Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gift Christopher Columbus Gave to Writers


I remember when we celebrated the history of Christopher Columbus and his three infamous ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, when I was a young lass and took it for granted that it was actually true. Because that’s what we were taught. Never mind that the natives had discovered America first, clearly, long before he arrived, and he discovered land below Florida, which sure is still America, but it’s not part of the United States of America, and at the time I was learning all this, I thought that was what was meant.

There were some other interesting things, like Chris was trying to discover a faster way to the Orient by way of the west. Which was huge, because a lot of people seemed to think he was going to fall off the edge of the earth since it was still flat. Except he didn't anywhere close to the Orient, so that's also pretty funny.

Anyway, I don’t remember having a lot of these misconceptions corrected about Chris until I was old enough not to care about him any longer—I mean, we don’t even get to have the holiday off where I am. Clearly no one in Missouri cared about his “discovering America.”

Still, regardless of all those natives who were here when he arrived, he’s still the one who discovered America. This is fascinating if you think about it. Here is a guy who does not have an original idea—it’s already been done—but still, he sets out and writes his own story anyway, with the greatest of drama and near death experiences (hurricanes anyone?) and victory. His story is the one we remember. (He definitely had the right publicists.)

I started writing my cowboy story—not because I thought I was particularly original, because I knew it was going to contain all sorts of elements that previous cowboy stories I’d read or seen. Still, I was a bit like the naïve Christopher Columbus. For whatever asinine reason, I thought I was being original. I had an Easterner who was out west with a girl from the West, and they were engaged, and there was this villain of sorts named Steve. Steve. Now this is not a common 1890s name. I know this. But still in my heart of hearts when Steve spoke to me, he was adamant his name was Steve.

So now I’ve been jollying along in my story and I’ve been telling my Dad bits and pieces of the story. So I explain about the Easterner who can’t ride and isn’t remotely cowboy material and how he’s engaged to a rancher’s daughter, and there’s a guy named Steve. And that’s when Dad—and mind you, most days I tell him what date it is repeatedly—says, “That sounds like that movie.”

“What movie? I’ve never seen any movie like this.”

“Sure you have. The Big Country.”

Well, I had heard of it, but I hadn't seen it. And we talk a bit as I google the movie, and there is a movie about an Easterner who can’t ride and can’t cowboy…and he’s engaged to some rancher’s daughter…and there is a villain of sorts named Steve. I nearly screamed in frustration. Who would have a cowboy movie with a character named STEVE? Who does that?

But when Christopher arrived to the “Americas”, was he upset when he realized he wasn’t the first person to step foot there? No. Why not? Because he was still the first European to step foot there…as if that were some sort of distinction. So that’s the card I’m playing. I’m not upset that I’m writing a story that literally contains elements from a movie I hadn’t seen until last week when I tracked it down to see how badly the damage was. And with relief, I realize even with a character named Steve, my story is still very different. It is still my story in my voice; it is still original.

So the next time you’re trolling Amazon.com and find a book premise that mirrors exactly what you’re writing or a bad Gerard Butler movie comes out with an eerily similar story premise with your book title, do not panic. Be Christopher Columbus. Be the first “European” to step foot on your new land, no matter how many natives you may find there first.

Anyone freak out like this? What do you do to curb your panic?

31 comments:

quantum said...

Re-discovering the wheel! It's a well known phenomenon in science. Some scientists pride themselves with working things through from first principles. Actually this is really an excuse for not reading all those dusty cob-web covered journals stacked at the back of the library!

No excuse for a romance writer though. You have all those vibrant exciting novels displayed at the FRONT of the library, just begging to be read. Shame on you Helli! LOL

Actually this is a naive point of view. If you start writing in complete ignorance of what others have written you will certainly bring a freshness and originality to the perspective. The cowboy may wear the same gear and leap into the saddle in the same way but the details and personalities will have your personal stamp on them.

I rather like Western romances. I'm currently reading Linda Lael Miller's Stone Creek books. However googling 'Stone Creek' reveals a plethora of enterprises using that name and using the Amazon search engine reveals a number of authors using it as well as Linda ..... What do you know! LOL

Marnee Bailey said...

