Writer Tech: quoting sources in historical fiction

Yesterday an email came in asking me a technical question about writing historical fiction about a real person. “My subject wrote an autobiography in the 1940s…. How does one handle first-person material without plagiarizing? If your subject recounts a conversation, can you paraphrase that conversation? If you rewrite the conversation with different words, are you veering from the ‘truth’ of your subject matter?”

This is an issue I dealt with directly during the writing and publication of Dreamers of the Day.

Dreamers is a novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, when Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and Arnold Wilson invented the modern Middle East. It’s their world. We just live in it, and we need to understand that. I wanted the dialog and attitudes of the historical characters to be as authentic and accurate as possible; my goal was to put only the trivial elements of conversation into their mouths.

That was remarkably easy for Churchill, Lawrence and Bell, all of whom wrote thousands of letters (now collected and published). They also published articles and books and letters to editors, and they’ve been the subjects of many biographies. Arnold Wilson was difficult to get primary documents on, but even he was quoted in an obscure book about Late Victorians and that gave me a sense of what his speech patterns might have been.

Okay, so, it’s 2006 and I’m plugging along writing Dreamers of the Day when the highly regarded British novelist Ian McEwan was accused “of copying phrases and sentences for his best-selling novel “Atonement” in 2001 from a memoir published in 1977 by Lucilla Andrews, a former nurse and an acclaimed writer of romantic novels.”   Mr. McEwan responded to this charge in a lengthy article quoted in the New York Times: 

“Mr. McEwan, 58, acknowledged that in researching Atonement, he came across a copy of Ms. Andrews’s autobiography, which helped him find authentic details of nursing and hospital conditions in wartime Britain…’With painstaking accuracy, so it seemed to me, she rendered in the form of superb reportage an experience of the war that had been almost entirely neglected, and which I too wanted to bring to life through the eyes of my heroine,’ Mr. McEwan wrote in The Guardian... In the article Mr. McEwan continued: ‘I have openly acknowledged my debt to her in the author’s note at the end of Atonement, and ever since on public platforms, where questions on research are almost as frequent as ‘where do you get your ideas from?’”

When novelists around the world heard about this, many of us fainted dead away. If what McEwan did counts as plagiarism, then we were all in a lot of trouble.

Many big name novelists rushed to Mr. McEwan’s defense proclaiming that we all rely on factual detail drawn from nonfiction sources to give our novels verisimilitude. Our work depends on our being able to research and accurately portray other peoples lives. Otherwise, we could only write about ourselves. Hemingway excepted, most of us lead dreary, boring little lives in small rooms, talking to our imaginary friends and our pets. Instead of reading about what interesting people say and do, you’d all be reading about writers writing autobiographies about writing a book. This is in nobody’s interest.

I got in touch with my editor at Random House and asked for guidance. She told me that she wasn’t sure about the rules for fiction, but nonfiction writers can quote a block of up to 250 words, verbatim, as “fair use” for a review or a magazine article about the subject, or in an academic book, as long as they identify the source. For any quote longer than that, you need to get copyright permission from the holder.

For all of the characters except Winston Churchill, I was well under the 250-word mark when I made lines from letters or memoirs into dialog. Churchill, however, could be a terrible gasbag, and spoke at length about whatever he was interested in, boring the pants off everyone around him. I wanted to show that in my novel, so I used an article about oil painting that he published in 1921 (the year that my story takes place), leaving the sentiments and wording largely intact but making it into dialog.

My editor thought that I should get permission to use the article from the Churchill estate, but I said, “Look, I am using Winston Churchill’s own written words about oil painting as the source for dialog for a character who is called Winston Churchill and who is talking about oil painting in a historical novel about Winston Churchill, and I will identify the article as the source of these remarks in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. If I get copyright permission, doesn’t the estate have the expectation that the quote would be verbatim? If I change the exact wording, then it’s not really a quote anymore, so couldn’t they object to the changes? What are the guidelines here?”

At that point, my editor queried Random House Legal. Weeks later, I was given a verbal answer via my editor because lawyers never put anything in writing if they can help it. (That’s probably libel, and I’ll get sued for it…) Anyway, my understanding was that copyright issues are negated if you have artistically transformed the source material in some significant manner. A historical novel is “transformative” by its nature, even when it deals realistically with real events and real people and what they really said and did. It’s still fiction, and that’s why the words “a novel” follow the book’s title on the cover art.

As an ex-academic who comes out of a field where you have to footnote everything but the prepositions, I like to be very open about this issue. My habit is to acknowledge major sources in my Author’s Note, and then say something like, “If you have questions about specific historical material, email me and I’ll do my best to answer.” For A Thread of Grace, I even put a bibliography on my website because so many people asked about sources. My advice to other novelists is to keep track of important sources, but don’t make yourself crazy.

Just FYI: I did get permission to use a group photograph of the historical characters in Dreamers of the Day. ( And you’re on your own when you need  to obtain copyright. Even the biggest publisher in the world didn’t lift a finger to help me with the Bell photograph. I was simply told to get permission.) The main difficulty in obtaining permission was simply locating a person who could say yes, name a price and accept the check I mailed. The original photo is in the Gertrude Bell archive at a university in England. Cost me about $300 as I recall.



