Why You Should Steal From Other Authors

Confession time: I pilfer the wealth of other writers’ words on a regular basis. I filch characters. I purloin themes. I steal plots. In other words, I am a big fat thief. And I want you to be one too.

Yeah, okay, so most of that was said tongue in cheek. Obviously, I don’t go around plagiarizing the works of others, not only because of the obvious moral reasons, but also because that would pretty much kill the whole challenge and joy I find in writing. But that doesn’t mean I don’t rifle every book I read and every movie I watch, looking for something shiny to walk off with. Some of the goods I’ve acquired include:

  • A delicious new word. (My latest greatest, gleaned from Christopher Priest’s The Prestige: horripilation.)
  • A fascinating setting. (The WWII-era China of Pearl Buck’s Dragon Seed found its way into a recent story idea.)
  • A brilliant dramatization of character. (I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to imitate the success Orson Scott Card’s intricate scene between his main character and five children in Speaker for the Dead.)
  • A distinctive method of dialogue. (The masterful manipulation of rhythm and phrasing to indicate dialect, without resorting to phonetic spellings, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein will influence my own foreign-speaking characters.)

The artistic community is an unending circle of inspiration. Just as we light our own torches from the fires of other authors, our own ideas will throw sparks onto the tinder of others’ imaginations. This is one of the reasons it’s so important that we read widely and voraciously. Snag as many ideas as you can, and your own output will be the richer for it—thereby enabling you to then give back to the writing world. Like every good little pickpocket, keep your eyes trained for the next fat purse of inspiration and don’t be afraid to grab it and run!

Tell me your opinion: What have you stolen lately?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.


  1. Lol I will report you to the writer police!
    I look for new words in another’s novel. Words that might uplift a weak area in my ms.
    The security word I have to type in here is: affulity…now there is a new word for me, looked it up and it is to do with molecules. So even reading captcha can help. LOL

  2. I have no talent for writing fiction. I wish I did because it sounds like you’re having a really good time with it. Maybe if my own life had not been so bizarre…

  3. @Glynis: I love the Captcha words. Some of them are great story prompts too.

    @Stephanie: The marvelous thing about writing is that it can be learned. Talent doesn’t matter nearly so much as determination.

  4. I steal plot ideas all the time – I’m always thinking “what if it went *this* way instead?” and building a whole new story idea around that. I’m big on stealing themes too, which usually morph into completely different internal conflicts, but chances are they started as a theme in someone else’s book.

    Reading is such a great way to jump start the imagination… :-)

  5. Exactly. The great thing about stealing ideas is that our own take on those ideas is usually something entirely original.

  6. Lol. have I yet mentioned how much I love this blog?

  7. Hey, at least you’re honest, wink-wink! My favorite professor in college taught that there are two things writers can do: imitate or emulate. While they say imitation is flattering, it’s actually just dull mimicry. To emulate is to imitate and improve upon. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you steal from, uh-hum, learn from other authors.

  8. btw, my captcha word: ingle, meaning a fire in a fireplace, a fireplace, or a corner or angle. Who’s the writer who comes up with those words?!

  9. @Rachel: Don’t know – but I’m so glad you’re enjoying it!

    @Jodi: That is a fabulous explanation. I like this professor of yours! “Ingle” is a lovely word; I’ve been fond of it ever since reading Anne of Ingleside.

  10. I love this blog too. 😛
    You are completely correct, the best way to learn to write is to read. Like artist we inspire and provoke one another creating epic after epic. Not to do so would be a sin and cause imaginations to be whisked away by fleeting thoughts. I preen things from the various thing that I read and listen to, for example; the heroine in my Sci-Fi epic has gold hair-America “Sister Goldenhair” and the name for her sister was taken from an 80’s cartoon that my youngest sister used to watch. I gleaned the name “Jerrica” from “Gem and the Holograms”
    So, yes, I steal and I am proud of it because it improves and creates a better quality of writing in my stories than would have naturally developed.

  11. I love your blog. It’s very helpful. Thanks! :o)

  12. @Eternity: I’d be willing to bet it’s true of almost all authors that we were inspired to write in the first place because we were captured by something dynamic in the story of another. It’s circular inspiration!

