Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Can I work from someone else's idea?


I understand that I can't write "The Diaries of Severus Snape" without a lot of lawyers coming after me brandishing sticks and cease-and-desist notices. But I can write about a wizard in a boarding school.


But let's have a look at this one:

Back in 2017, the winner of the "Festival of German-Language Literature" -  was a short story (3000 words) with the following premise:


The driver of a frozen food truck is asked by one of his clients to help him get rid of a body - his own. The client will commit suicide by placing himself in his freezer, and the driver is asked to ditch the body where it won't be found (easily). But when the driver shows up at the next delivery day, the freezer is empty and the client can't be found...


This is where the short story ended in 2017; this year, the author has published a full novel spinning the story further (apparently the driver goes in search of the client).


I have no intention of reading the novel (I didn't like the execution of the short story, let's say it was too literary for my taste) but I do find the premise intriguing enough to build my own writing upon it. 


The question is now: can I do this? Or is this specific idea one that is so far out there, so unique that the author has a kind of monopoly on it? Or in other words: Where is the line when you start copying / plagiarizing an idea?



You can't plagiarize an idea.

Or a concept.


Copyright is mercurial for sure, but the one standard is: copyright applies to actual words on the page. Or electrons on your screen.


Ideas are fair game.


But that's not the question you want to ask.

Plagiarism isn't the problem.

Being derivative is the problem.


What do I mean by derivative?


You don't want to write something that so closely evokes another work that I think "been there, read that."


Agents are looking for things that are fresh and new.


(Almost) every crime novel has a victim, a killer and a cop. What fresh spin you put on those stock characters is how you write something fresh and new.


So, can your detective wear Hawaiian shirts and carry a Dan Wesson .38 like Elvis Cole?

Sure, but you should know that if you do that, I've read every Elvis Cole novel and I'll recognize that  description instantly.


Can your detective shoot a smiley face into the target at the gun range?

Sure, but I'm going to think Mel Gibson and Lethal Weapon.


Can your detective be a sharp eyed clever spinster who lives in St. Mary Mead?

Sure, but I've already met Miss Marple.


The trick is to either acknowledge the inspiration:


"I carried a Dan Wesson .38 cause Elvis Cole did"


"You shot out a smiley face. Who do you think you are? Martin Riggs?"


Betty Buttonweezer loved Agatha Christie novels, she just hadn't planned on becoming Miss Marple, but here she was in St. Mary Mead, knitting.


or give it some sort of twist so I recognize the reference but it's got a fresh spin.

Romeo and Juliet on the Upper West Side-fresh twist.

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley--really fresh twist

Miss Marple is the killer---oh, geeze, someone get on that please.




Plagiarism is stealing words.


Inspiration is looking at someone else's work and being moved to create your own.





KMK said...

Wonderful advice, as always! And so good to see two posts in two days. (I love the killer Miss Marple idea...but I hope whoever's working on that doesn't beat me and my hit mom to the mark!)

Mister Furkles said...

I love this idea: Miss Marple is the killer! Meow!

Kitty said...

I am sooo glad, Janet, you are blogging again. I don't expect to a daily post; an occasional post is fine with me. I'm just glad you're back. =)

S.D.King said...

This is a great answer with great examples. Thanks!

Colin Smith said...

Of course, if you're going to be pedantic (and my kids tell me this is my superpower), there's nothing stopping you from *writing* "The Diaries of Severus Snape" if you want. People do this kind of thing all the time. It's called fan fiction, and it gets posted on blogs or dedicated sites, and it can launch VERY diverse literary careers (50 SHADES and THE LUNAR CHRONICLES to name two). Now, if you mean to publish and make money off of your Harry Potter spin-off/fanfic, then, yes, you will need to consult with lawyers and be prepared to essentially write it for free because you're going to be paying through the nose in royalties and legal fees.

