What inspired the question was the use of picture prompts in one of my creative writing classes. The ones we were given were probably screenshots from movies, or something - I didn't recognize them, but they looked produced - but I've done this as an exercise for myself also, at home. My first real attempt at a novel, fifteen years ago, was inspired by a painting I liked from my calendar for that year: a pale-as-death woman in bone armor. As the story has evolved, the resemblance has been completely lost. I'm not worried about that one. What I borrowed was purely visual.
More recently, I came across The Cartographer by IISKetchII (via the Daily Deviation feature, so late last year) and thought, that's an excellent idea. Or it could be, at least, and it looks really neat. Not only that, I've been looking for different professions for my characters, because nobody really needs more mercenaries or farmer girls/boys, or mage/priest characters. Guy Gavriel Kay centered a few books on a guy who builds mosaics, another on traveling musicians (who have a real reason to travel and cause trouble, what a concept!), and so forth. I'm not the only one to come up with a naturalist (in the Victorian sense) by far. Mainspring, for all its flaws, had an interesting idea in giving us a horologist for a main character.
I forgot about this eventually, but it must have been haunting the back of my mind. Two days ago I came across The Cartographer's Guild (which looks pretty awesome, but I haven't checked their material out yet) and DeviantArt's World-Builder's Guild, and I started thinking again about making maps for some of my stories. I don't do that very often, but having layouts of rooms, houses, towns, and things like that would probably be a huge help. A map of X countryside would be a huge help in plotting a journey. And then I thought-- oh hey, I could totally write a cartographer of some kind, and use my map research to serve both purposes! Brilliant! And should this be a conventional cartographer, I wonder, or a mystical cartographer of some kind?
And then I remembered the DA piece I linked up above.
Now, I suppose if my mystical cartographer isn't plotting the paths to heaven and hell, it's not the same thing. Except it is. Isn't it?
If I look at a painting of a blond girl in bone armor, and decide to make up a character who would wear bone armor and look as traumatized as the girl in the painting, I don't feel I'm stealing a concept, because the image doesn't lend itself to one. If I look at a painting of a mystic cartographer who plots paths to heaven and hell, and decide I want to write about a mystic cartographer who does that, that's a lot more questionable to me. And what else WILL s/he plot paths to, if not heaven and hell? Other dimensions? Fairy land? There are other choices, but the original destinations jive a lot more closely with my usual interests.
You can't copyright ideas, maybe, but isn't a little restraint in order when you're browsing someone else's stuff? Or am I overreacting? I will admit that when I see a fic pop up in my fandom that is uncomfortably close to something I previously wrote, I am, well, uncomfortable. Maybe I'm unusual in that regard. Other people might feel flattered that they influenced other authors or came up with ideas that everyone else wanted to grab, but I'm still not sure how I feel about that when it happens.
Opinions? What would you do? How would you feel as the artist inadvertently providing inspiration?