Friday, January 18, 2008

Mountains and Molehills

The Rock Towers of the Rio Virgin,
Thomas Moran,
oil on canvas, 1908.

More than once, author Nora Roberts articulated, with her usual simplicity and clarity, many of my own jumbled thoughts and reactions to the Cassie Edwards plagiarism case.

Somewhere on Dear Author, she wrote:

"I imagine most of us in the last couple of weeks where we've asked ourselves. Have I ever been careless?...We need to be more careful and more respectful of our resource material."

I suspect a lot of writers, me included, have been double checking their work for molehills, for careless references and allusions.

Of course, I found one.

Lillie says : "Though I have to say if a dullahan tools down a public highway I don't see how he can expect to avoid being seen. The stuff's all in your manual. They cite reports from Montreal and Boston. And the usual number from where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea."

"Where the what?"

"Ireland. Never mind. Look in the Addenda section. You'll find the information under Dangerous Encounters and Hazardous Entities."

When I wrote that, I assumed the line where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea (1) would be immediately identifiable as line from a song (and therefore not claimed/presented as my -- or Lillie's -- own words), and (2) that the song was a very old lyric, in public domain.

But I hadn't checked.

Fortunately, it is from an old song, written in 1896, by William Percy French ( 1854-1920), though recorded a number of times since by various balladeers. As far as I can tell, the words I used are from the original and not from some later paraphrase.

I have made a neat little research note. And attached it to my wee behind.

And I have amended my draft slightly. Lillie's line now includes: "Ireland. It's a song. Never mind."

I'll be looking for others.

Because, Mary Machree, this is one fashion that should be followed.


StarvingWriteNow said...

You have a wee behind? Not fair!!

Seriously though, even though I have never read a single Nora Roberts, she is always spot on with her observations, recommendations and comments out in blogland.

Happy researching!

PS: My word verification today is editmay. Does this mean I should write like crazy and wait until May to edit? Hmmm...

December/Stacia said...

I didn't recognize it, but I assumed from the context that that prticular line was a quote.

Elizabeth Peters et al does this a lot--the context makes it obvious it's a quote, but she's more well-read than I am. :-)

Bernita said...

Starving, it's going to get bigger if I don't stop staring at the computer all day.
I don't know if I've read her novels or not ( from my habit for years of being a plot glutton and not remembering author's names.
Reading her common sense on various subjects lately, I developed considerable respect and admiration.

Peter's "Night Train to Memphis" is particularly full of those, December.

JLB said...

My challenge is more with clichés - I usually do my homework on references, but with clichés I find myself using them without even noticing - thank goodness for critique groups. ;)

Demon Hunter said...


Now you've got me wondering. Wow, so if you're character refers to a movie or a song, is that acceptable?

If character goes to sleep from a song from a movie, and I name the movie, is that the same thing? :*)

Sam said...

I love using quotes and bits of songs in my stories. I also, when I'm researching historical facts, highly interested in quotes.

I read voraciously, always have, and when I write I do sometimes wonder if I've unconsciously reproduced another author's words. It could happen. I don't think it could happen if it were an entire passage - I'm thinking maybe a turn of phrase that sticks with one, or even a characterization. I noticed in one novel by Ellis Peters there was a description of a character that made me pause and think, 'I've seen that before'. And perhaps I had - and perhaps it was just a group of words that many authors use, and that stick out now like crow's wings from the back of a swan.

Bernita said...

Jade, cliches are a different bag of worms altogether, and yes, some are damn near invisible.

My Demon, mentioning the name of a song or movie is, as far as I know , not a problem. It's a simple cultural reference and not a taboo.
However, if you quote a line from a song or a movie, that quote could violate a copyright and require permission for use.
It depends.

Bernita said...

Same here, Sam.
But not whole passages, no.
I plan to blog about that Monday, with an example.

BernardL said...

Two comments popped into my head as I read your post.

You're beginning to scare me.


Come and get me, copper!

Then I realized, I'd just plagiarized two other works in my thoughts. :)

Bernita said...

Bernard, ..."ya can't go to jail for what you're thinkin'"

Robyn said...

However, if you quote a line from a song or a movie, that quote could violate a copyright and require permission for use.

