No Living Persons Were Harmed in the Writing of this Novel

Or were they?Jane Davis

You know that text at the beginning of every novel? The bit that reads, This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously? Let’s explore that. 

Here’s fellow author Jane Davis, whose novel An Unchoreographed Life is one of the seven in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women. As an avid student of human life, I’m often tempted to slip real  people into fiction. Jane Davis sounds warning bells. 

Pitfalls of Writing Fact-based Fiction

I hold up my hands. I am guilty of being a scavenger of facts. There is nothing more flattering than when, after reading one of my books, people tell me their extraordinary stories and say, ‘I’d like you to write about it’. As with An Unknown Woman, sometimes I borrow elements from personal accounts, a snap-shot here, an emotion there, a potent and heart-felt line, but never the whole.

Any author who wants to stay out of court should consider two main areas of the law.

Jane Davis at workLibel

Libel is a false statement presented as fact of and concerning a person that causes damage to their reputation. Unfortunately, pointing out that yours is a work of fiction may not be enough to protect you.

John Green added an ‘author’s note’ at the front of A Fault in Our Stars: “This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.”

But not even this carefully-crafted statement would protect Green were a court to find that he had:

  • Included detail about a living person which enabled people who knew that person to recognise him or her, and
  • People who read what he had written about that person believed it to be true
  • The person suffered damage to reputation as a result

In 2009, a plaintiff was awarded $100,000 by a US court for a fictional portrayal that was recognisably her. The ‘Red Hat Club’ presented the plaintiff as a sexually promiscuous alcoholic. 

But even a case that doesn’t reach court can be hugely damaging, as author Amanda Craig discovered. In the mid-nineties, the publisher who had commissioned Vicious Circle – a satire that had been four years in the writing – pulled the plug. An ex-boyfriend Craig hadn’t seen for fifteen years (then a literary critic) had claimed that one of the book’s characters was based on him. All parties breathed a sigh of relief when the libel specialist consulted concluded that only ‘a lunatic’ would claim to be the character. But, when proofs were circulated, the ex-boyfriend sent the publisher a list of the similarities between him and the character, down to a pair of shoes he used to wear. Craig’s character was based on a number of men, one of whom was the ex-boyfriend. I am sympathetic. It is impossible to avoid writing what you know. A borrowed facial expression here, a quotation there. Dumped by her publisher, Craig again took legal advice, which thankfully only involved a handful of minor changes. A new deal negotiated and the novel was published, but for some time Craig lived with the worry that she might be sued.

The Right to Privacy Quote from Khaled Hosseini

So, you avoid falling into the trap of writing something potentially libellous by researching your subject thoroughly and only including events that you know to be true. You’re protected, right? Wrong.

Maria Bento Fernandes has been ordered to pay EUR 53,000 to her husband’s family (including her mother-in-law), after she revealed intimate details about their family life in her novel The Palace of Flies, published under a pen-name. When she appealed to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that hers was a work of fiction, they disagreed. A number of characters in her book were ‘exact replicas’ of her in-laws. However, rather than uphold the original decision, they ruled that the award should stand as the author had ‘failed to respect her in-laws’ right to a private life’. Christmas at the Fernandes will never be the same again.

A case reported on recently provides an interesting approach to counter-suing. Dr Brooke Magnanti published a blog about her life as a call-girl under the name Belle de Jour. At the time, she had a boyfriend who she referred to only as ‘The Boy’. But when the identity of Belle de Jour became well-known, her ex-boyfriend took her to court, claiming that his identity had also been exposed, that his privacy was breached and his reputation damaged. He also claimed that the book was based on fantasy and that Dr Magnanti had never really worked as a prostitute. And how does she react? It is reported that her defence team will counter-sue on the grounds that ‘The Boy’ has damaged her reputation by casting doubt on her life as a sex-worker.   

“But it’s MY story to tell”

Jane Davis in DorsetThat may well be true, but few of us live in isolation.