But that wasn't your question. 😀

Naturally, Janet is correct. Let's face it--it's her blog so she's correct even if she isn't. (That's "How NOT to Get Sent to Carkoon Lesson #1" for those keeping track. 😉) But this time she really is.

I have to say, I agree with Opie that this is a deliciously tempting premise. You could almost make this the opening for a short story contest because the story really isn't in the premise (as tantalizing as it is) but in the mystery: What happened to the passenger in the freezer?

But isn't it just another play on the classic "locked door" or "closed room" mystery? A murder or theft happens in an enclosed space. No one came in or left... so how could it have happened? You could make this a storage facility, or the cooler in a restaurant. And that's Janet's point. The story isn't in the premise but the execution.

And you said you didn't like the execution of the short story, Opie... so go for it. Write the better story! .😁

Hello, everyone!! Nice to see y'all.

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and for those new to these parts, "Opie" = OP = Original Poster.

Mister Furkles said...

Mazie Ann Meadows loves Miss Marple mysteries and knows she too could solve murders. But Baileigh’s Notch hasn't had a murder since 1706. While sitting on the bench in front of her florist shop, knitting an Afgan, Mazie decides to fix the problem.

Everybody hates old man Appleby and none more than Mazie’s gardener Jimmy Fallow. With his help, Mr. Appleby is the first. The problem with Jimmy is that he gets sloshed Saturday nights at the Alibi Room on 2nd Street and can’t keep his mouth shut; he is number two. The retired LAPD detective and town snoop Fanny French must be the third. It goes on for eight more years until County Sheriff Jed Willoughby becomes suspicious of Mazie, there being so few left in the Notch.

At 80,000 choice words, “The Baileigh’s Notch Killings” is the first thing I’ve written. I’m a Maine Coon who loves stories about killing people. I can’t hold a pen, my paws are too large for the little computer keys, and my fingers are too short to depress them. But Concierge Tom bought a voice-to-text machine last winter and I’m going to be the first feline Hemingway—he loved kitties, don’t you know?

Katja said...

I'm just commenting to confirm that Colin indeed has that superpower. 😅 But then it has helped me to improve my writing. 👌

John Davis Frain said...

I wanna go on record saying that I love when people say "that's not the question you want to ask."

Those are the most helpful people on Earth. Most people would answer the question you asked and be done with it. Actually, most people wouldn't answer you at all, but that's a different point. A rare few will listen closely enough to say you're asking the wrong question, and then figure out what you're really wanting to know.

I sure like those rare people.

John Davis Frain said...

OP, there are scores of rewritten fairy tales, many of them quite good. Take a look there, and you might at least be able to see what people are able to get away with.

If it's the premise of this story you like so much, it seems like a pretty short path to get to the same premise under different circumstances and then you take it away from there.

I'm gonna look for that story. Sounds interesting, and who can't find time to read 3000 words!

Mister Furkles said...

OP Here is a variation: The truck driver has a different kind of truck and it's a friend's mother who died. But the friend is out of work for months and is living on his mother's pension and social security. So he needs to dispose of the body to continue collecting her income. But the next morning when the driver goes to dispose of the body, it's missing and so is the friend.

Similar situation but different enough. And for fun, make it a Good Humor truck.

NLiu said...

The “Miss Marple is the killer” concept reminds me of the film “Keeping Mum”, a dark comedy starring Kristen Scott Thomas, Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr Bean for you Americans), Maggie Smith and Patrick Swayze. Basically Maggie Smith turns up to stay in a little rural village and... er... sets out to solve the family's problems in a somewhat drastic way. It's hilarious.

Craig F said...

Lucky or not, I have no problem with inspiration. In the critique group I was part of I never understood those who introduced their work as being inspired by someone else.

That way might be easier when it comes to finding comps, but it doesn't sit all that well with me.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

There is only one story, according to Stephen King - a stranger comes to town. Add your own spin to that and don't fan fiction someone else's work and should be good to go.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

The Alibi Room is a fantastic name for a bar!