1. PaulKemp24
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    PaulKemp24 Member

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    Legalities of a narrative nonfiction

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by PaulKemp24, Dec 26, 2012.

    I have an idea for a middle-grade narrative nonfiction and wanted to know what kind of legalities are involved with using the person's name in the book.

    This would be a narrative account based on the events that unfolded about 50 years ago that gave this person their 15 minutes of fame. This is not a famous person, just someone who did something pretty monumental as a child that made headlines at the time. So I would cast this person as the narrator and re-tell the story as a creative or narrative nonfiction -- a work of fiction based on actual events with some scenes recreated or even added in order to tell the story.

    It would be targeted toward middle grade, so something between 20-30k words and not too deep on all the details -- mostly just the bones of the story written for elementary age readers with the information from the story coming from credible sourses. If I were to make it an adult book, I would certainly track the person down and conduct my own interviews in order to get more in depth. But this would just be a "surface" story for readers in the 7-12 ballpark.

    The facts collected for the story would all come from credible sources -- mostly newspaper articles from the time as well as a couple interviews the person gave to the media later in life (this person is still alive) that recounted the story. I would include a "notes" section at the end to cite my sources for various recreations, etc. (My background is in journalism so I'm quite familiar with this aspect).

    So what would I be up against? Do I need permission to use the person's name given the understanding that this is a work of fiction? If so, what kind of process does that involve? Also, hypothetically, what if the person were no longer alive? Lastly, would using a fictional name of the person change anything as far as being able to attribute the book to that person's story? (Basically saying that the book is based on their experiences but all names have been changed)

    Thanks very much for any words of wisdom.
     
  2. Rose Hunt
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    Rose Hunt Member

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    I am not sure what you mean. You said it was a nonfiction book (first sentence). But then you say it is a work of fiction (second line last paragraph). Which is it?

    Apart from that, if it is a real story, using sources like newspaper clippings, why would you want to change the name? If you are teaching something to these kids, then teach it. If you want to write a fiction story based off it, then write a fiction story.

    However, there are many non authorized biographies floating around on famous people. I would assume this means that you can do what you want as long as you have evidence and are not intentionally ruining their life.

    Hope this helps.
     
  3. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    adult or children's book, you still must get a release from the person you are writing about... especially as s/he was not a major public figure... if no longer alive, you should contact surviving family members and ask their permission, to keep from being sued for any of several legal transgressions...

    changing the name and calling it 'fiction' won't necessarily let you off the hook, if the person or anyone who knows them can recognize them from the events recounted...

    you first said it was a 'non-fiction' book and then at the end of your post said ' given the understanding that this is a work of fiction?' so i am confused as to which you are actually writing...

    understand that i am not a literary attorney, so only speak from decades of work in and knowledge of the writing and publishing world... when in doubt, you should always consult an attorney who specializes in such media issues and not rely solely on well-meant advice given on writing sites...
     
  4. PaulKemp24
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    PaulKemp24 Member

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    Rose Hunt,

    I may not have done the best job of explaining. It would be a "narrative nonfiction," so think of like a Lifetime movie that is a true story but with a "Hollywood version." So scenes are re-created to resemble what likely took place and may contain details that were added "for dramatic effect." The facts used for re-creating those scenes are derived from newspaper accounts from the time that it happened.

    Example: A narrative nonfiction piece about Amelia Earhart. Earhart is the narrator so the story is told through her eyes. The story is based on real-life events but it reads like a novel ,not like a work of nonfiction (So it's written in first-person, not like a work of nonfiction which would read in third person). So Earhart is given a narrative voice to tell the story of her experience that is based on the facts that we know. So it would essentially be the "Hollywood version" of Amelia Earhart's life told through her eyes.

    Make sense? The genre of "narrative nonfiction" (also referred to as "creative nonfiction") can be somewhat of a gray area and is one that I really enjoy reading. I feel like my background in journalism and non-fiction writing gives me a good foundation for this and combined with my newly discovered passion for novel writing has me interested in working in this genre. I'm just not totally sure of all the legalities.

    I used to be a newspaper reporter and also a nonfiction magazine writer so I was always writing articles in the third person. Let's use a story about a bank robbery as an example ("Joe Smith walked into the bank with a gun.") But as a "narrative nonfiction," that piece would be written in the first person through the eyes of Joe Smith. ("My hands trembled as I pushed open the door to the bank with one hand while clutching the gun in the other. People began scattering the second I had my foot in the door.") So given that example, what legalities would exist concerning the use of Joe Smith's name for the main character? I would essentially be re-telling the true story of Joe Smith's bank robbery using him as the narrator.

    Hope that makes a bit more sense.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    For all but the most trivial legal questions, you should consult a literary attorney, not an Internet forum.

