The First Reader recently complained about Oakley Hall’s La Adelita because, he said, the author “stole” an episode from John Reed’s Insurgent Mexico.
Isn’t Reed’s book non-fiction? I asked.
Did Hall copy Reed’s wording?
No, but it was the same sequence of events, and he wrote it as if it was happening to his main character, and it didn’t! It happened to John Reed!
You did read A Tapestry of Fire, didn’t you? And you praised my portrayal of the Blitz in that book?
Well, where did you think all that came from? It certainly wasn’t personal experience. Even I am not old enough to remember the Blitz! I immersed myself in histories and memoirs and used the details I thought were most telling. The sequence of events on that terrible last night was based on two books about that particular night. The scenes with the German airmen were inspired by interviews with German pilots conducted after the war – except, of course, the bit where one of them dies, because naturally the dead ones weren’t available for comment. But nearly all the things that happened in that section did happen to people whose memoirs I read.
Descriptions of the falling incendiaries were the re-worded observations of contemporaries. The graffiti, the signs in shop windows and the song about the wardens had been described by people who lived through the Blitz. I didn’t invent those details; I merely put them where my characters could see and hear them.
I used my own words throughout, but look, if you’re describing events that were observed and described by many contemporary observers, there are going to be noticeable similarities with the source documents.
In the back of the book I did name my best sources and did say that there were many more, too many to list. I certainly didn’t claim to have made up the events of that night out of whole cloth. I consider it a strength, nor a weakness, that – give or take a few little things like time travel and a bionic turtle-snake – just about everything in that section actually happened.
So is that plagiarism, or just really good, detailed research?
And if it’s plagiarism, how is any novelist ever going to write about events they didn’t live through? Do we throw away Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride because it’s basically a fictionalization of Harry Smith’s memoirs of the Peninsular War? Is Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense to be doomed because somebody (not the French) actually did send a marvelous clockwork spinet to the Sultan? Do we throw out Shogun because Clavell drew upon the actual experiences of William Adams?
Do we cut my own Duchess of Aquitaine down to the hinted-at one night stand with Manuel Comnenus, because that’s just about the only episode that isn’t taken from contemporary accounts?
Okay, I think my position is fairly clear. If you know about an episode from reading a contemporary’s description, and you incorporate it into the plot of a novel without copying the actual words, it’s neither theft nor plagiarism; it’s creative use of research materials. Naturally, you’re free to improve on the episode with all sorts of stuff that didn’t actually happen but should have. That’s part of what distinguishes fiction from just one damn thing after another.
It gets a little dicier when you’re writing about things that haven’t happened yet, so science fiction and fantasy writers do need to tread carefully. Most of what we want to use isn’t in the news yet and isn’t the topic of any nonfiction books, so of course we draw inspiration from fiction. Some SF tropes have gained such acceptance that I think they’re free for anybody to use, like the workarounds for FTL travel. Others are general-purpose enough that they’re quite usable if you just file the serial numbers off. But if you write a book about a group of medieval knights finding themselves on a strange planet where they take over, Poul Anderson’s ghost may haunt you. If you feel absolutely compelled to write about a desert world populated by monstrous worms that live in the sand, you should probably restrict yourself to Dune fanfic.
What lines would you draw?