Twist and steal – grasping inspiration from other books

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Stealing from the original, then making it your own

I’m reading Longbourn, which re-tells Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. It is not a new idea to imagine a classic as told by a minor character (see Wide Sargasso Sea, Mists of Avalon …) but it made me wonder about more ways to create new stories, using the steal and twist method.

For example: I could rewrite The Musketeers from the viewpoint of their long-suffering grooms; see Sherlock Holmes as told by Moriarty; have Nicholas Nickelby’s sister Kate tell of miserable life at the milliner’s.

So far, so fanfiction. What else could we glean for inspiration? I made a list of 6 elements you might steal – and twist to make them your own.

Religion and customs. In Fly by Night Frances Hardinge created  a world where children are named for the saint-day they are born on, and churches are filled with the idols of these thousands of little gods. Who are the gods in your world, what do the temples look like, how are children named and does your name, like Mosca’s, mean you are doomed to be unlucky?

Pulteney Bridge in Bath. I took this photo 20 years ago of the south side. Below shows the less glamorous north side . The contrast between public and private Pulteney Bridge still fascinates me.

Setting. William Gibson’s story Virtual Light is set on the ruined San Francisco bridge, where the dispossessed live among the remnants of our age. The bridge is a town in itself. Bath has its own inhabited bridge, and the old London Bridge like many others, had houses and shops on it.

© Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of living at a crossing point – a border, maybe a tollhouse, an island in a river (like the Abhorsen’s house in Sabriel) or any place which is neither one thing nor the other, and forms its own society. What weird place can your characters live and work?

Backstory. Minor characters are a goldmine. The chef shoved aside as enemies chase through his kitchen, the female assassin’s best friend, the child saved in passing by the superhero – what are their histories and how do their lives continue after the main story is done? Sometimes I fall for a character in a film and want to know more. (Actually, this happens all the time. I am incorrigible.) Pick a glimpsed character and imagine the rest.

Premise. Obviously the premise of a book can’t be lifted and re-used, or the author would be upset. (Unless you’re John Christopher, who actually wrote all of The Tripods before somebody said to him, weren’t those created by HG Wells???) But say – someone who can travel through time, listening for the sound of children crying; a circus which appears in the night and vanishes before dawn; an entire world lurking beneath London, hinted at by the Tube map. These are all marvellous ideas and you must NOT steal them, but perhaps you can twist them to see where it might take you. What would the world be like underneath Cardiff – or above Cairo, hidden in the air? What if you could smell loneliness, or taste it on the wind? What if the circus fails to vanish at the right time, like Cinderella missing her coach home?

Pivotal moment. What if, after Holmes plunges over the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty, Watson shrugs, relieved, and sets up his own detective agency? What if Jane Eyre never returned to Rochester but instead went off with StJohn and had adventures in Africa (bit of a stretch, that. You’d have to make StJohn a million times less sickly). Reverse the key moment in the story and see where it would go. Don’t do it with Indiana Jones, though – as Amy points out in Big Bang Theory, it makes no difference to the outcome if Jones acts or does nothing.

Mash ups. I love these. What if Jeeves went off to work for Miss Marple? How about Mr Darcy secretly fighting off highwaymen? (I already did this, sorry). What if George Smiley checked into the Second Best Marigold Hotel?

With all of these ideas, you’re not aiming to make copies of the items you steal. You’re not a fraudster, changing the names and claiming the credit. Ageing spy checks into retirement home in unusual location – that’s its own thing. So is dammit the big top is meant to disappear at dawn, why is the milkman staring at our magical lion tamers? So begin with a minor theft, then expand and digress. Clash together two old ideas into a brand new premise.

Start it like fanfiction, then make it your own. Happy thieving!

Steal and twist:

  1. Find an element in an existing story that niggles at you, that you can’t let go of.
  2. Maybe clash it together with a second element to create a mashup.
  3. Twist the elements, bringing minor characters to the fore, or using a background aspect as the principal setting, or placing disparate characters in the same place and time.
  4. Voila! A brand new idea ready for expansion.

—Suggestions for mashups and thefts always welcome. -Sef—


First Draft Forgiveness – let yourself off these ‘writer sins’

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Fast First Draft Tips
Do not let concerns about plausibility – or style – slow you down in your first draft. Snakes-head exhaust pipe on classic sports car, Liverpool 2014

I’m currently writing a fast and horrible first draft. Fast because I have the attention span of a gnat on Red Bull, and horrible because I need to just rattle out ideas regardless of style or grace. To do this I need to forgive myself a host of writing sins. I’m finding this very useful and rather relaxing. Here are my top 6 things I cast gleefully aside in order to get the words out.

  1. Adverbs. Oh, how the adverbs spill out joyously, easily, triumphantly once you switch off the inner LAZY WRITING alarm. My characters are free to speak firmly, to turn awkwardly, or swoon completely away. It’s bliss, I must say. Strong verbs, take a break. I’ll be back for you later.
  2. Accuracy. Was Hyde Park in existence in 1820, so that my characters can go for a drive in it? Does it take two days to get from London to Hastings, or only one? Or a week? Is my novel in fact set in 1820 – or some other year when there may, or may not have been the Napoleonic Wars still happening? I’ll look it up when I’m done with the plot.*
  3. The exact order of events. Often I’m flying along in Chapter Six when I realise that something ought to have been referenced in Chapter Five, but I forgot to mention it. Quick, go back and between some asterisks, insert the line which will tie it all together. So what if it breaks up the flow of the dialogue? It’s one less thing to remember for the second draft.
  4. Typing and punctuation. Obviously. Unless it makes your writing incomprehensible, leave all the your/you’re stuff for later. Especially if, like me, you’re typing it all on your phone, under the tyranny of the AutoCorrect. Every single ‘the’ autocorrects to ‘Rye.’ All of them. It’s highly irritating, but I’m not changing them now. I haven’t got time.
  5. Repetition. Your hero just flicked his fingers at a servant, and then two paragraphs later, your heroine flicks a crumb from her skirt. Aarrgghh. Never mind, you can it in the second draft.
  6. Finding the exact right word. Sometimes I can see the scene very clearly but cannot pinpoint the specific thing which will call it perfectly into the reader’s mind. When this happens I just write all around it, hoping that when I return to it, my mess of over-description will prompt me to the phrase I need. The sky was, um,  dull, silvery, grudging, the colour of a dented teapot at a service station. One of those will call up the required mood, and I’ll decide which one on the way back.

Those are the main things I throw out of the window when I need to write fast. Anyone who’s read my recent posts to The Write Practice may have noticed a slight dip in, uh, grace. But I cannot stop for beauty. I must Get This Done. And on that note, I’m off. More next week.


*Or I won’t bother, since this is alternate-timeline historical fantasy. Maybe the Napoleonic struggles happened a bit earlier or later. Maybe I’ll just put a massive caveat inside the front cover asking readers not to contact me with all the anachronisms. Maybe I’ll worry about that in November.