What does a fiction writer owe his nonfiction sources?
September 9, 2009 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever formalized the proper conduct for the fiction writer regarding his/her nonfiction sources?

As a fiction writer I enjoy doing research about my subjects, and I also enjoy reading deeply researched fiction. However, it recently occurred to me that I'm not clear what precisely a writer owes his sources (in fact I find the word "owes" problematic from the get-go). Has a fiction writer or researcher ever formally explored this issue?

Aside from the obvious problem of plagiarism (direct copying), is there a line to be crossed, an overusing of sources, a failure to attribute properly? There are times when putting the words of a real person into the mouth of a fictional one is acceptable, but are there times when it isn't?

I'm less interested in legal ramifications than ethical systems of conduct.
posted by Bookhouse to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have read well-researched novels that include either long dedications or sections at the end in which they thank the authors of their research source materials.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:43 PM on September 9, 2009


You could just compile a normal bibliography and add it to the end with a note of explanation. I love it when fiction writers do that, especially when they annotate a bit, regardless of whether their sources are still alive.
posted by mareli at 1:14 PM on September 9, 2009


Not as far as I know, and I'm hoping to publish my first historical novel soon (big departure for me and I am thrilled). Because I am a crazy hyper-researching person I did immense amounts of research, and nobody has, to my knowledge, come up with a "best-practices" document about how best to acknowledge research sources in fiction.

Some people I think do it well are Pat Barker and Thomas Mallon.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:35 PM on September 9, 2009


So long as plagiarism itself is avoided, there is no expectation that an author must credit his or her research sources in fiction. Many fiction authors don't include any acknowledgment at all. However, it is certainly nice when an author acknowledges their sources, either in an acknowledgments page (this works especially well when the author's research was based in interpersonal interaction rather than book research) or a bibliography.

If you are questioning whether a specific source merits inclusion in such a mention, let your barometer be both the magnitude of the source's influence on the work, and the use to the reader in listing the source. For example, say you were writing a book about a firefighter in Victorian New York. If part of your research took up several afternoons of a fire chief's time, it would be good to include him in your acknowledgments even though knowing his name will be of little use to the reader. Conversely, if you ended up only explicitly using a nugget or two of information from a book on Victorian firehouses, but you know it to be an excellent resource on the subject, you might include it in your bibliography because of its benefit to the interested reader.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:08 PM on September 9, 2009


You probably heard about how the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued for a piece of the Da Vinci Code bazillions. Now, a good portion of the Da Vinci Code really is people sitting around talking about the speculative history developed in Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

They lost. They lost an appeal. They lost about a million pounds reimbursing Random House's legal fees. (All of which speaks somewhat more to legal than ethical.)

As a reader and writer, I'd consider an acknowledgement section in the work to be good enough.

The reference in your last paragraph to putting a real person's words into a fictitious person's mouth opens a whole 'nother can of worms, though. Are words are being quoted verbatim, and, if so, how many? Is it being done just once or how often? Does your character or his/her situation resemble the real person's? Are you presenting the character in a negative light? Is that person living or with an active estate?
posted by Zed at 4:45 PM on September 9, 2009


Are words are being quoted verbatim, and, if so, how many? Is it being done just once or how often? Does your character or his/her situation resemble the real person's? Are you presenting the character in a negative light? Is that person living or with an active estate?

I don't have a specific piece in mind. I'm just thinking of different gray areas, which is why I was hoping that someone had formalized some system of thought about these things, at least as the starting point of my own ethical decisions.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:58 PM on September 9, 2009


I see statements all the time on copyright pages that real-life people and incidents are used fictitiously.
posted by brujita at 10:10 PM on September 9, 2009


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