    @Niki: You’re welcome! Thanks so much for stopping by.

  13. I think you and I had a brief conversation over Twitter to this effect this past week! :)

    Whenever I read, I’m learning something about the craft. Recently, I read ‘Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man’ by Claudia Mair Burney and her style was so much different than my own that I picked up on some of the things that she excels at that my own stories (or, I should say, one particular character) are weak in. Even though I’m going to pick this story apart on my blog next month for a mystery dissection segment, I was grateful for having read this book because I finally saw how to tweak my WIP.

    And, while I haven’t figured out what to do about it yet, I know I’m learning from your book, ‘Behold the Dawn’ and will probably “steal” from it one day down the road… ;p

  14. I love the books that make me stop and shout, “This is what I’m trying to accomplish.” Spurs me on to make my own stories even better.

    And, when it comes to my own work, please, steal away! 😉

  15. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has the most unusual imagery. I love the way the author stretched to find completely new descriptions. I’d like to do that.

  16. In other words, you’re thieving from The Thief? 😉

  17. Not only books but movies as well. I get great scene ideas from movies!

  18. Blogspot captcha words are the most poetic, definitely! I even started a file of the really nice ones to use as a prompt! (Below I have been presented with ‘wilsts’)

    I learn all the time from other poeple’s fiction, whether screen or prose. Good ideas well done inspire me to do better; they stay with me and provoke me to make them into something of my own.

    And sometimes I read to teach myself how to handle a specific problem. I just finished Robert Harris’s Enigma, which is showing me an elegant way to handle a lot of technical information without resorting to exposition.

  19. I got the idea for Debra in *Corporate Ladder* from the Brady Darby character in *Riven* by Jerry Jenkins. I tell ya–creating a sympathetic character who’s doomed to self-destruct isn’t as easy as he made it look!

  20. @Miss M: I often find movies inspiring. The visual aspect always gets my imagination revving.

    @dirtywhitecandy: I’ve already started collecting a study list of books that handle non-chronological time frames well – in anticipation of the next story I hope to write.

    @Linda: The other end of the spectrum – a self-destructing character who ends up being sympathetic – is tough too. That was something I had to deal with in Dreamers Come.

  21. Got to add my cheers for movies, too. Right now, ‘The Incredibles’ has been part of the inspiration for what was my 2009 NaNo project. Movies are wonderful ways to open your eyes up to a variety of situations–in a lot less time than it takes to read a book.

  22. Love, love this! Reminds me of “nothing new under the sun.” A spit here, a twist there, a little polish and shine. And voila! The old becomes new.

    Never thought to look at captchas for real words!

  23. @Liberty: Oh, yes, I’m as much of a movie lover (if not more so) as I am a book lover.

    @Sandra: Yeah, lots of spit. Makes it all stick together. 😉

  24. So basically the suggestion is to get well-read? 😉


    from the desk of a writer

  25. Exactemundo!

  26. My latest steal would be trying my hand at urban fantasy after reading Melissa Marr and Holly Black’s books. Even though by the time I finish it the fad will have passed, I can’t help but explore the genre on my own.

  27. Oh, yes, in this regard it is wonderful to steal! I do it on a regular basis. LOL!

  28. @Emmie: Don’t worry about the fads. Write what you love, and you’ll find your own spot in the market.

    @Carla: Somebody better throw the rule book at us!

  29. I can’t tell you how often I have walked out of a movie theatre with an idea! You are right, writers/artists/idea people are constantly inspired by other writers/artists/idea people. It’s a part of being inspired by the world around us.

    And I think it is very different from plagerism because being inspired to do your own work is still your own work. Now, copying a scene from that movie that just “inspired you” that could be problematic.

  30. This makes me feel a lot better about stealing! Instead of feeling guilty, I’ll just say – I’m inspired! Yeah, that’s it! 😉 It really does get the ideas sparking though.

    I recently discovered your blog and have found it very helpful, so thank you!

    Also, my word was dingshi, but it’s not in my dictionary…

  31. @Aisley: Movie theaters are like inspiration booths for me. I almost always come away with something exciting.

