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Writing Books/Fiction based on fact - legal ramifications

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Question
How far do you have to distance a fictional story from a real event and does it depend on it being personal or even hear say? The other thing is names, say you have met or know someone with the perfect name for a character? What can you use and not get sued, well sued but not lose.

Answer
Hello Jeff:

You have asked a good question. Fictional stories based on real events are published all the time. I can't give you legal advice, but my studies on libel law have revealed the following:

1. An author is free to use any fact of the event that can be verified, say, by newspaper stories about the event. Facts cannot be copyrighted, nor do they constitute libel. An author can fictionalize conversations and some deeds that might well have happened, or someone told them happened. Authors usually put a disclaimer in the front, to the effect that they have fictionalized certain elements.
2. "Hearsay" is a legal term used in connection with admission of evidence and has nothing to do with libel.
3. The author is also allowed to use someone else's name, even if they say something nasty about the character with that name. But don't use their town or their friends or family or anything else that might lead the average reader to identify them. To show libel, the person must prove (a) that the author has ruined their reputation by (b) telling lies about them, (c) that they have a reputation (read: income) capable of being ruined by you, and (d) prove by documentation that their income has so suffered. That's not easy to do, and requires quite an outlay of cash.

I wouldn't worry about it too much, for unless your book becomes a runaway bestseller, you are not likely to be troubled by anyone. If  you want more information, go to your search engine and type in "libel law." You'll get plenty of hits.
 
I hope this has helped. If it has, a nice rating would be greatly appreciated. I am proud of my high score over 280+ questions.

And good luck with your writing!

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Susan Rand

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I can answer questions about the elements of fiction and non-fiction writing: how to get started, writing techniques, re-writing, etc. I will NOT write for you, do critiques except from my website at http://pygmypress.com, or give you ideas. I will not answer home-or-schoolwork questions in any category. If English is your second language, please say so, and I will make an exception. Please submit no more than one or two questions at once, as I tend to go into detail in my answers.

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I wrote my first book in 1957 and have been writing and studying writing since. I have a BA in Written Communications, and have taught writing both privately and through adult education for 15 years. Have also edited (fiction books) for an online publisher and edited/wrote more than 100 articles for a teen sex education site. Currently writing web content and mentoring beginning writers.

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BA degree in Written Communication

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