Musings, Part One: Influences and Illusions

So, I haven’t blogged in a while, but a few things came to mind recently and I’ve finally found time to post them. I think I’ll spread them out over a few days, though!

First, escaping your influences, including perceived influences, as well as allusions, references and “Easter eggs”. (No, it’s not a typo in the title!)

I’ve written before about it, but I spend quite a lot of time thinking about how books I’m reading, and writing, fit in with both books that have come before, and also events in our actual history. All writers get inspiration from what they read (both fiction and non), and the skill comes in turning all that inspiration into something new and exciting. Depending on the reader, the effectiveness of the results can vary wildly.

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I thought I wanted another Hobbit… but I was wrong.

I’ve put down or not even picked up books where I feel I’ve already read it because the influences are too blatant. Obviously, I am being somewhat unfair, because it’s not plagiarism and I haven’t actually read it before. However, if I’ve read a really good book featuring certain elements, I’m wary about reading how another writer does a very similar-sounding thing. (This may relate to my taste for variety in reading, YMMV.) Likewise, if I’m very familiar with the history of events, I’m less likely to enjoy a heavily influenced retelling, including historical fantasy (heck, including a lot of historical fiction!) – the original history is often fantastic or thrilling enough.

On the other hand, accusations of influence can be just as frustrating when they are mis-attributed. I see it happen quite often where people lack sufficient perspective, and I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself from time to time. In fact, I know some writers who have effectively repeated the past because they haven’t read the originals. Falsely accused, perhaps, but I’m not sure ignorance should be a defense! Still, I’ve certainly had to make changes in my writing when I can either see my own influences too clearly, or can see that others will perceive influences even when that may not be the case.

For example, anyone who puts a wall on the border between their fantasy land and the wilderness will now inevitably be compared to, or accused of copying, George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Never mind that Hadrian built the original almost two millennia ago, and many authors have used the same trope since – it now belongs to GRRM. I read another book recently (Riddle-master of Hed, I think) where people “take the black”, but wouldn’t be able to get away with using the phrase now. And if you so much as feature medieval familial politics, your influence is plain to all – despite hundreds of years of actual medieval history (including the Wars of the Roses which inspired Game of Thrones in the first place).Credit: English Heritage

But then, I get equally annoyed when people don’t see the debt that newer series pay to the ones that came before. Everybody raves about Malazan Book of the Fallen, and rightly so, but that soul-trapping sword Dragnipur is just a modern Stormbringer, and the mercenaries with the colourful names first worked for the Black Company. I’m not annoyed that these things are in the books, just that what’s come before doesn’t get enough credit (from fans, I mean – Erikson has publicly credited Cook’s influence, at least).

To that end, I do really love an obvious nod to the past, though I can’t think of that many good examples of off the top of my head just now. More specific than an re-used or inverted trope, these references, allusions, or Easter Eggs are homages from a younger writer to those that have come before. They’re also a tip of the author’s hat to the well-read reader, a message that shares their love of the genre’s past with others who know what they’re talking about.  I’ve certainly entertained the idea of putting them in my own writing, but I’m not sure what you can get away with. When does a knowing nod turn into a copyright infringement?18667112

A good example that I’m pretty sure is intentional, is the character Wydrin in Jen William’s excellent Copper Cat Trilogy. Her nickname, which names the series, seems a pretty clear nod to Fritz Leiber’s classic S&S character, the Grey Mouser. The whole colour-plus-animal thing may seem pretty simplistic, but when you realise the Copper Cat has a partner who is very much a modern-day Fafhrd (if a bit more conscientious), I’m pretty certain it’s not a coincidence. And I love it.

That’s the way I like my fantasy: new ideas in conversation with the past – if possible, both the history of the genre and the history of the world. It suits my reading taste, and hopefully it’s the way my writing comes across. We’ll see.