Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Using works in the public domain

I am writing a novel that takes place in Galveston during the 1900 hurricane. I found an amazing book called The Great Galveston Disaster (hurricanes didn't have names yet) printed within months after the disaster and it has such gloriously fresh accounts that I can't really find anywhere else online. Admittedly, it's mostly just a compilation of government documents, correspondence, pictures, newspaper entries, testimonials, and other accounts, but I digress.

Could I land myself in hot water for using quotes from the testimonials in my work of fiction of real people or excerpts that are dated 115 years ago? I thought copyrights only lasted for 100 years, and I doubt this publishing company (which only printed this book for one run and then disbanded from my research), newspapers, or families of the deceased would mind, nor would I know how to track most of them for permission

You need to ask permission of copyright holders for as long as copyright is in effect.

That does NOT mean you can use the work without attribution after copyright has expired.

That's called plagiarism, and I'm very sure you do not want to do that (or that you even intended to, or that you thought it might sound like that.)

What you'll do: if you quote the material you CITE it. As in footnotes or endnotes.

"The Great Galveston Disaster was a gully washer of a storm, propelling man and beast like drunken sailors jitterbugging dance hall floozies down the streets." said former taxi dancer and historian Janet Reid."***

****Title, Author (Publisher: year)

When you sell the novel, your publisher will have a style guide for footnotes, and you'll follow that, but for now, this will do.

And just as a side note: keep track of your citations and PAGE NUMBERS from the quoted work in a separate document. Don't ask me why I know this. Just benefit from my dreadful mistakes.


Unknown said...

I'm glad I have the opportunity to benefit from your wisdom. Thank you, Janet.

DLM said...

A taxi dancing shark. I might pay more to see that than to actually try to take a turn on the floor.

Geoff Ryman's "Was" heavily depended upon records, poems, essays, and quotes, and his author's note was as exciting as the novel itself, describing the research process that went into rebuilding early-to-mid 20th century Hollywood and 19th century Kansas. He did much more than to cite the sources, he explained the process as a whole, and it was glorious.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Ha ha! What a colorful life. Former taxi dancer AND historian! But, dreadful mistakes? ouch?

Opie: Track your quotes. Your literary agent and/or publisher will show you how to deal with them when they work with you. There can be a fee involved in using quotes (There were fees for quotes I used in my non-fiction but my publisher reimbursed me for those fees).

Or, Opie, you could read, absorb, get in-the-skin, of these "gloriously fresh accounts" to develop a feel for their rhythm, their syntax, their voices. Then, create completely new dialogue or scenery description or whatever. Let these truthful accounts help you create a fictitious story that is NOT told within that book. Just my 2-cents.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Does that mean OP wouldn't want to add the citations to the manuscript in an endnote when they send out fulls to agents?

I'm feeling particularly dense today and wouldn't mind taxi dancing. It sounds like fun.

Craig F said...

Angie: put an acknowledgement at the end of the full that documents what you have borrowed. Cross reference if you can, using the pages in the manuscript that use quotes.

It is wonderful when someone like our Queen can admit that she has made mistakes at some time in the past. It gives me hope.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

OPie, I like Lisa's suggestion for a fictional work. I would think direct quotes that involve copious footnotes would be more of a non fiction thing but listen to the taxi dancing shark.

Of course, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett used The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch - 1655 in their book Good Omens which was replete with footnotes. I am fairly confident, however, this ancient tome of prophecies might not be what you would call ... Real. Still, the footnotes were nicely done.

Unknown said...

Lisa, oh man, agree so much with meticulously tracking citations as you go. So easy to mess this up. And it is probably a mistake to rely on anybody in the publishing chain to provide anything other than formatting advice. The person who will discover citation omissions or mistakes will be an angry reader posting prolifically on the web.

Colin Smith said...

I don't think I've ever seen a novel that uses footnotes to track citations of sources within the narrative, like an academic work or a non-fiction account. And I think there's a reason for that: most historical novelists are creating fiction based on research. They don't generally quote the research, but use it, as Lisa said, to get in the skin of the period and create an atmosphere. I presume this book isn't your only source. It shouldn't be. Yes, it might be a critical source for accounts of the hurricane, but what about getting to know Galveston in 1900:

* What did people eat or wear?
* What were topics of conversation?
* What would have been on people's minds prior to their every concern being overtaken by this devastating event?
* What did the houses look like? Did everyone live in the same kind of house?
* What were the demographics of the area?
* How did people communicate?
* How did people get around?
* What was the cadence of their speech? Colloquialisms, accents, etc.?

