Some years ago, a friend suggested to me that another writer had ‘borrowed’ some aspects from one or more of my novels and utilised them in his own work. I took a look at the ‘offending’ work, and thought I could see what she meant. But it didn’t amount to plagiarism, and frankly it didn’t bother me.
Writers do need to avoid plagiarism. When I gave a presentation at the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Fiction Festival at Harrogate in July, I told the story of the legal case where James Herbert was sued by an author of an author of a non-fiction book who claimed that a Herbert book called The Spear was excessively derivative. The judgment makes rather entertaining reading, but is a salutary reminder that care is required when using research materials. Thankfully, though, plagiarism cases that reach court are rare.
That is as it should be. The fact is that the borrowing of ideas and so on happens all the time, and it is a perfectly healthy activity, as long as it is kept within bounds. Shakespeare is the classic example of a recidivist borrower, but there are plenty of others. Coming up with a truly original idea (or witty one-liner, come to that!) is far from easy. Several writers have used the trick that Christie pulled in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, but so long as they give it a fresh spin, that seems fine to me. Christie even did it herself, with Endless Night. Sometimes, of course, there is no borrowing at all, conscious or unconscious – two writers just have a similar idea at much the same time. For instance, I doubt whether Christie was influenced, in writing And Then There Were None, by the American mystery The Invisible Host, which appeared a little earlier. And I was startled when my wonderfully original idea of finding a corpse on a waste tip (All the Lonely People) turned out to have been anticipated by G.D.H. and M. Cole, many years before!
It has, though, amused me on several occasions to give a nod, in my own fiction, to some of my favourite stories by other writers. Part of the idea for the main plot of The Devil in Disguise is a sort of spin on Christie’s After the Funeral, though I don’t know of any reader who has ever commented on it (although there is a pretty big clue in the book, which actually mentions the Christie novel.) In the same novel, I recycled a few of my favourite lawyer jokes. And my very first short story, ‘The Boxer’, was a homage to Conan Doyle’s wonderful story ‘The Red-Headed League’, but set in modern Liverpool. This sort of thing seems fine to me, and I enjoy it when I come across it in the books of others. The key to making it work, as so often in life, is not to over-do it.