The Dangers of using Boilerplate Text In Your Writing

My friend author Twist Phelan pointed me to a NY Times article about comic Chris Elliott who, in researching his new comic novel  SHROUD OF THE THWACKER  on the web, inadvertently mistook an online spoof for genuine history and now has to share his royalties with the man he inadvertently stole from.

To his satirical 19th-century mix of gas-powered wooden cellphones and imagined New York landmarks like the original Ray’s Pizzeria, Mr. Elliott adds a minor but
intriguing character named Boilerplate, a robot said to be developed by the inventor Archibald Campion in the late 1800’s. According to a deliciously detailed Internet site that tracks the robot’s history (, Boilerplate was designed to replace humans in combat; it took part in Roosevelt’s campaign at San Juan Hill, joined the hunt for Pancho Villa, and fought in and, ultimately, disappeared during World War I.

But in fact, Boilerplate never was. It is the creation of Paul Guinan, an illustratorBp and graphic novelist in Portland, Ore., who with his wife, Anina Bennett, is the author of "Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate," published in July by IDW Publishing.

In the acknowledgments section of his book, Mr. Elliott says that Boilerplate came to
his attention thanks to research performed by his brother, Bob Elliott Jr. "You
can’t make up something like ‘Boilerplate,’ " Mr. Elliott writes. "Well you can,
but it’s a lot easier when your brother just shows you a picture of

Soon, Mr. Elliott heard from friends of Mr. Guinan, who said that he was considering legal
action for the "fairly blatant and quite unauthorized" lifting of a copyrighted

Elliott and Guinan reached an amicable financial settlement without having to bring in lawyers. This should be a cautionary tale for anybody who does their research on the Internet. Not everything that shows up in a Google search is fact.

16 thoughts on “The Dangers of using Boilerplate Text In Your Writing”

  1. “Nobody could possibly be that stupid.”
    If life has taught me one thing, it’s that that one statement is invariably false.

  2. DJM: I share a studio with Paul Guinan, the comic book artist who created Boilerplate. The story is real.
    Paul worked on his Boilerplate graphic novel and the accompanying site for years. It came as a huge surprise when he heard about Chris Elliott’s novel.
    Weird as it seems, the Boilerplate site fools a lot of people. Paul regularly gets email from people, even historians, who take the site at face value and don’t seem to have much of a problem with the idea that Theodore Roosevelt pioneered the use of robot infantry, or that Shackleton had a robot with him in Antarctica. Elliott at least recognized the absurdity- apparently he just assumed it was a Victorian hoax.

  3. Dusty is absolutely right, of course. People are that stupid.
    Honestly, though, as a former history professor, it saddens me that anyone could be idiotic enough to be taken in by such an obvious and silly hoax. TR and a robot? Sigh…

  4. I taught U.S. History and African-American History for several years before giving it all up for the glamorous life of a book critic.
    I wrote on historical subjects when I was in grad school, but haven’t since. For a while I considered expanding my Master’s thesis (on the War on Poverty) into a book, but ultimately decided against it. Historical monographs make good academic credits, but commercially they’re not very viable.

  5. Re:”obvious and silly hoax”
    Just to belabor a point here, I should note that the site was never intended as a hoax. It was a created to pitch and publicize a comic book about a talking robot. Paul’s intent was to amuse, not to deceive.

  6. Just to belabor a point here, I should note that the site was never intended as a hoax. It was a created to pitch and publicize a comic book about a talking robot. Paul’s intent was to amuse, not to deceive.
    It is amazing to me that this even has to be said. I despair that this site fooled anyone. I mean… really. Have we reached the point where even blatantly obvious fiction has to have a warning on it?

  7. “Historical monographs make good academic credits, but commercially they’re not very viable.”
    Alas, that’s my cross to bear at the moment. They have to be presented in a popular narrative, but the market is very averse to hearing about less than presidential figures, although David McCullough slips a few in. It’s a pity really and helps keep the public ignorant and in the dark.
    Nevertheless, I’m going to sell my 1775 book if it’s the last thing I do but I have no plans for another in history.

  8. I don’t think that publishers’ adversion to historical non-fiction keeps the public ignorant. The public’s ignorance is their own affair. There are scores of historical monographs on every conceivable topic published all the times. They’re just mostly from academic presses. But there are more books out there than anyone could possibly read. And I certainly don’t blame the commercial publishers for turning them away. There’s no market for these books. That’s the regrettable part.

  9. It is regrettable, but there is some market. Depends how narrow you go with the topic. The public will never search out journal articles. The guy that beat me wrote and sold a book on the same subject, Arnold’s March to Quebec with my relatives, from the very same sources. The difference? Ph.D, current job as a historian, and three previous entries from academic presses on the Civil War.
    That is unless he used material my research found and copyrighted then I’ll be in similar shoes as Lew. I’ll know in December since they, St. Martin’s, wouldn’t give me a galley being well-aware of me and my similar book.

  10. For those interested since the link at the publisher won’t hold after transfer.
    Through a Howling Wilderness
    Benedict Arnold’s March to Quebec, 1775
    Thomas A. Desjardin
    St. Martin’s Press
    256 pages
    Size: 5-1/2 x 8-1/4
    Pub Date: 12/2005
    ISBN: 0-312-33904-6
    “In September 1775, eleven hundred soldiers boarded ships in Newburyport, bound for the Maine wilderness. They were American colonists who had volunteered for a secret mission to paddle and march nearly two hundred miles through some of the wildest country in the colonies and seize the fortress city of Quebec, the last British stronghold in Canada.”


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