Your book might be able to give you some of this, but it will be one perspective. If you've been following Julie's discussion of her Civil War novel, you'll know she's been reading multiple sources, including anthologies of letters, historical works, etc. to get a broad feel for the period.

And all that work is in the background. You don't cite books, but the information in those books become the watercolors with which you paint the background. They become the voice in your head as you write dialog and describe scenes. It's fiction. Nobody expects you to use direct quotes or real people.

If you want, you can do what many other do and add an "Author's Note" at the end where you credit your sources and perhaps discuss the events of the book that were drawn directly from fact (perhaps characters that were based on real people), and the things you made up for the sake of the story.

And that's the thing to remember most when writing fiction: Story comes first. As Phillip DePoy and Gary Corby so ably demonstrate, you never ever ever sacrifice good story telling so you can sound like a college textbook. Which is why in Gary's Ancient Greece mysteries, and in Phillip's forthcoming Elizabethan mystery, A PRISONER IN MALTA, you will never find a direct quote from any historical source, even though you know they've done their research.

Story first!

DLM said...

Colin, while the story comes first and I'm an author of histfic who has learned to try to keep my research from showing, I do think VERY good novels use quotes from real sources to great effect. I have an extant letter from one of my main characters for the WIP; the good news for me, that letter approaches 1500 years of age, so my mileage will vary from today's post in quoting that - but I damn near died of joy when I found the thing. As you might guess, in a period so far back in history, primary sources alone are difficult to come by, never mind actual correspondence. I would not write the WIP without it.

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DLM said...

Okay this is the third time lately I've submitted a comment and it's come out twice. I swear I'm not hitting "publish" twice - am I the only one this is happening to?

DLM said...
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Les Edgerton said...

You were a historian? I never knew, Janet!

Donnaeve said...

I will be honest and admit here, the first thing I thought when I read this "Could I land myself in hot water for using quotes from the testimonials in my work of fiction of real people or excerpts that are dated 115 years ago?"

...was, why would you (OP) want to do that?

I think approaching this instead, by developing your fictional characters POV all on your own and based on what you learn is a better way to go. Again, I will revert back to my old drumbeat of late about Sue Monk Kidd's THE INVENTION OF WINGS, where, lo and behold her main characters DID exist. She took true events and made up a story about what happened between these people, fabricated the dialogue and thoughts they had of and for each other, etc. etc.

Can anyone tell how impressed I was by this book? Yet?

Colin Smith said...

Diane: Good point. For a novelist, however, writing a work of fiction, at least there's the option of having the characters say something like what was originally said. You don't *have* to quote anything directly and precisely, especially if there are copyright concerns.

Jenz said...

I'd guess that the OP either lives near or has been to Galveston (since that's the most likely way to come across info about the Great Storm), but if not, I highly recommend visiting the city and touring as many of the landmarks as possible. They all have stories about the storm that you will be hard pressed to find the details of otherwise. For instance, Ashton Villa has a cast iron fence surrounding it--that fence appears to be two or three feet tall, but it was six foot before it was partially buried by the storm. Also, the house is haunted (all the best old houses in Galveston make that claim).

My parents used to live there. :) IMO, the beach is the least interesting part of the city (though I admit I am not a beach person).

I'll chime in about Lisa's suggestion of not using direct quotes and instead infusing the feel of the era into your novel. It seems to me that it will be easier and probably more consistent overall to use your own voice.

Jenz said...

Hey wait a minute, wouldn't all those quotes be from people talking about the storm after the fact? What good are those, then? You don't want to write a novel about people explaining what happened afterward. And any recaps of conversations or what anyone claims to have said during the storm will be based on someone's memory during a highly stressful event (i.e., not 100 percent accurate).

DLM said...

Jenz, have you heard the story of Lacey Scroggins yet?

Because: that.

Her account is after the fact, but could hardly be more urgent and compelling - and she is not even speaking directly.

S.D.King said...

