stop myself thinking about whether the story is any good. I'm just about halfway through at this point and my aim is simply to push ahead, adding new scenes to edit later.
In writing each one, my attitude is to 'throw everything I can at the page and sort it out later'. I simply write down, as basically and ineptly as it comes out, everything I can think of that might need to be in that scene. Then I let it sit for a bit, usually until the next day, come back and tinker with it, moving things around, cutting bits, adding bits, and editing to the point it reads logically if not brilliantly.
It's like throwing handfuls of paint at a canvas and coming back to refine the picture later. Maybe the act of throwing everything out there first lets me get a handle on all I have or need to work with and during the break my subconscious sorts it all out for me.
In any case, it seems to be working. With a first draft, progress is the only requirement.
I stated in my author greeting (see Home page) that I don’t write crime, I don’t write mystery, I write suspense. So what do I mean exactly?
While there are always some overlapping elements, to me, in their purest form, crime, mystery, suspense, and even thrillers are distinct genres.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. It’s largely an exercise in deduction and the pay-off for the reader is intellectual.
The mystery protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc. Even the amateur sleuth has qualities that elevate him above the other story characters.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in a mystery is the one in charge and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge, training and insight.
Crime fiction is similar to mystery in that it focuses on the investigation. I once heard a publisher say at a conference, ‘With crime there’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
As with mystery, the crime protagonist generally possesses some kind of training. While he or she may come into danger and suffer setbacks, it’s the mental challenges of solving the case that take center stage.
So again, the pay-off for the reader of crime is mostly intellectual.
Suspense on the other hand is all about emotion. The protagonist has little special training and is unprepared for the dangers they face. Their journey through the story involves personal growth. To survive their ordeal and defeat the bad guys, the suspense protagonist must reach deep inside him/herself to find courage and strength they never knew they had.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps generate tension. What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.
The pay-off for the reader of suspense is emotional.
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to me a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up or taken to the next level.
Fast pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it involves elevated stakes. In suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones in danger, whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, countries, even the whole world.
International Thriller Writers based in New York, groups all these genres under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have them shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section, and Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. But that is simply for ease of marketing. To fans (and writers) of each of these genres they are distinct.
So why do I love suspense above the others? It’s the under-dog element that gets me.
In most mystery and crime novels the villain and hero are equally matched. In suspense, the protagonist is the clear under-dog, their skills and training no match for the bad guys.
In fact I like taking things one step further and giving my protagonists some deep flaw or past trauma that makes them even less likely to succeed.
My protagonists don’t even know themselves what they’re capable of until they’re tested by events in the story. And it’s usually because of their love for someone else that they find the courage to meet the challenge.
For me there’s no struggle more compelling than that.
When I first joined my local writing group (over twenty years ago now!) I thought writing to a prompt was a lazy, hit-or-miss approach to getting a story. I thought, if you're a 'real' writer, you should have so much to say about life, you'll have stories bursting out of you.
I've since come to change that view. It seems to me now that writing this way is like going fishing - with the prompt as your bait. You throw out your line and hope for a nibble. If you get a bite and it's something interesting, you 'reel it in' by writing more about it, going deeper, exploring what's there.
This method works not because writers lack ideas but because they have far too many. Our choices for subjects are truly infinite. It's like asking someone, 'What do you feel about every event, every situation and every person you've ever encountered, real or imagined?' That is literally what every author has to work with. Hard to not be overwhelmed - where do I begin?
A writing prompt gives me something to focus on. How do I feel about the colour green, or a specific scent from my childhood? It's taking a single drop of water from an endless ocean and examining under a microscope. There might be something there or there might not. And sometimes we writers don't even know what we think about a subject until we write about it.
Don't get me wrong, ideas still come to me out of the blue. Stories and characters waking me at night, wanting to be written. But every now and then it's good to go off and do a little fishing on the side.