Giving credit

Like many writers, I’ve been following the recent news about Cassie Edwards, historical romance author whose works contain many passages that are strikingly similar to those in various published works. The list includes but is not limited to nonfiction books about Native Americans, an article about black-footed ferrets in Defenders of Wildlife magazine and the 1930 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. You can read a summary of the story at The New York Times or read in detail at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, the blog which originally identified the issue.

I don’t want to discuss the specifics of this case or whether these examples constitute plagiarism. You can read the side by side excerpts for yourself at Smart Bitches and join in the discussion there. (You can also read about the authors of Edwards’s sources at Dear Author.)

What I’d like to talk about here at the Riskies are some of the issues raised during the ensuing discussion.

A number of people have made statements to the effect that if only Cassie Edwards had acknowledged her sources, everything would be OK. I think they are missing the point. As historical novelists we are supposed to do the research then weave the things we’ve learned into our stories through our characters’ POV and in our own author voices. IN OUR OWN WORDS.

Some bloggers are suggesting novelists should include footnotes and bibliographies. I actually agree with Signet’s statement that such things are not required in popular fiction the way they are in academic works. The point, again, is that in popular fiction we shouldn’t be copying anything. At most we might use a brief quote (attributed) to establish the tone at the beginning of a chapter, or have a character quote some period poetry or read a headline (again, this can be attributed right within the text).

Footnotes in romance? I don’t know how well it works but I can’t help thinking it would yank me as a reader right out of the story. I can’t help picturing a sexy scene in which the hero is removing the heroine’s corset, with a footnote to the effect that “description of heroine’s undergarments based on THE HISTORY OF UNDERCLOTHES by C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington”. πŸ™‚

Actually, I’ve seen a footnote in a romance, just once. A Loretta Chase book had a footnote cross-referencing another of her books in the same series. I don’t doubt it was some marketing person’s idea. Loretta Chase writes so well I can’t imagine her wanting to distract the reader with such a thing.

I’ve also heard that Susan Johnson uses footnotes for historical information in her novels. I haven’t read any of her work so I can’t comment on how well those footnotes would work for me. Some of her fans say they enjoy them.

History Geek that I am, I do love Author’s Notes that clarify which parts of a book are based on historical fact and list sources for further reading. I wrote such an Author’s Note in LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, listing CORAM’S CHILDREN by Ruth K. McClure as my source for details of London’s Foundling Hospital. For my current mess-in-progress, I’m likely to credit some of my sources for the Napoleonic Wars and the history of ballooning.

But to list every reference I use to create my Regencies? Nah. I’ve read so many books on the Regency, many of which cover similar ground, that by now I couldn’t say whether I gleaned well-known facts about the Regency from Carolly Erickson’s OUR TEMPTESTUOUS DAY or THE AGE OF ELEGANCE by Sir Arthur Bryant or a number of other histories of the period.

Thinking about it further, I do give credit to all my references in one way. Within the Beau Monde (RWA’s Regency chapter) we share an annotated bibliography called the Regency Realm. By now it has over 1000 entries for books, magazines and other sources we all use to create our stories. I know this because I’m the one who maintains it.

Anyway, do you think novelists have an obligation to credit all their sources and how? What do you think of the idea of footnotes in fiction? Bibliographies? Author’s Notes?

And before we start discussing this, a gentle caution that we keep the discussion polite. On other blogs discussion has occasionally crossed the line into personal attacks on individuals involved. I know most (probably all) of us know better but just had to say it anyway.


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I enjoy Author’s notes, particularly if they are thanking a specific institution, or they used a certain source extensively. As for Susan Johnson’s footnotes, she’s alot more discreet than you’ve made out. Her footnotes are contained at the back of the book, not at the bottom of the page, and they certainly don’t come at inopportune times. For example, in one of her historical romances set in Russia, she had a footnote explaining the use of the nickname “Bobby” for one of the characters since that might have seemed a little strange to those of us not familiar with Russia in the 19th Century. I know I certainly found it odd to have Russian characters calling each other by western nicknames.

