Jennifer Blake, Roberta Gellis, and Bertrice Small led a session that, unlike many of the fan-friendly sessions, was silent, with notetaking, serious faces, and a great deal of attention. Their session, in a word, was outstanding. My notes are below, which don’t really follow a well-transitioned structure (or any structure for that matter) but let me tell you – these ladies rocked this session like damn and whoa.
Roberta Gellis provided a point by point explanation of copyright law in the US. A few facts to chew over:
Until 1978 individual states determined their own copyright law, and since then copyright has been under federal jurisdiction.
Ideas cannot be copyright – only the way you express the idea.
Copyright provides the right to do and to authorize others to do the following: Reproduce copies, prepare derivative works – e.g. you can authorize Fanfic if you choose – distribute copies by sale, etc.
Roberta Gellis then led a discussion about how to use research material: “I’ve never copied anything from any research book of mine because they’re so deadly dull!”
Small talked about using historical figures in her fictions, such as Elizabeth I, and using verbatim texts of their speeches in her fiction. She mentioned that in her writing, she asterisks her manuscript and references the original work – though the asterisk doesn’t always make it into the final book.
Copyrights do have to be renewed if they were issued before 1978, when copyright law changed to follow the life of the author plus 70 years, and both Blake and Gellis have had to renew copyright protection of their early novels.
Small told the group that she was the victim of plagiarism when an author used portions of her novel and the novels of several other writers. A reader highlighted the portions that were copied from Small’s work and sent it to her. She forwarded the book to her attorney, who contacted the counsel for the publisher of the plagiarized work, and her “attorney took care of it:”
“I bought my mother a nice new small car.”
The other writer also had to write a letter of apology, an apology which included the line, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and Small said, “I wanted to call her up and scream. My attorney said, ‘Just leave her alone. Go buy your mother the car and let it alone.’”
Then the three authors did a brilliant demonstration. Each author took a piece of historical research, a paragraph about a peel/pele tower, and worked that research into a brief demonstration piece of fiction. Gellis’ demonstration depicted two individuals surveying the security of the Pele tower, weaving the facts into the dialogue – “You have to use the research in such a way that it’s heightened by human emotion and interaction,” she said.
The demonstration of their talent was not only educational but reminded me how much I love me some historical romance, and I’m impressed that three major players in the foundation of historical romance would take the time to write a sample to demonstrate to the conference attendees. It’s like a multi-platinum recording singer cutting a demo for educational purposes. Even in a paragraph of content, their skills were uber, uber leet.
Blake read hers, and Small immediately said, “I want more!” (Me, too, I thought.)
“You should observe the research through the eyes of the character, and make the details personal to the character, allowing that character to become invested in their scene,” added Blake. “Start with where the light is.” Blake’s comments weren’t just research, but some of the best and most simple and clear writing instruction I’ve heard since the conference began.
Small: “These are three totally different, and unique examples based on the same piece of research.”
Blake: “When Roberta sent this paragraph, I thought, this particular era is not mine.”
Small: “You did a hell of a job. You ought to write historicals.”
Blake: “So, I got Roberta’s piece and did my own research, because I knew so little about Pele towers, and once I had an understanding of the thing itself, I could begin to imagine my scene.”
Then came Q&A.
Q: What is the copyright on web material? What is considered plagiarism from web material?
Gellis: “If you are not selling the material, you are taking information from it. Facts are never copyrighted. Only the expression is copyright.”
Blake: “It doesn’t make a difference if it’s the encyclopedia or a personal page. You can take the facts but not the literal words used.”
When you use the internet, do you -
Gellis and Small: “I don’t use the internet.”
Regarding Primary Sources, do you suggest citing the source of letters you use? The newspaper articles?
Gellis: If your publisher will let you use a superscript, you can do that, or endnotes, if you want. If it’s quoted material, you can also write an Author’s Note, where in you say “The quotes on pages x,y, an z are from….”
“But out of courtesy you should always seek to acknowledge your sources.”
Gellis: “I make it very easy. I write about people who have been dead for 800 years.”
Blake: “Read your sources, then take the book and put it waaaay over there, and then use your own words while you are nowhere near the words you used for research.”
Gellis: “It is a good idea not to have the biography right in front of you.”
What if you remember phrases but don’t remember where they’re from?
Gellis: “Oh! Don’t remind me. You spend many frustrating hours trying to find it. There are some words and phrases that are just irresistible and I’ve spent many hours crossing out those delicious words. They weren’t mine.”
In essence, Gellis, Blake, and Small’s advice and instruction fell under two overlapping concepts: copyright, which is a legal concern, and courtesy, which is an ethical concern – and all three authors were firm that it is the writer’s responsibility to document and acknowledge to the greatest extent possible. Using their own writing as an example made for an awesome and eloquent instruction that spoke volumes.
Mad props to RT for adding this session to the schedule, and to Gellis, Blake, and Small for the session content. Even though this is a topic I personally am familiar with, I learned something – and felt privileged to have been in the room to hear the sample writing of some major-player authors. And I still couldn’t tell you what a Pele tower is, but if Blake writes a book about one, I am there.