I find myself in that position. I am finishing off (is it ever finished?) a middle grade adventure which flashes back to Rasputin in Tsarist Russia. I have included a few quotes and have written an "Author's Note" at the end.

I still wonder if I am getting it wrong. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of Rasputin.

BTW - I can't figure out if this book is speculative fiction or magical realism. I keep getting conflicting definitions.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

And, as I am about to insert (sort-of) the GNEH Great New England Hurricane of 1938 into my novel, there could not have been a more perfect post, just for me.

Craig F said...

I think that using direct quotes as chapter sub-headers would work nicely. I also think it could be covered with a blanket thank you at the beginning of the book.

The cover art could also be done with before and after photos, either overlaid or with a diagonal cut, from the Galveston Historical people.

Weaving the lives of you fictional person or family into that maelstrom could be fun.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

To Craig's suggestion, I believe the Peculiar Children series took this to the extreme. Real photographs were used to create fictional, even fantastical characters against backdrop of WW II (in a time traveling scenario no less). Those books are super detailed with source material, real and very imaginative. There are pages and pages of reference material at the end of all these books. And several footnotes. It seems all possible uses for real material in a fictional series were explored there.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

What if OP replaced the word Galveston with Carkoon while writing, would the story be that much more different? Is the story about the hurricane itself, or the town? What inspires you, OP, about this story? Is Galveston utterly important? Or is it Bob's hurricane adventure?

I was following a blog of a lady who lived near New Orleans when Katrina hit. I wish I had the link to share but I lived in a cave back then, something like Carkoon. The inaccessible memories... This lady's blog was terrifying. Then her power went out and the blog went dark.

Thanks, Craig. I agree with Lisa.

Susan said...

I'm late to the game, but loving these comments and pretty much agree with each one.

I'm most in agreement with Lisa and Colin's thoughts, but that's only because footnotes bother me when I'm reading fiction. It pulls me out of the story too often; I have to read them because they're there on the page, and I'm naturally curious, but I get annoyed by it. I wonder if quoting directly is really necessary to OP's novel, or if they can't infuse all the information they've soaked up--including the resource in question--in their own words.

If this were non-fiction, it would be a different story, but historical fiction offers a bit of leniency wherein readers know what to expect (fiction--albeit, well-researched fiction). I don't know if it would make a bit of difference to me as a reader if I knew something was actually said, so long as it goes with the story and characters. But then, that's me speaking as a reader, where the story and voice are the most important feature. An author's note citing research sources at the end would seem to be enough.

SD King: I LOVE reading about Tsarist Russia! Your book sounds fabulous.

Anonymous said...

What a timely post. I'm deep in research on two historicals. One has more material than I will ever read while the other is fairly sparse. Some quotes have appeared time and again in various works, the primary sources being letters, newspaper articles, journals, military logs, etc.

I've worried about this also since this material has been used so much. Will someone think I'm plagiarizing KILLER ANGELS for instance even though most of the dialogue is from primary sources also?

I guess this answers the question of whether I will have a bibliography or not. I would think a heavily footnoted novel would be terribly distracting.

Donnaeve said...

2N's - you're still channeling me, apparently. In my WIP, I too, am including a historic hurricane - timeframe, 1940.

I like the creative suggestion by Craig, followed by what E.M. said about the Peculiar series. Those photos really creeped me out though.

Anonymous said...

The Galveston area is fascinating and this should make a great story. It was part of the back door of the Confederacy. The cotton clad steamships did a booming business during the Civil War. The storm of 1900 wiped out the port in Mexico that served as an international trading exchange.

I look forward to reading this story as I've been interested in the area for a long time. Good luck.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Thanks so much for this post, Janet - incredibly helpful & informative (the comments too). I mostly lurk these days, but never miss your blog.

Hmmm, a taxi-dancing Queen of the Known Universe who manages it with fins. And they say multi-tasking is a myth...

BJ Muntain said...

I always try to tell people, when dealing with legalities like copyright, to do your full research. Copyright is a lot more complicated than 'anything 100 years old is in public domain'. Never assume legalities. It's always best to do your research and get legal advice. An agent would be very helpful here, too. You're probably safe, since it's written in 1900, but it's always good to be sure.