I don’t think that authors have to include an extensive bibliography for every source that they use. But a few sources can certainly lead a reader to find out more about the historical period. And it doesn’t have to be in the book, the author can post the information on her web-site under fun facts for the book.

14 years ago

In an historical novel–or any novel that draws extensively on source material–I often find Author’s notes interesting, and occasionally even bibliographies. But I certainly don’t want footnotes interrupting the story! And I think you made the point exactly: it’s perfectly fine for a novelist to draw on sources without specifically citing them, so long as the text itself is not copied. There have been some bizarre cases–for example, the plagiarism suit against Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code by some of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I don’t think they claimed that he had copied actual passages, so the idea of a novel plagiarizing a work of “nonfiction” just comes across as kind of strange in that case.

Of course, all these books (and every other possible book) already exist somewhere in Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, so maybe we’re all plagiarists. πŸ™‚


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Oops, I didn’t mean to correlate my random bit about the footnote for underclothing with Susan Johnson. I didn’t really think she would do something like that. I’ll reword.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Now I’m thinking more about what you said, Elizabeth.

I’ve sometimes had trouble deciding whether to include things similar to the one you mentioned. For instance, in one of my books characters visit a famous waterfall in the Lake District called Aira Force. My CPs protested and I decided they were right. I just used the place and didn’t name it.

I can see how a footnote at the exact spot might reassure a reader about such things. I’m still not sure I’d ever use one.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I think it is good for us writers to re-examine these issues from time to time, to think about how we use research, whether we are careful to put it in our own words, or things like using Author’s notes. I cannot personally see ever using footnotes, but I don’t mind if other authors make the decision to use them.

I sometimes appreciate explanations in an Author’s note and sometimes just find them fascinating!

Megan Frampton
14 years ago

I like those Authors’ Notes, Elena, but I see no need for footnotes. I mean, we’re writing fiction, which is supposed to be in our own words, which is the point you make. I don’t think we need to justify every piece of research that goes into our books. Like you say, “through our characters’ POV and in our own author voices. IN OUR OWN WORDS.”*

It’s the lifting of them whole, not the fact that there is research behind the fiction, that bothers me about this.

*Elena Greene, Risky Regencies, 01/16/2008

Cara King
14 years ago

LOL, Megan! πŸ™‚

I agree with y’all — an actual footnote in fiction would throw me off (unless it’s for humor value — I’ve seen that done in certain sorts of comedies. In fact, didn’t Janet say last week the technique was used in the Flashman books? But these are all joke footnotes, not real footnotes, so it doesn’t change the argument…)

I think an endnote would throw me too — it’s the number sitting there in the text saying “you need to go look this up now.”

But author’s notes are another thing. They can be useful (though I think not usually required) in several ways, IMHO:

1) if the reader’s interested in the topic, it can give tips of good places to look for more info;

2) if the author has used a particular research source extensively, it’s kind to give more credit than could fit in a tiny acknowledgement paragraph; and

3) it’s a way for the author to defend herself ahead of time on a point of research she suspects people will think incorrect!

And in writing Regency romances, I must say that #3 would be my most likely reason to have one, if I had one. It can be *very* frustrating to see a reader who has some knowledge of the Regency, and assumes (for some reason) that the author has less, run around telling everyone that a novel is in error when it isn’t…

Of course, one can try to derail such problems in the text, too, either by dropping anything that will seem odd (e.g. an expression that sounds modern, but is actually centuries old), or by explaining it in the text. But sometimes you want to keep it, and an internal explanation would be awkward — and an author’s note is very nice then.

