Two weeks ago I changed a character's name in my current project, Jambalaya Justice, the second in the Crescent City Mystery Series and followup to Gumbo Justice. The character is a featured character in the novel, and I've had him named for four years, when I first started writing the book.
I started writing Jambalaya Justice while I waited to find a publisher for Gumbo Justice. Then Katrina hit, and I stopped writing Jambalaya briefly and began working on Chocolate City Justice, a novel that would take my protag through the hurricane. At that time I didn't have a contract for Gumbo Justice, and my thought was to make Chocolate City the first in the series, and then rewrite Gumbo to be the second, figuring it might be easier to sell. Before I got too far into Chocolate City, Oak Tree Press offered me a contract for Gumbo Justice, so I went back to the original plan, and decided to make Chocolate City the third book. But I digress- the point is, I named one of my detectives years ago, but changed his name because I read a novel that had a character, another cop, with the same name.
If the name had been John or Mark or something ordinary, I wouldn't have worried about it, but it was a nickname a bit off the beaten path. The other problem was the book was written by a writer with my publisher, so I'm pretty sure a lot of the same people who read his book would read mine, and it would look like I stole his character's name. It may seem like it shouldn't matter, but it does to me, so I changed it. Fortunately, my husband is good with helping me name characters, so I ended up with something just as good if not better.
I also had an occasion where I read a blog where comments centered around a new cop show, Rookie Blue, and how some people thought one of the undercover operations the police were doing was unrealistic. I had some concern, because my characters were doing a similar undercover operation. I ended up watching the show they were discussing, catching the episode on my computer, and as it turned out, the undercover work in the show was different than what I had written. I also ended up loving the show, and it's now my favorite. But I did have that moment of worry.
I like to read other novels set in New Orleans for comparison purposes. Some I've read are terrible, and it's clear the writer doesn't live here or know that much about the city--small things like not knowing we have interstates instead of freeways, or that our police department handles criminal cases while our sheriff's department works in the jail. . I've also read some really good novels set here. Recently I downloaded a sample of a James Lee Burke novel on my Kindle, because he seems to be the big one people always bring up when they find out I write about New Orleans.
I only wanted to read a few pages, to get a feel for his writing. Within a page or two I discovered the novel seems to be about murdered hookers. Alarms went off in my head, because Jambalaya Justice is about murdered hookers. Now I feel like buying the book to make sure what I'm writing isn't too similar to what he already wrote, but I don't really have time to read right now. Also, while he is definitely authentic, his style is not one that I would ordinarily choose to read. I like to get to the story fast, I like action, a setting designed to move the plot along, not as a separate entity. His writing is more poetic, and extremely descriptive, designed more to create mood and ambiance than to quickly get to the meat and potatoes. It's a difference in style choice, I'm certainly not criticizing his writing.
So my new decision is just to quit reading when I'm writing. I can't keep changing things because someone else may have written about it, and if I don't know about what other people wrote, I really shouldn't have to worry about the novels being too similar to each other.
Of course, some new worry will just replace the old, but hopefully it will be something that doesn't have me rewriting.