Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today talking about the recycling of ideas, settings, and anecdotal material. I don’t think I’m alone in doing this, but perhaps I’m more aware of it than some authors.
Here’s the thing: at least in my case, not everything I’ve written has been snapped up by a publisher. It’s a rare writer who sells his or her first attempt at a novel or short story and has continuous success ever after. Since I’m a firm believer in avoiding waste, I look on all my unsold projects, both complete and incomplete, as material that can be cannibalized. Some bits are more useful than others. In fact, some bits have ended up being recycled into more than one novel.
Is that an “oops” or a wise use of resources? I don’t have an answer, and to be completely honest, in some cases where I’ve double-dipped, I did so because I didn’t remember that I’d already made use of the whatever-it-was. On the other hand, sometimes I used something in more than one book just because I really liked it.
A case in point is the “thinking place.” Up in the woods on our twenty-five acres is a glacial deposit of boulders, much weathered and cracked so that there’s a cave-like space between them. In 1979, I wrote one of several never-to-be-published historical novels, this one set in Colonial New England. It was 785 manuscript pages in length (typed on a manual typewriter, by the way) and was rejected by eight publishers before I got the idea, after selling my first children’s novel, to revamp it for young readers. The first version of Shalla garnered eighteen rejections in 1984-5. I revised again, but had no better luck selling the project. Then, in 2000, when all kinds of e-book publishing houses were springing up, an outfit called Bookmice made an offer to publish it. I would have taken it, but before we’d gotten very far, Bookmice was bought out by another company and the contract they offered was not author-friendly. This project, in which the “thinking place” was a key setting, was revised several more times over the following two decades and I finally ended up self-publishing it earlier this year.
At the same time I was trying to sell the first version of Shalla, I was also writing what eventually became The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes. It was rejected fourteen times before being revised with a change in point of view and a new villain. It then sold to Silhouette Books’ Crosswinds line for YA readers, along with a sequel. They were scheduled to be published in 1989. Unfortunately, that line was discontinued at the end of 1988, before either book came out. The rights were returned to me, allowing me to resell The Mystery of the Missing Bagpipes to Avon Camelot, who published it in 1991. By the time I got ready to reissue it earlier this year, I’d forgotten that it also included a “thinking place.” Will anyone reading both books notice? Hard to say, but the boulder in question did end up on one of my covers!
There have been other instances of “double dipping” in the course of the forty-four years I’ve officially been writing books and short stories. The legend of an Indian lead mine plays a role in both my juvenile historical novel, Julia’s Mending, and the adult historical mystery, No Mortal Reason. And the source material for both, and for my other self-published children’s book, Katie’s Way, set in 1922, is found in my family history. There are probably a few other details in No Mortal Reason that show up in the children’s books, too.
In my contemporary fiction, I’ve recycled my unsold short story, “The Tallest Girl,” about being the tallest one in ballet class and therefore assigned to play the prince in the annual recital, into two novels, the YA Someday and the Bantam Loveswept romance Sleepwalking Beauty.
The floor plans of three real houses turn up repeatedly—the house I grew up in, my maternal grandparents’ farm, and the house my paternal grandfather built in around 1910. In particular, I keep going back to the farm. The real house burned down in the early 1960s, but my memories of it are vivid and detailed. It appears, in various incarnations, in Katie’s Way, in the Bantam Loveswept romance Tried and True, in my Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Ho-Ho-Homicide, and in next year’s Deadly Edits mystery, Murder, She Edited.
I’ve heard double dipping called “self-plagiarizing” but I don’t buy it. Plagiarizing, of course, is bad, but recycling is good. Waste not, want not, and all that. If I’ve used a few bits more than once, I make no apologies. After all, most have been pieces of my own past, reworked as fiction.
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-three books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary “Deadly Edits” series (A Fatal Fiction) as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a standalone historical mystery, The Finder of Lost Things. She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.