Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Maybe you noticed a communication from RWA last week regarding their stand on plagiarism, a subject in the news again thanks to allegations made by Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books against best selling historical writer Cassie Edwards, published by Signet, among others. Edwards writes mainly books about native Americans.

From what I've read, Edwards has admitted she used passages from non-fiction books but didn't know she was supposed to give credit to them. On e-news. Nora Roberts, who is also published by Penguin and was also a herself a victim of plagiarism several years ago when Janet Dailey stole from her, said, "By my definition, copying another's work and passing it as your own equals plagiarism. As a writer, a reader and a victim of plagiarism, I feel very strongly on this issue. I'm not a lawyer, but I can't see it as fair use, or fair anything when one writer takes another's work."

I went to the Smart Bitches web site and read what they had to say: Then I went to the Publisher's Weekly website: and read what they had to say, and then I read Signet, who at first defended what Edwards did as interpreting information and making it her own, and later said it would examine the allegations more thoroughly.

Here is what I learned, and please keep in mind I haven't had the time to do a really close investigation. At the Smart Bitches website, they gave passages between reference books and Edward's books and they were stunningly close. I urge you to read a bit of it yourself, it's in a down-loadable column on the right side of the page. I'll quote one example at the end of this blog. Sorry I don't know how to give a decent link. Signet also gave an example, but theirs was much less profound (surprise, surprise). And Publisher Weekly threw in their two cents.

I am not going to offer much comment about this case specifically as I am not well informed enough to do so, but the whole thing has definitely got me to thinking about the subject of plagiarism. Every author of fiction at one time or another is going to do research and how you present that research in your own book can be difficult.

For instance, you want to describe a southern plantation and yet you've never been to the south and haven't seen Gone With the Wind -- ever. So you go to the library and you choose a half dozen books on southern plantations and you look at pictures and read descriptions and some author says something about a "winding", "sweeping", "spiraling" staircase or a "light swept", "ghostly", "palatial" landing…well take it a little further and have them describe in a sentence or two the entire staircase in damn near lyrical prose. The book is called, "Southern Mansions" and was published in 1936, for instance, and you say to yourself, that's a dandy description and there you go, you are knee deep in choices. How much do you change? How much must you change? How do you change it? If you use it, well, can you use it? Can you just thank the auhtor of that book in the front of your book? Do you contact a publisher that may no longer be around?

I am now going to give you an example copied from the download at Smart Bitches. It's not the most telling, actually, but it's interesting. They did all the work, this is available on their web site, and I hope it's okay with them if I use it:

Edwards wrote:
He rode from the village, a sadness grabbing at his heart. After a while he saw several buffalo wandering through a field of sunflowers, lolling their heads as they walked. Loving the sunflowers so much, some of the animals had uprooted the plants and had wound them about their necks, letting sprays dangle from their horns. p. 10-11

The reference book:
And strange it is, but the buffalo loved the simple and odorless sunflower just as did the Lakota. These great beasts wandered through the sunflower fields, wallowing their heads among them. Sometimes they uprooted the plants and wound them about their necks, letting sprays dangle from their left horns. Id., p.49,M1

So, fellow bloggers, what do you think of this? How do you handle these issues?


Alice Sharpe said...

I'm just logging on here so I can receive your profound and logical conclusions.

Genene said...

Wow, no one is touching this subject. Silly me, I'm going to jump in here!

If nothing else, these charges of plagarism are a reminder to all of us as writers to be vigilant about what we are writing.

There's usually a gap of time between when I read reference books and when I write my stories, so time and imperfect memory do their job of protecting me against remembering things exactly.

However, with my first release scheduled for April, I was very aware (or perhaps paranoid) that I would come too close to somebody's truth when writing about my hero, who is a former rock star. Rock stars play drums, keyboard or guitar. They have blond, brown or sometimes red hair. Their eyes are blue, brown or green. No matter which of those limited options I chose, there would likely be a real rock star who matched that description. It would be his actions, flaws and quirks that set him apart from any real person.

For research, I wanted the flavor of rock stars' lives, but the books I read for that purpose were racier than what I included in my book. No drug parties or orgies with groupies in my book. (Sorry to disappoint those of you who were going to buy my book simply for those reasons. LOL!)

On a different note, I remember reading about a secondary character in a published book with the same name and situation as one I had written in a manuscript. I was irked, but quickly realized there was no way this author could have known what I was writing, and I had not read her work before I wrote mine. So then it just seemed eerie that we could have created nearly identical characters and situations.

What do I think of plagarism? It's definitely not OK. What do I think of the charges against Cassie Edwards? Like you, Alice, I don't know enough about the situation to comment.

Alice Sharpe said...

Genene, I'm glad you jumped in!

