Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Writers Conference Revisited

Another Highlight: Ferreting Out the Truth

Listening to Sharyn McCrumb is always a treat, especially when she tells how she writes. That’s what she did in her “Telling It Slant: Using Historical Events in Fictional Works” session at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference.

McCrumb is a stickler for getting details right. (Her readers will tell her if she gets anything—no matter how small—wrong.) She does considerable research for each of her books and is careful to always consult more than one authority. In historical fiction, writers can invent characters, but they have to get the setting—and the details— right.

She related info about how she researched hangings while she wrote The Ballad of Frankie Silver, a novel based on the first woman hanged in North Carolina. Many folks she talked to described a scaffold for the hanging, but Sharyn couldn’t find evidence that scaffolds were built as early as 1833. Evidence of other hangings in the first half of the nineteeth century showed that a rope was thrown over a limb, the soon-to-be-executed one stood on the bed of a cart, and the cart was then moved forward. Plus no one was sure that Frankie would actually be hanged until right before she was; the sheriff expected a rider to come any moment with a reprieve from the governor. Why built a scaffold that might not be used?

To illustrate poor research, She read us a passage that romance writer Cassie Edwards had plagiarized from an article about ferrets and inserted as dialogue into her romance novel, Shadow Bear (Signet, 2007). In the scene after Shadow Bear (hunky Indian) and a hottie pioneer woman succumb to their mutual burning intense physical attraction in his woodland tee-pee, their conversation turns to ferrets.


Pioneer hottie Shiona hears a ferret outside the tee-pee, so the discussion turns to the habits of black-footed ferrets. Now, ferrets are normally found where prairie dog towns are—not in the woods, so they wouldn’t be nearby, but that’s beside the point. Hottie has read about them in her father’s books; Shadow Bear has observed them in the wild; they talk about them. Actual passages of dialogue go into great detail about ferrets. Like this (as quoted here):

"In their own way, they are a peaceful enough animal," Shadow Bear said... "They are so named because of their dark legs." "They are so small, surely weighing only about two pounds and measuring two feet from tip to tail," Shiona said. "While alone in my father's study one day, after seeing a family of ferrets from afar in the nearby woods, I took one of my father's books from his library and read up on them. They were an interesting study. I discovered they are related to minks and otters. It is said that their closest relations are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize that polecats crossed the land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska, to establish the New World population." p. 220

Except Edwards didn’t actually invent this dialogue. (Like who would?!) She copied it from an article she’d read online.

Some bloggers, who figured there was something fishy (ferrety?) about the scene, did a bit of Googling, found the original source, and outed Edwards. Word spread through the blogosphere faster than beating tom-toms. Or stampeding ferrets.

Paul Tolme, the writer whose work Edwards had, uh, referenced without citation, wrote a Newsweek article about Edwards’ plagiarism of his original 2005 ferret article,“Toughing It Out in the Badlands.” It’s a hoot.

The original bloggers, now joined by others, kept Googling and ferreted out examples of plagiarism in Edwards’ other novels. Signet, her publisher that had stood by her during the Shadow Bear incident, dropped her faster than—er—a hot ferret.

On January 12, 2008, the New York Times did an article about the plagiarism. And other blogs are mentioning the plagiarism, like this January 16 entry on Live Granades (“like a blog, but explodier”).

If there’s a moral here, it’s that writers should do real research—not cut and paste from the Internet.

McCrumb does her research. As a reader, I appreciate it.

And, as far as I know, she’s never mentioned a ferret in any of her books.


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Blogger CountryDew said...

Plagarism scares me. I am always afraid I am going to do it unintentionally. There are only so many ways to say "the board of supervisors met on Tuesday" ... but at least they are not ferrets.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

Sure am glad someone ferreted out that plagiarism.

10:10 PM  

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