In late 2014 I went to hear a fabulous author present on all things Mystery writing. Betty Webb is a local author, winner of literary awards, and one heck of a story teller. Her mystery stories range from cozy to dark and disturbing, but all of them have one thing in common.
What’s that thing you ask?
None of her books are going to get her sued for libel anytime soon.
To explain why that is, let me share a story with you about how Betty helped stop me in my tracks. And why I owe her a huge debt of gratitude for the information she shared that night because she singlehandedly saved me a LOT of potential future headaches.
Short answer, long story
Most of you know I took part in NaNo again during November of 2014. I failed miserably at achieving the 50,000 word goal. Between trying to write with a fractured wrist and getting my Dragon Software used to my vocal inflections, I simply ran out of pain-free time to get my novel finished.
Was I upset?
Well, I mean I wanted to “win” of course but in the end I wasn’t all that sad. Why? Because I’d written 38,000 some odd words and had the next two novellas in my Shaw McLeary Adventure Series essentially plotted out. In fact, one was completely plotted and even had a few chapters written.
For the second book in my series I planned to set the story in a day spa type of place. There will be a body found of course and Shaw will have to hunt down the killer. I’ve never been to one so anything I wrote for that book was being created from nothing more than my imagination.
But then there was the third book.
I had about 15,000 words down where a murder would take place at a well-known ice hockey arena. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m an avid hockey fan. I couldn’t wait to get this one written!
Then, enter Betty and her presentation.
She explained that authors can’t use real people OR places when setting the scene for a murder. That authors cannot locate a dead body in a well-known place and name it in the narrative.
I saved my question to the end of the presentation then asked:
Her response was simple:
Because businesses don’t like that stuff. It could be construed as bad press. And it could actually impact their bottom line in a negative way. You could be sued.
I’m paraphrasing here since I didn’t record what she’d said, but that was the gist. It felt like a punch in the gut, but almost in a good way.
Knowledge for how to be a smart writer, even if it disrupts my writing world in a huge way, is never a bad thing.
Time to make a new plan
I already explained that I love ice hockey so, to me, the setting was going to be a cool way to share my enjoyment of a particular arena. In my mind it would attract fans, not work the other way around.
Boy, was I ever wrong! Perhaps my mind works that way because I write murder & suspense? Not everyone has that same morbid curiosity of course, and that’s where the law comes into play.
Because I don’t want to be sued for libel, defamation, slander or anything else for that matter, I came home from that meeting a little crushed but ready to do my research** on this subject.
Libel, by definition, means: anything that is defamatory or that maliciously or damagingly misrepresents. (Dictionary.com)
As I thought about my potential plot line I suddenly understood exactly why I can’t write this one the way I’d originally intended.
I wouldn’t have malicious intentions with my story, but pulling a dead body out from under the hood of a Zamboni in a named, major hockey arena*** could be construed as a misrepresentation of what a person might see or experience while in that building.
And the sense of that misrepresentation is all this place would need to bring a suit.
But thank you Betty! Because now I know exactly what I need to do.
What to scrap and what to keep?
This is where story writing inspired by real-life stuff becomes tricky business.
I can set a murder in an ice hockey arena but I must make everything about the place and the people unique.
Change the town/state where the story is set. I’d need to pick a setting without an arena in that same level of hockey in which I’d planned to set the story (ex. NHL, AHL, OHL, etc.).
Change all aspects of the team. Come up with some amazing team name that doesn’t already exist. Give them a unique logo, colors, and nickname. Build my own team from the ground up.
Change the look of the building inside and out. Though I can’t use exact descriptions of existing arenas, here’s where imagination meets inspiration and probably where the most care needs to be taken in fictionalizing life.
I’ve been to many ice hockey games and seen them in all types of venues from NHL level arenas to local league rinks and every level in between. I’ve also had the privilege of touring the “backstage” areas of multiple rinks over the years.
All of the arenas I’ve been to have certain things in common because they’re a vital part of the sport of hockey in a general sense in North American venues:
- Ice with standard field markings within the standard rounded rectangle shape of 200 x 85 feet
- Walls around the perimeter of the ice (boards)
- Glass panels and stanchions above the boards
- Player benches
- Penalty boxes
- Seats/benches for fans
- Locker rooms
- A Zamboni to clean the ice
- Doors for the Zamboni to fit through getting onto the ice
- Goalie nets (during game play/practice but sometimes removed when the ice is quiet)
Any or all of those areas could be used in a story as long as I make them my own.
So, not only do I need to build a team from the ground up, but their arena (AKA: scene of the crime) as well.
The moral of this story
I plan to go back and revise a LOT of that third book in order to remain smart about legal issues in my writing, but I’ll likely still write some version of that story.
But that’s a job for April. For now I’ll be reviewing the content in book two; making sure I protect myself and my work.
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**I’m not a lawyer. Nothing in this post should be taken as even a hint of legal advice from me or anyone else. I always suggest contacting your own attorney with questions or concerns related to your own writing. This post is meant to be informative relaying my personal experience but in no way should be taken as actual legal advice. Once again, I am not a lawyer and can’t advise anyone in matters of the law.
***This was not the actual story line I was going to write, it’s an example of something that could bring cause for a libel suit.
If you want a good place to start, read through this expert opinion from Rights for Writers and then contact your attorney or the attorney of your publishing house for more info.
Local to Arizona, Maria Crimi-Speth, lawyer and author, has written a really comprehensive book: Protect Your Writings: A Legal Guide for Authors. I’ve read it and have found lots of the information vital in releasing my books – highly recommended!
Image courtesy Simon Howden on freedigitalphotos.net