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Stolen thoughts

Probably the most common question I am asked as a writer is, “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer is always that ideas, for me, come from everywhere. From the newspaper, from songs, from snippets of conversation I overhear in restaurants (I’m a compulsive eavesdropper, I’m afraid). From anecdotes other people tell me, though I rarely use an incident exactly as it happened. My family has grown accustomed to telling me an amusing thing that happened to them, only to find an altered version of the tale pop up later in one of my books.

Long before I was published, I worked in a clerical office for a retail chain every summer during high school and college. I heard all kinds of stories there, some of which sparked ideas in books I wrote years later. One of the women in the department came in laughing one morning about a strange phone call she’d had the night before. It had been storming, and the reception had not been particularly good, so when she got a call from her dad and couldn’t hear him very clearly, she didn’t question that something about his voice sounded different. They chatted for nearly ten minutes before they realized that he’d called a wrong number. It wasn’t her dad.

Several years later, after I was published, I remembered that incident and I used it as the inspiration for a book I wrote for Harlequin Temptation (HOTLINE, 1991). In my version of the story, a single man dialed that wrong number, reaching a single mom. Thinking at first they were talking to their siblings, they quickly realized their mistake, and while laughing at the situation, a spark of interest ignited between them. That call led to others, and an ensuing romance — with, of course, complications to overcome before their happily-ever-after ending. I was pleased with the resulting story, and it was well received.

Category romances (the numbered, series books published by Harlequin and Silhouette, such as Special Edition, Desire, etc) stay on the shelves only a month, though they are occasionally reprinted a few years later, so by 1999, HOTLINE had long been out of print. In October of 1999, I received an email from a librarian I had never met telling me that she thought someone had plagiarized that book. She gave me the name of the author and the offending book, which was on the shelves even then.

My first reaction was that she must be mistaken. Authors frequently joke about unintentional similarities between our books, saying that there are only so many ideas and Shakespeare already used them all. Similarities of ideas is not plagiarism, nor is a book or movie that is inspired by another story (Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story and Valley Girl are examples of three totally different takes on the same idea — star-crossed lovers from incompatible backgrounds). An idea itself can’t be copyrighted, only the words used to convey that idea. So, skeptical, I popped into a bookstore and picked up a copy of her book.

I knew after reading the first page that this was more than a coincidence. The scene was mine. The words were mine. Page after page of that book had been lifted wholesale from HOTLINE. Sometimes she paraphrased my words, but there was no doubt that she had taken my book line by line, changing only the names and a random phrase or two. A hotel room described in my book was described exactly the same way in “hers.” She’d added a subplot that had nothing to do with my story, but in all, over a hundred pages of my book were blatantly stolen by her and passed off as her own.

Needless to say, I was stunned. Then furious. I contacted my agent, my publisher and my attorney and they took up the issue on my behalf. Things got ugly. She denied stealing the work (a ridiculous denial, since one hundred almost identical pages is far beyond any realm of coincidence). Her publisher — basically an innocent bystander — was embarrassed and defensive. My friends, and I have so many in the business, were outraged on my behalf, of course — but some of her friends were angry with me for pursuing the issue and making it public (they said it was unfair of me, it embarrassed her and hurt her writing career. Ahem). Her book was pulled from shelves and an out-of-court settlement was reached, but this sort of thing is never resolved satisfactorily.

When Janet Dailey admitted plagiarizing Nora Roberts not long before my incident, Nora was very vocal about what a violation this crime is to the victim. She called it “mind rape.” Someone stole the words she had struggled to get just right in her book. I have said it’s no different from breaking into the writer’s house and stealing her computer. It’s theft, pure and simple.

Like me, Nora was criticized and attacked for pursuing justice. There are those who think such things should be handled quietly, discreetly, to avoid embarrassing the thieves or their publishers. Settlements usually include very strong language limiting what the victim can say and threatening the victim with consequences for being too honest (I’m saying this from experience. I am still bound by my settlement not to say certain things — and I did absolutely nothing wrong!). Those stern, threatening letters from attorneys are so intimidating to an already victimized writer that many of these cases are settled in silence with the public never knowing what happened.

The thief always has a sad story, a long list of excuses and rationalizations (if s/he admits fault in the first place). Fans on both sides get involved and unfortunately that, too, turns ugly. Both Nora and I actually heard the words, “You should be flattered that xxx admired your work enough to steal it.” Excuse me? My answer was always, “Would you be flattered if I admired that diamond necklace/earrings/watch, etc. you’re wearing enough to take it from you?” A writer’s words are her product, the result of a great deal of effort and perservence and self-discipline. I used a quote in an earlier post: “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit at the typewriter and open a vein.” That’s the way it feels sometimes. Like every word is written in blood or sweat. And when someone else comes along and just blithely lifts them, it hurts us. We are not flattered.

You know what else hurts? Reading glowing reviews of the other person’s book. Hearing about the awards it won before the truth came out. Hearing that she’s been doing speeches and booksignings and accepting accolades for the story that was mine. The dedication in her book was to her mother, “who would understand.” Interesting, huh? My mother did not understand. My mother was hurt and angry that someone would steal from her daughter, who had worked so hard and dreamed so long of seeing my stories in print — under my name, of course, not a thief’s.

It’s been eight years and I’ve published many books since. I don’t know if she has — don’t care, as long as she doesn’t steal them from me or anyone else. But the hurt and anger return each time I think of those painful months of pursuing justice. It has forever changed the way I think of my story inspired by an anecdote told by a friend who has since passed away. Nora still carries scars from the ugliness of her own case; we’ve talked about how painful it is to be attacked for doing nothing more than protecting our copyrights, our very livelihoods. She was incredibly kind and helpful to me during my ordeal, because she knew exactly what I was going through, how painful it was. Maybe someone who isn’t a writer can’t really understand just what a violation this crime is to us. We won’t be quiet about it, nor let it be swept under the rug, because we owe it to other honest authors to make it very clear that plagiarism is immoral, it is illegal, it is lazy, dishonest and unacceptable.

There have been several highly publicized cases since ours — and who knows how many secret ones — and there will be more, but it is up to us to protect our work and to continue to speak out against this sort of theft. A real writer creates her own characters, works out the experiences those characters undergo, carefully and judiciously chooses the words she will use to let that story unfold for the reader. And then, whether the story is met with praise or criticism, she takes legitimate credit for her effort. Pursuing a dream involves work, sacrifice, courage and perserverence. There are few legitimate shortcuts.

I take pride in every one of my books (even admitting that there are a few I think could have been better). I have a lot more ideas I can’t wait to write. I may never have the number one book on the New York Times list, or be as famous or revered as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Nora Roberts (all brilliant storytellers I admire greatly) — but I can say that I achieved my lifelong dream of being a published author. It doesn’t get easier. If anything, it gets harder with each book to stay fresh and creative. There are times when I feel as though I’ve little blood left to give — and then something happens that inspires me all over again. Is it any wonder that I am compelled to fight, if necessary, to guard the results of my struggles?


Award-winning, best-selling author of women's romance fiction.

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