52 Pick-Up 2.0, #15 – 4/07/20
“T.S. Eliot said, “Good writers borrow, GREAT writers steal.” Who do you like to steal from and why?”
Uh-oh, now the big guns are coming out, huh?
In times where they have software programs that search through your text and find any similarities between author’s works, it’s become more and more dangerous to copy from anybody, in my opinion. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never had to plagiarize any other authors, but one of the precautions I take when I’m even remotely stealing from another writer is to make sure they’ve been dead for about a hundred years.
As anyone familiar with my body of work knows, I borrow freely from the canon of great literature, and I think that’s what Eliot was getting at. Heck, my favorite line about cowboy hat colors comes from him—All cats are grey in the dark. Which, by the way, he stole from Benjamin Franklin. Even though I’m sure that’s not exactly what either of them meant.
There are a lot of marvelous writers out there that have produced some amazing works with extraordinary ideas and when you work in genre fiction, I think it’s okay to give a nod in their direction. Whether it’s the train in The Western Star which I borrowed from Agatha Christie or the plot in The Highwayman that was similar to Dickens’ short story The Signalman, I think the key to borrowing rather than stealing is in using those ideas as a jumping-off point for your own take on things.
When I was writing Land Of Wolves, I went back and reread Jack London because I knew that he was the master at describing those particular creatures in the wild. It didn’t mean I was copying his exact words, but simply the style in which he wrote. There are writers who have specialties, nuanced abilities that give them an advantage in certain styles of writing and I think it’s important to go back and revisit their work. The one who carries a special spot for me will always be John Steinbeck. It never really matters how gut-wrenchingly honest his writing is, there will always be an underlying benevolence and understanding of the human spirit that defines his work. I like to hope that I’ve absorbed that and that it comes through in my writing how much I simply love people, people of every kind.
There is a construction that I truly admire and work at every day in my writing—humor. There’s a magic, a spark to truly humorous writing that I think Steinbeck had along with another of my favorites, George McDonald Fraser. It’s one thing to be funny in real life or when you’re speaking, but it’s another to be funny on the page, and that’s one of the things that I’m constantly striving for in my novels.
Then there are the specialists I draw from as bridges to individual characters like the Ephron sisters, Dorothy Parker, or Erma Bombeck to get a female perspective on things, or James Welch, Sherman Alexie, Louis Erdrich or M. Scott Momaday for an authentic native voice. There are so many more in any of these categories, but there’s only so much space in a one-page answer.
They say you are what you eat, and I think you are what you read. It’s important to go back and peruse the writings that might’ve convinced you to be a writer. Like old friends, they’re there between the covers waiting for all of us and I think a little stealing or borrowing of the spirit of their work only reinvigorates them in the re-telling.
See you on the trail,