I was interested the other day to receive an email from a fellow writer whom I've known for many years. He'd spotted my mention on this blog of an idea I had about a story concerning book cover art, and said that the same idea had been running around in his own mind for a while. He and I share a number of literary enthusiasms, but our writing styles are very different, and I'm sure that if we ever do write these stories, they will be entirely distinct from each other. (A practical example of this occurred when John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson set about writing 'impossible crime' stories with an identical premise, and came up with two entertaining mysteries that were undoubtedly very different from each other.)
This contact came only a week or so after I read a manuscript of a novel which is due to be published this year. The author and his publisher had asked me for an endorsement, which I was more than happy to provide. I did gulp, though, when the early pages of the book suggested that he'd had the same idea as the notion I've come up with for one of the sub-plots of my current work-in-progress. Both of us have thought about a particular Golden Age trope. Aaaaagh! I was rather relieved, to say the least, when I read on and discovered that what he'd done with the basic concept was entirely different from what I have in mind.
These experiences simply reinforce a belief I've had for many years. Perhaps it applies with particular force to stories which are strongly plotted. Writers come up with similar ideas time and again. To the outsider, it may seem odd, especially in cases where the coincidence is striking. One famous example is the similarity that Nicholas Blake's A Penknife in My Heart bore to Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train. Another is the similarity that P.D. James' Original Sin bore to Blake's End of Chapter. In those cases, there may well have been an element of subconscious borrowing, especially given that the books were published years apart, but I don't think there was any intention to borrow, or even pay conscious homage. And it's quite possible that even these examples of notable similarities were entirely coincidental. After all, the idea in Strangers on a Train had actually been employed by others long before Highsmith's book was published.
So the same ideas may come to mind years apart, and seem quite fresh and original. As I joked the other day, a story I wrote as a child had the same starting point - a Christmas mystery at a Northumberland country house where a detective has a family connection with that house - as Ann Cleeves' latest bestseller. Quite often, though, ideas spring to several authors' minds at roughly the same time, sparked by current events or a particular story in the news. The drying-up of a lake or reservoir in the north of England some years ago inspired a number of different crime novels by British writers.
One of those books was written by Reginald Hill, who also happened to be at work on The Stranger House, a stand-alone set in the Lake District at the time that I began my own Lake District stories. We were in regular touch in those days, but we didn't discuss our current writing, and so we didn't know we were both venturing on to the same geographical ground. (I must say that a Lake District series by Reg would have been fantastic, though at the time I did breathe another sigh of relief when he told me he didn't want to write one!)
Something of the kind can also happen with non-fiction, and there it is sometimes more problematic. I can think of three non-fiction book proposals, each very different from the others, which I sent out in the 1990s to particular publishers who, I thought, would be ideal for that particular volume. In the end, none of them came to fruition, because in each case someone more eminent than me had put forward a similar proposal. One galling example was an idea that was accepted by a UK publisher only to be quashed when a US subsidiary bought an alternative version of the same idea.
But these things happen - you just have to write them off to experience. And when I came to reflect later on, it seemed to me that despite the frustration, the exercises hadn't been a waste of time. At least the fact that writers more eminent than me were thinking on the same lines indicated that I was in the right area, coming up with ideas that were potentially attractive and saleable. And that was reassuring.