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Writing Books/Fiction based on facts

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QUESTION: I am in the process of helping an attorney write a book about some interesting homicide cases that he prosecuted.  It is actually a book that will have a collection of stories based on actual cases.  The attorney wants me to write it as fiction but based on the facts of the case.  How do I do that?  Do I change all the names and actual places of those involved and how subtle or broad should I fictionalize it?    I'm stumped.

ANSWER: CJ:

Essentially, what your attorney is asking for is fiction along the lines of TV shows like Law & Order.  They take things from the news, then change things up so that only the generalities can be recognized.

So, yes... essentially you'd be changing as much as possible while keeping the really central issues the same.  For example, you could change the players involved by changing their ages considerably, or their genders, their line of work, etc.  Change locations... and so on.

Let's say your true story is about a string of murders perpetrated by a retired banker in Chicago who strangled only twins.  Your fictionalization could be about a middle aged plumber from Iowa who kills twins by bludgeoning them to death with a crescent wrench.  The real issue in this case is the fixation on twins, so you'd want to keep that the same.  Other things can be tweaked.

Does that help?

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Second question:  How would you utilize the names involved in the actual cases?  I would like to use the actual names of the people involved or at least the first names but the story seems to be lacking something without using some sort of last names.  Can I use actual last names or do I make up last names?  

Thank you for your reply to my first question.

ANSWER: Since the attorney is asking for a Law & Order type of thing... no... you'd need to change the names.  And as I said before, you may wish to change a lot more than that, too.  The goal with fictionalizing something is to make it not easy to identify the source, for whatever reason.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: This is the issue, the attorney wants to keep the first names the same but not use the last and in one instance, he wants to use both first and last name of one particular person because the name holds significant meaning.  How can I do this without causing legal issues?

Answer
First... this is odd, because I replied to this follow-up, only AllExperts is now saying I didn't, which leads me to believe you never got it.  Not sure what sort of internal glitch happened there, but I'll repeat what I said...


The thing I have to wonder about all this is: WHY does the attorney want to use real first names and, in one case, an actual full name, if he wants it to be fictionalized?  That sort of defeats the purpose, and I'm amazed he's not seeing this.  After all, the purpose of fictionalizing something is typically to avoid hurting people or to avoid lawsuits.  By throwing real names in there, you're just inviting that.

So in short, my answer would be "Hell, no."  If you're fictionalizing it, then fictionalize it fully.  Your attorney here is playing with fire.

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Vincent M. Wales

Expertise

I am a speculative fiction novelist (fantasy, science fiction, and so on). While I may be able to answer questions on non-fiction, my specialty is fiction. Please keep that in mind when asking questions.

Experience

For four years, I taught a series of fiction writing classes in Sacramento, CA.

Education/Credentials
BA in fiction writing.

Awards and Honors
My 2004 novel, ONE NATION UNDER GOD, won BEST FICTION in Fresh Voices 2006, BEST FICTION and BEST YA FICTION in the NCPA Book Awards, and placed as a finalist in BEST BOOKS 2005. In 2002, my novel WISH YOU WERE HERE won awards for Best Fantasy and Best Fiction/Drama in the 8th Annual SPA Awards. My latest work is a trilogy titled THE MANY DEATHS OF DYNAMISTRESS (a superhero memoir). The first book, RECKONING, was released in 2013 and won the SF category in the 2014 San Francisco Book Festival, took second place in the 2013 Royal Dragonfly Book Awards for the SF/Fantasy/Paranormal category, second place in the SF category of the 2013 Reader Views Reviewers Choice Awards, and was finalist in Foreword's 2013 Book of the Year Awards, Fantasy category. The second book, REDEMPTION, will be released in early 2015 and the final book, RENAISSANCE, is scheduled for release in late 2016.

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