And as Janet said, Heck yeah. Copyright is one thing. Plagiarism is a whole nuther legal kettle of fish. You need to CYA* for both forms of legal funnery.

*CYA = "Cover Your Asterisk"


Terry Pratchett's novels all have copious footnotes, many of them as delightful as the rest of the novel. Some give insights to previous novels (such as why the Librarian is an orangutan) or just general comments and pieces of wisdom (usually humorous.) If you haven't read Pratchett's Discworld Novels, I suggest starting with Wyrd Sisters or Moving Pictures. Great introductions to his novels.

But Terry Pratchett's novels are also quite unique, being more satirical humour than anything else. His books explore the deeps and darks of men souls in a context that lets his readers laugh at them, even if they know these things are true and deeply human. He also uses a lot of omniscient narration, which he does very well, but not many other writers do. Footnotes work in his novels. They wouldn't work in most.


Several people have found that their posts show up twice - especially if they're using their phones. At least, that's what I've gathered from their comments.

Are you going to do for your source what you said Ryman did with his? It sounds like a great way to do your attributions. But what a great find! Just the thought of seeing such an ancient piece of communication is a wonder! And one that fits directly into your world? Way. Cool.


Attribute it some way. It doesn't really matter how, before your publisher sees it. Your publisher may have a specific way they prefer to do attributions, and then you'll just re-do them so the publisher is happy. There is no wrong or right before your publisher sees it. Just make sure they are accurate and complete. :)

As for specfic/magical realism... There's a very fine line there. Call it what you did: "a middle grade adventure that flashes back to Rasputin." What *kind* of adventure it is will be up to your agent/publisher/bookstore/reader. Not everything needs to be put in a specific pigeon hole right off the bat. And I agree with Susan: Rasputin has always been a very interesting character. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

BJ, I love Terry Pratchett. The OP question jfor some reason brought him to mind. And I recently read Good Omens. I am also a big Neal Gaimon fan as well. I adore the Disc World Series. Mort and Equal Rites are among my favorites. I am trying to pick out 3-4 of the series to give my 13 yr old nephew for his birthday.

Anyway, most of us mere mortals can't pull off Pratchett's quirky style but the OP did ask about referencing source material in fiction, did he not? The kale fumes make comprehension a bit muddled for me.

BJ Muntain said...

EM: It was Janet who mentioned footnotes or endnotes. I think you mentioned Pratchett's and Gaiman's book as one way they're used in fiction. I hadn't realized you'd read other Pratchett books. I have all the Discworld novels but for the last two (will buy them soon). Then I guess I'm going to have to start buying all the reference books and other such books. So sad to lose such a great mind as Pratchett's, but at least he left us a huge world to live in when we miss him.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

BJ - Pratchett will be missed. His books are brilliant and hilarious. And it's true that his footnotes are as delightful as the main body of his books:)

Amy Schaefer said...

When it comes to using another person's work, be conservative. Always attribute. Clearly mark anything that isn't purely your own using a proper reference style. Copyright isn't the issue; rather, the original author should always get the credit.

But I join the other commenters in wondering: why? A book like "The Great Galveston Disaster" sounds like a wonderful reference aid, and research is very important when writing about a real event. But the OP is writing fiction. Don't you want to bring that world to life with your own words? Using quotations suggests you will have to build characters around the quotes you intend to use, otherwise the words won't ring true. That seems backwards to me - the character should suggest the words.

If it were me, I'd read like a demon about the Galveston Hurricane, put the books away, and write my story. Use the books to double-check details, but consider whether you want to rewrite "The Great Galveston Disaster" as fiction, or write your own.

Panda in Chief said...

And then there are instances of fictional footnotes. In the book "Why Cats Paint" which is fiction masquarading as non fiction, the authors have created delightful footnotes referencing completely made up titles. Obviously, this is not the case of what the OP is talking about.

I am wrestling with including some reference information, mostly about artists in Paris in the late 1900's, and am considering the idea of end notes. This is for my MG graphic novel. The plot hinges on some possibly stolen unknown paintings by some of the impressionists. I think it is important to the story line, but of course with the desecration and destruction of art education in schools, MG readers probably know nothing about these painters. I think if I can do it well, it will add to the story, parents will love it, and. I can prove that I didn't sleep through all of my art history classes in college.

