Writers observe, with story ideas aplenty. Sometimes we store the ideas for later use, but often we have so many ideas that it may take more than one lifetime to write them all.
So, if we have lots of good ideas for stories, should we share them around? Or should we guard them jealously, because they are "MY PRECIOUS", so we would rather keep them in the dark, buried and yellowing, for years, until one day we finally get some spare time to write about them? Will good stories remain forever unknown as a result?
A couple of years ago I came to an excellent story idea about the SS Taiping, a passenger ship sailing from Shanghai to northern Taiwan on January 27, 1949. It was on the eve of China's fall into the Communists' hands; everybody tried to leave the country, so the ship carried nearly three times more passengers than it was legally allowed. It was rumoured that the SS Taiping also carried lots of gold smuggled out by corrupt Nationalist government officials.
With over 1,500 passengers and crew crowded on board, the ship sailed into the dark night. In fear of being found and pursued by Communist forces, coast guards and/or pirates, it steamed ahead on full speed with all the navigation lights turned off. It was under these dreadful circumstances that, near midnight, the SS Taiping collided with the freighter SS Jianyuan and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Out of the two ships, only 38 people survived.
This tragic event had been widely reported in China and Taiwan throughout the following 60 years, but not many people knew about the Australian destroyer HMAS Warramunga, whose crew sailed all night to reach the collision point and rescued the survivors. I did a fair bit of research on this, sourcing and studying archived materials supplied from the Australia Navy's Seapower Centre, the National War Memorial, the National Archives, and the National Library of Victoria. Even better, I got in touch with a couple of former sailors who served on HMAS Warramunga and participated in that rescue so many years ago.
The best part of all this is my participation in the production of the Chinese-language documentary Oriental Titanic. Filming was conducted in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, at the National War Memorial, a Sydney office of the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), the Shrine of Remembrance, and the National Library of Victoria. I helped with Chinese/English translation and interpretation both during and post production.
I did all this with the intention to write a book on the historical event. However, life gets busy and this project was postponed many, many times. Then, this morning, I discovered a movie has been made on this subject! First announced in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and later renamed "The Crossing", it appears to be a "Chinese 3D epic drama film" directed by John Woo [Broken Arrow, Face/Off, Mission: Impossible II, etc] and stars Zhang Ziyi [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc] and Takeshi Kaneshiro [The House of Flying Daggers, The Battle of Red Cliff, etc], among many others.
So, is this story idea forever lost to me because I did not pursue it in time? Should I leave it alone, just because a movie has been made and several other Chinese and English books written about this historical event?
This issue can be examined from various perspectives. Firstly, different writers/artists can and should have the freedom to present the same story idea in considerably different ways. Each may tackle a unique aspect of humanity, a prominent phase of an event, a distinct part of the event's political, social and/or cultural background, etc. So, there is no reason why a story idea cannot be shared among different writers.
To continue this argument, different writers can and should be confident that they are capable of fully utilising their literary voices and developing the same idea into considerably different stories. There is no reason why a story idea should be "locked down" and not shared around, because every idea deserves a chance to be fully and carefully explored by different writers from different perspectives.
Finally, if writers only write for money and fame, then it may not be a good strategy for them to pursue the same story idea. As much as curiosity kills a cat, competition only breeds jealousy, resentment and (attempts of) mutual destruction. On the other hand, if you are writing for fun, for the pure enjoyment of exploring and conveying the many brilliant and/or ugly parts of human nature -- then that will be a completely different story (pardon the pun). Write for yourself... even with a story idea that has been used too many times before. To write an extraordinary story out of an ordinary idea -- now, that is a challenge!