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How do I avoid legal repercussions for writing a story based on events in my life?

Mainly, I have experienced events that I would like to share with the world. These events are somewhat disturbing and would expose the truly spiteful side of an individual who has impacted my life in ways that have only made me stronger. I do not plan to focus on that individual, rather on the way my life was altered (and a big portion due to this individual's actions). This story would cover the struggle faced by women (by other women), culture and religion in the workforce.

Now that I have moved on, I continually recount my experience verbally and feel as though it would do better to spread the message and make an impact through the use of the written word.

How can I accomplish this?

[Edit: The legal repercussions I refer to include those from the individual, perhaps even the company that I worked for even though they are in no way at fault (except for having such an individual on their payroll).]

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Can you clarify: are you talking about legal repercussions from the people you mention in your book, or from the authorities because of what you will reveal of yourself in your book? –  Craig Sefton Apr 19 '11 at 16:57
    
Good question. I went ahead and updated the question. However, I should note, the individual themselves did nothing that could be deemed 'illegal' but plain immoral. –  timidlyunafraid Apr 19 '11 at 17:31
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5 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Before I give some suggestions, the best advice I can give you is speak to a lawyer directly about your personal situation. Unless there is one on the forum, I really wouldn't take any other advice as gospel, including what I'm going to say below. Also, legal issues will differ from country to country, so what's true in the US may not hold true in the UK (for example, if a book is published in the US and the UK, many authors and publishers are sued in the UK because of very favourable libel laws).

There is no substitute for good legal advice, so if you're serious about writing your work as a piece of non-fiction, pay for it. You won't regret it.

Having said all that, if you're afraid of repercussions from the individuals you mention in your book, I imagine the usual strategy is to change names, places, and appearances, at least enough so that they cannot easily be associated with the individuals in question. Also consider writing under a pseudonym. Girl With A One Track Mind was written with both of these strategies I believe. But, be warned, it can backfire when/if your name is leaked. The author of that book lost her career, and it deeply affected her personal life.

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This is the first time I've ever posed the question (written or verbally). I find your answer to be quite helpful, however, where I can hope to find legal advice? I mean where do you find such a lawyer. Also, I think changing names, places and appearances (places, mostly) would take away some of the luster and realism, but I guess that's another question for the lawyer. :) –  timidlyunafraid Apr 19 '11 at 17:29
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@timidlyunafraid - to find a lawyer in the US you could start with your local Legal Aid, if you've got one. Other than that, there's always Google. –  justkt Apr 19 '11 at 17:35
    
@justkt Of course, thanks. –  timidlyunafraid Apr 19 '11 at 17:38
    
Google, the yellow pages, something like that would work wonders. –  Adam Caverhill Apr 19 '11 at 19:40
    
In the US, you can also try to find the local Bar Association, describe your situation, and ask for a referral. –  David Thornley May 10 '11 at 2:03
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Definetly suggesting that you talk to a lawyer, it's simply the perfect advice. Alternatively, make sure you do not defame anyone and an especially safe move would be to change the names entirely to not make the individuals identifiable.

If if everything you say is true and unaltered it can still cause messy trouble down the line.

Still, talking to the lawyers is the best idea.

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Based on everyone's advice, I hope to write the story from beginning to end before I muster up the courage to see a lawyer (or anyone in the editing/publishing world for that matter). You mention that despite accuracy I could still ultimately face scrutiny at the legal level from the individuals I choose to document. However gory this may sound, and heck I'm willing to wait even after I'm long gone, would it help if I waited until they passed away? Couldn't the individual's family choose to pursue it? (I mean even if I alter the name, how many previous managers have I really ever had) –  timidlyunafraid Apr 20 '11 at 13:12
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Besides getting legal advice, which is a sound move, I suggest you make it happen somewhere else.

I saw you reply that it would take some of the luster, but think of the possibilities: you can change the place entirely (say, another city or country), you could enhance factors that would help your message come through. You'd have to set up the atmosphere just right, and having an invented place, or a half imagined one, would help you: a much too familiar site for the story might make you trip over the descriptions, and or skip some details, just because of the deep familiarity.

I'd suggest changing even the industry of the company you work(ed) at, if possible, and the gender of some people involved. Names being changed should only be the beginning, in my opinion.

If there's delicate matters, and your lawyer does recommend changing names and other stuff, then the best you can do is leveraging the changes.

Remember, just the way the setting in which you lived helped your situations happen, so can the setting you create in the book help the character's situations happen... so you'd have to set them parallel enough to carry your message. And your message, which is born of these situations, is what I think is most important, and is what can be best transmitted.

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Great advice, but wouldn't the drastic change require reclassification of the book's genre from nonfiction to fiction? –  timidlyunafraid Apr 22 '11 at 11:10
    
As in "Historial Fiction", such as Mario Vargas Llosa's "La Fiesta del Chivo", an excellent book which... well, sends the message it is intended to send. If the message is so important, then the means to make it go through can vary. –  iajrz Apr 29 '11 at 13:45
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Short & simple: State only facts that you can prove and how that factual occurrence affected you; DO NOT give opinions or interpretations on the character and motives of the other person - not even through adjectives describing what you perceived the other's emotions or reasons to be, or what you thought about it, stick to the affects that provable factual occurrences had on you. If you let malice or thoughts of revenge rule what you write, you had better be prepared for the stick you will be hit with.

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Here is how you can avoid legal repercussions when writing a non-fiction story based on events in your life:

  1. Don't libel anyone;
  2. Don't invade their privacy;
  3. Don't put them in a false light;
  4. Don't cause them emotional distress, either intentionally or negligently.

To know whether or not your manuscript blatantly does one (or more) of the above, you'll need to have a lawyer read it over and give you a legal opinion on whether or not you crossed the line. Of course, nothing can prevent your aggrieved ex-co-worker from still filing a lawsuit against you but at least you've done all you can to minimize the likelihood.

If your ex-co-worker was a well-known public figure then you are safer (at least in the U.S.) as the target of your writing would have to be able to demonstrate that you had actual malice towards them.

Worth reading author Terrance Blacker's thoughts on being read for libel.

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