When I saw Esther Freud speaking about her autobiographic novel Hideous Kinky a few years ago, she admitted that she’d been surprised by her sister’s hurt reaction to some sections of the book, which she had felt to be about their relationship with their mother.

I have a sister who is less than a year older than me. As I know from her accounts of events from our childhood, my experiences were totally different. She disputes my versions. I believe each of us has our own truth. Memory is both subjective and can be affected by things that happen in between. As J M Coetzee is quoted as saying: “How can one even vouch for the truth of memories that are shared with no one else? 

Hilary Mantel said of telling her mother that she had written her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost: “What she heard was `I’ve written a book about you’”.

So if you must borrow from life, please be nice.

An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis

About Jane

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos.  She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she had wanted after all. In search of a creative outlet, Jane turned to writing fiction. She cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish her first 120,000-word novel.

Her first, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Five self-published novels have followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreographed Life and now her latest release, An Unknown Woman. Jane’s favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’

You can get that latest novel An Unknown Woman on Amazon by clicking right here.

Here is Jane’s website. She’s also on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.

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, do you put real ppl into your novels? Good advice from

What Happens When Writers Meet?

Writing is a solitary life. It’s just you and the page, though, all being well, some words eventually show up. If you write novels, you may fashion some wonderful characters, but you still don’t see other people.

Going out in public once in a while is a good idea but it takes an effort. It might even mean getting dressed and putting a set of teeth in.

It’s totally worth it because, as you know, everyone’s fascinated.  Mention you’re a writer and people invariably say “How interesting.”

Royal typewriter

Sadly, the interest rarely lasts. Those same people want to tell you all about the novel they have inside them (it’s often the one that shouldn’t get out). But all a writer really wants to do is talk about their own work. After a while, few can put up with us because we either bore them to death about our books flying off the shelves at the speed of light, or bore them to death because our masterpieces are Superglued to the bottom of the Amazon rankings.

It’s sometimes the same with significant others, so the writer skulks off to the shed or spare room to keep out of the way. At this point SO usually gives a look that suggests you’re engaging in solo activities of an adolescent nature.

But it’s good to get out. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with back pain, constipation, low mood and worse: obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even breast and bowel cancer. It’s estimated that globally lack of exercise causes 5.3m deaths a year, which is roughly the same as smoking. 

There’s a lot to be gained by meeting other authors. It’s really not the same as communicating online, as fellow indie author Kevin Booth points out in a recent blog post.  When we meet, we can learn a lot from each other, in a casual, friendly and effective way.  

We’re not all introverts. Writers are often outgoing. As Kevin says

There’s a particular chemistry that seems to engage when a group of writers get together over a glass of something. If people find it difficult to stay on-topic, it’s because they are sparking creatively off each other and raising new questions that they hadn’t previously considered. I don’t think the online experience has yet been able to replicate this.

Some like meeting to critique, but other authors hate talking about their work in progress. I sometimes worry about Schrödinger’s novel. Let even a chink of light in, and the book dies. While it’s still safely in the dark box of the mind, it could be either alive or dead.

Schrödinger’s cat, you’ll recall, is based on quantum physics. Until the box is opened, the cat could be either alive or dead, or indeed, a touch of both. 

Personally, I don’t have many doubts about the cat. If you can’t hear it inside the box, scrabbling to get out, then it’s probably dead. Cats may like boxes, but they want to choose their own. Nobody should ever put a cat into a container without food, water, ventilation, and a clean kitty litter tray.

cat in box

But back to meeting other authors. Do writers bitch and argue when they meet? Hardly ever. Apart from the fact that we’re a nice bunch of people, or so I like to think, we’re also mighty relieved to find like-minded company. We enjoy each other’s books and don’t mind saying so. And, when someone is super-successful, it’s inspiring to remember that it can happen to people not so very different from ourselves. We can celebrate other writers’ triumphs, just as we commiserate over setbacks like paltry advances or poor sales.

There’s no place for petty jealousy. Out there are many millions of readers. No one author, not even one several times as prolific as Barbara Cartland, could produce enough books to keep the whole world happy.