Cara (who is still annoyed at one particular Amazon reviewer who is just plain wrong) πŸ™‚

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
14 years ago

I don’t think Susan Johnson was justifying every piece of research by using footnotes, I just think that she happens to like them, and I never found them intrusive. She’s very particular about what she choses to footnote. It’s just her particular author quirk. Certainly she could have just as easily used an Author’s note at the end, which she has done, when she’s moved a particular battle from one year to the next.

I think that CE was using the whole crediting sources idea as a smoke screen for what she did which is wholesale using of other’s words as her own, and her characters. Most readers don’t care what research sources you use, they do care that what they’re reading is your own work.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Thanks, Megan. πŸ™‚

I think that CE was using the whole crediting sources idea as a smoke screen for what she did which is wholesale using of other’s words as her own, and her characters.

Quite likely, Elizabeth. That’s the way it has worked, anyway, and why I blogged about it.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

I often like Author’s Notes, because I’m a history geek and always like to know more. πŸ™‚ I also like finding new sources. I used one for my April release because I used some real historical figures and events in the story, and hope that there are people who find the period (England 1527) as interesting as I do. πŸ™‚

As a writer of historical novels, and someone who loves the research, I’m always conscious of the importance of using the information properly (and not just inserting didactic and inappropriate passages whenever I need an info-dump, lol!). The whole situation has been a strange and enlightening one. Thanks for talking about it, Elena.

Georgie Lee
14 years ago

I don’t like the idea of footnotes in fiction. However, using footnotes to clarify points or historical facts is helpful. I’m currently reading Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy and she uses footnotes to further explain people or historical facts.

14 years ago

Okay, let me try this again. The !(#@&($@ internet ate my comment. I have no problem at all with footnotes in nonfiction. However, I do not want footnotes in fiction, especially romantic fiction. I think as writers of historical fiction/romance we should be so enamored of the period about which we write that we immerse ourselves in it completely. Every word we write should sound as if we actually lived in the period. We are writing in the POV of the characters and therefore every word we write should sound as if it came from the heart, soul, lips, mind and life-experience of the character in question. However, if we write about or touch on a topic that may not be well-known by our target audience I have no problem at all with an author’s note at the end of the story after the epilogue
with a brief summary of said topic and suggestions as to to where to find more information on the subject. I love to discover something educational in a historical romance, I just don’t want it to interrupt my journey with the hero and heroine!

14 years ago

It should all sound as if we were telling it to a friend. If you were telling your friend about how to fasten a corset, you wouldn’t quote some research book. You would just tell them in your own words. Does that make sense?

Elena Greene
14 years ago

If you were telling your friend about how to fasten a corset, you wouldn’t quote some research book. You would just tell them in your own words. Does that make sense?

Perfect sense. Who wants their characters to sound like a textbook? Rhetorical question (or it should be).

14 years ago

*clearing throat* First time venturing here.

I am just a reader, and I can tell you that I’d prefer not having footnotes.

From what I’ve read around the blogosphere (and I’ve gotta confess I’ve been all over) most readers never even thought about footnotes or crediting of all sources. That point, I believe, was raised in the context of intertextuality, or if one or two particular sources had been used truly extensively for background information.

On the other hand, I adore Author’s Notes. I really like it when the writer give me that little snippet of fact she’s weaved into her fiction. And if she includes something like, “for more information on this period, visit my website at….” and then, when I do go there, finding a page full of fact and links and reference sources. *happy sigh* Heaven!

On the issue of plagiarism as a general concern of the writing community (definitely not just romance), I’ve been very impressed with so many new-to-me writers’ behaviour.

Yes, there are isolated comments that have left me scratching my head, but in the main, it’s great to see writers take the issue seriously and examine it with a clear head.

Thank you, ladies.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Hi, azteclady!

Nice to see you over here and I’m glad you understand the points I am trying to make. Yes, most authors and all of us at the Riskies do respect the work that went into writing the sources we use for research. We also take pride in crafting our own words, as Janet Mullany discusses in the next blog post.

Thanks for visiting!