    @Jenn: You know, I think Blogger often cheats and uses gobbledygook words for their verifications. Facebook Captchas are my facorites.

  32. Glad I’m not the only one who does this. :p I stole a title from a movie for an upcoming novel while I was channel surfing the other day. “The Stranger Who Looks Like Me.” Since I don’t write in First Person, I’ll have to change it a little, but other than that, it’s darn near perfect. 😀

  33. Brava! Great tips, and I agree. I am just learning to write fiction, and, for an experiment, I took two novels I’ve just read and stuck them together to create a unique plot for a novella. It isn’t meant to be published, but I’ve having great fun putting Philip Marlowe from the Big Sleep into the modern-day suburb of Tara Road. Gets the creative juices flowing! Thanks K.M.

  34. @Lorna: Considering how difficult titles can sometimes be, it’s a good thing they’re not copyrighted.

    @Denise: Unexpected juxtapositions can spawn great ideas. Of late, I’ve been having fun with a combination of Robin Hood and Sleeping Beauty.

  35. Well darn, I was hoping it’d be a cool type of boat (that’s what popped into my head when I saw it). I haven’t seen any of Facebook’s. I think I should go on a scavenger hunt…

  36. Well, at least it gave you the idea for a cool boat. Maybe that will create a story idea of its own one day!

  37. I pilfer from much more than just good writing – I seem to snag snippets of ideas everywhere I go – trains, restaurants, movie theatres, even bathroom walls!

    There is no end to the inspiration that exists if we will only open our eyes!!

  38. We, that is, most of us only put a very little brick on the wall. We learn most from others consciously or not, a bit from experience and naturally come to re use it in our writings. Sometimes wishing I could “just do as well as” is very frustrating and possibly wrong as for each of us has (do we?) a “voice”. Some literary voices make it past the publishing Cerberuses and truly deserve so. Cross fingers mine will!
    Jc (a very blue frog)

  39. @Madison: Bathroom walls are always interesting!

    @JC: There are some authors I can only gape at in awe. Their work is so flawless I wouldn’t even know where to start in stealing from them. I just have to marvel in silence and hope someday I’ll reach a high enough level to understand their genius.

  40. Fantastic post! I can’t believe I missed it at first. I read it through twice and bookmarked it. :-)

  41. Glad you enjoyed it!

  42. Okay, that’s awesome! I know without even meaning to, I’ve been doing this all along. But you’ve just alleviated a load of guilt. Thanks! :o)

  43. Always happy to assuage a guilty conscience!

  44. And I am the opposite – if I read something that is similar to something I am working on, in words or character or scene, then I worry they’ll think I “stole” it – *laughing* so sometimes I’ll take it out or alter it…if it’s something I’m working on.

    But, really, what’s that old saying? where copying is the best flattery or whatever it is…..:-)

  45. If I come across something similar to what I’m currently writing, I tend to be hyper-aware of copying too. If anything, I’m probably irrationally depressed because someone else came up with the idea first. :p

  46. I don’t believe we can write without “stealing” in some form or other. Writing, I believe, is more about finding new ways to say thing than finding new things to day.

    Think I’m kidding? Try to write something totally alien, something never before heard of or seen, and then figure out a way to express it to the reader. We must have a way to relate.

  47. I often quote Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.”

  48. haha!! Great post! And very poetically put :) Rob the rich to feed the poor…lol…

  49. I’ve always had a fondness for Robin Hood. 😉

  50. Oh, I love this! I do it all the time when watching movies and reading books.

  51. Oh, good. Glad I’m not the only one. Welcome to Thieves Anonymous! 😉

  52. Oh, I love this! And mainly because you can´t do something that hasn´t been done before… but you can always do it your own way :)

    Thanks for the great post!

