Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Borrowers: Plot Pinching for Beginners




As a writer of historical fiction, it is terribly incumbent upon me to be historically accurate at all times and in all details. Failure to do so means that my book will get picked on by some critic who is, say, an expert on the colour of paving stones in Camden High Street in 1860 - yes, I'm sure such a person is alive and well and badly needs to get out more.

Said person will then go and post a one star review on Amazon or Goodreads saying how my failure to get this right has spoiled their entire enjoyment of the book, and they are now in therapy and having to receive counselling to get over it. You think I jest?

There are various sources of information available to the historical writer.. and I have blogged about them before, so am not going to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that any writer who relies on Wikipedia as their main research tool needs to be placed in a dark padded room and have cold week-old custard poured over them until they learn the error of their ways.

What interests me, as I carry on the task of researching amputations, pawn shops and workhouses for the sequel to Diamonds & Dust, is the way I start seeing how contemporary writers of the time have ''borrowed'' other writers' material for their own novels.

For instance, in the second paragraph of Diamonds&Dust, I wrote: ''The devil slips a diamond ring on his taloned finger..and steps out to take the air''. The phrase was 'borrowed' and slightly adapted from an essay on London at night by Charles Dickens .... but Dickens himself ''borrowed'' it from fellow writer George Sala, and it was used again by Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of both men. See how it works?

And boy, did it work for Dickens! I have just bought an amazing book, now labelled Victorian CSI - presumably to attract potential readers, though anyone apart from strange, OCD writers like me would not really be interested. It is a facsimile of an 1844 manual called Principles of Forensic Medicine, by William Guy, David Ferrier and William R.Smith.

It is a fascinating read, aimed at the medical officers who attended crime scenes or were called as witnesses in law courts. It was updated as new procedures, cases and drugs came to public attention, and I am sure Conan Doyle, with his medical background, read and used it copiously. Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate detective/forensic expert.

I promise to regale you with some of the enlightening information on poisons, putrefaction and post-mortem appearances on a need-to-know basis. However, what first struck me were the chapters on recognizing unusual deaths, especially the section on Death by Spontaneous Combustion. Reading it, I thought how familiar it sounded. It was as if I'd read it somewhere before. I had. A quick check of Dickens' novel Bleak House (publ.1853)  turned up Mr Krook, who dies by spontaneous combustion. Apart from excluding some of the more specialist medical terminology, the description is identical to that in the manual.

So next time you, as reader, think: I'm sure I read that somewhere else, the chances are you probably did. 'Borrowing' appears to be a conscious or unconscious part of the creative process. And will one of the characters in the sequel to Diamonds&Dust die by spontaneous combustion? Gentle blog reader, you'll just have to wait and see ....


If you would like to read a sample of Diamonds&Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so here. US readers can do so here.




27 comments:

  1. Thanks, Carol. One of the protagonists in my forthcoming novel will enjoy being locked in a darkened room and having cold custard poured over her. We have obviously been reading the same books.

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    1. always good when an analogy turns into a reality! May sell tickets.

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  2. Yes, this habit of borrowing is a classic device in music too. Only there it was classically seen as a form of tribute and acknowledgment of another's skill - even though the original composer was rarely credited!

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    1. Most of Bach sounds like most of Bach. As does most of Haydn.

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  3. I find stories from the people I meet. If I turn them into fiction (yes, I also write fiction from time to time ... watch this space ...) then everything places and names and circumstances are changed - but the basic idea came not from my own head. But I was the one to play with it. (There are far worse things than playing!)

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    1. 'Adapting ' is a completely different thing! It was when I read TWO paragraphs that had been copied almost verbatim by the great C.D that my eyes widened a bit!

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  4. I've also confessed to 'repurposing' the odd turn of phrase Carol - often I don't realise I've done it at the time but later on I see that a moment in a story or a way of expressing something has come from elsewhere. I think it's a consequence of ill erasing yourself in literature - some of it sticks.