AIEE! You know where I live. If the heirs of Rodgers and Hammerstein counted how many times I've heard/read "where the wind comes sweeping down the plain" they'd be much richer than they probably are.

When can you safely assume most readers will know the reference?

Bernita said...

Robyn, I don't imagine that line is used with any intention of passing it off as original. The quotes are so visible they're invisible.
I don't know. A lot of contemporary references escapes me, but I usually realize they are references, I just miss the value added layer.
That's the trick, I suppose, the cue should work, even if a reader doesn't get the full nod.

SzélsőFa said...

I like te adjustment you have made.
Do you think now zillions of authors now are frantically combing through their manuscripts?
Thank Heavens MY manuscripts are well under 10,000 words (not pages, words) :)))))

raine said...

Even before this, with the last expose on plagiarism, I became more aware of what I might be "picking up" or carelessly tossing into the manuscript pit.
Now feeling the need to re-check everything, just to be sure. :-/
I feel more gray hairs sprouting...

Jon M said...

My novel has a ballad extract at the beginning of each chapter...all traditional, public. But Mountains of Mourne is a beautiful song!

I think I've said it before but I wrote 'Can't help but wonder where I'm bound' in my youth...and then realised it was a Tom Paxton song. I was so pleased for 30 seconds!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Szelsofa. The few extra words make the source and my intention more clear I think.

"authors now are frantically combing through their manuscripts" - I hope so.

Same here, Raine. It's so easy, especially when the plot is roaring along, to get careless, toss something in, mean to but forget to go back and check it out.

Joh, I have always liked the chapter headers style.
Yes, "where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea" has always made pictures for me.

Bailey Stewart said...

I'm with Sam, I've read so much that I'm more likely to inadvertently throw in a phrase without thinking about it.

Like Raine, I feel more silver streaks popping up.

Bernita said...

Bailey, I don't think too many sensible people start dancing and screaming and pointing fingers over the odd phrase.

Gabriele C. said...

Academic habits have their advantage, I suppose. I keep reference lists for text passages that are close to a source, and none of them is as close as the Edwards examples.

Can you imagine how Tacitus would stand out in my novels if quoted verbatim? :)

Bernita said...

Always a good research habit, Gabriele.

Because you translated any information into your own words, using your own perspective, voice and style.

Especially since all translations of Tacitus, including one's own, must, inevitably, be similar.

Scott from Oregon said...

Was reminded of this clip by Billy Connelly on You Tube about the mountains and the sea...

Bernita said...

Scott, I realize it's an erzatz ballad, and not "authentic" but it does have some beautful lines.

writtenwyrdd said...

I don't think that references in conversation need more than single quotes, do they? Or perhaps add a "you know, from that old song?" or some such.

I know that all people of good conscience will be on the lookout for accidental quotes.

Bernita said...

Depending on the quote, Written, I'm not sure all of them need the single quote marks at all, in conversation or out.
To see "ill met by moonlight" set off, for example, either in conversation or in narrative has always struck me as unnecessarily intrusive, excessive and possibly precious.

writtenwyrdd said...

Hmmm, I am now thinking of older works I've read that use that device, Bernita (Heyer does it here and there, I think) and it does call attention to itself. I suppose that you can do it by another's recognition, if you feel you must acknowledge a quote.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've been thinking about such things in my own work as well. I worry, though, that I'm doing things unconsciously that I won't catch.

writtenwyrdd said...

The thing I console myself with is that, if something does get borrowed, it is going to be small, and it's going to be unintentional. Not a whopping 28 sources paraphrased to a fare thee well.

Bernita said...

Yes, Written. Some need it , some don't.
Who needs to put quotes around "from my cold, dead fingers" for example? There is no assumption of originality.

All responsible writers worry about those glitches, Charles.

No comparison, Written.
The scope is mind-boggling.

Church Lady said...

I read it as a quote also, even though I've never heard of the song. I guess it's the way it's presented in the dialogue, and the 'talking style' is different for that phrase.

Anyway, it's a nice reference!! And a great habit to maintain...

Bernita said...

Thank you, Chris.
"and the 'talking style' is different for that phrase."
You have the right kind of ear!