I don't think I have any advice for you. I freaked out about my courtesan story being like everyone else's and I'm afraid it was. :(

But I think what you're doing is fresh. It sounds like Julie Garwood's older stuff, the stuff I grew up reading. Like the Roses books. But with your signature style, your quirky voice. I know it's going to be fabulous! :)

I think remembering that there's no "new" story, just different ways to tell it is the key.

MsHellion said...

Q, I'm not trying to rediscover the wheel...I just don't want to change Steve's name for a movie that is 50 years old and that I didn't see before I'd written 50,000 words. I know the "fish out of water" premise in the West is not a new "original" idea, but I wanted to pretend MINE was. But there's no pretending. Gregory Peck beat me to it.

Linda Lael Miller is the Queen of the Western. :) But mine I don't think is much like hers. She has more normal dialogue with emotional undertones, and I'm always striving for the Bob Hope Western dialogue: funny and innuendo laden.

So if I'm doing my version of the Gregory Peck movie, I'm doing it with Bob Hope dialogue. You've been warned.

(I read a lot of romances, Q, but I can't remember a lot of fish out of water heroes--unless you count the British peer who inherits a Texas ranch. Not my gig. And those peers are always so alpha...and Brody...Brody's not real alpha. He's got moments though, but mostly, he's easy-going.) HOWEVER, if you have any excellent fish out of water Western romances for me, I'd love to read them.

Lorraine Heath has some wonderful Westerns, even better than Linda's in my opinion, and I read hers whenever I can. Jodi Thomas wrote some I really enjoyed. Most of the ones I read are more "serious". Oh, there was one I read lately, or latish--Lisa Cooke, I believe, who wrote a cowboy/western setting with a gambler and it was hilarious. I loved every page.

Again though, not many beta heroes to be found in the West. And that was the thing about the movie! Gregory Peck's character was a beta--or more likely a very quiet alpha, because he'd fight with you, but he'd fight with you only on your terms. His fiance in the movie took for a weakness of character, cowardly, but I adored him.

MsHellion said...

Marn, that was a great ego stroke. I would love to be compared to Julie Garwood. *LOL* But with my own strengths shining through of course. :)

As for your courtesan story, not all the pirates agree with you. I think when you've given enough distance to it you will go back and realize its virtues that we saw and revise a bit--and send out again. A lot of this, I think, is timing and how many books bought that "feel" similar; however, if there can be 20,000 dukes in the Regency and the crowds can beg for more, I think your courtesan will definitely come across as "read for the very first time" when it is published. :)

TerriOsburn said...

Marn, your courtesan book was NOT like all the others. Dang it, woman. I love that book and I will not let you say not nice things about it. *gives stern look*

Thanks for reminding me about that stupid Butler movie. Gah! CBS Sunday Morning did a bit on old Chris yesterday. He never set foot on North American soil and would never admit he hadn't found a way to China. Even when his own men told him these natives were clearly something altogether different, he refused to admit it.

Lief Erickson found us years before Columbus got close, so he wasn't even the first European. LOL! Still! This is a good lesson that people will remember the story so long as you tell it well enough. :)

MsHellion said...

You get her, Terri! *stern look at Marn*

Yes, I thought of you when writing that part. *LOL* Never mind the times I found stories about Lucifer that undid me.

Not surprising some guy wouldn't admit he was lost or didn't arrive to the right spot.

Now those Vikings...*swoons*

P. Kirby said...

My father-in-law is an Easterner who came west, and met, fell in love with and married a rancher's daughter. I don't think there was an evil Steve in my in-laws' story, but in their case, the scenario is real life.

I don't sweat the "originality" thing too much. Pretty much everything I write is "inspired by" something else; usually a conglomeration of something elses. For instance my first novel was the result of watching too much Buffy and Angel, and reading Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. The steampunkish WIP is sort of China Mieville with a lot more romance. Space opera WIP has deep roots in...uh, never mind.

*Shrugs* Point is, I'm nothing if not completely, utterly unoriginal. :)

Since I'm out here in the wild west, where Native Americans are a significant part of the culture, Chrissy Columbus and for that matter, the conquistadors, aren't exactly heroic figures to me.

Maureen said...

I have many authors on my hit list for writing the books I was writing, did write, thought about writing... But then I decide mine is different enough, I'm not going to sweat it.

As Pat said, everything touches something. And with some of us, our things touch many things. I'm done freaking out about it...for now...

