There's Nothing New Under the Sun

Monday, January 26, 2015

My husband had a knee replaced on January 15, and my temporary role as nursemaid is cutting into my writing time. So this week I am reprinting a post I did for the Hoosier Ink blog on  June 27, 2012.
There’s Nothing New Under the Sun
The wind was picking up. Watching the approaching gale from her seat in the cockpit, Anne was grateful that Carousel had reached shelter before the storm hit. But as the sailboat’s bare mast bobbed and weaved with the others in the harbor, Anne prayed for the sailors who were still out on Lake Michigan.
Notice the opening sentence, which I borrowed from Chi Libris. Chi Libris is a group of well-known Christian novelists that include Angela Hunt and James Scott Bell. The group decided to publish a book of short stories with five shared elements: the same opening sentence, mistaken identity, pursuit at a noted landmark, an unusual form of transportation, and the same last line (“So that’s exactly what she did.”). The plots vary widely, however. In fact, the point of their collection, What the Wind Picked Up, is to show that the same basic idea can generate many diverse stories.
That’s one reason you can’t copyright ideas. The idea itself doesn’t make the story. It’s what you do with the idea that counts.
But there’s an even more important reason why you can’t copyright ideas. The founding fathers inluded copyright provisions in the Constitution to encourage creative works, not to inhibit them. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” If ideas could be copyrighted, there would be nothing left to write about.
Here’s one idea that is frequently found in literature. Two young people fall in love but are kept apart by their feuding families, and the consequences are tragic.
You could call Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet a case of mistaken identity in 16th Century Verona, Italy. The two protagonists fell in love before discovering who they had fallen in love with.
Move the setting to New York City in the 1950s, and you have West Side Story.
Then there is the apparently true story of the Hatfields and the McCoys in the Appalachian Mountains during the late 1800s. Their feud escalated after Johnse Hatfield began courting Roseanne McCoy, and Johnse’s family had to rescue him from the angry McCoy men. Did Johnse escape on a horse or use some other form of transportation that we would consider unusual today?
Or travel back to even earlier times. Legend tells of two Native American lovers from rival tribes. When their chiefs forbade their marriage, the lovers swore that if they couldn’t live together they would die together. Fleeing from their families, they embraced each other and jumped off the landmark now known as Lover’s Leap in Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park.
All of these stories use the same basic plot idea, and one (West Side Story) is still under copyright.
Now think of all the contemporary authors who have used that same plot idea. If you could copyright an idea, those stories wouldn’t exist.
Let’s look at another example.
Miss Read (pen name for Dora Saint) has written multiple books about everyday village life in England. While these books tend to have a main character, they center around an ensemble cast of ordinary, and mostly likeable, village residents.
Does that remind you of a series by a popular American authoress?
When I read Jan Karon’s first Mitford book, I immediately thought of Miss Read and her Fairacre/Thrush Green books. It isn’t that the writing style is similar—it isn’t—or that the authors tell the same stories—they don’t. But their books have a common theme.
I don’t know if Jan Karon read Miss Read’s books before writing her own. For the sake of my point, however, let’s assume she did. And let’s also assume Jan Karon knew she could use the same idea without violating copyright law.
So that’s exactly what she did.

And the Winner Is . . .

Monday, January 19, 2015

Just over a month ago I wrote a blog post pondering several ideas for my next novel. I finally picked one and have already started the research.
So what did I choose? I was leaning toward writing another middle grade historical novel, and that's what I decided to do. This one will tell the story of a Native American girl who leaves the reservation at the turn of the last century to be “civilized” at an Indian Boarding School.

I chose this topic for several reasons.

  • There is enough good research information out there to create a realistic story.
  • The topic has not been overdone. In fact, it has rarely been covered at all, with few middle grade books on the subject.
  • This is another instance of American injustice that middle graders don’t know about but should.

One more reason: I love learning about new cultures. This way I get to do it while “at work” writing.
And what could be better than that?

The picture at the head of this post shows the students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania around 1890. It is in the public domain because of its age.

