Friday, November 16, 2018

Writing about People You Know: Do You Need to Get Permission?

A reader from Connecticut is finishing up her new novel this month, getting ready to send it out to agents.  She sent me a good question that often plagues writers right before their work goes out into the world. 

"I believe it was Barbara Kingsolver who said she sends her finished manuscripts to family for final approval," this writer wrote.  "If there's anything there that offends them she takes it out.  Since there are a few true intimate details in my novel that helped develop my fictionalized characters who were originally based on real people, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on that."

Any writer who bases fictional characters on real people (as most of us do, to some extent) or writes about real places and eras runs the risk of offending readers by inaccuracy or similarity.  A common joke among novelists is friends and family scouring their books to see where they appear.  

But this reader's question addresses more than just offending those you know and love (or not).  There's also a legal ramification, and although I'm far from versed in this, legal counsel at my publishers have always suggested a disclaimer added to the copyright page:  "Any resemblance to real locations or real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental."  That's pretty standard.

When my novel, Qualities of Light, was published, and because it did refer to real locations, I added this line:  "Although some of the Adirondack towns and communities in this story are loosely based on real places I have lived in and loved, I changed significant details to make them fictional."  That covered it, as far as I was concerned.  I did worry, slightly, about one character and very small-town location that closely resembled a real person and a real bar, but I changed as much as I could, just keeping the flavor of the place and making the real person, not well liked, someone sympathetic.  I figured that would erase any resemblance.  

One of my nonfiction books, How to Master Change in Your Life, is a hybrid self-help/memoir.  I included a handful of stories from friends and colleagues about ways to handle different kinds of change.  Although my story predominated, I made sure to get written permission from each example I used that wasn't mine.  Again, the publisher helped; we drafted a simple release form that included the edited story and had each person sign it.  Only one came back later to complain, and I thought seriously about removing her story from the next edition.  Legally, I was covered, but personally, I wanted to honor her concern.  We talked it out and the story remained in the book.  But I was glad I had done my homework ahead of time.

Fiction writers feel they are immune, but what if their readers do recognize themselves and the relationship is harmed?  Here's a group of great resources for you to browse this week, if this is one of your concerns.  If the links don't work, just go to the publication's home page and search for the article title.

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