I love the name Steve. Big Bad Steve...yeah. Works for me! Always loved Gregory in Westerns...that nice slow delivery worked so beautifully!

MsHellion said...

P.Kirby, ha! Love it!

My first writing was a fan-fiction of THE YOUNG RIDERS back when I was a teenager. (At the time, I had a big crush on The Kid, but towards the end, my bad boy crush blood willed out and I was totally for Josh Brolin. Oh, and I liked Gregg Rainwater because I loved the forbidden of dating the Native American. :)

Chrissy isn't a big heroic fan in my book either. The Indians show you hospitality and you give them small pox and syphilis? Come on, guys. Be classy. Then again, for the next 400 years after him, few if any of the white guys were particularly classy to the Native Americans. *sighs* All in the name of Christianity too...

Janga said...

I once had a rather heated exchange online with someone who thought Mary Balogh's Slightly series was out and out plagiarism of Jo Beverley's Mallorens. And I know Christina Dodd got a lot of criticism because of the similarities between Lost in Your Arms and White Lies, one of Linda Howard's category romances. I love both Beverley's Mallorens and Balogh's Bedwyns, and while I was aware of the similarities in the two series, I didn't read the Bedwyn books thinking Balogh sure lacks originality. And although Lost in Your Arms is not my favorite Dodd book by any means, I didn't read it thinking that it was a bad rewrite of White Lies, which is a keeper that I've read half a dozen times.

I think the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes apply to fiction as well as life: "What has been will be again,what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Janga said...

Hellie, your voice is so distinctive that I can't imagine anything you write seeming less than original.

MsHellion said...

Mo, I like that--that's true. Everything touches something. That's a nice thought. (And I do love Gregory Peck in anything he wants to do. *LOL* *swoons* Him and James Garner.)

MsHellion said...

"What has been will be again,what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

True dat!

This makes me think some tired father was writing this about his teenage sons. *LOL* "Look, Jack, you didn't make up sex...so don't even act like you did."

TerriOsburn said...

Janga, didn't Balogh and Beverley write those at the same time? It's not as if the Mallorens were out for years before the Slightly series came along. And Lindsey had the Malory series long before both of them. Which I adored so much my daughter's middle name is Malory.

MsHellion said...

I didn't even read the Beverley series I don't think, but most of her heroes are kinda on the toolish side, if you get my drift, and I think Balogh gives her heroes a bit more sensitivity. It's not like she stole the idea of writing a series about siblings. *LOL* Come on. *LOL*

TerriOsburn said...

Beverley's heroes are wonderful! She had one guy who did some toolish things at the start of the Rogues series, but he had good reason. Cyn, Bryght, Brand, and Rothgar are such sexy heroes. You need to go read them.

Maureen said...

The whole argument that 'you can't do that, it's been done already' is hilarious. Man, if cooks did that we'd all starve or survive on the most bat crazy stuff out there.

"I'd make you a cake but it's been done already...would you like some buzzard flambe?"

Maureen said...

The Greg is divine. I even like his bad movies...

P. Kirby said...

In general, I think whenever someone says, with an imperious sniff, "It's just a rip-off of so-and-so's Story," the issue really isn't originality. Instead, the reader just wasn't engaged with the story (for whatever reason), so their mind starting looking for reasons why. If that story resembles something they really enjoyed, they glom onto the complaint that it was trite and unoriginal. (Maybe it was.)

But, given the example cited above, it's obvious that readers will accuse writers of ripping off other writers, even if it isn't true. So again, why worry about it?

My character, Regan, from the first book, isn't Buffy or Stephanie Plum. She's the result of a kind of "What if?" inspired by the characters. Basically, what if you have a vampire slayer/paranormal agent who wasn't terribly competent? But my character is very much her own person, and the world building vastly different. In particular, I didn't go with the standard black and white, good versus evil approach (Judeo Christian definitions of demons, etc.).

I think it's quite possible for a story to have very strong fannish origins and still be original.

Of course, that may be because, if it weren't for TV, movies and books, I'd stare a blank screen with nothing to write. ;)

Janga said...

