Monday, 8 August 2011

Libel and fiction


When launching The Hanging Wood recently, I answered a few questions about the thorny topic of libel and fiction. Of course, given that (for instance) I have written a book featuring a library influenced by a real life model, it’s something that occupies my thoughts. And even if I were not a lawyer, I think it’s a very good idea not to be cavalier about the law of libel. Because one of its nasty features is that it is possible to libel someone unintentionally.

The risks are perhaps greater in crime fiction than in other types of book. After all, almost by definition, a crime novel will include a number of dodgy characters. Even the innocent among the suspects are likely to be flawed characters. Having said that, I do think that in practice, writers need to get things into perspective and not be too paranoiac. Taking sensible precautions by not using names or descriptions that you know to be mirrored in real life is advisable. But it’s simply impossible to eliminate all potential resemblances and coincidences.

One tactic I use might seem contrary to the idea of precise research. You might call my method ‘related research’. In The Hanging Wood, for instance, which features a caravan park, I talked to someone who owns such a park – but based in Wales, not the Lake District. And St Herbert’s Library is also based on a Welsh, rather than Cumbrian model. There is plenty of action on a farm, but the farm I visited to research the book was in Lancashire, not Lakeland. I talked to a veteran police officer to get the police procedure (more or less!) right, but he’s someone who works in Lincolnshire, not in the same area as Hannah Scarlett and her team. The historian who helps me is a retired Oxford don, not someone who has ever moved away to live the dream, as Daniel Kind did. The idea, in short, is to capture the elements that will create an impression of realism without turning the book into a pseudo-documentary.

I really would hate anyone to think that I’d depicted them, or their company, negatively in a novel. For me, fiction is in part about escaping from real life, not about using it to take pot shots at people (much though most of us writers may joke about so doing). I did take a very different approach with Dancing for the Hangman, which is the story of Dr Crippen’s life. But not only is poor old Crippen long in his grave, so are all the other characters. Just as well, really.

12 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for sharing how you go about ensuring that what you write doesn't come too close to libel. I agree; it's always good to be sure one doesn't risk that. In some ways it is very difficult to avoid, but it's always good to think about it. That's one reason my novels take place in a fictional town with a fictional police department and so on. I do get guidance from local police, but as my books don't take place where I currently live, I think I'm OK ;-).

Maxine said...

I'd always assumed that this kind of thing is whey there are generally disclaimers on the biblio page of fiction. England/Wales defamation law is a total nightmare for publishers (of factual content) since the Internet and allowing users to comment on our websites, as anyone with a reputation in E&W can sue. Roll on the long-promised reforms, as the situation at the moment is preventing, eg scientists speaking out against cranky "cures" and big pharma claims.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I've thought the same thing--that there are so many unsavory characters in crime fiction that it's easy to potentially upset someone in real life.

Interesting topic, Martin! Will be tweeting.

Dorte H said...

I think it is a very good principle never to offend anyone on purpose. Yet it is a bit odd for me to see how scared especially American writers are of being accused of libel. In Denmark you could write practically anything in a novel and just say it´s fiction. So the only modern author I can remember who has become really unpopular was one who said his nasty characters were built on his former neighbours!

francesbrody said...

... and it's not just libel. I'm wondering will the owners of what was always a good hotel mind very much if I have someone commit a murder there in 1923. Will have to ask them.

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, I am sure you are OK!

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I use disclaimers, but they are far from watertight. You are right, the law is a nightmare, and a costly one! Any reform should aim for simplification and cutting cost.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Elizabeth!

Martin Edwards said...

Dorte, your guiding principle is spot on!

Martin Edwards said...

Frances, better 1923 than 2013!!!

Lauren said...

I remember reading one book - title and author withheld for obvious reasons - which had a fictional character so obviously based on a real person committing a really nasty series of crimes that I wondered how it ever got published. Admittedly the original historical person was relatively obscure, so perhaps no-one else noticed, but it struck me as a good example of something to avoid. Apart from being unpleasant, it was also pointless - as a reader I couldn't see any plot or setting-related reasons that the figure couldn't be completely fictional.

Martin Edwards said...

Good point, Lauren.