On the Smart Bitches website, the same one with all the accusations, I read a review of a book the writer had expected to hate -- it was a Harlequin category with a plot she was sure would be contrived. She gave a summary of the book. Rich man to be wed, bride leaves before marriage, groom and bride's friend who I believe was in the wedding party, go looking for her, book turns into a road trip romp which this reader loved.

My second book for Silhouette -- a category -- revolved around a wealthy man set to be married, the bride doesn't show, he and the maid of honor go searching for the bride, books turns into a road trip romp.

I am sure some other writer before me could site her own plot which mine mirrored. Plots get recycled all the time. Since I read little romance, I can't be accused of stealing a plot (I may be accused of having no imagination...) and I don't imagine this writer ever read my book.

Plus, how often do we read a book which is obviously borrowing from a thinly veiled real life person? In other words, I don't think you need to worry about your rock star looking like or acting like a known rock star. That's not plagiarism though I understand you're goal is to make a person who does not resemble anyone you have knowledge of.

With deadlines so short, I don't have the luxury of research done months before writing. That may change for you, too. But I'll tell you this, I struggle to reword what I read, and yet if I have never been to the graveyard on Lanai, for instance, how do I know what it looks like except to read a description and try to reword it? I jump through hoops to make sure I don't use two words in a row that the author used.

Paty Jager said...

Just got around to seeing this. And this has been the height of excietment on my historical loop. And I'm now wondering if I'll be hit with something- when you are researching for a historical book you have to rely a lot on reference books. As I read, I jot down the information that I find interesting or that I need. Sometimes in my own words sometimes word for word, depending on if I see it in the story already or just want the information for future reference.

In one of my books, I used the same words to describe something as I found in a journal of a person who was witnessing the place for the first time. I put them in the character's thoughts, but used the same descriptive words. So does that mean I plagarized?

I'm having a hard time with this. The passage you have in this blog to me isn't plagarism. It wasn't word for word, but it was using the smae descriptions of an event. To me it's what you have to do when you write historical.

I did however see one passage from Ms.Edward's book that was word for word from the reference book. To me that is plagarism it's laziness.

So that's my thoughts. And believe me, I've been reading a lot about it as all the historical loops are full of it.

Paty Jager said...

Okay, you got me started- In the Miner book I'm writing now, how else do I explain how the stamp mill works if I don't use the descriptions I found in reference material?

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty -- I feel your pain.

Yeah, there were other, more telling examples, but this one used so many of the same images and words... I don't know. This is hard, isn't it? Esp. for historical writers. What's the general consensus on the loops you are part of?

Would giving credit cover the bases: "I want to acknowledge the contributions of Native American writer John Doe in his book The John Doe Chronicles."

Is changing words enough?

And I don't know how you describe a stamp mill. Maybe you read several descriptions and then paraphrase. What does your publisher advise? I'm going to ask mine.

Paty Jager said...

The concensus on the loops are like me, when is it plagarism? I feel when it is a long passage that is word for word, it is. When you are using some of the same words to help describe the same event I don't see it as plagarism - especially when it is a historical event that you are trying to capture.

As for the stamp mill- every thing I read (two books, three websites) explained the operation proceedure the same- so how do I change the wording- make the process not work right and get called on the carpet for misleading the readers or write it like they all explain and get called on plagarism?

Alice Sharpe said...

Paty --What struck me in both the author's take and the reference take was the comment about the buffalo "lolling" or "wallowing" their heads and "letting sprays dangle from their (left) horn(s)." It's a dandy image, I grant you, but that was plagiarism in my book.

On the other hand, I would imagine describing how a mill works is the stuff of manuals with little interpretation. It's like describing how a lawn mover works or a paper mill or a car engine. There's no room for creativity because it's a done deal.

So with my graveyard dilemma, copying "the cemetery is located on the leeward slope of the Pui hills near the banyan tree," is one thing where "If you stand very still and close your eyes, the prevailing winds echo like the plaintive cries of the royal family left to die here," is another (and btw, I made all that up, there are no Pui hills or murdered royal family that I know of.)

Does that make sense?

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I plead the fifth.

Actually, I know very little about this case to speak inteligently - which is why I'm not rendering an opinion one way or the other. In the example Alice posted, I see the words that scream plagiarism to her, and at the same time I understand Paty's argument as well. One thing's for sure, if nothing else, this whole thing is a good reminder for the rest of us to be careful about how we interpret not only research material but others' work as well.

One question for those of you who are "up" on this is this situation different from the one Dan Brown went through a few years ago with The DaVinci Code? We talked about it briefly last night during our social hour, but I never even heard the outcome from that case. Someone said he settled out of court. Is that, in effect, admitting guilt?

Karen Duvall said...

