"Am I a plagiarist?"
It's a question which I think every honest author thinks somewhere down the line (the dishonest ones I assume know they are, and lie about it). I recall an unlikely Indian name in a 1970 sf novel. It stuck in my head. Years later I came across it another sf book (which bore no relation to the first book in content) I asked an Indian friend of mine - he said it was so implausible it had to be a made-up name. One British, one American Author - both people I respect, both people who would be shocked at the idea of idea-theft, let alone plagiarism. I think it was a name that stuck in your head, whereas the book was non-memorable to be honest, and was purely accidental (in both cases the character was a minor redshirt). But I think if we had to be truthful withour selves all our work (and I mean ALL of us) builds on the foundations of past sf/fantasy. The genre has its own conventions and shaping influences - it's why the work of some the 'literati' who pour scorn on sf and then write it, claiming that 'it's not science fiction' often read rather like 1930's fan-fic with literary pretentions. (Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood spring to mind - actually, Margaret, Squids in Space represent less than 0.0001% of the sf books I've read. Precisely 2 books, one of which, Mother of Demons, where the squids are not in space, is a better philosophical / sociological piece of sf than just about anything else written in the last 40 years) And - with the exception of sf-writers who have developed that terrible ailment Literaripretentitus themselves - only read and enjoyed by the sort of reader who would never lower themselves to sf. In other words, unsophisticated sf-readers without a background in the conventions of the genre, so they think these works good and original. I suppose this might imply that someone who came at this afresh from a non-sf background might produce something new and exciting. I've seen a few non-readers attempts over the years. (I used to be a fairly active member of Critters.) In most cases it is very easy to ID the movie/TV series that they were drawn from - or the youthful brush with HG Wells or Verne or a cheap pulp story. (You can't escape some form of sf. It is pervasive, often in the worst form.) Where I think there really are some exciting possibilities is where writers learn the conventions and foundation of the genre, but also cross-fertilise from others (yes, unlike Ms. Winterson and Atwood, I think one can learn and adapt a great deal from other genres, and one should read a fair selection from them, rather than sneer from ignorance. Each of them has value. Romance, Mystery, Horror, even modern literary novels. To believe otherwise is akin to xenophobia, which is fine for stupid bigots, but not really something to aspire to). Or where they draw a different cultural background into the mixture. We've seen a little Japanese and Chinese creeping into fantasy particularly, but I think the sleeping giant is probably India, where English is widely read and understood, and is often a first language, but the culture is as unique as European or Chinese or African - without the language wall.
Anyway - I've strayed from what got me onto this topic - I was working on a proposal for a fantasy story... and getting the cald grue. It all worked. It actually seemed to be fitting into a pre-ordained path. I knew precisely where the story was going.
It's an unusual aspect of a very well-known mythology- but we know it from its derivative or its medieval derivative of that derivative version, and the authors that went there went down one layer, not two (at least as far as I know). But I felt I was borrowing a narrative from something else I'd read. When Kate gets here, her even more extensive knowledge of fantasy than mine is in for a grilling. I've had this before - where I thought I had a great idea and story line and several people told me 'that's Stargate' - which I had not at that stage come across. What I had come across and been influenced by is what I suspect was at least one of the original seeds for that - ONE STEP FROM EARTH.
So: how do you stop yourself from doing this? I'm a mass of the imprints of several hundred thousand books inside that gurgling splurting grey goo I call my brain. They muddle and mix and churn. And, duh, sometimes I swear because of the influences you find yourself 'channeling' other writers (I wrote something - far less well - than Sir Terry Pratchett, that he published 10 years after I'd written it. No. He DID NOT STEAL MY IDEA. We just obviously had some of the same influences. I was pleased.) And do others of you channel yourselves deliberately down a style and voice by immersing in that author or authors? (ie for the WIZARD of KARRES - I read (surprise) nothing but James H Schmitz, for several weeks before and for the duration. For DRAGON'S RING, I 'coloured' myself with Scott Rohan, Zelazny, Beagle, Nix and DWJ, for SLOW TRAIN, Heinlein (duh, surprise) Clarke, Niven, Simak and Harry Harrison's CAPTIVE UNIVERSE)