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I am writing a novel, and part of the plot has one character killing another in a specific real-life location. I mean the setting is extremely specific - for example, a particular hotel, or one particular ferry.

I'm worried that portraying violence in a specific location might be frowned upon by the real-life owners. I don't want to be sued because they don't like how I've used their property, or because they think I'm slandering them.

Can I be sued for this kind of writing? And if so, what can I do now, in the writing stage, to avoid that possibility?

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Have you spoken to the owners? Do you have particular reasons for thinking they may take issue with this, or is this just anticipation of the general unease that many people would have? Does the story have to take place in this specific place, or can it be fictionalized? – Neil Fein Aug 15 '12 at 5:40

3 Answers 3

You cannot be sued for slander, that is another category of tort and doesn't involve the written word. If you intend to use a real location, (a specific location as the question suggests, one that can be pinpointed down to an address), you CAN be sued for libel, but again, libel is also intended to protect people, their business and reputation; less so places. If you keep specific, identifiable information out of the novel it is unlikely that a libel suit would follow, even if the owner and neighbors can tell which property is being discussed in the story; the problem and liability comes in when the PUBLIC can ID the property based on your story.

If the book is clearly labeled as "FICTION," then the answer, though still yes, carries two caveats:

  1. A judge will most likely toss it if the complainant is suing based on printed prose regarding a place as opposed to a person or business. Especially if there is no way for a jurist to logically connect a specific address with the story.

  2. Even using the name of a small town, street or community is not specific enough for libel. Would be best to create a fake address (if needed) and modify the description of the property. If you are compelled to be SO specific about a location and description that it could potentially ID the address and the resident/owner--yes they can sue -- a competent judge would look it over (you don't want that)...whether or not they can win is an open question for a jury. If you do in fact plan to publish a real address, you are probably violating the privacy of whomever lives there --> THAT is a civil tort you can easily be sued for libel AND more you'd be more likely to lose.

Note: In the US, the 1st amendment gives us WIDE latitude to say anything we want, but the Supreme Court ruled that we have a right to privacy. "My rights end where yours begin," so If I violate YOUR privacy, I've over-extended my right to print whatever I want. In this instance, not a crime, but certainly a good civil-action attorney could prove physical, emotional or financial damage.

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To avoid possible problems, you could perhaps be less specific, or make up a fictional hotel or ferry to set the murder in. Depending on the way you write it, could be considered damaging to the reputation of the hotel. If they take offense, I believe they could take you to court - I don't know exactly how much trouble you can get in for libel for this sort of stuff, but to be on the safe side I would suggest not using a very specific location. :)

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Option A: "Welcome Monsieur Debarge to your cabin on the Caspian Rapide, the luxury train service that will take you on a journey from London through to Istanbul," the guard said as the famous Belgian detective came aboard.

Option B: "Murder!" Lady Glintington cried, aghast. "On the Orient Express? I believed that this was one of the safest train services in the world!"

"Normally so," Debarge said the inflections of his French-Canadian accent bringing a particular gusto to his authoritarian tone. "The perpetrator of this wicked crime must have been exceptionally determined and resigned to capture. For only a fool with little care for their own freedom and safety would dare to execute such a heinous crime in such an environment."

Option C: Just don't worry about it. It's only if you go into territory that suggests that heinous acts of murder most foul are the norm in the selected location and the owners of the location actively encourage carnage and anarchy that you'd probably be getting a raised eyebrow or two. As long as it is made plain that the situation is out of the ordinary the location is usually deemed fair game for adding dramatic spice, particularly if the venue is open to the general public.

Matthew Reilly set his gladiatorial SF thriller Contest in the Library of Congress, Dan Brown set Angels and Demons in the Vatican City. If in the latter Brown had depicted the Vatican as an organisation of loose morals and casual atrocity he might have attracted the wrong type of attention to his tedious pot boiler. Because the Vatican largely performed its expected function with various rogue elements trying to cause chaos it passes as dramatic licence.

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Crime writers do this all the time. For example, Ian Rankin has written 20 novels depicting Detective Inspector John Rebus. In many of them, murder takes place in very specific and recognisable locations in Edinburgh, Scotland. (In "Set in Darkness", a body is found on the site of the new Scottish Parliament building, then under construction.) Rankin has not faced any official sanction, and if anything he has helped the local tourist industry. – Royal Canadian Bandit Sep 22 at 9:03

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