I've been following the CE debacle since day one. I am totally into all the hullabaloo and have read all associated articles and especially Jane's fabulous blog post on Dear Author. She brings all the ripped off writers to the fore, with their histories and hopes and dreams, and makes them real people so we can realize the gravity of the crime CE has committed.

You do know that she also ripped off entire paragraphs from a novel published in 1939 that won the Pulitzer? It's called Laughing Boy. Good grief, the woman has no scruples, none. I'm absolutely furious about this whole mess.

Paty, be cautious, that's all I can say. Whenever borrowing from sources, put as much originality into it as you possibly can.

Plagarism is theft, pure and simple. I realize CE is an old lady, and there are some who say to have pity on the elderly, but my mother was 85 when she died and sharp as tack, and there's no way she ever would have tried pulling off a crime to justify her action by playing the innocent old lady card. Puhleese! And CE has been ripping off authors for 25 years, way before she became an old bag. Sorry. I'm just pissed about this whole thing.

Paty Jager said...

Okay, so in another book. I read who the owners of an establishment were and that one liked to play cards and mingle with the clientele and the other liked to visit and greet the clients at the front desk.

Because I used their names in association with one liking to play cards and the other at the desk greeting people- is this plagarism? I used it in dialog, but still I used the same words the three references did- One liked to play cards the other to greet people at the desk.

As you can see, I'm not for taking sentences or paragraphs from other work, but I can't see how a person can say it's plegarism when you are working with historical facts.

Alice Sharpe said...

Karen, I hadn't followed this as closely as you did, I had no idea how old the woman was or her history. I wasn't willing to wade into accusations. My intent was to open a discussion between us because this is a difficult subject for honest writers, apart from CE or anyone else. As Paty has so eloquently described, this is hard for historical writers esp., who must depend on research. As Karen said, Paty, I would urge caution.

And, Eli, I have no idea what happened in the Dan Brown case.

Thanks everyone. I talked to my friend about this. She's a former newspaper writer. She said when she wrote for small papers and covered a large event, that the AP would have a quicker deadline than she would and that sometimes an editor would wave a release and say "See how they did this." She said she learned to look the other way because she would always see something worded better or focused on or something she wished she'd thought of, etc... "Be wary," was her thought.

This is complicated, way beyond a woman stealing exact passages. It affects little old me and you.

Danita Cahill said...

Wow, this is a complicated, heated and confusing subject, isn't it?

I can see where the image of bison "loving the sunflowers so much" and "wallowing their heads" is so descriptive that another writer would want to use the same, or very similar wording. But I can also see why the author of the nonfiction book would not appreciate his or her wording being used without getting credit.

The whole thing reminds me of writing reports in school and how much plagerism we all performed back then. Ha!

As for journalism, sometimes I would use passages from an AP story and put my own local spin on it. But the byline then read: Associated press and Democrat Herald staff report. No plagerism then. Journalism, I imagine, is different in many ways than fiction.

I remember taking a workshop,or reading an article somewhere by a multi-pubbed author suggesting writers keep a notebook of every lovely, descriptive passage they came across in each book they read, and working those passages into their own writing. Now that seems like plagerism, big time, but in very small doses. And what about the Harry Potter books? I'm not a big reader of fantasy, but I've heard many of the characters, plotlines, etc were borrowed from other works.

It is a confusing subject. I guess as writers, we all need to be sensitive of other writers' needs to be original, stay original and get credit where credit is due.

Alice Sharpe said...

Danita -- Well put.

Lisa Pulliam said...

Great topic! Whoever said to put a reference to the book in the acknowledgements is spot on - I think. Or asking the publisher to add a page saying, "the following sources helped create the world you read in this novel."

Now that I'm in classes and doing lots of research and papers, I'm seeing a different side to this. If I am doing research on a topic, say skull-flattening in Northwest Coastal Native American groups, I'll read oodles of published journal articles and books. I can't go back in time and ask people why they flattened their newborns skulls, the purpose, the impact, it's meaning, etc. So I'll use info in those published materials. But I cite, cite and cite again.

To me, it's perfectly acceptable to use someone else's work, IF IT'S CREDITED. I think that's a step people leave out or forget too often. If we just acknowledge the resources we use in our fiction, there shouldn't be a problem.

And that spurs furhter learning - if someone really enjoyed the world and the book, they'll know where to go for further info.

In summation, I think publishers should require a references cited for books, particularly historicals, if outside sources are heavily used. Just to prevent things like this popping up.

Alice Sharpe said...

Excellent recommendations, Lisa.

I still don't know if citing research material covers lifting things word for word.

Why did they flatten newborn' skulls and did the newborn survive this procedure? (Ack)

Lisa Pulliam said...

From my research so far, it seems that it was a sign of status. I guess like some plastic surgeries are today. It was done while the babies still had their soft spot, they were put in a cradleboard and pressure was applied.

