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One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.

–Carl Sagan

This week, the arts and entertainment world has been buzzing with the accusations that Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarized from Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, and Meg Cabot in her book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.

The passages she allegedly copied are striking in their similarity, which begs the question of what the heck was she thinking? But when the story first came out, before I’d noticed the similarities myself, I was pondering what makes an original story. Is it the plot? Well, sometimes; certainly science fiction and fantasy authors create distinctive plots all the time. In romance, however? No. Our plots can be distilled to this: Female and male meet. There is a conflict to what seems like a perfect relationship. Bad things happen, good things happen, until the conflict is resolved and the female and male can be together.

I even had to admit to borrowing from others’ work, too; not in the open, Viswanathan way, but in inspiration (the picture below is of Calliope, the muse of arts and poetry). For example, in the last edit of A Singular Lady (the version that got it sold to Signet), I added an evil uncle whose cane dropped a piece of wood which my heroine kept in her pocket to remind her of what she had to do to save herself and her family. I thought of that after reading Judith Ivory‘s Starlit Surrender, where the heroine sees a red handkerchief she knows belongs to a woman in the hero’s past (plus Judith Ivory gave a talk on the Writer’s Toolbox and explained the whole concept of objects taking on additional meaning, which is when the epiphany struck). I remember somewhere Eloisa James saying she got inspired in her love scenes by reading Loretta Chase‘s Lord Of Scoundrels, which she keeps within easy reach of her computer when she’s writing.

But what keeps most authors’ work from being labeled plagiarism is VOICE. That intangible thing that keeps us reading the same old story time after time. Voice is the way the author says things, which is why the plagiarism accusation cuts so deep; stealing someone’s VOICE is stealing someone’s way of saying things, not like Jamiroquai borrowing Stevie’ Wonder’s phrasings, or Christian Slater doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation, but stealing someone’s core personality.

I’ve been told that, for all my failings at plot and correct titles, I’ve got a good, distinct voice. I value those compliments; plot and title stuff can be corrected, achieving a distinct voice is a lot harder to do. My favorite authors possess their own, distinct voices–authors like Loretta Chase, Eloisa James, Anne Stuart, Mary Balogh, Julie Anne Long, Judith Ivory, Julia Ross, and I could go on and on (and that’s just in romance!).

So–when you read, do you read for plot or for voice? Do you savor the author’s voice? Which authors have the most distinctive voices?

Thanks for being vocal,


One of our best-known newspapers wants to do a story for St. Valentine’s Day on romance writers’ bedrooms. Now it is for the Home section, but even so…read the whole entertaining mess at Smart Bitches.

Why do romance writers (and by implication their readers) suffer so in the media? Why are these stereotypes still around? Can we really keep blaming this pink old lady and her dogs? [insert mental pic of Barbara Cartland and her Pekinese here, because Blogger will not let me do the real thing. Thanks]

Here’s my theory. It’s the cult of the storyteller. This is why I find the Cassie Edwards/plagiarism case is so richly ironic. It didn’t matter that Ms. Edwards’s style left something to be desired (to put it mildly) because she was a storyteller. She could spin a tale, tell a story–actually that was debatable–but a lot of people thought so. Somewhere, somehow, a divide developed between those who cared about words and language and those who thought the story mattered the most, when in fact one carries the other.

And now suddenly the words do matter in romance. Unfortunately, they matter because the words in question belonged to someone else.

[mentally insert a fab fairy story illustration here.] The honorable, pre-literate craft of the storyteller relies on the linking catch-phrases–

a year and a day
once upon a time
as I walked out one midsummer morning

they lived happily ever after–

that blend the familiar to the new and unexpected. The mass-market storyteller is allowed, if not encouraged by the industry, to rely on a certain amount of repetition and same-ness; but because storytelling is not a special gather round the fire and eat some more of the mammoth Ug caught occasion, that may result in cliche, staleness, sameness.

So what does this have to do with the lady in pink with the fluffy dogs and diamonds? Why doesn’t romance get respect? It’s not because romance writers are storytellers vs. wordsmiths, or whatever terms you want to use, it’s that romance keeps the divide wide and deep by its insistence that the story is the most important thing, and the only important thing. It is in fact rather like this post where I can’t put the pix in because Blogger is having a bad hair day or something. You know they should be there but they’re not. We know that romance is such a huge market that you can have all sorts of romances and all sorts of writing, but sadly the cliches about the genre and its creators prevail.

It’s a pity it took a drastic case of plagiarism for us to be reminded that the words are important too.

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”. 🙂

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.


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