When Your Novel Quotes a Real Source

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Careless quoting is a writing crime. Fiction or nonfiction, a writer must be scrupulous in quoting words precisely and crediting their source. Most publishing contracts hold the author liable for misrepresentations and plagiarism, but even without that legal pressure, a writer, of all people, should naturally respect the intellectual property of others.

Writers of historical fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, and books for children often handle source materials that provide background and authenticity to their stories. Sometimes they quote from published or unpublished writings; sometimes they quote from speeches or interviews or online videos. But the way they credit their sources ranges from providing pages of detailed citations to providing—nothing.

Let’s take a closer look at the writer’s challenges and responsibilities.

Who Said It, and What Did They Say?

Who said “There’s a sucker born every minute”? How about “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? If you answered P. T. Barnum and Marilyn Monroe, you’d be wrong, although you can easily find those sayings—or something similar—attributed to them.

And then there are times when a person really did say or write the words being quoted, but someone else deserves the credit for saying or writing them first. There are also famous “quotations” that will probably stick forever to the wrong source, even though, for example, most of us know by now that “Elementary, my dear Watson” doesn’t appear in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Verifying the source and wording of a quotation might seem easy today: just ask Google. But misinformation is rampant online. Type the wrong spelling of a name or a brief quotation into a search engine, and you’re sure to see some “verifications.” (E.g., is it “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” or “seldom make history”? You tell me.)

For all these reasons, going to the original is the safest way to check a quotation and its source. It may seem like an inconvenience, but it’s what novelists and journalists have always done, even in the days when it meant rooting through library catalogs in person or waiting for documents to arrive in the mail. Solid research is what gives authority and authenticity to the best writing.

Look for primary sources at the websites of libraries, archives, and booksellers where you can view an image of the original page, transcript, or video. If the original no longer exists or is difficult to access, secondary sources are your next best bet. Sections 3.1–4.6 of the CMOS bibliography list excellent dictionaries and general reference works that can help with checking quotations and sources. Many are available online.

Reference librarians are a terrific resource for tracking down a source. Many local and online libraries offer this service. And as of this writing, libraries are still free to join! It’s a miracle of modern life. If you don’t have a library card and are able to get one, don’t hesitate. (See “How to Sign Up for a Library Card from Home.”)

When a Quote Can’t Be Verified

If you find it impossible to verify a quotation or its source, reconsider using the quote. You don’t want to risk your reputation and credibility. But sometimes there’s a way to finesse it. Two popular ploys are to hedge and to paraphrase.

Hedging a Source

In contexts where it doesn’t really matter who said something, it’s OK to hedge with a phrase like “often attributed to” or “is traditionally quoted as saying.” Famous proverbs and sayings without a clear origin (“Practice makes perfect”) are fair game for parroting without attribution.

In plays and poems and novels, fictional narrators and characters are free to misquote and misattribute all they like, as long as it isn’t libelous. But when they do, it should be to show the ignorance of the character, not the writer. The writer should know exactly what source is being mangled and why.

Paraphrasing a Quotation

When you’re unable to verify an exact wording, you can sometimes resort to paraphrasing or summarizing. Paraphrasing can also work well to shorten lengthy quotations or cut down on the number of quotations. And it’s an excellent way around reproducing a passage that contains errors or typos.

When paraphrasing, it’s fine to shift unimportant words into your own sentence without quoting them. Distinctive, original words should be quoted, however.

Original from a 1916 national park tour book (made up by me): This flower can hide its neon glory under several feet of snow.

Paraphrased: A Yosemite park ranger claimed in 1916 that this type of flower blooms even under deep snow.

Paraphrased and quoted: A Yosemite park ranger wrote in 1916 that this type of flower “can hide its neon glory” under deep snow.

Be careful: A 1916 tour book is likely to be in the public domain and therefore fair game. But otherwise, a very close or extensive paraphrase is tantamount to stealing. And when you paraphrase someone’s words instead of quoting, you still need to name the source. (For examples, see “Let’s Talk about Plagiarism.”)

More than Words

Reproducing someone else’s words verbatim doesn’t guarantee the proper use of a quotation. It’s important not to blur or misrepresent the speaker’s or writer’s intentions. Grabbing a few words and plopping them into a different context can be wildly misleading. You know what I mean—we see it all the time in advertisements and political debate. Likewise, using a statement that was made in jest or with sarcasm and presenting it without qualification is the same as lying.

Even if the writer’s purpose is to make the original speaker or writer look good, changing the context is sleazy and reprehensible.

Permissible Changes to a Quotation

That said, there are a few things you’re allowed to change in a quotation for readability and aesthetics. For instance, if the published source used hyphens or en dashes where longer em dashes are standard, it’s OK to change them. It’s also normal to change British- or Canadian-style quotation marks to US style. Quietly correcting an obvious, innocuous typographical error is sometimes an option. You can find detailed advice on permitted changes to quotations at CMOS 13.7. Or get the main points here at the blog (“Section 13.7 in the Spotlight”).

Note that permitted changes are confined to the cosmetic. It’s not OK to change the wordings or spellings in a quoted passage into US or British English or conform them to match a style guide.

“Fictionalizing” Source Material

Some genres, such as historical fiction and informational or educational fiction, purposely mix fact and fantasy. Real persons may be used as characters for whom the writer creates situations and dialogue that never actually happened. When putting words into the mouths of living people who might sue for libel, the custom is to rename and at least thinly disguise the character (although that’s no guarantee of safety).

