“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” When Daniel James Brown began his book about the 1936 U.S. Olympic rowing team, he took as his model Laura Hillenbrand, author of the wonderful bestsellers, Unbroken and Seabiscuit:
“When I first started The Boys in the Boat — I mean, the day after I decided to write the book — I had an old paperback copy of Seabiscuit, and we were going on vacation. So I threw it in my suitcase and I spent the whole vacation dissecting it. I put notes on every page in the book, just studying all the writerly decisions she had made: why she started this scene this way and that scene that way, and the language choices in how she developing the setting…I went into the whole research project with a list of guidelines, which were drawn from this close study of Seabiscuit.”
What a masterful approach! The more I read about writing and listen to authors discuss how they develop their stories, the more often I discover that they don’t cut their stories from whole cloth: As part of their creative process, they “borrow” what they need and then transform it. A few more examples:
As a young man, Ernest Hemingway committed huge sections of The Bible to memory because he wanted to fully absorb its cadence and lyrical language patterns so he could use them as the scaffolding for building the stories he wanted to tell.
When Junot Diaz was writing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he found himself struggling to find a structure for his novel and happened to pick up The Perfect Storm. While this nonfiction book was about a topic wildly different from his novel, there was something about the book’s structure that struck a chord and gave him a way to shape his own story.
When Christina Baker Kline was writing her bestseller, Orphan Train, she heard about a new novel, Like Water For Elephants. Reading it gave her the germ of an idea about the way her own story might unfold that led to the framework she used.
The message for us in all this: Read, reflect, reimagine. Don’t feel that you’re copying if you feel inspired by another writer’s choices: “Borrow” what you need and make it your own. When you do, you’ll be following a long and storied tradition. Write on!