If you write but don’t have a writing group nearby, why not start one? Self-published authors might like to join the Alliance of Independent Authors.author-member ALLi

ALLi (pronounced ‘ally’, appropriately) is a global non-profit association of author-publishers. They offer connection and collaboration, advice and education, and, importantly, also campaign to further the interests of self-publishing writers everywhere.

I come back from local ALLi meetings with a spring in my step. Here’s more of what Kevin Booth has to say on the ALLi blog about face-to-face meetings.

Every reason for getting up from your desk, then.

How to Go Up in the World in Just Four Steps

Now that Dan’s out, he’s on the up. going up in the worldFirst off, he needs to find work.  The snag?  How to explain away six years at Her Majesty’s pleasure.  Inventing a job abroad might fill that big gap on his CV.  Lucky he’s got a good imagination.  You don’t get very far without one, in his experience.

Dan is one of the characters from my novel One Night at the Jacaranda.  In this post I’m letting him out to share his current MO with you.

Dan needs to learn stuff.  That’s step two.  He reads a quality paper every day now. Cover to cover.  At the public library, if it hasn’t already been nicked.  Or he might find one in a bin.  Some days he has to pay for one.  newspapers

And he listens.  You can learn a lot from people, especially when they don’t even realise what they’re saying.  That’s when you discover things.

He chooses his own words carefully.  From a dictionary he got at the charity shop.  That’s step three: not sounding like a lag anymore.  Course, when you’re inside you want to sound like everyone else, because bad things are even more likely to happen when you don’t fit in.

Oxford Reference Dictionary

A lot of his new words are adjectives.  Easier to slip into conversation than nouns.  How the fuck would you shoe-horn a word like behemoth into a chat with the bint on the till at Iceland?  Yesterday he just about managed to use contiguous.

definition of contiguous

That was when the old biddy behind him pushed her shopping right up next to his on the belt.  He’d have let her go first, especially seeing as she only had a pint of milk and a packet of Rich Teas, but then he wouldn’t have been able to say contiguous. So he just put a divider up on the belt.

Today’s word of the day is egregious.  Means outstandingly bad, but so far he’s only managed to use it once, even though he waited an age for the 16 bus and when he got on it ponged of rotten fish.  Which is about as egregious as it can get.

Fourth and most important of all:  he’s looking for a woman.  Nobody said these four steps would be easy, but he’s got a good feeling in his bones.

Yep, there too. 

Where on earth can you meet someone?

When you’re 30-something, it’s tough to meet people.  I know a couple who met on an allotment, but, when I tried growing vegetables, all I pulled was a bunch of deformed carrots.

Laura has a similar problem.  At uni, men were young, plentiful and persistent.  Now it’s a different story.

She dreams she’ll randomly meet a hot guy while out shopping.  He’ll have eyes like molten chocolate and a French name like Yves.  They’ll swap phone numbers and then – well, the rest will be in soft-focus.   shoppingIn point of fact, the only time she spotted anyone attractive in a shop, she up-ended her handbag in the aisle.  Instead of helping her collect coins and tampons off the floor while begging for her number, the guy turned away and carried on studying tea-bag prices.

Back to dating websites then.  Where she’s 34, called Emma, pretends she’s not a lawyer, and gives a fake phone number.  It’s a pay-as-you-go mobile she can easily discard.  All those phoney layers will have to come off if (or when?) when she meets someone nice.  She’ll cross that bridge when she gets to it.

Geoff is another character out of my forthcoming novel.  He’s a newly divorced doctor, and the nice pay packet no longer makes up for sky-rocketing patient demand and new government diktats every other day.  During his years working in hospitals, women threw themselves at him, and academic awards came equally fast and thick.  stethoscopeBut he’s been a GP for over 10 years now, and the sea is remarkably empty of fish.  GMC guidelines forbid relationships with patients, and he doesn’t fancy the new receptionist, even if the patients adore her.   Plus there’s a new problem now.  He can’t perform as he once did.