Colin, you gave some very good advice. Aren't you afraid this will get you kicked out of Carkoon? BTW, the Granooga did the trick.

Theresa said...

While I have seen footnotes used in novels, it has been for a more meta purpose. I would think OP would want to take inspiration from the historical record, rather than direct quotes, and then perhaps include a reading list or discussion of sources at the end.

Colin Smith said...

Panda: Thanks! My best chance of escape from Carkoon is to get Janet taxi-dancing drunk enough to sign my release without her realizing it.

Hmmm... perhaps if I can get Janet and Barbara Poelle together at Bouchercon... :) I'll let you know how that goes. :D

BJ Muntain said...


I think, if you're writing for Middle Grade, just make the plot easy enough to follow that the youngsters don't *have* to know all that information. Whatever you do give them in the story, they will learn.

But a list of resources at the end for the children, if they want to learn more, would add to the story, I think. If I can channel little BJ, I think the thought process would be, "Cool story. Wait, that part was real? Tell me more!"

Not all students will be as interested, but I think having that information there would be helpful for those who are.

Regarding the footnotes in novels:

My preference would be endnotes over footnotes. You'd have to note each quote, of course, but keep the story going so the reader doesn't *have* to go looking at the end notes. And if you said at the beginning that all those notations were for quotes from that particular book, then the reader would know why the notation is there, and that it's not important for them to look at immediately in order to understand the story...

...but that's if you really, really, really want to use those quotes. As you can tell from the paragraph above this one, it's going to get complicated, and there's a chance you'll pull the reader out of the story every time there is a notation. That's not something you want. You don't want your reader to fall out of the story, because they might decide not to jump back in.

Panda in Chief said...

BJ, thanks for that suggestion about the end notes and making sure that kids can follow the plot, even if they don't have that knowledge. That is definitely the direction I am heading in. Early days, yet.
I like the idea of providing the information at the end for those who want to know more.

Colin, hope your Boucheron bar bill doesn't get out of hand. Think of the drink prices in pounds, rather than dollars and you'll be fine. Good luck getting yzour release papers signed. Isn't this happening soon?

DLM said...

BJ - I've never used my phone for anything but calls, texting, and the odd "what's the answer to this trivia question" search online, but oh well.

I am NOT going to do as Ryman did, because I have one single letter and ... the story of how I found that is not a story. He turned his entire research and process into a special feature extra that went along with his novel and opened up some more wonderful stories; he worked with MASSES of material, too. I've got a single letter - and that itself is a paraphrase by a monk, so though it's often discussed as if it's "by" so-and-so, it is not. It'll go in my text, because *GREED!* and *SQUEE I FOUND THIS THING* but there's no story to tell about that.

As to attributions? No, not for a secondhand paraphrase of a letter, as written by a monk, in the name of someone dead since the year 535. I used a bit of famous (legendary) quotery and legend in AX, too - just as I used actual people who lived - and never even thought about footnoting it, because anything and everything you can find quoted from my period has been used in so many sources (there isn't much to be had, but there is mucho recycling) - which one would I even use? Once it's down to "As stated by The Venerable Bede" (*) I'm not worrying about lawyers suing me for saying, "Bow down, O Sicambrian!" because we're either ALL descendants of the original source - or NONE of us are. So whose rights would I be trampling on ... ?

(*Note - Bede has nothing whatever to do with anything I ever wrote, or probably ever will.)

AJ Blythe said...

After so many comments not much to add. I don't like footnotes in my fiction, only because it pulls me out of the story. But I'm happy to read author notes at the end (and always do).

Jenz said...

DLM, of course I've heard of Lacey Scroggins, but you missed the point. We're talking about using direct quotes from a published book versus creating dialogue, not writing the story at all.

Dotti said...

I highly recommend the inquirer read Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson and the fiction novel Dark Water Rising by Marion Hale. There is lots of sources material on the hurricane.

JEN Garrett said...

I've seen the final product done both ways... with and without footnotes - even in historical fiction. But listen to Janet. She knows what an agent would want to see BEFORE the finished project.

Panda in Chief said...

Nancy Horan's "Loving Frank" about Frank Lloyd Wright comes to mind. Obviously she created the dialog, based on her research, so you couldn't consider them quotes. It's a fascinating book, which I highly recommend.