The Oxford Comma: A Matter of Clarity

Monday, January 12, 2015

Am I a grammar nerd? Yes and no. I believe that everyone should know the grammar rules, but I also think it is okay to break them if there is a reason. Ignorance, laziness, or just plain eccentricity aren’t good reasons. (I’m not a fan of E.E. Cummings.) Emphasis, timing, and readability are. And if a reader will think me pretentious for using “whom,” I’ll use “who” instead.
But grammar nerd or not, I’m a fan of the Oxford comma.
For those of you who don’t know what the Oxford comma is, it’s the comma that comes before the conjunction (usually “and” or “or”) that introduces the end of a series. For example, this sentence uses an Oxford comma: “The American flag is red, white, and blue.” This one doesn’t: “The American flag is red, white and blue.” It’s called the Oxford comma because Oxford University’s stylebook says to put it in. (It is also called the Harvard comma, for a similar reason, or the serial comma.) Why does it matter whether a writer uses it? I’ll explain in a minute.
First, though, I’ll tell you why I’m writing about it now.
I have an online critique partner who doesn’t use the Oxford comma. Grammatically, use of the Oxford comma is optional, so I grit my teeth and defer to her style choice. Then she sent me a chapter where she actually stuck one in, and it wasn’t needed for clarity. Although it killed me to do it, I took it out for consistency. But her use prompted me to write this blog.
The first rule of writing is clarity, and that’s why grammar rules exist. There are many times when a sentence is clear with or without the Oxford comma. “The American flag is red, white and blue” is an example. On the other hand, it is easy to write a sentence where the absence of the Oxford comma creates ambiguity. If that’s intentional, fine, but it usually isn’t.
Consider the sentences in the graphic at the head of this post. “Betty went camping with her sisters, Debbie and Carol” could mean that there were at least five people on the camping trip: Betty, two or more sisters, Debbie, and Carol. Or it could mean that there were three people: Betty and her two sisters, whose names are Debbie and Carol. If you consistently use the Oxford comma, the reader will know which you mean.
It is possible to rearrange the sentence to clarify its meaning without using the Oxford comma. If there were five people on the camping trip, you can say, “Betty went camping with Debbie, Carol, and Betty’s sisters.” But if there were three people on the camping trip, you may have to say “her two sisters, Debbie and Carol.” If you rarely or never use the Oxford comma, the phrase is still ambiguous.
Or consider this sentence: “My favorite ice cream flavors are caramel, white chocolate and orange and cream.” The use of the extra “and” indicates that one of the flavors has two parts to its name, but is it white chocolate and orange or orange and cream? The use of the Oxford comma clarifies the sentence, making clear that the flavors are either “caramel, white chocolate and orange, and cream” or “caramel, white chocolate, and orange and cream.
Then there’s the third example. “Still half asleep, Jeff got dressed, made toast and put on deodorant.” Did Jeff put the deodorant on himself or the toast? Grammatically, there is only one way to read the sentence. If it weren’t a series of three, there would be no reason to put a comma after “dressed.” So, read correctly, the sentence means that Jeff put the deodorant on himself. But someone who is reading quickly might miss that nicety and read the last two items in the series as one. After all, who knows what Jeff might do when he is half asleep? An Oxford comma slows the reader down and makes the meaning clear.
Although clarity is the first rule of writing, consistency is also important, especially since knowing how someone writes helps the reader find clarity in the sentence. And because there are times when I need the Oxford comma for clarity, I chose to use it all the time for consistency.
Still, the Oxford comma is technically optional. If you choose not to use it, I won’t unfriend you.
But I will let you know when your sentences are unclear.

The Importance of Interviews

Monday, January 5, 2015

In November I had the privilege of interviewing a Japanese American couple who were incarcerated (separately) by the U.S. government during World War II. I wanted to write about it then but was waiting for permission to use a photograph of Chiyo’s family taken by a Time Life photographer at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center. Unfortunately, I never received a response to my e-mail. So the photograph at the head of this post shows a family I don’t know and is included merely for ambiance.
As I researched my middle-grade historical novel about the Japanese American incarceration, I read a number of memoirs and spoke very briefly with one or two people who had been in the camps, but I did not have the opportunity to interview anyone in depth. Then, while we were on a research trip actually visiting the sites in my book, our local newspaper published an article about a Korean War veteran who was willing to serve his country even though he had been incarcerated as a teenager. Friends helped me connect with him, and I discovered that Ken’s wife had also been incarcerated, but in a different camp. (They met after their release.)
I talked to Ken for a short time but spent most of the day with Chiyo.
In the book, my protagonist is incarcerated at Topaz in Utah. Ken was at Gila River in Arizona, and Chiyo was at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. But even though the settings were different, the experiences were similar. Well, not completely. As with anything, personality colors experience.

Ken’s passion was cars, and the only vehicles at Gila River were the trucks owned by the administration. He was in high school but didn’t get involved in sports or other activities. So except for the summer he spent riding around with the garbage men, he felt that his stay at Gila River was wasted time.
Chiyo had a different experience. She has an outgoing personality and enjoyed the dances and other activities at Heart Mountain. She also loved ice-skating, and Heart Mountain had long winters. So Chiyo enjoyed her time there.
In many ways, the interview simply confirmed what I had already learned from other sources. But it was invaluable because it gave me a stronger sense of the people involved. Not that I didn’t get some of that from the memoirs I read, but there is nothing like sitting across from a living person and listening to his or her stories.
It isn’t always possible for a writer to interview people who have been through the events depicted in a historical novel, especially if everyone is long dead. But if you have the opportunity, take it.
Because your story will be better if you do.

The photograph at the head of this post shows the Shikano family and was taken at the Central Utah War Relocation Center (Topaz) on January 3, 1945. Charles E. Mace took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.