  53. Couldn’t have said it better!

  54. I like to steal words and expressions from the books I’m reading in the period in which I’m writing, sometimes even from books in a different language (I just mentally translate them). While writing my latest ebook (in Italian) I’ve stolen a lot of expressions from “Fallen Dragon” by Peter F. Hamilton (read in English) and from “The Time Traveler’s Wife” (read in Italian). Recently I wrote down words from Andy Weir’s “The Martian” for using them while translating my book into English (NASA technical stuff) and I’ve already decided to read “Limit” by Frank Schätzing while writing my next book.
    Of course I also steal a lot of ideas, too :)

  55. Impressive! Most of us are pressing our luck just in stealing in English. 😉

  56. From The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, I learned how to interrupt the story momentarily to describe my non-human Internet king character in one brief paragraph.

  57. Spot on! That’s exactly the sort of thing we should all be stealing.

  58. Glad to learn you’re still in vacation mood, KM. I hope when you’re fully back at work you don’t lose “the first fine careless rapture!” (stolen from Home Thoughts From Abroad by Robert Browning – a contemporary of Charlotte Bronte).
    I have to confess (the Thought Police already know this), I stole HALF of another author’s title for my latest novel. It was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I took the ’84’ for my “Twenty Eighty-Four”.
    As you say in Lorna’s comment (above), there is no copyright on titles, but even so I felt so bad about it that I’ve sprinkled references to “1984” in parts of mine.

  59. Nope, definitely no reason to feel bad about re-using a title, particular one that uses a term as generic as a year, and particularly if you’re purposely referencing the source material.

  60. I always keep a list of new and interesting words to use – mostly action verbs – while reading. I can’t deny that I found a few I really liked in Dreamlander. 😉

  61. Well, that’s pretty cool. 😀

  62. I also like to steal words. And themes.

  63. Morning, I hope you don’t think me the spelling nazi I had to read your first sentence again where you say “I’m still enjoyed the weekend” and red flags went up then I looked at some of my stuff and I do the same thing. Then I read vacation I thought ahhh that’s it, relaxing enjoying self and I continued and had a cup of coffee.

    I love “adopting plots, lines, titles sentences,” etc. It’s a common practice that’s acceptable at nano. The one ( that I know of) that enccourages that sorts thing…

    I often get my best idea’s from them,

    Thanks for this insightful post and enjoy the rest of your vacation.


  64. Looks my grammar took a vacation too. /facepalm Thanks for pointing that out!

  65. @Laurie: Themes are big one. If we’re moved by a theme in someone else’s work, why not try to share it in our own?

  66. Great article. I would argue that we all do a little “lifting” from time-to-time. More often than not, really. It’s a rarity to have an absolutely unique idea. What I tend to do is look at various ideas that fascinate me and then pull them all into a hodgepodge that I can call my own.

    My comedic fantasy series, for example, takes a mix of the standard LOTR characters, divides them into two parallel plains, one with medieval technology and one with high technology. Then I snagged some of the character types and mess with them. A vampire, for example, is said to turn into a bat in most folklore. In my world they turn into mosquitoes. It seemed more fitting to me, being that they drink blood an all. :)

    The individual idea are not unique, but slapping them all together and tweaking stuff about makes the world mine. Even better, it gives me the ability to develop them out however I want (as long as I stay true to the world, of course).

    Thanks for the article.

  67. Mosquito vampire! Love it. How can we not be influenced by what we read and watch? Books and movies add to our sum total of experiences to create the creative stew that we draw our own ideas from.

  68. I’ve used Victoria Holt’s Gothic Romance books as inspiration for my WIP. Her use of setting as character, family secrets resurrected for conflict, and first person POV are attributes I try to emulate. I don’t want to over-use narrative and foreshadowing as she did though because the modern reader has different expectations.

  69. We can steal in reverse as well – by learning what we *don’t* want to emulate in others’ books.

  70. Run to the keyboard, right? 😉
    Do remember these days I have started reading yours Behold the Dawn ;p
    Kidding aside, it is a great place to learn. Like, these days, my story is finding a plot similar to John Grisham’s The Firm. So I am reading it with way to much precision to find more inspirations A.K.A steal ideas 😉
    And my protag is a bit like Scarlett, money lover and selfish, so I am digging more deeper in GWTW too 😀
    Of course, I won’t write like them or anything, but that would just make my thinking go to new directions which would than enrich my story in a different way.

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