Theft, plagiarism or research?

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.

Yes, but…

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?



30 thoughts on “Theft, plagiarism or research?

  1. I was writing a Buffy-verse fanfic and did a timeline to make sure I wasn’t getting that messed up, when I was going back over my notes and noticed the story ran through 9/11. I was aware of the mostly unwritten rule not to bring it up in a story, but my MC was a Scarsdale girl living there on 9/11. It seemed fantastic that someone would miss such an (entirely too literally) earthshaking-event, so I added it, very carefully researched. I wrote a story, where a story of the Freedom Rides was narrated by people who were there…I never was, but my parents were 1L’s in 1961 and surely were. You can, and should include historical events, even in modern fiction. It used to be as well. that you could tell the events that real people participated in as they happened. Used to be able too.

  2. As a reader, I look for the “differences” when I’m judging “how similar” a work is to another person’s work.

    While “space exploring/space warfare” fleets existed long before Star Trek, authors of a certain age couldn’t help but be influenced by Star Trek (even if it’s what not to do).

    The same for “Rebellions against the evil Empire” and Star Wars.

    Of course, there have always been stories about “warriors with special powers” long before the Jedi. 😉

    For that matter, when I gave some of my characters (in an unwritten SF universe) “force swords”, I really didn’t worry about the Light-sabers of Star Wars. “Magic/Energy Swords” have existed long before Lucas’ Jedi. 😀

    Oh, my “force swords” aren’t weapons of war. They are the personal weapons of the “elite” and those “approved of” by the elite. The society out-lawed guns for personal use (ie non-war/non-hunting), but the elite saw “being armed” as a sign of status. I will state that criminals have been “taught better” about using guns. The society doesn’t care much about “civil rights” of the lower classes but there are limits which “go out the window” if criminals use guns.

    1. IIRC the first mention of an energy-bladed sword was in the 1950s… Lensmen? found the reference, but in one eyeball and out the other… anyway, yes, an old idea.

      I used it too: my “lance” was originally a sort of limited-range blaster that wouldn’t hole your ship; later it got a better containment field and voila, a blade. Over time it morphed from the captain’s last-ditch defense against pirates to a sort of status symbol for the telepathic class.

      However, carrying a lance instead of a blaster (most of my folk go armed) does kinda mark you as eccentric.

    2. I always wondered about the USS Enterprise casually dropping out of warp inside a star system and taking up orbit around the inhabited planet. Then transmitting “we come in peace”, like that’s going to make the locals feel better about the anti-matter powered starship cruising nonchalantly over their cities.

      Seems unlikely, you know?

      1. Or this very big starship sending a few people down to the planet. The few people are in big trouble if something happens to the very big starship. They can’t leave the planet and can’t call for help.

        My exploration starship would leave the survey team with a small FTL capable “lab ship” on the planet while checking out near-by star systems.

        (I won’t mention the idiocy of the few including the captain and other members of the command team.)

        Oh, my exploration starship likely wouldn’t contact a technologically “advanced” civilization that either lacked space flight or had limited space flight.

        They’d observe (under cloak) and leave it for their superiors to decide about contact.

        Oh yes, I have an unwritten SF universe about exploration done better than Star Trek.

        How did you guess? 😉

      2. Frankly, the most unrealistic thing on the various ST incarnations is that so few of those people reacted with violent negativity to the (heavily armed) starship showing up out of nowhere…

        1. That’s because it was Liberals In Space. “War is obsolete, you know. We mean well, so everything will be A-okay.”

          And they still managed to phaser an uppity local in every episode.

          1. Yeah, funny for all of Picard’s (in particular) holier-than-though “we’ve EVOLVED” stuff (and don’t get me wrong, I love Patrick Stewart as Picard) they sure all ended up in a lot of wars…

            Actually, I noted that ST:TNG after Roddenberry died was a good deal more interesting and exciting overall than before he died. I gather he was doubling down hard on the utopian-socialist-future thing on TNG and making all the writers toe the line. After he died, several admitted they breathed a sigh of relief and set about writing more *interesting* stories that, yeah, were more action-heavy.

            1. Roddenberry managed to get a -real- SF show on TV when nobody else could, and he did it twice. So all appreciation and kudos to that guy for doing the impossible, and doing it Pretty Good.

              The show has flaws, yes it certainly does.

              Did I care back in the day when those shows were coming out every week on TV? No. Not at all. I made time to watch Star Trek, and I saw pretty much all of them until Deep Space Nine and Voyager started sucking SO bad I had to look away.

              I agree 100% that Roddenberry was a Liberal in the full 1960s California sense, and that his writing was very much pointed in that direction. My own writing takes a little digression to make fun of him sometimes, and George Lucas as well.

              But for all that, Roddenberry created a show that was much more fun than some of those later ones written after he died, like the one with Picard tortured by the Kardassians. Good writing, uh huh, for TV anyway. Weighty subject matter? Sure. Good acting? Sure. Memorable? Its a meme now. “There are four lights.”

              Fun? No, not so much. Message heavy browbeating is not fun.

              1. I admit that, my childhood fondness for TNG aside, I vastly prefer Babylon 5 when it comes to tightly written fiction with message(s) worked in on occasion. Possibly because I’d started watching it first was why I could never really get into Deep Space 9. I keep trying–I *do* like most of the characters. Same with Voyager, at least until the last season when apparently the writers decided they were writing crack-fic…

  3. You give credit in the book to the guy you stole your idea from. I have taken famous ideas from two famous writers and run with them in my own books. I credited them by name, that ought to be good enough for fiction.

    It’s not just a mecha-suit drop, it’s a Heinlein Mobile Infanty orbital drop. And you explain it as such to the alien commander over the radio while she’s looking at her radar screen in shocked disbelief. Making sure to rub it in that it was invented by a pre-Space Age American guy who had never even been out of atmosphere.

