Monday, March 20, 2006

Bad news for research-based writers?

Lawyer: Da Vinci Code author's testimony should be treated with suspicion

The lawsuit lodged against Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code (link to illustrated edition, which is the way to go if you haven't read this yet), sends a chilling effect across writerdom.

The claim is that Brown borrowed heavily from a nonfiction book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The authors assert that Brown "appropriated the architecture" of their book -- their purportedly nonfiction book.

Now think about that. Brown writes a novel and draws from multiple nonficiton sources, weaving them together into a fictional story. The driving premise of the story is that the Holy Grail isn't a cup as most people believe, but is, rather, a person. (I won't add any more spoilers here, in case you haven't read the book and haven't been reading the news articles regarding this suit.)

But wait -- isn't that what all writers do? As a nonfiction writer, of necessity I must read many, many sources, especially original sources, as I can before I write my books. In fiction, too, I do my research ahead of time. Even when writing fantasy, authors can't slack on their research, lest they have Gnormous the Brave riding in full armor at full gallop all day on a brave pony, and later horse lovers everwhere write in to tell the author why that's impossible.

Delving into nonfiction works as part of one's research is an absolute necessity. Yet the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail seem to be saying that Brown stole the plot of their book.

Is their book nonfiction or is it not?

If Brown had written a nonfiction work that closely resembled the work of Baigent et al., the authors would have a case. If theirs were a work of fiction and Brown's novel resembled theirs in every way, they'd have a case.

But what they've produced is a work that they claim is nonfiction. Brown's novel turned their primary claim into the answer to the mystery that runs through The Da Vinci Code. Brown's characters and plot line are nowhere to be found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

If I were the judge in this case, the first thing I'd establish in this case is whether Baigent and his colleages believe their work is a scholarly and factual piece of nonfiction -- or if they believe it is fiction disguised as fact.

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