Where Ideas Come From

fuyong-hua-Ideas

FuYong Hua from Unsplash.com

It’s logical to assume that someone somewhere must have once had an original idea. Today it is said that no ideas are original; our exposure to creative content is so great these days that it’s incredibly difficult to state with any conviction that a new idea is entirely original.

Plagiarism however, is more readily identified. The worst cases involve writers who copy and past entire novels, change a few details and then declare the work to be their own and try to sell it online for profit.

In-between these two extremes is a muddy area. Here is a recent case in point.

Jack Strange is a friend of mine from decades ago. He recently had a novel published titled Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocolypse. I read the novel and although the genre of fantasy horror was not to my liking, I was still happy for his achievement – writing novels is tough.

In fact, his achievement encouraged me to have a go at doing some creative writing myself and I wrote several short stories. One of them I posted on this site.

The inspiration for the story was very clear to me. Last summer Chris Olley and his wife, Karen, visited me. Chris had spent some time in Wakefield before moving to Nottingham where he formed the band Six.BySeven and with which he enjoyed considerable success.

We were sitting in the café of M&S where Chris was regaling me with stories from his colourful past. I was amazed he knew Bill Hicks and had corresponded with him. One of his other stories involved a well-known Rock Star who Chris was friendly with but who had a reputation in the music business of being incredibly unreliable.

Now, I’ve long been fascinated by the development of powerful technologies and especially algorithms that are set to take away everyone’s jobs so I joked with Chris that one day soon, this celebrity won’t be needed to introduce other acts as virtual reality will be convincing enough to fool an audience into thinking he’s really there.

After we’d riffed on this concept for a while I told Chris that there was enough material to write a short story about it. The result was Lazarus Corps.

I showed the story to a few people and one of them informed me that it wasn’t so much science fiction as science fact and told me about the Star Wars film where the character of Christopher Lee ‘acts’ even though he had been dead for some time. I hurriedly posted the story online before it became outdated.

Then Jack Strange came across it and accused me of plagiarizing his novel Celebrity Chef. I must say I was surprised by this allegation. The genesis of the story was clear in my head – it was that day in the café of M&S.

However, I reflected on his points: in his novel he has an invention called The Lazarus Engine that is used to resurrect a long dead TV chef (whose rotting corpse has to be physically dug up out of the ground).

In my story, the company that specialises in programming the algorithms to create the dead (and sometimes still living) celebrities from existing video footage of them is called Lazarus Corps.

Had Jack invented the name Lazarus and told a story about him being raised from the dead, I would have no defence and I would indeed be a plagiarist. But Lazarus is a story from the bible and has been invoked many times in creative works (Lazarus Raised by Peter Gabriel from 1989, for example).

Who has claim on the name of ‘Lazarus’?

If I had named the company in my story ‘Frankenstein Corps’ would that have been acceptable or would the estate of Mary Shelley be accusing me of stealing her original idea (or was she herself borrowing from the Lazarus story)?

The development of sampling technology brought this issue into sharp focus. Here, musicians were lifting actual samples of records to incorporate into their own ‘original’ works. Often, the samples only lasted for a few seconds but anyone familiar with the original work would recognise it.

Sampling is fine if the artists acknowledge the source and pay royalties if money is made from any creation but in this example the artists can identify precisely where their samples came from.

The creative process itself though, is not so clear-cut.

Here is an example.

I write comedy routines to perform live. As I develop the routines I make a habit of running the ideas past several trusted friends. More often than not, they comment and supply me with additional lines of exploration that I had overlooked or would never have thought of because my mind doesn’t work the way theirs does. Their interpretation of the content often sparks new ideas I can apply to my creative process.

Here is another apposite example.

Chrystal Roe posted a comment about Lazarus Corps being a possible jumping off point for a much longer story. This idea had never occurred to me, I just saw it as a complete short story but the comment has made me consider the idea. If I were to write the longer story, how much credit do I give Chrystal Roe?

This is even before we consider the area of subconscious appropriation. Music is a minefield for this. I’ve lost count of the number of lawsuits concerning plagiarised tunes. I’m pretty certain that the musicians involved often had no idea they had lifted chord progressions or melodies from old songs that they may have heard in the background at some point.

So when Jack brought his comparison to me I thought deeply about this – do I owe him a debt of gratitude?

With regard to appropriating any story lines, I don’t honestly know. If I do, then he will simply be in a long line of other storytellers I must have knowingly or unknowingly borrowed from.

But for the record, one thing I can acknowledge for sure (as evidenced by this lengthy post) is that Jack Strange has encouraged me to sit down and write.

9 Responses to “Where Ideas Come From”

  1. Jack Strange says:

    Dear Ivor,

    I daresay there may be more than one source of inspiration for your story. It surprises me that my novel isn’t listed as being amongst them, given that it contains near-identical ingredients and you read it prior to writing your story.

    I am sure everyone else who reads your latest post will be equally surprised.

    Kind regards

    Jack

  2. Jack Strange says:

    PS I think Franky is right on the money with this comment: “It seems like you enjoyed celebrity chef so much maybe without knowing you recycled it in your mind and wrote it down”

  3. Jack Strange says:

    PPS For the record I didn’t accuse you of plagiarism – my comments were more subtle and measured than that.

  4. ivor says:

    Franky could well be right, I did read your novel prior to writing the story but I was also familiar with stories like these: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-38795190

  5. ivor says:

    I’m aware you didn’t accuse me of plagiarism and I don’t claim you did. In this post I was trying to consider as many angles as possible regarding the creative process using some hypothetical situations. It’s a genuinely interesting issue.

  6. Duncan says:

    Then Jack Strange came across it and accused me of plagiarizing his novel Celebrity Chef. I must say I was surprised by this allegation.

  7. Sheila Hanly says:

    “Then Jack Strange came across it and accused me of plagiarizing his novel Celebrity Chef. I must say I was surprised by this allegation.” 3 December 7.48am

    “I’m aware you didn’t accuse me of plagiarism and I don’t claim you did.”
    3 December 10.30am

    Have you always had short term memory issues?

  8. ivor says:

    Oops, mea culpa. Apologies for that error.

  9. Jack Strange says:

    Hi Ivor, a mutual friend – you will no doubt guess who – made a mischievous comment about all this:

    “Wait till you see my next story: “The Lazarus Vendetta”. It’s about two boyhood pals and rivals in W Yorks. They fall out over an idea…A Holmes-Moriarty conclusion would be best. But maybe the Howarth Falls instead of Reichenbach.”

    That’s priceless don’t you think? It had me laughing several times over about how ridiculous we’ve both been. I hope you can see the funny side of it too.

    Speak soon,

    Jack

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