I had a book come out in February called Shock Point. I put "Shock Point" in as a Google Search term, and began to get emails when it was mentioned on the Web. A few months after my book came out, I got this little snippet from Kirkus for a book called The Silent Room. "With a plot that mirrors April Henry's rather shallow Shock Point..." I didn't get any more, just that.
I had three thoughts.
One: "rather shallow"? Kirkus seems to pride itself on snide comments. (Full disclosure: Although I always discount their snideness, if they ever gave me a starred review, I would decide they were the most insightful folks ever.) (Full disclosure two: likelihood of this ever happening? Close to zero.)
Two: WTF? With a plot that "mirrors" mine? From an imprint of the same house?
Three: Thank God mine came out first.
I was desperate to read the rest of the review, but no one I knew subscribed to Kirkus. Finally, I managed to finagle a copy of the advanced readers edition. It did have some similarities, but there were also many differences. The similarities came about because Walter Sorrells and I had obviously read the same newspaper accounts of this chain of boot-camp schools for troubled teens run by a former used car salesman. Not only are the schools awful, but you can actually hire people to kidnap your kid and drag him or her, handcuffed and screaming, off to the camp. Only s/he thinks he is just being kidnapped.
So neither of us copied from each other. It was just a coincidence. And we took the real facts and peopled them with different folks. I've got a girl with divorced parents. He's got a boy with a dead dad. Both of them have stepfathers who are jerks - but somebody has to be the bad guy, right? I made the school pretty much the way it is in real life. Walter threw in a little twist, in that the school is even more evil than it appears. The coincidences continue: we were even reviewed by the same reviewer for School Library Journal (She liked mine better, which took some of the sting out of the Kirkus review). And now our books are paired on Amazon. Whoever buys Walter's book is most likely to buy mine, and vice versa. You can even buy both and get a discount. (Full disclosure: I even know Walter Sorrells slightly. We met at a mystery conference when he was writing books under the pen name Jimmie Ruth Evans, or something like that. I remember he had a kid in a stroller with him. He seemed nice.)
That's the danger when you write about something in real life. Some other author may already be writing that story. May already have written it.