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    1. I have certain writers that I love..and I do find their style ''brushes off'' , but I see it as a compliment to great writing!

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  5. The Ghostly Father is an unashamed borrowing and adapting of another very well-known story - so much so that it's officially described as "by Sue Barnard (with some additional material by William Shakespeare)." One nitpicker did point out that I'd got a detail wrong. In my defence, I'd say that Shakespeare didn't always get it right - as exemplified by the striking clock in "Julius Caesar." So I consider that I'm in good company.

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  6. ...right then, that's it ... my next novel's gotta have Death By Internal Custard..:)

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  7. Well known as an 'Inge Thing' 'Originality is undetected plagiarism' Nothing new under the sun. It's not what you write its the way that you pen it.

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  8. I love it when you talk death, Hedges!....makes me feel so alive...and the slightest mention of 'putrefaction and post-mortem appearances' makes me dribble and drool with glee...( must be something to do with my convent education)...
    I'm finding all this stuff you're exhuming extremely interesting and I can't wait to get my tooth into your new book...( stop reading this and carry on writing! )... You see, thanks to your extensive research into the minutiae of the era you are able to provide details of Victorian London which provide the reader with an almost surround sound experience...every filthy crack and cranny is exposed and brought wonderfully to life!!
    Well done woman....now carry on...btw mentally I'm on book 3 now so do crack on!...

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  9. Being squeamish, I'm not a fan of maggots, CSI (Victorian or otherwise), and I'm not sure what you've added to my already skewed perception of working class Victorians as gin-sodden, starving wretches...but, nonetheless, I found this post a fascinating read!

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  10. Ooh, I'm always one for a bit of putrifaction, and Unusual Deaths, and find the Fortean Times an excellent source of material for these. I don't write about them, you understand, I'm more...an enthusiastic amateur. But cold custard...urgh.

    Very interesting post, as ever, Carol!

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  11. Great bedtime reading Carol! Victorian medical books. I have often thought that because I read so many books I could never write one because I would always wonder if my ideas came from my own imagination or from some story I read years ago. Although I do have to say I read some books and think I have read something along the same lines before. Comforting to know even the classic writers I'd that sometimes.

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  12. Enjoyed this, Carol. Looking forward to your putrefaction post.

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    1. On its way - just written the bit in the sequel..put me right of my tea.

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  13. Fascinating post as always Carol, I always did think that plagiarism must be inevitable in a way as there really isn't anything new, just a new prospective on things. Plus they do say that 'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' and all that!

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    1. See below ..there's plagiarism and just plain thieving!

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  14. You have mentioned 2 points that stand out to me: correctness of information, and "borrowing". I know what you mean by one small inaccuracy spoiling the entire book. I have written about a cocoon/chrysalis mix-up. But the borrowing/plagiarism issue is quite intriguing. I have been reading others' posts on this topic. Is it flattery or theft?

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    1. VERY fine line! I have been guilty of reading a sentence in a book and thinking in an Oscar Wildeish sort of way: I could use this...but it is usually never more than a few words..and I always change it fractionally. D&D is meant to be pastiche, so that gave me liberty to do some copying....but in a very obvious way and for the amusement of readers.The wholesale lifting of paragraphs etc , as has been claimed in various plagiarism cases, is not acceptable.

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  15. It's reassuring to know that you are now an expert in poisons and multifarious methods of Victorian murder. I believe that Patricia Cornwell worked in the Forensics Department before she became a crime writer so you're up there with the best of 'em!

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  16. This is both informative and amusing (I like your writing style--it must evolve from your cake-avoidance). A friend, an artist, just posted a quote that fits neatly with what you are saying here:

    “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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    1. Anything C S Lewis says is true. End.

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  17. Fascinating! Just as well novelists have never had to stress about citing their sources or plagiarism of ideas. I would not have expected that extent of borrowing. How very interesting.

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  18. Some years ago I saw a fascinating program which cleared up the question of spontaneous human combustion once and for all with the external wick hypothesis. I must jot that down so that I can use it in a story some time.

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