A Small Art

[UPDATE: because several of you protested that Crooked House by Agatha Christie was nothing like the Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth (and you were right. Crooked house is a different plot) I realized that I’d gotten muddled due to the fact this author uses an Agatha Christie title and a different plot. Which btw diminishes the chances of its being in any way an “homage.”
The plot she uses is from Peril At End House (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/PerilAtEndHouse which is the one that resembles Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl. Mind you I THINK the solution is different and less fiendish in The Chinese Shawl.  Also having looked up the dates, The Chinese Shawl was published 11 years after Peril At End House. So it’s possible that Wentworth either was saying “sure, like that, but let’s twist it this way.” OR that she’d read it and simply didn’t remember. It’s not one of the more memorable Christies.)

Recently I borrowed a book called Crooked House because I was in a hurry, saw only the title,  and thought it was Crooked House by Agatha Christie.

Mind you, I think growing up I read that book about a million times, and I’ve probably read it three or four times since I got married. So, I know the book very well. I just wanted to re-read it on a day I wasn’t feeling well enough to do much of anything. But I accidentally borrowed the wrong book.

Which is okay, since the book I borrowed has the almost exact plot. (A minor deviation at the end where one of the guys is the woman’s accomplice, and the adaptations needed to the 21st century were all I saw.)

Now, this is not copyright infringement.

For a book to stand in copyright infringement, it needs to take SUBSTANTIAL portions of language from the original book. I know this, because there is a writer of some renown (made on that series) who lifted considerable portions of the plot my first three books.  (More the fool she, since for the first, feeling completely insecure after selling it on spec, I lifted the legend of Tam Lin. Meh.) After so many fans came to me, I consulted a friendly lawyer who said because the similarity was such there MIGHT be a case, but he wouldn’t give it more than 25% of chance of winning.

To prove plagiarism, you need WORDS lifted off the page. At least if you want to have a chance of succeeding.

Things that are not copyrightable include — but are not limited to — titles (unless the author trademarked them), character names (I had a friend accidentally lift one of mine and then be completely apologetic, because it was unusual, but really, who cares?), plots, ideas  or even elements of world building.

As far as I understand — and I’m NOT a lawyer — the copyright covers the EXPRESSION of the idea, not the idea itself.

Frankly if ideas were copyrighteable ALL of science fiction would be in trouble, and I’d owe the Heinlein estate  for A Few Good Men.  Because it, like a lot of science fiction was “Good thought.  Now let’s take the situation on Earth and without a supercomputer.” This is why better minds than mine have described SF as a dialogue.  “Oh, you think that’s what would happen in that situation? Because I think it is this.”

But this book was not science fiction. It was a mystery. And therefore as you might imagine, the lifting of the plot wholesale was somewhat of a detriment.

I knew who the murderer was from the discussion on names, and from then on skimmed, partly hoping the author would pull a double-reverse psych and have someone else be the murderer, partly in the spirit in which one watches a train wreck, as she hit all the same beats AT THE SAME POINT as the original book.

BTW there is — in general — nothing wrong with lifting an old plot. Particularly if it’s by one of the more obscure writers.  I have several filed ideas that I want to do, most of them based on “throwaway” Clifford D. Simak twists.  The man — possibly because he was a journalist — kept to the main idea with disturbing tenacity and would mention other ideas/conditions/possibilities off hand and never pursue them.

And at least one of his ideas I think needs to be explored, because he was so tenacious in his assumptions of how humanity would behave that he never did.  If it weren’t for the mess of Winnie the flu stopping my mind for three months I’d already be well away on that book which I’m doing with a friend. (It’s based on Our Children’s Children.)

I also have several ideas for women in peril mysteries filed away from Patricia Wentworth, but again, never the whole plot. One or two particularly clever twists, maybe (though she wasn’t good at twists, she was good at characters) but mostly? Just the idea.  BTW this is notable because Patricia Wentworth wrote the plot of Crooked house in The Chinese Shawl. I’ve often wondered which of them wrote it first, and if it was consciously taken. I’d want to say PW wrote it first, because AC gave it more twist and depth, but that isn’t necessarily true, since the books though largely similar as to plot are not similar as to DETAILS and are each very much their own author’s.

Which brings us to the mess with this book — which has the same name as Christie’s which has the same plot — where it’s impossible to imagine the author never read the first book, or that she didn’t know what she was doing at a very conscious level.

One wonders if she thought Christie was so obscure that she was very clever in stealing the plot.  (A desperate writer under contract is capable of anything, but one should stick to less well known authors, which, unfortunately, necessitates often fixing or deepening plots, since there’s a reason the workaday authors of the past don’t remain with us. Fortunately most writers worth their salt want to do that, anyway.)  And since from the author’s completely unnecessary sticking in of lefty talking points I PRESUME that it was traditionally published (I also didn’t look. I borrowed a paper copy, no longer with me. I’m not, btw, being coy in not giving the author’s name. I don’t remember it.) either she was right and the new generation of mystery editors never read Christie (and why not? Many clergymen today never read the Bible. or believe in it.) OR her editor similarly thought they were both being very clever. I don’t know. Either notion makes me more than a little queasy. Though I understand hiring illiterates to edit books cuts down on costs. (Or not, since these tend to be Ivy League graduate illiterates.) Perhaps naming it the same thing was an attempt to claim it was an homage if caught with fingers in cookie jar. If so it’s a clever-fool idea.

