There is nothing new under the sun.
This maxim is something into which every writer smacks his or her forehead fairly early on in their efforts. This leads to the paralyzing fear: my work isn’t original enough.
Aside from artistic inspirations like the grandeur of nature and the triumph, tragedy, and pathos of human experience, art is itself an enormous source of inspiration for writers, musicians, graphic artists, etc. To see a film that leaves us exultant or weeping, to read a book that lights a fire in us that burns for years, to hear a song that brings a lump to the throat or makes our hearts sing, these are the ways that other artists are often spurred to create, to put their own spin on a concept, to join a conversation happening at that moment, a conversation with the zeitgeist that is larger than any single work. Art strikes chords in other artists to create, often in different media than the original inspiration.
When I was twelve, I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books, and that event turned me into a writer. I borrowed my mom’s old Smith-Corona typewriter and pounded out a couple hundred pages of pure pastiche, but for me it was an homage. I lost myself in creating the kind of fun and adventure I had experienced on Barsoom. I didn’t care that it wasn’t original in the slightest. I was a kid having fun.
After that, it was Robert E. Howard, then J.R.R. Tolkien, then Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. From Burroughs and Howard I learned action and adventure, from Tolkien, epic scope and meticulous worldbuilding, from King, techniques of character building and breathless terror.
As I got older and started to study the craft of writing through how-to books, publications like Writer’s Digest and the Writer’s Market, and sheaves of rejection letters, I experienced that paralyzing fear that whatever I was doing had been done before, much better, by dozens of people before me.
But I kept writing anyway. My first published novel The Ivory Star (Commonwealth, 1997) came out of those learning days and wears its influences on its sleeve (perhaps too glaringly I feel nowadays, but it was a work of pure, joyful fun).
“Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”
This quote has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, and Aaron Sorkin. In the spirit of the sentence, who can be sure? (My money’s on Wilde.)
How many re-imaginings and retellings in modern times borrow (steal!) from Shakespeare or Grimm’s fairy tales? Fairy tales and folklore stories are nearly all retellings of older stories, morphed by the spirit of the times and places in which they are told. Mythology and folklore are constantly evolving. The Brothers Grimm simply captured a collection of stories like a snapshot in time. Those stories are still evolving, changing to fit the needs of the modern audience.
Modern writers and filmmakers borrow heavily from Shakespeare. Shakespeare borrowed heavily from the Classical Greek playwrights, from Ovid, from history, from his contemporaries.
Akira Kurosawa adapted two of Shakespeare’s plays–Macbeth into the creepy, claustrophobic black-and-white film Throne of Blood, and King Lear into the stunning, full-color epic Ran. In both cases, Kurosawa took an archetypal story and juxtaposed it onto medieval Japanese history, putting his own unmistakable stamp on them.
It was this juxtaposition that became one of my inspirations for the Ronin Trilogy. The story of the Ronin Trilogy is amalgam of history, folklore, samurai cinema (good and bad), my experiences living in Japan, and countless other sparks of epiphany, the memory of which are lost to me.
Film influences include:
—Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa
—Ran by Akira Kurosawa
—Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa
—Excalibur by John Boorman
—The Lone Wolf and Cub series
Literary influences are:
—Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
—Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
—The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi
—Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa
Readers of the Ronin Trilogy will soon recognize the Arthurian influences, and that was my central inspiration for the story: What if I juxtapose Arthurian legends on a samurai backdrop?
And this brings me to my final point.
The writer brings his or her original take to an old story, and their take is fueled and shaped by their own experiences and perspectives. Is this a foolproof elixir for a story’s originality? No. There are untold thousands of hopelessly unoriginal stories out there. Writers still need to strive for a fresh angle on a familiar story. This fresh angle often comes from new fusions, unexpected mash-ups, original juxtapositions.
Your particular set of passions and experiences is where the interesting new fusions come from. When I launched into the story that would become the Ronin Trilogy, I was infused with a wild excitement about Akira Kurosawa, Miyamoto Musashi, and Arthurian legend. The result is something that resonates in new and interesting ways beyond the inspirations.
So it’s true that there is nothing new under the sun. The angles to approach a familiar story, however, are infinite, just as no two writers are alike.
The story of the Ronin Trilogy is now approaching its epic conclusion, and I would appreciate your assistance in bringing it to glorious life. I am running a Kickstarter from now until February 24, 2015, to fund the publication of Book 3, Spirit of the Ronin. Please visit the campaign on Kickstarter here and consider supporting it.
Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River’s How to Save the World, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online.
He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.