    Liability and defamation questions are anything but trivial, and the answer often depends on the details of what you are writing, and about whom you are writing it.
     
  6. Rose Hunt
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    Rose Hunt Member

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    Paul Kemp,
    I never knew that term before, but I have seen the Lifetime movies and read stories as such. I understand what you mean now. Thank you. However, I would follow Cognito's advice.
    Rose
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yep, talk to a lawyer. But I'd talk to a lawyer before investing any time to speak of in this, because I strongly suspect that it will either be impossible, or that the legal requirements will so thoroughly restructure the project that any prep work will be thrown away and restarted.
     
  8. PaulKemp24
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    PaulKemp24 Member

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    I agree with everything you say except for the "impossible" part. It's not as if this would be the first book of its kind. There are many books out there of this nature. In fact, many public school systems are now adopting books of this nature for their curriculum (the idea is that this style is more interesting for kids to read than the traditional third-person nonfiction "textbook" style). I was hoping there would be someone on here who has done this sort of thing that could weigh in.
     
  9. PaulKemp24
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    PaulKemp24 Member

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    Okay so I made my weekly visit to the library today and found a perfect example of what I'm getting at (I recognize that there is some confusion here as to what I'm talking about).

    There is a book called "A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie 'Peanut' Johnson" written by Michelle Y. Green. It is 17,523 words and categorized as middle grade nonfiction.

    The book is about Mamie Johnson (real person), a woman who played professional baseball briefly in the Negro Leagues (true story). However, instead of being written in third-person, it is written in first person with Johnson serving as the narrator of the story. So it is a nonfiction story that reads like a novel, with Green writing the narrative as the voice of Johnson. An excerpt:

    And the coach wouldn't let me wind up and pitch the way I liked. Instead, I had to pitch underhand, like I was throwing feed to a bunch of dumb chickens instead of trying to strike somebody out. I stuck with it as long as I could -- three whole games before I up and quit.
    "We'll get 'em next time, Mamie," the coach told me after we lost three games straight. "You're coming along just fine."

    So this is the style/genre I was referring to. A true story that's written in the form of a novel. I have what I feel like is a good story idea for something like this and based on the research I've done I haven't been able to find a book about it so it appears it hasn't been done yet (at least that I can find). I know I should contact a lawyer -- and if I decided to pursue this any further I would -- but I was wondering if anybody here had any experience with this style and could shed some light on what I should expect as far as sharing any royalties with the person, how to approach them with this and other things of that nature.

    Thanks again to everyone who is chiming in.
     
  10. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you write a dramatised book about a real person (this is the broad term for what you are describing), regardless of whether it is 17 K words or 117K, for kids or for adults, for curriculum or for sales, in first person or third person, you are assuming that your version of their life experiences is correct. How can you know that without ever speaking to that person? How exactly is a made-up work of semi-fiction in any way educational? What if you are wrong?
     
  11. PaulKemp24
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    PaulKemp24 Member

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    At this point in the thread I acknowledge that I would indeed need to contact the person and conduct my own series of interviews. That material could and would be supported by the media accounts of the story when it took place some 50 years ago. Additionally, the person would then be able to "sign off" or approve of the finished product.

    In anyone's experience, would the next step be trying to contact that person to see if they would be interested or contacting a lawyer first? I could save a lot of dough in lawyer fees if I contact the person first and learn that they are not interested in the first place. If they were, would I make an offer to share royalties or wait until that is broached by the subject? I'm sure there's a million other things I'd need to know if I were to take this on so I'm just fishing for something here. Maybe the "nonfiction" forum would be a better place to find some authors who have done something similar and could shed some light on the logistics of this kind of project.

    As I mentioned earlier, many public school systems are beginning to use historical fiction and creative or narrative nonfiction in place of traditional "textbook-style" reading assignments. So it seems as if there may be a niche for some fresh material.
     
  12. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I should have addressed this question: You're talking about a person who is alive, and who is not a public figure. I think that that changes the legalities a great deal. I don't want this to be impossible, but I think that alive/relatively recent/private individual may make it so--unless, of course, you get permission from the person in question.
     
  13. PaulKemp24
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    PaulKemp24 Member

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    I hear ya. That does make sense.
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...true!... however, with you having no clue to what is involved in such deals, you'd be at a great disadvantage if the person agrees and wants to know what you'd be offering... to have to admit you don't know how to go about it brands you a rank amateur and any person with smarts wouldn't want to trust their story to you...

    ...so, my best advice is to consult a literary attorney first and get clued in on what terms you must/can/should offer the person whose story you want to fictionalize... in re what that will cost you, as the old saying goes, 'it takes money to make money'...
     
  15. PaulKemp24
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    Good advice. Thanks!
     

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