The other day I watched Sita Sings the Blues, which, of course, led me to the whole question of copyright laws (follow the link and you’ll see why pretty quick). I didn’t even know there was a question. No one can copy your work until whenever the law says they can. In the end, I thought some of the points were interesting, especially the idea that there is nothing new under the sun and that by unreasonably restricting who can use what, you can end up stifling the very art you were trying to encourage/protect. I tend to disagree with the question of what constitutes “unreasonable” but that’s another post.
After a while of looking at the topic, I started to laugh. Nothing big. A chuckle at myself, really. Here I am talking about copyright and wondering what’s fair and what isn’t and what constitutes a legacy and so on and so forth and yet it’s because of someone else’s story that I was able to write Master of Roads.
There was a contest on Hatrack once, several years ago, where someone would pick a story and we were supposed to rewrite it in such a way that no one could tell we’d rewritten it. The point was to show that there’s no such thing as an original idea. The originality comes from the execution. One of the stories picked for the rewrite was actually a collection of them: The Canterbury Tales. We were supposed to pick one story as our inspiration and base our story on that.
I looked through and couldn’t find any chapter summaries that interested me. As a side note, if I’d had an ebook I would have bowed out. I hate browsing those things. Instead, I did what I usually do with paper books and flipped through the pages, waiting for a piece of a story to catch my eyes (I wasn’t really in the mood to read the whole book again). Then I found a story with a woman praying. She was praying for the goddess Diana to release her from her upcoming marriage to two gentlemen who had agreed to battle over her hand in marriage. In The Knight’s Tale, the way she receives an answer from the goddess is through the flames that burn in the temple. The goddess then appears and tells her that she is promised to one of the men and Diana can’t change that because it is a decree from the “high gods”. And so the girl ends up watching the battle.
That’s not really what the story is about. The Knight’s Tale is about two guys who put a girl above their friendship and their eventual (death-bed for one of them) reconciliation. One dies, the other gets the girl, and everyone is happy. If I’d stuck closer to the story, that’s what mine would have been about as well.
But the image of a girl praying to Diana for her freedom wouldn’t go away. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. That was the story that interested me, not the main plot. I mean, what would happen if she’d gotten her wish…just not in the way she had hoped/expected? And, of course, since I’m a romantic at heart, I had to stick some into this fantasy tale. It’s no good doing terrible things to my main character if she doesn’t get a reward of some sort at the end of it. If my husband’s reaction is any indication, it’s a bit more on the girly romance side than most dudes enjoy. Thus, the label Fantasy/Romance.
The funniest part is that, even though I was using part of The Knight’s Tale for my story’s structure, I wanted the gods to be totally original. So, I created Mother Fire, a sun goddess, then I created a god who was, in my head, her opposite, yet complementary. After a while, I realized some of it sounded familiar. A little research and, sure enough, I’m creating a fantasy Hermes with a small twist. That’s what I get for trying to be “original”.
The only thing you can do as a writer is to take what already exists and build on it. Just like Sita Sings the Blues is unique in its synthesis of Hindu canon, various animation styles and early 20th century music, a writer can create something unique out of stories that have already been written. The most creative things I’ve done have been because I knew what had been done already. Otherwise, I end up going down roads already traveled and worn. And with better writing, too.
As for how original Master of Roads is (or isn’t), please take a look and tell me what you think.
Note: Thank you, Geoffrey Chaucer. I’m sure, wherever you are, you must be gratified to know your stories can still inspire after all this time.