In any case — and weirdly — the whole point of my post is not to say “don’t do that, ‘mkay?”  Honestly, until I skimmed that brazen theft of a book, I had no idea anyone would do that. It seems to require a combination of glaring audacity and stupidity that I dare say is not often found in human beings.

The point is that for about ten pages, on the book, the author goes on about lighthouses, which supposedly her character likes.

And for that moment, that brief portion of the book, the book comes alive.

Remember that last week I told you being a writer is not what you do? Being a writer is what you ARE. (Arguably even when too sick for  writing, I daydream stories. Even if I lack the concentration and ability to set them on paper.)

Years ago, when watching a Shakespeare biopic series, (the one with Tim Curry. If you can find it in a format watchable today, well, my 16 year old self thought well of it. I haven’t rewatched it. Am afraid to even see if it’s available, because these things rarely live up, you know?) they had Marlowe tell Shakespeare “No, you have to put something of yourself in it.”

Now, normally you can’t avoid it, something of yourself will leak in, even in the midst of the most scripted, carefully plotted in advance book.

Heck, even the way you plot is yours and involves the assumptions you make about the world.  Hence  the wanting to rewrite old sf, because the author’s assumptions have since been proven glaringly wrong (in the case of Our Children’s Children, for instance.) Or wanting to rewrite the idea of a novel that annoyed the living frick out of us or where we think the game was rigged in one particular direction.  (Ori Pomerantz, no I didn’t forget “drop a Heinlein character into 1984.”  I just need to get faster at writing, again.)

BUT in this case, even while stealing another’s plot point by point and coloring by numbers, something real, something that only this author could possibly think belongs in that book dropped in.

And that portion shines like a jewel amid the muck.

Writer is what you ARE. Don’t prostitute your work with writing by numbers.  Yes, a lot of us did it in the bad old days, because what we wrote was a negotiation between us and what the publisher would take (and sometimes the negotiation was entirely inside our heads.) but TRUST someone who’s done it, please: writing to market kills. It kill whatever in you is striving to speak and tell stories.  I’m still recovering from years of doing it, which is why I’m so fargain slow.  And some writers never come back from it.

But we have indie now, and there’s no excuse. Writing is what you ARE.  Don’t prostitute your soul because you think “this will sell better.”

Write with what you are. With everything you are, good and bad.  Forget writing what you know. Write what you ARE. Let all the elements you love and hate and which make your pulse speed up fall in, however transformed by world and setting and idea.

Terry Pratchett, who certainly should know, wrote “Success comes from being yourself as hard as you can.”

Listen to the man.





  1. I’m a bit reminded of that person who claimed that Rowling stole his plot/book; but it was found to be spurious. Probably for much the same reason that your lawyer friend said.

    Fandom though, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some that’d probably complain that Jim Butcher stole Rowling’s idea because both their main characters are given the Christian names Harry and both are wizards.

    1. Nancy Stouffer. In this case, Stouffer had written one book that included a fantasy race called Muggles, and another entitled “Larry Potter and his best friend Lily.” The fact that Rowling used three of those names alone with another that was very, very similar is certainly interesting, but as far as I can tell, the similarities end there. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Rowling had somehow found those books and copied the names, but as Sarah said, names aren’t copyrightable.

    1. One of fanfiction author Vathara’s footnotes points out that one of her methods for making fleshed-out secondary characters is to take a known character, and modify him.

      Kind of like how Pratchett flatly stated that Vimes was Cromwell, but altered. (Mostly making him not a horrible person, from what I know of Cromwell; more power to keeping the cool factor!)

        1. You’d probably know her from her Indi publishing as C. Chancy, or over at Sarah’s as CrossoverCreativeChaos
          Ooooor “the gal who wrote that Embers fix-it-fan-fic for Avatar the last airbender that Foxfier keeps raving about at the drop of a hat.”

  2. — Frankly if ideas were copyrighteable ALL of science fiction would be in trouble, and I’d owe the Heinlein estate for A Few Good Men. —

    Frankly, a great deal of contemporary science fiction SHOULD be in trouble: not for copyright infringement, but for being repetitive, entirely unoriginal, founded on worn-out motifs, and lacking in characterization and craft. But your larger point is correct, and while I’m not a lawyer, I have one in the family that has confirmed this: It’s the expression of an idea that’s subject to copyright, not the idea itself. Moreover, he who alleges infringement must also establish that the violator had an intent to infringe on the original, or he can’t collect.