Geoff returns the call to the nursing home.  Bad news: 94-year old Mrs Montgomery fell out of bed again so he’ll have to visit.  She seems fine, they say, but as always the staff want to ‘cover’ themselves.

Get yourselves a duvet, thinks Geoff as he gets into his car.

Karen, now.  Men haven’t exactly been beating a path to her dilapidated front door.  No, her best friend tells her, the meter reader doesn’t count.

Newly single, Karen has 4 children and no job.  She’s still confident she’ll meet someone eventually, even if all the evidence so far is against it.

After a clear-out, today she’s headed for the recycling centre.  It’s on her way to the hairdresser’s for a much overdue appointment, via the shoe repairers and the bank.  Why spend more on petrol than you have to?  Karen doesn’t obsess about her appearance, especially when she’s busy cramming her clapped-out Toyota with bags of garden refuse, broken toys, mouldy trainers, 994-piece puzzles, and clothes that her kids have worn to death.recyclingParking her car in front of the containers, she notices a man in a green T-shirt unloading a wardrobe from the back of his estate car.  Nice buns.

He turns to face her.  It’s a Nike T-shirt, and more to the point he has a great smile.  She makes eye contact and returns the smile with a Hi, ready to talk about the wardrobe, or anything really.

He clocks her, but his smile promptly fades.  In fact he hot-foots it back to his car, driving off a lot faster than the 5 mph limit.

When she gets to the hairdresser’s, Karen is ashamed to see in the mirror just how bad her roots have got, how much garden rubbish she has on her sweatshirt and, in short, how bad she looks.

Michael knows exactly where to meet women.  After all, he’s an accountant, so he’s got it planned down to the last detail.  That’s how he does everything, even watching porn.

More to come in my novel on dating. Meanwhile why not take a moment to share your experience of meeting people? I’d love to hear your tips too.

‘Am I in your book then?’

If you’re rash enough to tell your friends you’re working on a novel, they’ll be dying to know if they’re in it.bookshelf crop

If? What am I saying! Of course you’ve told them. Blabbing about work in progress may stifle the muse, but the people in your life need to know why you stay in every night with your laptop and a bag of Doritos, thumbing through old Lands’ End catalogues in the vain hope of overcoming writer’s block.

So back to that pesky question. ‘Am I in your book?’

Of course they’re not. Yet no matter how many times you reply that it’s fiction, goddammit, they expect a cameo role, minimum.

If you don’t shoehorn them in, they’ll assume you don’t find them interesting enough. So they dangle tempting revelations. ‘You do know I was George Clooney’s girlfriend/chauffeur/manicurist? And did I tell you about the time I wrestled three KGB men under water?’

I usually reply ‘Cool. But it’s not that kind of book.’

Some people plead to be put into prose. Even non-fiction. Does Michele really want to end up in the chapter on personality disorder? Now that’s serious attention-seeking.

Yes, it would be great to use real characters. There are folks I’d love to transplant wholesale into a book, where they’d take root and flourish. Sadly, I can’t put in any of the wonderful patients I’ve seen over the years, even if it would save my imagination a lot of pointless exertion.

Then there are colleagues past and present: devoted, brilliant, arrogant, disillusioned, or dead drunk. No surprise I’ve got a doctor is in my forthcoming novel. Geoff is burnt out and now, going through a mid-life crisis, he wonders if he really does make people better. I like to think he comes across as authentic. All the same, he’s not real, nor is he based on any one person in particular. And he’s definitely not you, even if you have erectile problems and a cute son with asthma.

If you’ve already written your work of fiction, you’re doomed because family and friends always think they’re in it. What part of the word ‘fiction’ is so hard to get?

Real people don’t go in novels (though there are exceptions, like Princess Margaret in Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope). Here’s why.

1. When you finally get off your sofa you won’t have any friends left.
2. The UK is the libel capital of the world. For more on what can happen, see John Preston’s recent Sunday Telegraph piece The Murky World of Literary Libel.

Fellow writers, I’d love to hear your views.