    Always wanted to have a Bolo roll up to the Black Gate of Mordor and knock with that Hellbore cannon, and have Johnny Rico backing her up. Hell yeah. Take that, forces of evil.

    But the mile-long ship they dropped from? That’s all mine. Mr. Bussard and Mr. Alcubierre helped with the drive section. ~:D

  4. I actually take deliberate care not to be reading fiction set in the time/place/event that I am working up a novel about, because I tend to “fix” on interesting details – and I don’t want to think that I have taken something from someone elses’ novel … but for non-fiction, memoirs, letters, brief experiences had by a real life participant … oh, heck yes. Commandeered readily and with both hands; the raw materials with which to build a whole new story. (And your account of that night in the London blitz was excellent – well done, you!)

  5. It’s perfectly legitimate to make use of historical events as depicted in a nonfiction history, when writing a fiction that requires them. Thomas T. Thomas (no, his middle name is not Thomas) did exactly that in his breakout novel First Citizen. History is there for everyone to use. Besides, how would we who have “alternate histories” to write about fashion them properly, if we were forbidden to make use of history as it’s been recorded?

    1. Yep. Unless you have a pretty detailed knowledge of the situation and the players at the time, you cannot write convincingly about what “happened” when the briefcase was not moved in the Wolf’s Lair bunker.

  6. I think the line is not giving credit. I’ve listed sources in those books where I use them. Even pure fantasy, if I find information IRL that appears (like in one of the upcoming Familiars short stories), I will have an author’s note with the source.

    Copying word for word, is of course, verboten. That’s theft. Now that we have copy/paste, it’s too easy, and even easier to catch.

    1. “When ‘Omer Smote ‘Is Bloomin’ Lyre” pretty much tells you how much explicit credit you have to give. OTOH, if your fans ask you about it, or if you think they will be interested, it’s nice to give credit, research notes, etc.

      1. I really like it when authors mention, whether it’s a foreword, an afterword, or author’s notes, any nonfiction history books etc that they used–I’ve found good additional reading material that way! 😀

  7. I cannotsay it is unethical to use, say, an action-by-action description of Horatio Nelson’s career for your novel(s). Those events really happened, and until the Devil Mouse figures out a way, history is not copyright protected.

    But you will blow up any plot-related suspense for any reader who knows the history. Some invention is probably wise.

    1. Quite true! I try to avoid using well-known facts about well-known historical figures.

      I think this may have been the real basis of my husband’s unhappiness with the Oakley Hall novel; he was so familiar with Reed’s book that it probably seemed disorienting to see the same story told as though it had happened to anybody else.

      So I guess it depends on how you define “well-known”

  8. 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.

    Depends a little on the subgenre. Hard Sci Fi, a lot of what you may need is in textbooks or journals. And softer genres can take inspiration from real tech or process or history, transcribed into a completely different context. I’ve been wanting to do something loosely based on the Los Alamos Primer since reading the thing.

    What lines would you draw?

    Outright fanfic is not for sale.

    If I know someone whose IP I feel compelled to fanfic, either get permission before sharing, or write the bloody thing so that the infringement is not outright stated.

    Non-fiction may will be of a sort that /deserves/ citations or a bibliography.

    If derivative fiction was strictly unethical, than a lot of extant myth and legend would have been unethical to compose, due to IP restrictions by the first dude to come up with Achilles, Odin, or Rama. The extant stuff is probably not only the first iterations in each collection of stories.

    I do see more in the way of moral, legal, and artistic restrictions applying to derivatives of recent works.

    Among other things, when the author of an original work is able to accomplish a certain unity of artistic vision, then it may seem that any derivative work I may do must be worse enough to be not worth doing. Contrast something like the Nasu multiverse, which has a very inviting range of continuities and a low barrier of entry for derivative work.

    1. Los Alamos Primer, eh? I wasn’t aware that such existed, but it will go nicely with my copies of Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. Thanks for the heads up!

      I recall a non-fiction book read in high school on the Trinity test (IIRC, it was Day of Trinity). The introductory chapter threw me out right away when the author mentioned the transistors in the instruments. Nice try, considering that the transistor was a few years from being invented in 1945, and this high school kid knew that… Required reading, so I couldn’t wall the book, but I took a lot of it with a grain of salt. As I recall, the author got most of the rest correctly. Maybe.

      1. Hit moderation, sigh.

        Los Alamos Primer, eh? I wasn’t aware that such existed, but it will go nicely with my copies of Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. Thanks for the heads up!

        I recall a non-fiction book read in high school on the Trinity test (IIRC, it was Day of Trinity). The introductory chapter threw me out right away when the author mentioned the transistors in the instruments. Nice try, considering that the transistor was a few years from being invented in 1945, and this high school kid knew that… Required reading, so I couldn’t wall the book, but I took a lot of it with a grain of salt. As I recall, the author got most of the rest correctly. Maybe.

  9. One advantage of high fantasy is that while you rip off lots, it generally needs to go through the blender before being fantasy.

  10. I’ve used historical events and characters in my Western “Ames Archives” series. I’m writing the fifth novel now, in which my protagonist will end up associated with the opening up of a new silver mine in Colorado. I’m using the real historical tale of the Racine Boy mine, and having my protagonist own land right next door to where the discoveries were made, so that he’s involved with the whole process. However, I’ll call it a different name, and use different characters. In an afterword, I’ll acknowledge all that, as I have for every book in the series so far. I haven’t had any complaints, because I strive to make the books as true to the facts of history as I can, and the only way to do that is to use original sources and make them one’s own.

    1. I always liked George MacDonald Fraser’s habit of adding footnotes to his Flashman books that explained the history that Flashman was involved in.

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