It’s been said by various fine minds, T.S. Eliot, Steve Jobs and Alfred Tennyson included, that: ‘Good Artists copy; great artists steal.’
I don’t mean plagiarism, where long sections of a previously published work are lifted and used by an inferior writer; there have been many examplesof that through the years.
Nor do I mean the alarming theft of whole ebooks which are hijacked, given a new title and published online under a pen name by ratbags wanting to profit from an author’s hard work.
No, I’m referring to when we read a phrase or see a literary technique that we can ‘borrow’ and turn to our purpose. To a large extent, we writers are magpies picking up anecdotes, interesting snippets of language and overheard conversations to decorate our own nests.
We’re always ‘on’, especially with a WIP, alert to possibilities. Just recently, I came across a couple of choice descriptions in a novel and a poem. One was in Tim Gautreaux’s fine novel The Missingwhere he described some dilapidated store fronts ‘faced with cupped pine boards bleeding nail rust’. I loved the idea of old dried-out timber bleeding nail rust, so purloined it to add to a scene where my protagonist detective visits a seemingly abandoned ramshackle farm, only to find the farmer dead inside, sitting mummified at his kitchen table.
A charming poem An Hour by Polish bard Czeslaw Milosz spoke of the ‘zealous hum of bees’. Yoink went I, adding it to my opening chapter where a mysterious woman is lying among the heather on a hot summer day, before going to a rendezvous with a man who will murder her.
I’ve long been a collector of quotes, poetry and excerpts from novels and speeches. I have several ring binders full of them, and they’ve been a source of comfort and inspiration to me over the years.
Some of the aphorisms are pithy observations on the human condition, while others are specifically about writing and reading. Writers like commenting on what they do, and reading a famous author’s wise words about the process of creating a story, makes you realise that you’re not alone.
Words of encouragement are fuel to the fire that sometimes wanes inside of us, and they can also be a call to arms, as with So you want to be a writer?by Charles Bukowski.
More genteel is Barbara Kingsolver’s poem Hope; An Owner’s Manual, with which she closed her commencement addressto graduates of Duke University.
Hope; An Owner’s Manual
Look, you might as well know, this thing is going to take endless repair: rubber bands, crazy glue, tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse. Nineteenth-century novels. Heartstrings, sunrise: all of these are useful. Also, feathers.
To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand on an incline, where everything looks possible; on the line you drew yourself. Or in the grocery line, making faces at a toddler secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.
You might have to pop the clutch and run past all the evidence. Past everyone who is laughing or praying for you. Definitely you don’t want to go directly to jail, but still, here you go, passing time, passing strange. Don’t pass this up.
In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off. Park it and fly by the seat of your pants. With nothing in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express. Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse that are sleeping in the shade of your future. Pay at the window. Pass your hope like a bad check. You might still have just enough time. To make a deposit.
More laconically, William Saroyan stated:
Writing is the hardest way of earning a living with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.
Quotes taken from the text of a novel intrigue me, for it’s obvious in many cases, that the author was making a stand in what they wrote, deliberately catching the reader by the ear to make them think about something.
Whether the noteworthy observation seems to come from the omniscient author, as in It was best of times, it was the worst of timesfrom the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, or when a character makes a comment that draws the eye, as in Bilbo Baggins saying All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost, the words touch the reader and they want to read more of them. It’s vital to keep the reader hooked with such unexpected barbs.
Occasionally, while writing my own Cornish Detective novels, I’ve had my protagonist and supporting characters think or say something that feels reflective or portentous—though, hopefully not pretentious! I’ve sometimes wondered if these witticisms might have a life beyond that of the novel, but that’s as much down to fate as attracting readers in the first place. Some of my lead copper’s advice seems throwaway, but carries weight: “The longest journey begins with one step—so does falling off of a cliff.”
Humour also works. In my last novel, The Dead Needy Nobody, a streetwise tart with a heart of lead, has just distracted my hero detective by flashing some cleavage at him: “Men were all the same—they thought with their balls, pointed with their cocks and talked out of their arseholes.“I’m well aware that, in the light of recent criticism by females of how male writers describe women that I’ll be similarly condemned, but that observation was actually said to me word for word, by an 80-year-old retired madam of a Portsmouth brothel, who was one of my customers on a milk round in rural Hampshire in 1986; her quip went into my memory banks to be regurgitated 42 years later.