Saturday, 7 May 2016

Finding Similarities

Dear all,

I entered a flash fiction competition a month or so ago and wrote about a very small Bronze Age burial mound, not too far from where I live. It was on my mind because for my first novel (which I have set myself an end of year deadline for… well, first draft) I am using several locations near to where I grew up. I have made notes and jottings on some of them as I go for walks, as well as making more formal notes from reference and history books. Last week I purchased a non-fiction book on London and while reading a chapter discussing one of the areas I am interested in, the author used a phrase that was incredibly similar to one I had used in my short story. The context was entirely different but it really surprised me and made me think about the difficult boundaries of plagiarism, influences, inspirations and research when undertaking creative writing. First of all, you may ask what boundaries there are when it comes to plagiarism? Cheating is cheating and copying is copying? In terms of a word-for-word reproduction of text then yes, there is not much dispute, but in terms of the underlying themes it is a bit more tricky; for instance my short story had a line of text very similar to the one in the book about London, but when describing real, existing location names there isn’t much you can do to change names, a road name is a road name after all, but if the nature of the text invokes a certain response from the reader, in my case, comparing the Bronze Age existence in that location to the modern day existence in that location, and in fact co-incidentally drawing upon very similar emotional details to evoke that response, then it can on the surface look like copying. It did worry me, but it also cheered me up a little bit because it made me appreciate that the language I used, was the same as another person who I admire greatly had used. Anyway, it was the smallest of points but it did make me wonder about what else may happen in the future, especially in light of my first book when writing about lots of real locations, and how self publishing can mean you don’t have professionals within the publishing industry examining your content for possible legal issues that could arise.

I have a degree in Literature and I remember learning about plagiarism in its formal academic sense. I also have friends and family who have completed master’s degrees, doctorate degrees and postdoctoral research and plagiarism is an extremely important factor in assessing work but in writing this I am going to talk about my personal concerns rather than any specific legal or academic framework that may be in place at institutions. 

I am very interested in using London within my stories. I have read lots of books that are set in London or reference London, both fiction and non-fiction. I am interested in history in a minor hobby way, nothing too serious, and enjoy looking through old photos and maps of places as well as images of cultural references such as old shops, pubs, parks, signs and posters, clothes and so on. Over the years, as I develop as a person and certain themes become more important to me (and become very apparent are the things I want to write about) I take in certain information differently. I think I absorb references to London in a different way to general news or from my reading. As an example, reading Dickens at school is completely different to reading Dickens, or re-reading Dickens now. That sounds obvious as we all tend to become better readers as we get older, we understand references, jokes, satire, irony, etc. better and in a more nuanced manner, however, that is simply us improving as readers. When I read today I can’t help but read as a hopeful writer in the making. It’s a different kind of reading. I can still get lost in a book, time can evaporate and I get sucked into the one more chapter (or one more page… or just one more paragraph) cycle like I used to, but I am reading in a much more technical manner. I tend to examine sentences more, try to think about how the writer made it sound so good, why the writer constructed it the way they did… and that I guess is doing what all people do who want to learn from those who went before them. That’s how influences work, but when it comes to reading more specific London based narratives, how do I know that what I am writing is original and not a lesser version of something that has already been written that has stuck in my mind?

The fact is there are many people who know a lot more about London and its history than I do. No matter how much I research I won’t reach the scholarly levels of others but the thing is, I still want to write about what they are writing about. I want to write about the same parks, rivers, towns, High Streets, buildings, etc. that they write about so how do I manage to look different, and at best, not a pale imitation, and at worst, a cheap copy? If you read a book set in the 1750s, 1850s, 1950s or modern day they will all cover the same issues facing a busy city, they will have characters and conflict. They will examine society. They will measure success by family and fortune. They will examine the same emotional traumas that I want to. How do I make myself original then (in content rather than style)?

As a novice writer I think I’m not in a position to answer that yet. It may take several books. Which sounds very self confident when I haven’t even finished one… but I think I have it in me. But my guess is that it will always come down to creating interesting characters. The thing is, I don’t doubt I have the right to write about London. I can damn well write about anything if I want to.  I have the right to mention the same streets and parks that dozens of other writers have mentioned. I have the right to write about contemporary life just as others have, contemporary technology, pressures, jobs, housing, and so on. It’s not that I worry about mentioning those things, it’s more that I worry about not writing about them well enough, or with enough individual style and force, to warrant a distinction that rises me above other people who are attempting the same thing. Right now, there are lots of people writing books that are set in modern day London and I would hazard a guess that there will be lots of similarities in what we are trying to do. Just the same as if you are writing in a genre such as vampires or zombies there are certain tropes that you will cover because it’s part of that literary tradition. If you use garlic to kill a vampire then that isn’t copying… but you can’t recreate a ‘The Lost Boys’ death scene and expect to get away with it. For me, I’m sure house prices, public transport, population density, etc. will be common themes that lurk in the background but if I write a pub scene that is exactly like one in ‘Last Orders’ then that’s not on. Even though I will be writing pub scenes and probably plenty of them in the years to come! Whether it is non-fiction books, that writers such as Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd produce, which are so fantastically well written and interesting that they are near poetry, or fiction novels such as England Made Me by Graham Greene or London Belongs to Me by Normal Collins, to the 19th century classics of Dickens or Thackeray, there is not much about London that has not already been put on paper, so it is my job to make sure I create characters, situations and descriptions that are meaningful. That is the most important thing to me. I want to write something that conveys a deeper message, whether the place names are exactly the same and I manage to find yet another way to describe the Houses of Parliament, or not, it is about getting across my thoughts on the London I live in and whether I can express that through new, original characters in a scenario that is interesting to read about and captures a tiny reflection of the near nine million lives that I alone want to talk to the reader about. I love ‘V for Vendetta’ but I don’t want to rewrite it. I love ‘Brick Lane’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ but I don’t want to rewrite them. Not saying I could if I wanted to, but you know what I mean!

So my main concern is not plagiarism or outright copying. I feel that I have a lot to say and strong personal viewpoints. But I have no doubt that people will be able to find similarities in my work to that of others, but similarities in themes not in specifics; what I am really concerned about is my ability to produce nothing more than weak facsimiles of works that have already done what I have tried to do, but ten times better. That is quite scary. It is more about my level of skill rather than my level of originality. I am more confident in the deep-rooted sense within me that I have something to say, than I am that I have a good enough mastery of language and phrasing to create something beautiful and readable.

Have a great weekend,

R.G Rankine