Disturbing Coincidences

Ever had that oh-no-no-no feeling that you’ve written the same book as another author? Or borrowed a character’s name, or inadvertently duplicated a clever conversation from another book?

This sort of thing has happened to me multiple times. After I wrote my first Summer “Sam” Westin mystery, Endangered, I sent it out to multiple editors at publishing houses. They all told me that it was very good, but way too similar to Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat.

What? At the time, I’d never heard of Nevada Barr. But I bought the book, and dang, if the editors weren’t right! We both had female park ranger protagonists and cougars in our plots. We even wrote in similar styles! Nevada and I are clearly twins separated at birth.

So, I rewrote Endangered, making my protagonist an internet blogger type working for conservation nonprofits and outdoor adventure organizations. I changed my writing style a bit. And finally sold that book, along with two sequels, Bear Bait and Undercurrents.

Since then, I’ve published three other books in the Sam Westin series, as well as my three Neema the Gorilla Mysteries, and my Run for Your Life trilogy. For years now, Nevada Barr has been one of my favorite authors. Jodi Picoult is another.

A few years ago, when I read Picoult’s latest novel, Leaving Time, I immediately panicked. Like my Run for Your Life trilogy, the protagonist of Leaving Time is an orphaned teenage girl. And elephants romp through both our plots. Yikes! I emailed Jodi Picoult about the similarities. She was kind enough to reply, and said she wasn’t concerned.

As a lesser-known novelist than these two famous authors, I worry that readers may think I’m borrowing from them. But hey, my trilogy came out before Jodi Picoult’s novel, and really, the plots and tone of hers and mine are nothing alike. Then, just as I was working on my book Cascade, which includes a wolverine, Alice Henderson’s first novel, A Solitude of Wolverines, was published. Wildlife researcher, wolverines, winter setting… Not such a similar plot to Cascade (thank goodness), but still a lot of similarities. Her latest book, A Ghost of Caribou, is set in Washington State. Where I live and hike and write. (But not about caribou.)

Am I on the same brainwave frequency as these other gals? It’s downright scary! When I wrote my Neema mysteries, I came up with the name Neema by perusing lists of words in Swahili. I didn’t want to use any name close to Koko, the real signing gorilla that I used for inspiration. Now, just a couple of days ago, I read an article about a gorilla named Neema in the Munich zoo, who (sadly) rejected her baby.

I just can’t get away from all these coincidences. But hey, I just Googled “Neema the gorilla” and guess what? My Neema mysteries top the results list. Either the Munich zookeepers and I are on the same wavelength, or maybe that gorilla is named after my Neema.

So, I guess I’ll stop worrying about all this. At least until the next time it happens.

2 thoughts on “Disturbing Coincidences

  1. I have seen similar things over the years, too. I’ve had a book or two I’d start reading and think this sounds familiar, I think I’ve read this before, but I hadn’t. As for my writing, I have some similarities to other characters in the same genre but I had not read their books when I came up with my character. With so many people and writers, there is bound to be some similarities in books and stories. Good post!


  2. It’s my guess that this kind of thing happens more than we realize. In the 1980s when I was researching titles for “A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery,” I came across two books that were almost identical, one written in England by a well-known writer and the other in New Zealand (? or Australia) by a writer new to me. The second writer included an introduction in which he identified the similarities in plot, characters, and events, and his writing to the other author. She agreed that this was a coincidence and he should publish his book. He did. This kind of thing is bound to happen, but I like the way you rewrote certain aspects and continued on. Well done!


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