12 thoughts on “Writer Tech: quoting sources in historical fiction”

  1. Wow, thanks for this post! I recently finished a manuscript about the (true story) of a 1925 murder. Two amazing reporters covered the trial and scribbled notes on every word said, which I then converted into actual dialog for courtroom scenes. I’ve been trying to find answers about who owns the copyright — the reporters, if I’m not quoting 100% verbatim? the witnesses who testified? — and have not had a lot of luck. I list every single newspaper article and interview I used as a source, but I was still unsure of it. I feel like I was on track now. Thanks!

  2. I’m the one who wrote to Mary, and thanks to her for a helpful answer! I’m working from an old autobiography, and the thing that confounds me it that you’re not supposed to “copy” as Ian McEwan might have, but sometimes you want to quote a historical figure verbatim because the way they said it meets your artistic goals. So I like Mary’s idea of the 250 word rule, and I’m keeping track of whenever I quote someone verbatim. And I’m trying not to make myself crazy!

  3. Just checking that I understand this correctly.
    I am in the process of completing a novel set during World War 2. It is a work of fiction but obviously I have researched to get most of my facts correct. My fictitious character is good friends with Winston Churchill and I have created a couple of scenarios where they meet at Chartwell and engage in fictitious conversation. As far as possible I have avoided direct quotes – tending to word it as WC said that…….. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps it would be violating some copyright law to put words into the mouth of WC so to speak – or to make up a conversation which he may or may not have had with his wife. I have made use of the pet names which they had for each other, given a description from memory of Chartwell (I visited it a few years ago) and even included the ginger cat called Tango. How acceptable is this? Do I need any permissions from anyone for this? I would appreciate any feedback

  4. I am writing a juvenile fiction novel set in 1884. It is about nine children living at a lighthouse. Can I bring to the lighthouse island a real historical person, Maria Mitchell from Vasser College, the first woman American astronomer? She interacts with the children through dialog. Obviously, Maria Mitchell never said the exact things I have her say because the children are fictitious and her trip to the island is fictitious. At times I do write exact things she said, for instance, about science, women, and religion at the time. (I found this dialogue from a video about Maria Mitchell.)

    Should I rather pattern a fictitious character after Maria Mitchell? In other words, I would have an astronomy professor from Vasser come to the island but the name would not be Maria Mitchell. Can this fictitious character be quite a bit like the real Maria Mitchell but not exactly? Could she have similar viewpoints on science, religion, and women? In so doing, I would not have the fictitious character, then, say Maria Mitchell’s exact words. Could they, however, be similar?

    Is it permissible to have a fictitious character be a professor at Vasser College when no such professor existed in 1884?

    In an “historical note from the author,” do I write how my fictitious character is loosely based upon Maria Mitchell but isn’t really Maria?

    What comes to mind are the “Little House on the Prairie” books which were made into a television show. Obviously, the conversations throughout the many episodes are fictitious. So, in the TV series, historical figures are saying things they never said historically. If that is permissible, is what I am doing with Maria Mitchell okay under the guise of “historical fiction”?

    My concern is that a real picture is presented about Maria Mitchell. I would not want anything she says in my novel to go against her philosophy about science, women, and religion. I have done research on her, but how can I be sure if what I write is totally within what she might have said or thought?

  5. In a world where Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter can be created, there are really no hard and fast rules about what you can do with public figures. I try very hard to make my historical characters as true to life as I can. I pretend that their descendants will read the book and hope that they will say, “That’s fair. That’s a good rendering of the person my family knew.” OTOH, conversations, thoughts, motives, emotions — those are the province of the novelist.

    BTW: don’t ever use the term “fiction novel.” Novels are fiction. Agents will toss your ms. into the recycle bin if that term is used because it screams “amateur.”

  6. I’m writing an historical novel and found a quote I would like to use. I found it in a memoir, and the quote was from a child acting in a Christmas play. The child’s name was not given. My author never said who the child was or who wrote the play. Can I use the line? I don’t understand the rules here.

  7. Thanks! I ended up creating a new character who visits the island. Maria Mitchell is still in the book, but it’s the new character who interacts with the island dwellers. This new character knows Miss Mitchell and had studied under her at Vassar. I am comfortable with this new arrangement. Thanks for your advice. My book comes out in a couple of weeks.

  8. I started gathering information from books, and websites on Nicola Tesla to write my first novel. My manuscript, is a story within a story. As a senior, unfamiliar with the publishing industry, I was operating under ancient high-schools rules that stated: as long as you put it in your own words, it’s not plagiarism. Unfortunately it was 15 years before I actually wrote the story, and could no longer remember which of my notes had already been transcribed in my own words, and which notes were still direct copy. I went ahead and wrote it anyway (for the fun of it). Surprisingly I’ve created a very publishable novel, with no idea what my original sources were; and 80,000 words later, have discovered there is no one-stop-source for locating possible plagiarism in my manuscript, and delivering the ORIGINAL source. The more I look, the more overwhelmed I get with the smoke and mirrors of plagiarism law.
    Is anyone aware of a program or app out there that can scan 200 pages and deliver original sources for any detected plagiarism?

  9. I am writing a historical novel and using verbatim some of the letters the main characters wrote. The letters were written more than 90 years ago and were published by Citadel Press in 1928. Most of the novel is fictional in diary form.
    Should I acknowledge my resource source material such as Citadel?

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