Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Based on a True Story

RO: Some years ago I read a book called An Inconvenient Woman by Dominick Dunne. I thought it was pretty good and was surprised to learn after the fact that it was based on the true story of Alfred Bloomingdale (as in "would you like a sample of Daisy by Marc Jacobs?"...that Bloomingdale)and his longtime mistress Vicki Morgan.

I wasn't so naive as to think all fiction sprung full-blown from the author's head - even Shakespeare ripped things from the headlines - but I was a little surprised that there weren't legal ramifications in creating a story so close to an actual event.How close do you tread to that line? And does the line move as you get more involved in a story?

JAN: I once wrote three quarters of a fictional book based largely on a true story. I worried that even though I had the protagonist's okay on the book, that I might get sued by one of the more minor characters. It also started to make me feel a little queasy about what I was doing with a real person's tragedy.(The victims, not the perpetrators), but I don't think there's anything wrong, ethically or creatively, with it.I don't know how Dominick Dunne, who I believe has based more than one novel on a true crime event, avoids a legal suit. Especially since he is a bestseller and thus, a potentially profitable target. But I'd guess that he knows what he has to change, character-wise, to avoid liability. And he's an awesome writer, so ripping that closely from real life creates some great books.

HALLIE: The legal issue for the writer is 1) are the characters recognizable and 2) if they are, is what you tell about them the truth. As I undertand it, if you create a character recognizably based on a real person and defame them in your characterization, you can be (successfully) sued. So, if you write a character based on an ex-friend and disguise that person's identity by making her horrendously ugly, only people still recognize her, she could sue you and win.

My first book was based on a true case. I decided not to pursue publishing it for the same reason Jan said so perfectly above -- because I got queasy about what I'd be doing to the survivors. Everything I've written since is 150% made up, though news stories do inspire. Anyone see that story last week about a wealthy relator who was bludgeoned to death with a yoga stick (whatever that is) by her assistant who said she was provoked because "she wouldn't stop yelling at me." Truth is often stranger than fiction.

Ro: Do any of you Beantown babes know if Gone, Baby, Gone was based on a true story?

HANK: Hmm.. Don't know. And a quick Google search did not produce any clues. Google aside, though, I did hear that the movie's release was delayed because the plot was too close to the story of Madeleine McCann, the little girl who vanished from her parents' hotel room in Portugal.

As for real vs fiction. Well. I must say my closest brush with disaster in that realm is how angry my mother was (briefly, but unpleasantly) about the portrayal of Charlie McNally's mother in Face Time. Seriously. And the more I insisted it was fiction, the more she insisted I was being absurd. Now THAT was just about as close as I want to get to the line. Now that's she's read it of course, she's delighted. Although she still thinks she's Mrs. McNally. Even though she isn't.
The more I write fiction, the more careful I am not to get anywhere near reality. Everyone always thinks it's them.

Plus, I had someone say to me--oh, you're so lucky to have a husband who's a lawyer. It makes it so easy for you. You don't need to make up plots, you can just get them all from him.
Snort. Thanks lady. Straight to the moon.

RO: I just had a friend tell me that she couldn't recognize anyone in my book...as if I was going to describe all my pals in excruciating detail. Cheesh.
OTOH, Hank, I'm very disappointed to learn that your own mom is nothing like Charlie's. I think she's a riot! Haven't finished the book yet, but hope we haven't heard the last of her.


  1. Way to put me on the spot, RO!
    I will admit that my actual Mom is, um, kind of quoted in Face Time. In the most loving of ways. But snaking a quote or two does not a real person make.

    Lots about Mrs. McNally is, as Hallie so perfctly puts it, 150 per cent made up.

    I know you'll meet her someday...my real mom, I mean.

    And of course, some real stuff is just too wonderful not to tuck into fiction..you've just got to accessorize and tweak it enough to make it new. And not actionable.

    Even if the only action is that you'll get grounded, or sent away from the table.

  2. Wait, so the plot I just heard about whereby four nice New England gals kidnap a dashing British mystery author and don't release him for weeks isn't true?

    Felicia Donovan