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.