Something I find fascinating is in Arizona, two distinct Native American groups lived together in a pueblo structure in the 14th Century. Skeletons of one group showed skull flattening, where the other one didn't. They found that it was because one culture used a flat cradle, flattening the head. Whereas the other group used slings I think, making the skull more rounded.

Fascinating stuff! Ok, I'll stop rambling about archaeology :)

Alice Sharpe said...

It is fascinating stuff. And it makes you wonder if the more powerful people could afford a wooden cradle resulting in the infant's head being flattened if it then didn't become the "rage" with lesser beings (socially speaking) to make sure their kids had flat heads, too.

Anonymous said...

IT's not just in historicals. EVERY book that contains information you have not gathered through first-hand experience relies on research.

In my ALIAS novels, I used a LOT of research, all done on extremely tight deadlines - from outline approval to completed manuscript in 8-10 weeks with a full-time job. They were both set in multiple foreign locations, where I had not been.

My research was mostly online, and I frequently worked with several Webpages open on my desktop. Although I generally used images, not text, I made reference to those sites - in aggregate, and a few specific ones - in my acknowledgements. Having the pictures, diagrams, maps, etc available while I was writing - not to mention Google Earth, a real lifesaver! - helped immensely. My feeling is, whether I "copied" anything or not (and I didn't), those sources were insturmental in allowing me to get the "look and feel" of the places I was writing about.

As for the CE controversy, the SmartBitches site, and the details that are appearing, show a consistent pattern overher career, not just an occasional phrase. Yeah, it's sometimes difficult to find another way to describe something, especially when the piece in front of you does a perfect or near-perfect job, but that is our job. We're writers. Putting things in our own words is all we really have.

And, if you read the original post, you will notice that the thing which started their investigation was that some of the phrasing, description, etc, was way out of step with the rest of the text - enough so that a reader commented that it felt as though it had been written by someone else.

OK - lots more than 2 cents worth. Guess I better get back to work!!! *BG*

Chris York

Alice Sharpe said...

This is Lori's comment -- she had trouble getting on the blog:

*Sorry to put this on the loop but I tried to send it last night to our blog and it wouldn't take it. Tried again this morning and still wouldn't accept it. Maybe this subject is too heated. Ha. Maybe someone can help me have a clearer understanding of this usse.

I understood plagiarism as copying word for word a long passage, paragraph or scene. And a sentence here or there with a few words changed is not plagiarism. If ten writers wrote on the buffalo in a field with sunflowers isn’t it
highly possible some of their sentences are going to be very similar? I believe many, if not nearly all writers, would be sighted for plagiarism if we had the same two or more words in a row covering the same thought or topic. How can we each prove or disprove our sentences that nearly word for word says the same thing?

I remember telling a friend of mine that I was going to have a gopher make a mess in one of my characters yard. Not two weeks later she told
me she picked up a book in a similar style and genre as mine and the back blurb talked about a gopher making a mess in the character's
backyard. So, does this mean I have to let my gopher go. I don't believe so. So what if my gopher and this other gopher strike up the same
battles...maybe they're cousins...Ha.

I love the idea of keeping a file of wonderful descriptions you’ve read in books. What a wonderful compliment to the author. It could fuel your own inspiration. All of our ideas come from somewhere, a dream, a movie, a conversation overheard, a book. We tweak the idea, mold it and fashion it into our own story. If this issue is going to get so strict and picky, every good story came from the same seven basic story ideas, so
we’re all guilty of plagiarism. There is no way we can search through every book in our genre to make sure we haven't copied someone's
sentence word for word.

If I have a sentence in my book that reads: ‘The afternoon thinned away to a slice of light,’ and I later read a book with the same description,
do I now have to change my description? Maybe I wrote mine first but the other author had her book published first. It’s highly possible that we
are all guilty of plagiarism by unknowingly writing a sentence here and there we’d read somewhere at some time in a book.

My head is still spilling over this issue and I for one would love a definite answer to: What is plagiarism? If there is a solid line where
is it drawn?


Alice Sharpe said...

Chris -- Good to hear from you.

You brought up some really interesting points. I had not read how the whole thing started. That different voice thing is a dead giveaway.

And long live Google Earth.

p.s. How was the surprise Xmas visit?

Elisabeth Naughton said...

Hey Chris, good to see you here!

Could you please email me? I've sent you a couple of emails but haven't heard back. emcamp99 at comcast dot net


Karen Duvall said...

According to Diana Hacker in her 2007 edition of A Writer's Reference "Three differnt acts are considered plagiarism: (1) failing to cite quotations and borrowed ideas, (2) failing to enclose borrowed langauge in quotation marks, and (3) failing to put summaries and paraphrases in your own words" (pg. 418).

Alice Sharpe said...

Karen, I think that last one is the stickler.