A question that occurred to me today while working on the final draft of ‘A Spider in the Eye’ a Hannibal Smyth adventure, which I thought I would share. It’s a question of integrity, writers and indeed the integrity of that which we ‘borrow’. Like most authors, I have a propensity to use a good quote in my writing every now and again. Not least, one suspects, because I equally have a tendency to quote the words of others in conversation. In particular the words of other, far more accomplished, and far better-known authors.
It’s not rocket science after all, ‘ to be a writer one needs two things, to write a lot, and to read a lot.’ So one is by one’s vocation more likely than most to drop the odd quote into a conversation. As I just did btw, as ‘to be a writer one needs two things’ is a direct quote from that great sage of the written word Stephen King.
Writers read a lot, and we are like magpies, we pick up shiny things and return them to our nests. Our shiny things just happen to be quotes as often as not. It’s a rare day indeed that I don’t find a reason to reference a Terry Pratchett, or a Douglas Adams, or some other writer when I am ‘talking toot over a pint of ‘large’’ (Robert Rankin Reference for those taking notes). Quoting comes naturally to the writer, and a writer collects them like a waitress collects tips. Sticking them into a pocket to count up later. Even if we don’t always admit we are quoting, or even realise we’re doing so when a turn of phrase or an idea occurs to us, but for the most part we are fairly honest collectors rather than outright thieves. However, on occasion, there is a temptation to pass off something as gold which is gilt at best, because on occasion there may not be a quote where you actually need it to be…
Hence the question that occurred to me, when I came across these couple of lines in my earlier draft of ‘A Spider in the Eye’…
What was it that old hack Kipling said of Calcutta? ‘A garden of Imperial excess. A garden walled with squalor.’ Ever a man who sought to be ‘of the people’ was old Rudyard.
In case you’re in any doubt, and if I have made a half descent job of the gilt you hopefully are, Kipling did not say that at all. Indeed if he ever had anything to say about Calcutta, it would not have been in reference to the Calcutta I have him referring to. This Calcutta is almost entirely fictional. A Calcutta in the strange and alterative modernity of Hannibal Smyth’s world. A world of Airships, Steam powered camels, Clockwork Queens and in which the setting of the sun over the British Empires was avoided by liberal use of gaslight. In short, a world that Kipling never saw. Which is to say the quote is entirely made up, as it is apt for the use I am making of it and it’s the kind of thing Kipling might have said in the circumstances.
And there in lays my question… Have I, and for that matter other writers, a right to put words into the mouths ‘or pens’ of others?
Of course, the question and its answer are redundant, because writers of fiction do it all the time. And I will add an end-note in the book along the lines of ‘no he didn’t I made this up’ which will sit in between the more humorous end notes that already exist. It si no different in truth than putting the words into the mouth of sub-leftenient Vladimir Putin (a rather obnoxious, pompous ass of a Russian navel officer obsessed with the creases in his uniform, his own manliness and being taken seriously, in Hannibal’s world, it may not be biting satire, but I try and make it nibbling at the very least…). Or indeed putting words into the mouths of Professor Jobs and Doctor Gates my two competeating belligerent and entirely ‘mad’ scientists fighting over the rights for ‘eye’ technology. “Bloody Jobs is obsessed, ‘eye’ this ‘eye that, eye , eye , eye, its an ocular fetish it tell you’ as Gate’s complains bitterly to Hannibal at one point.
A novelist is, when push comes to shove, one who makes up stuff and write it down when all is said and done. Why should the same not apply to quotes as it does to parody….
Quotes however are different, when we use them we should use them with care. We are stealing wisdom and selling it on the black market, such is not a thing to be done lightly. And who reads end note properly anyway. Well apart form me that is, I am mildly obsessive about notations, but I have read Prattchet for years and there is a joy in a good footnote…
EBooks are a problem here you see. In a paper book you can put down foot notes, that little ‘not he didn’t I made this us’ is at least quickly apparent. But eBooks will not format foot notes properly.
it can be done, but it is a level of coding beyond the self-publisher as a rule. I work in IT, and know my way around software and I have struggled to make this work, you have to go right down into the code of the book itself, rather than just translate a word file to a mobi etc. and its different in every format. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and in the end it is a lot easier to just add them as end notes.
So, where does this get us, well no where really, this post was never more than a collection of vague thoughts on the question after all. It is not like there are any real rules here. Unless you are selling a whole lot of books and the estate of ‘Kipling’ decides to sue you for defamation, or misrepresentation (somewhat unlikely all the same) It really comes down to your individual integrity and opinion I guess. As a self-published author I do not have any legal team pointing out these issues to me, and frankly I suspect the heirs of Kipling have better things to do with their time. If someone picks up on a miss-quote I make and thinks it genuine then does it really matter when it’s a miss-quote of a long dead writer? God knows there are enough miss-quotes about on the internet which can do far more harm in the era of ‘Fake News’ some politicians would have you believe we are living in. It’s not like anyone reading a novel like ‘A spider in the Eye’ is doing so without a certain degree of suspended disbelief to start with.
At the end of the day I will continue to make up the odd quote when it suits me. Oh I am very careful when I do so, and almost every quote that slips into a book like ‘Passing Place’ is entirely genuine. But then ‘Passing Place’ for all it is a fantasy, is rooted in the real world… or reflections of it at least. ‘A Spider in the Eye’ is rooted in its own alterative modernity, so the odd historical figure may be found saying things they never actually said. After all why would retired submariner and second civil war vet Johnny Kennedy say anything about a Berlin that never had a wall down the middle of it, even to his second wife Norma Gene. But if I do imagination up a quote I try at least to make it something they might have said all the same, or frankly why use them at all. There in perhaps lay the truth of this question. If your going to put words in the mouths of others, at least try to make it something they could have said.
That is after all, probably all the majority of a writers predecessors would want, they were all Magpies as well after all…
But I will leave you with this real and genuine quote of Kipling, which I have always been rather fond of …
That’s a tough one. I’m not sure I’ve even tried that, unless I’ve followed it up with some out like a misquote by one character and a “he was certain that was not so” or some such attributed to another just to make sure the reader knows it was a purposeful misquote, in which case I’m probably not giving my readers enough credit. Or I simply have not faced the fact that I haven’t developed the talent to pull it off yet:)
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I am entirely certain you have the talent Katie.
I have read your novel 🙂 I suspect when it comes to channelling real people into characters your far better at it than I
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