Political or journalistic creative nonfiction writers or novelists who quote real people may be protected by free-speech laws if the quotations are accurate. Any such work should be carefully vetted by attorneys before publication.

Disclaimers are another way to handle this kind of source material. Amber Ruffin and Lacey Lamar printed the following on the copyright page of their 2021 memoir, You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism: “Where dialogue appears, the intention was to re-create the essence of conversations rather than verbatim quotes. Names and identifying characteristics of some individuals have been changed.”

Some publishers will insist on providing notes in the back of the book explaining what’s fact and what’s fiction and providing sources for every real quote; others may agree to let readers wonder but will want a list of sources for their files. It’s a good idea to keep detailed notes on sources just in case. Trying to reconstruct them later could be a nightmare.

Giving Sources

A writer can identify the source of a quotation in various ways, from casual to rigorous, depending on how the quote is used and whether readers will be satisfied with the level of attribution.

Naming the Speaker or Writer

Simply naming the source is the simplest, most casual level of attribution. For a famous quote or text no longer under copyright, that might be enough, especially if you qualify or paraphrase. In a novel or short story, you might even omit quotation marks if the original is commonly known and repeated.

Benjamin Franklin wrote “Haste makes waste” or Ben Franklin wrote that haste makes waste.

Michael Jordan claimed he never tried to be like anybody else.

I was a big reader then. Reading shaped my dreams. You know—like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a search online, I easily found images of the original published sources for the Ben Franklin and Michael Jordan quotations. In the second version of the Franklin quote, I left out the quotation marks because the saying is so famous that it’s become proverbial. I omitted quotation marks from the Jordan quote because those aren’t his exact words (which I quote below).

Although I found “Reading shaped my dreams” attributed to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on everything from pillows to fridge magnets, my superficial search didn’t locate a single source citation for it in her speeches or writings (not even, surprisingly, in this Town & Country magazine article, which includes a dozen unsourced Ginsburg quotes). In that case, I decided a lack of quotation marks might be justified in a fictional character’s narration as a way to signal that “Reading shaped my dreams” is more of an allusion than a quotation from an identifiable source.

Citing Casually

When a full citation isn’t an option but you sense that readers will appreciate knowing something more about a quote than simply who said it, tell where you found it but skip the details (publisher, date, etc.).

All Jamie wanted was to “Be like Mike.” Ironic, given that in Driven from Within Jordan himself wrote, “I have never tried to be like somebody else.”

In The Way to Wealth Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Nothing gives an author so great pleasure, as to find his works respectfully quoted by others.”

Citing in Full

The highest level of attribution is to give a full-blown source citation. This is rarely seen in the narrative part of a novel, but it’s common for source citations to appear in historical novels, creative nonfiction, and books for children—especially picture books that put words into the mouth of a historical figure. Citations or shorter acknowledgments normally appear in the back of the book in an author’s note or bibliography; if there are only one or two citations, they may appear on the copyright page.

Miles Harvey provides over sixty pages of note citations in his novel-like 2020 biography of con man James Strang, The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch. Children’s book writer Kate Hannigan likewise documents her middle-grade historical fiction (such as The Detective’s Assistant in 2015 and Boots in 2021) with pages of source citations in the back. Nonfiction children’s books typically include citations and more. Hannigan’s 2022 Blips on a Screen features seven pages of back matter, including citations, discussion questions, a timeline, archival photos, and an explanation of the four steps to patenting an invention.

A page of full citations at the end of the picture book Blips on a Screen: How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession, by Kate Hannigan, illustrated by Zachariah OHora (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022).

How to Cite a Source

Writing a basic footnote or endnote or other source citation in Chicago style (the style used by most US trade book publishers) isn’t hard. You can find examples of how to cite a book, article, interview, website, social media, etc. online in the free CMOS Citation Quick Guide.


Creative writers have just as much responsibility as scholars to acknowledge the words of others when they borrow them. However, they have more flexibility in how they do it, whether they attribute by name only, throw in a short citation, or provide a fully written out footnote.

If you aren’t sure what level of attribution is required or appropriate, see CMOS 4.72–105 for advice on quoting with and without permission. You can also read about fair use here at Shop Talk.

Regardless of your approach to quoting and attribution, keeping detailed notes on sources is smart. An agent, editor, or publisher may require you to provide your sources for quotations before publishing your work, whether or not they end up in the book. If an editor isn’t satisfied with the level of attribution you’ve chosen, you won’t be stuck scrambling to find what you need.

Top image of speech bubbles by liftarn, courtesy Open Clipart.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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3 thoughts on “When Your Novel Quotes a Real Source

  1. Thank you for this excellent resource. I’ve shared it with my writing group. This question arises frequently.

  2. in fiction, I have used biblical references in a statement ‘I am paraphrasing here, but God’s promise . . .’ or ‘I know this is out of context but please the Bible says to choose life, not death.’ Is that acceptable?

    • Thanks for asking, Anonymous! A good way to decide is to think about your readers. If you’re pretty sure they know the Bible in and out, you’re probably fine. But citing chapter and verse will help readers who don’t know the Bible as well as you do. Or, if you want to establish credibility, a citation will make it easy for readers to check your claim about what the Bible says. The point is to give information when it’s useful and dial it back when it would only get in the way.

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