Journalist gains readers when his copy turns up, unexpectedly, in a romance novel

Elements of Paul Tolmé's piece on black-footed ferrets end up as dialogue in a book by bestselling author Cassie Edwards, yielding new readers for him and charges of copying his prose for her.

photo illustration by scott wallace

It's late afternoon as Paul Tolmé strides purposefully through the western-motif lobby of the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel, wearing a backpack and toting a reporter's notebook. An easy guess would be that he's an outdoor writer here on assignment for a ski magazine. That guess would be accurate.

As the sun descends on snow-laden Mt. Werner, he's wrapping up a day spent covering a national championship. You probably wouldn't peg the athletic and distinctly masculine Mr. Tolmé as, say, a writer of romantic fiction. That estimation would be correct, too, except for one small detail.

Flip to Chapter 22 in the 2007 novel "Shadow Bear," by bestselling romance author Cassie Edwards, and there you'll read some of Tolmé's prose, virtually word for word. Another small but significant detail is that the text – originally published in an environmental magazine – was replicated in the historical novel without attribution, compensation, or consent from Tolmé.

The result is an odd and unexpected tale of its own. Almost overnight, Tolmé has become a minor celebrity in journalism and literary circles, not for anything he has written, exactly, but for a few of his words that showed up in the romance novel – unknown to him.

Suddenly, he has been inundated with e-mails from admirers, garnered hundreds of new readers and followers, and regularly gets asked by women to pose for pictures, preferably bare-chested with black-footed ferrets (more about that in a minute). He has become, in other words, a sort of character in a real-life romance novel – with intrigue and plot turns and even a little pulchritude.

"I got more attention from this single incident of plagiarism than I've gotten from anything else I've written in my 16 years as a journalist," says a bemused Tolmé.

• • •

The story of Tolmé's improbable rise starts as any good novel might, with an unwitting protagonist. In 2005, Tolmé penned a story about the plight of endangered black-footed ferrets in South Dakota for "Defenders" magazine, a quarterly publication of the Defenders of Wildlife.

In the piece, Tolmé wrote this description about the small mammals: "Related to minks and otters, they are North America's only native ferret.... Their closest relatives are European ferrets and Siberian polecats. Researchers theorize polecats crossed the land bridge that linked Siberia and Alaska to establish the New World population."

Two years later, Ms. Edwards published "Shadow Bear," a native-American-themed book set in 1850 South Dakota. Edwards, known for her meticulous research, includes a scene in which two characters are having a tryst in the bushes when they are, believe it or not, startled by a family of ferrets.

"I discovered they are related to minks and otters," pioneer woman Shiona Bramlett tells Shadow Bear. "It is said 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."

The two lovers continue with dialogue that parallels the ferret article for several paragraphs. The exchange seemed such a non sequitur that one reader got suspicious, and searched the sentences on Google. There she found a match to Tolmé's article. Then in early January, Candy Tan, cofounder of a romance fan blog, made the discovery public. "We're not accusing [Edwards] of anything," she says. "We basically just wanted the information out there for people to see."

A flurry of media attention followed. "It's odd and bizarre," reflects Tolmé. "At first, I was miffed. But the absurdity of this story about endangered ferrets appearing in a romance novel – it was beyond absurd."

Tolmé emphasizes that he doesn't harbor a grudge toward Edwards. "I'm not angry with her. It seems like she committed a sin out of ignorance," he says.

Edwards, for her part, says she never believed she was doing anything wrong or unethical. The author, who previously has declined comment to the media, agreed to a telephone interview from her Mattoon, Ill., home. Still distraught by allegations in published reports, Edwards wanted to tell her side. "When I write these Indian novels, I research to try to get everything authentic for the reader, every detail," she says. "I would never purposely lie or cheat. That's not the way I was raised. I want it all to be true. What I take from books are merely descriptions. The research is research. I don't want to put in things that are just made up."

Edwards, who has 10 million copies of 100 books in print, has been a romance novelist for 25 years. She has always relied on other sources to make her historical novels accurate, she says, and was never asked by any editor or publisher to cite them. "No one ever told me I should be doing it differently." Still, she adds, "from now on, I will let my editors know where I got the research," submitting a list of her sources with every manuscript. Edwards is under contract for two new books.

When the controversy first erupted, her publisher, Signet Books, an imprint of Penguin Group, said the accusations against Edwards were without merit, and that under the fair-use doctrine, an exception to copyright law, "anyone may use facts, ideas and theories developed by another author, as well as any material in the public domain." The statement also said that the practice of meticulously footnoting and citing every source was "virtually unheard of for a popular novel aimed at the consumer market."

Although the terms plagiarism and copyright infringement are used interchangeably, they are different. Plagiarism is primarily an ethical issue; copyright is a legal matter. To plagiarize means to take the work or ideas of another and pass it off as your own. This in itself is not illegal, unless there's also a copyright violation.

Still, for some observers, when it comes to use of another's words, the question of legality is secondary to ethics. "Even if it's legal, it's still in my eye completely unethical to pinch another's language without attribution in a novel," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at New York's Columbia School of Journalism. "A clear lift of dialogue by a novelist is a violation of the implied contract with the reader."

Allison Kelley, executive director of Romance Writers of America, agrees. "If you're using someone else's words, you're using someone else's words," she says. "And it's not acceptable to have that in a romance novel without permission or attribution."

• • •

While others in Steamboat are enjoying the snow-gauzed slopes this afternoon, Tolmé, clad in Levi's and a fleece zip-neck, is marveling at all the attention the incident has attracted. At one point, he wrote a commentary about it for "I spent most of the next few days answering e-mails," he says. "I was getting hundreds per day. They came from educators, librarians, authors, wildlife lovers, and naturally, romance fans."

Some romance readers chided him for deriding the genre. But most were sympathetic – and a few even "frisky." "I suddenly became the focus of adoration of all these women romance readers," he says, with a combination of embarrassment and wonder. "They wanted to see pictures of me shirtless." Preferably holding a ferret, and sporting Fabio-like long hair.

But he is grateful to romance fans – not just for the compliments about his aquamarine blue eyes and comparisons to Justin Timberlake. "I reached more readers than ever before because of the romance community," he says. "Isn't that what every writer wants – an audience?"

The ferrets, too, received an unexpected boon. Romance fans have raised more than $10,000 in donations for black-footed ferret conservation efforts. The fundraising idea came from novelist Nora Roberts, who pledged to match donations up to $5,000. The romance blog's Ms. Tan, who helped spearhead the drive, says, "We wanted to transform something that had left a bad taste in our mouths and turn it into something positive," she says.

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