    1. Not just science fiction, but even the rural humor that my daughter and I write, with the Luna City series. We’ve boosted inspiration and concepts from everywhere, but gave them the serious south Texas twist.
      Although my daughter was briefly worried that we had lifted the notion of historical reenactors deliberately wrecking a movie shoot was lifted straight from the movie “Sweet Liberty.” Well, sort of – yes, they wrecked the final, grand money-making scene, but by cross-dressing, NOT stripping off.

  3. I have to admit that I don’t see much in the way of similarity between the plots of Crooked House and The Chinese Shawl. They both feature an old family home that’s kind of creepy and implied to be a bad influence, but I don’t really see much else. Maybe the murderers have some things in common, but their methods and motives were so different that it’s hard for me to see them as the same. And of course, the eponymous shawl that played such a key role in Wentworth’s book doesn’t have any analog in Christie’s that I can remember.

      1. Are we not thinking of the same book? I remember two people being murdered in Crooked House, the patriarch and the nanny, and there didn’t seem to be any doubt about the identity of either of them.

    1. Chinese Shawl was 1943 and set in wartime, and Crooked House was 1949.

      There are a fair number of classic mystery/suspense novels that are like “Mwahaha, you fool, I shall do the same situation but outdo you!” Often there are traps for the unwitting who make wrong assumptions, based on the previous book. The New Golden Age folks in Japan are very very fond of messing with people this way.

      (I do NOT see the fascination with locked room mysteries and never did, but holy crud, do they do messing with Carr. So many Detective Conan episodes.)

      I gotta say, I didn’t see the similarities, but it’s been a really long time since I read either.

      1. I do remember that there’s one of those modern perky romance comfort novels from the Thirties that did a similar plot to Chinese Shawl. Except I think everybody lived.

        1. I really hated all the multiple story names when I was a kid. I’d buy my Mom a book for a gift because it wasn’t a title on the shelf and find out later she already has the book under a different title.

        2. Okay, this makes much more sense now. I don’t think I would ever have thought to compare the two, but now that I think of it, there are a lot of similarities. They even both feature a shawl.

  4. Yep, well said Sarah.

    Mind you I used the name Tachikoma as a direct homage to Ghost in the Shell for my lead character, which if I had researched it more should’ve been Tachikami (cutting spirit versus bright horse*), but otherwise that’s all the name is, a shout out.

    *approximate translations for the name, because Japanese names are strictly governed and Tachikoma is not therefore an approved name.

  5. Maybe it was an unauthorized remake where they didn’t say anything because it was an unauthorized remake, and it wouldn’t make any extra sales by saying “unauthorized re-imagining of X in the modern day!” ?

  6. I think the biggest kerfuffle in the last few years was the argument over The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, because apparently none of the ganbois know a lick about copyright law.

    My favorite to point out is the Louis L’Amour story A Man Called Noon compared to The Bourne Identity.

    1. Now, to be fair, after having read Battle Royale I watched Hunger Games and said “pshaw. BR did it better.”

  7. I need to hear this, often. I came so close to ‘professional publishing world’, I could smell it. I didn’t like the odor.

      1. Yes. There’s indie. And I keep trying to figure out what is holding me back. I feel like that post you made some time back, about “not being a real author” akin to Pinocchio, because the gatekeepers deemed me unworthy … until I wrote to their desires.

        Part of my fear is still from the abuse of the system.

        I got close enough to smell the wind…and I had enough lay of the land to know I was already suffering from abuse; gas lighting, bullying, and out right anger. It felt like the head games played in many a graduate school at writing workshops.

  8. One advantage of obscure plots that merit their obscurity is that you can make it more original by fixing it.

    But filing off the serial numbers is a good habit and gets you into the habit of more originality. The more you can hone down what you want to steal to the essence of the idea. . . .

  9. My first “big” novel was The Hordes of Chanakra. It had its origin in something I had read (a comic series, “Arak, Son of Thunder”) which I had loved right up until the last page and the ending which I hated, hated, hated.

    So, I started the story to “fix” what I saw as a horrible ending to that story, so I had the same three basic characters as the main characters of the series: a centuries old wizard, a warrior woman who at least starts as being almost a walking stereotype, and an “outsider” character. The setting was different and the characters had to adapt to it. And when I started the story I had not read the first issues of the comic so I didn’t know how my “outsider” character had met the others so I had to make up something of my own for that. And, well, the story evolved in its own directions so that, in the end, it bore essentially no resemblance to the inspiration except for one thing: that triumvirate of major characters. My “outsider” was a person magically transported from “our” world to fantasyland and not a Native American whose tribe was slaughtered and he, the only survivor (or so he thought), lost at sea in a canoe until he’s picked up by vikings and joins them on raids until… But the basic dynamic between the three was much the same.

    So almost, but not quite, exactly unlike the “source” material. 😉

Comments are closed.