Beverley's Malloren series started in the early 90s with My Lady Notorious; Balogh's Bedwyns were introduced in the late 90s in One Night for Love and the series proper began a few years later with Slightly Married. Even so, I don't think Balogh was imitating Beverley. Family series that focus on siblings with one brother as the head of the family predate Balogh, Beverley, and Lindsey--and modern romance fiction as we know it. Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche started writing her hugely popular Jalna series in the 1920s.

MsHellion said...

Terri, I'll add Beverley's books to my TBR pile. But please be reminded, YOUR pile is still bigger. *LOL* (Do you think I might have skipped them due to the names? Rothgar is about the sexiest one of that bunch...)

MsHellion said...

Mo, buzzard I'm sure tastes like chicken so they'll think we're copying. :)

MsHellion said...

Gregory made a bad movie? When?

MsHellion said...

P.Kirby, I know you're right--I've cast around in that same way. "What is wrong with this book--that mind you a million have read and enjoyed?"--it MUST be them; it couldn't possibly be me and not the right time to read it or something. :)

I have favorite-favorite-favorite authors I read but if I read too many of their books in a row, I start accusing them of plagiarizing themselves! It's almost as if we're not reading widely enough so we don't get burned out on what we like most. Even white cake with white icing (my favorite--what can I say? only thing I like about weddings) can get old if it's all you eat.

MsHellion said...

Janga, very true--and I love how you always have sources to quote from way beyond what we would typically pull from...I would say a lot of us are mimicking Georgette Heyer...who was in a sense mimicking Austen (though I think Georgette really just made it her own while Austen was basically writing a "contemporary of manners" for her time. While Georgette WAS writing a historical she hadn't lived in--I don't think anyway.)

Anyway...as you were saying, there is always someone to point to to say you're mimicking them. :)

TerriOsburn said...

I didn't realize until I'd finished MTB that I'd picked the same last name for my main family as Crusie used in some of her books. At first I thought I should change it, but it's a common name and it's who they are. Joe showed up with that last name. So I'm keeping it.

MsHellion said...

Did. Not. Notice. I think you can keep it Terri. *LOL*

Maureen said...

Well, McKennna's Gold is considered a total stinker. Now, I liked it. What's not to love? Omar Shariff, Telly Savalas and Gregory Peck!

Marnee Bailey said...

I've been out running around and just now am I caught up on emails. :)

Thanks guys, for the boasts to the ego today. :) You guys are awesome.

Ter - I agree that you're fine with the last name in MTB. It's common. :)

And I agree with Janga too. I think it's hard not to mimic SOMEONE. We are all pulling from somewhere, even if it's a mishmash of places.

JulieJustJulie said...

Anyone freak out like this?

Me? Nevahhhhhh ... Not.

What do you do to curb your panic?


Why I would take your advice! Be Christopher Columbus. Be the first “European” to step foot on your new land and keep moving forward because no place, or for that matter any story is exactly like another! Half a million people went west during 1841-1869. Think about that! 500,000 different people all doing the Same Thing, but doing the same thing differently because no one person is exactly like another. That being said why wouldn't there couldn't there be two fictional stores... similar bur at the same time very different? Makes perfect sense to me. If you think about it, history/historic moments rarely involve just one person. Kind of like if nature abhors a vacuum, then a historic moment loves a Crowd. IMO .
Therefore my answer is: History is on the side of your story being Your Story to tell, just as every one of those half a million people had their own story to tell.
Also on your side? Are statistics.

JulieJustJulie said...

I post under the name JulieJustJulie. Why? Because my name IS Julie and Just calling me Julie is Just fine with me.
Its also fine with a few other Julies ...
•There are 547,265 people in the U.S. with the first name Julie.
•Statistically the 101st most popular first name.
•More than 99.9 percent of people with the first name Julie are female.
Well.
There are 547,265 Julies out there. i Could change my name to cut down on being confused with some other Julie But I like my name.
You could change Steves name too. But if you really like it then heck why not keep it? Because Statistically speaking:

•There are 386,859 people in the U.S. with the first name Steve.
•Statistically the 153rd most popular first name.
•More than 99.9 percent of people with the first name Steve are male.
So my advice is stick to your guns and stick with your story, stick with Steve, I'll stick with Julie and every now and then ... I'll stick my nose umm ....well I'll stick with sticking up for writers who want to write.
( ckeck out http://howmanyofme.com/ )