I had a friend named Ellen growing up who copied everything I did. She was one year younger than me. Like a sibling who mimicked my every move, she annoyed me. When we were eight and seven years old, respectively, we took showers after a day at the beach. After getting out of the shower, I put the towel around my chest like how my mother did. She copied me. I scoffed and she put it around her waist, like our dads.
I bring up this memory not to confess I acted like a jerk to Ellen but to comment on the pros and cons of emulation in fiction. Am I guilty of a copy cat crime?
I recently read John Strausbaugh’s “City of Sedition”. At over three hundred and seventy pages, with seventeen pages of notes, a ten-page bibliography, and an index over twenty pages long, Mr. Strausbaugh covered the history of New York City during the Civil War with aplomb. I chose this non-fiction book since the novel I am working on, entitled "Bee King", takes place during the same time period and in the same location.
As I read “City”, I circled words typical of the time and region, noted descriptions, and highlighted dialogue. I wondered, how can I imitate Mr. Strausbaugh’s New York and transfer it to the pages of “Bee King” without plagiarizing or copying? In other words, I wanted to take advantage of Mr. Strausbaugh’s excellent research to enhance my novel without getting sued, arrested, or being considered a fraud. Emulation was my goal.
First, I noted that a non-fiction book such as “City” is much denser than my historical novel, and I realized that no fiction author wants to copy word for word the descriptions of an academic-worthy tome.
Next, I realized that I am not a thief. Even when a friend in sixth grade dared me to steal a pretzel stick from a convenience store, a crime I was sure to get away with, I refused.
Finally, I knew I wanted to develop my own voice and my own style.
This is how I did it:
On page 28 of “City” I came across the following passage, which described an area of New York below Houston Street that in the 1830s housed most of the city’s population:
“The inhabitants dumped their garbage in the streets, where roaming brown-backed pigs were the only removal service. There was no indoor plumbing; everyone used chamber pots or outdoor privies, the noxious content of which often spilled into the streets as well, where the human waste mixed with the droppings of the thousands of horses that pulled omnibuses, cabs, carts, and carriages.”
This paragraph brought the stinky side of lower Manhattan to life, which I wanted to pass on to my readers. I decided, after much thought, to recreate this aspect of New York City during the Civil War in my novel as follows:
“Most of the city’s population of just over eight hundred thousand crammed in below Fourteenth Street. Avenues were packed, the pace was hectic, and the smell was fetid. Brown pigs roamed. In some areas, they were the only method of sewer removal.”
Hopefully, with this passage I have created one image of the feel and smell of the place without interrupting the dramatization of the story.
Copying the writing style of authors a writer admires is often encouraged as an exercise to improve skills. While there are many authors I wish to emulate, I have never wanted to outright copy other writers’ styles but to only pickpocket bits of genius that inspire me to write better. Details aid in bringing life to fiction. “City” is full of color and commentary that I have reworked and slipped into “Bee King”.
Other examples include:
City: “Of the approximately 813,000 people living in the city in 1860, about 12,500 were free blacks.” (15)
Bee King: “Most of the city’s population of just over eight hundred thousand crammed in below Fourteenth Street.” (31) and “The twelve thousand free blacks that inhabited the City lived among the shipyard workers and cotton transporters who pretended to not make their livings off slavery.” (31)
City: “The Municipal Police wouldn’t be organized until the mid-1840s, and they’d be so ineffective and corrupt that Albany would replace them with the state-run Metropolitan Police in the 1850s.” (23)
Bee King: “A Metropolitan policeman stood fifteen feet away, straight-backed and darkly dressed...” (44)
And then there are the gems in “City” that I wished to slip into “Bee King” but I had to leave these darlings behind. Examples include Strausbaugh’s mention of David Ruggles who in 1834 had the first black-owned bookshop in the United States (38). I will not be surprised if Mr. Ruggles and his abolitionist bookstore appears in another story of mine.
Prior to my reading “City” I learned of Doctor Elizabeth Blackwell and made her a character in “Bee King”. (First appearance, 49) In “City”, I was pleased to see Strausbaugh write of Miss Doctor B, including how she was a student and friend of Florence Nightingale, and how she organized the Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR) during the Civil War. (209). There seems to be no fitting place for this information in "Bee King". However, this added information may appear in another novel of mine.
Character and conflict in fiction is enhanced by details. Details are learned by observation and education. There is nothing wrong with reading books and using some information to enhance the details of your own work by emulation, and not copying or stealing. When emulating non-fiction to enhance fiction, it’s important to use the information received from the non-fiction book to add color while still maintaining drama in the fiction story.
Several years ago, Ellen and I caught up on Facebook. She is an Orthodox Jew with seven children, who I am sure are eager to emulate their mother.
Strausbaugh, J. (2016). City of sedition: the history of New York City during the Civil War. New York: Twelve.
Lewis, J. (2020). Bee King. Simon & Shuster. New York. (In my dreams!)