My writing buddy Annie asked the question for this round of the blog chain:
Do you ever get inspired by a real-life event or news story and fear you're ripping off the story too much? Do you ever get inspired by a song or poem or line from a book and worry you're stealing that original person's idea? What if your research is overtaking your originality?
What popped into my head immediately upon reading this were those old Ecclesiastes verses: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
Like most people, I have been inspired by other people's works, and from time to time I've even used those works as a springboard for my own. For me, the nice thing is that as I find the story's voice and work with the characters, it all becomes uniquely mine.
I just started reading Jessica Verday's upcoming novel The Hollow, and it's set in the town of Sleepy Hollow, and quoted at the beginning of each chapter is a bit of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Jess took a story most of us know and found her own spin on it. That's not plagiarism, that's creativity.
Your question makes me think a bit about fanfiction. Fanfiction is the use of someone else's copyrighted characters and universe in a story. Fanfiction ranges from atrocious to amazing; it also runs the gamut from poorly-retold episodes or stories with an obvious Mary Sue inserted to wildly new and inventive tales that expand the "canonical" story in exciting ways.
Early on, i.e. when the internet was just starting to boom, companies like FOX went after fanfic writers to try to make them stop using copyrighted characters (e.g. The X-Files' Mulder and Scully). Soon, though, even FOX realized that fanfiction was just a way to expand the buzz about a show. These days, writers of shows like Supernatural work inside jokes acknowledging fanfic--and therefore fandom--into their episodes.
None of that is to say that fanfiction can't cross some boundaries that writers need to be wary of. And because the characters are copyrighted, it's rare for fanfiction to find an outlet in the traditional publishing world.
And it's good to be aware that plagiarism is a problem. Certainly Kaavya Viswanathan learned that lesson the hard way. And even Cassie Edwards has been called to the table. But as long as you aren't mimicking entire passages, characters, situations, etc. from someone else's work...that is, as long as you are putting your unique spin on things, really telling the story through a new character's eyes...as long as you're using your inspiring source as nothing more than a springboard...you're on the right track.
What do you think, dear Reader? How do we stay original when we're inspired by someone else's work? And where is the line we must be careful not to cross?
Sandra came before me and Kate is up next!