Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Using Real People and Places in Fiction

Guest Post By Gail Z. Martin

(NOTE: Check below for details on Gail's DAYS OF THE DEAD blog tour giveaways and Trick or Treat fun through Oct. 31!)

Until I began writing my Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series, I made up all the settings for my books. That’s easy to do in Epic Fantasy, dealing with fictional kingdoms and rulers. But location matters in urban fantasy, and Deadly Curiosities is set in Charleston, South Carolina, a fantastic place with plenty of haunted history.

Likewise, the new Iron and Blood steampunk series my husband, Larry N. Martin, and I are co-writing is set in an alternative history Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So we’ve gotten very interested in the issues around how to use real people and places in fiction.

There’s a reason for the disclaimer in the front of books that reminds readers that the book is a work of fiction and that resemblances to people living and dead are unintentional. Not only does it provide some legal cover, but it helps to separate factual stories from fictitious ones.

Still, we’ve all read books or seen movies where the main character meets famous people or takes part in famous events, or just has dinner at a famous landmark. How does that work?

Here’s my basic rule. If the action is going to be negative, make up the person or business.

Corollary: The longer a person has been dead and the more famous he/she was, the less you have to worry about it.

So, if you wanted to allege that Alexander the Great was actually a drug smuggler, odds are his family and estate wouldn’t come after you. On the other hand, if you allege the same thing about a recently-departed public figure, especially one who passed away in living memory, you’re probably on shaky ground.

Likewise, if your character has a fun and happy day out at Disney World or Six Flags, and it’s not the setting for your book, you might be ok to mention it in passing. (I’m not a lawyer, check with someone who passed bar exams before doing any of this.) On the other hand, if your story revolves around a serial killer in a theme park, save yourself a lot of grief and legal expenses and create a fictional setting.

Bottom line: If the context for mentioning the person or business might damage his/her reputation or branding, make up a fictional replacement. If it’s a walk-on role, like your character shaking hands with President Nixon, you’re probably off the hook. And if the site is publicly owned, like the Grand Canyon, you’ve probably got more wiggle room than if the location is privately owned. Likewise, if you’re having a monster swing from the top of a real place like the Empire State Building, that’s different than alleging that the property managers were involved in some kind of wrongdoing or illegal activity.

Believability matters. Readers are less likely to believe that a famous building as a supernatural rift in the basement allowing aliens from another dimension to enter our world than they might be to believe allegations that the building’s owners had links to a drug cartel. One is impossible, and the other is only improbable.

People and businesses spend substantial money and effort on their branding, so they are understandably touchy about anything that might damage their public reputation. Unless you’ve got the deep pockets of a movie producer to work out a deal to use a real location for a sketchy or potentially unflattering setting, skip the drama and make up a place tailor-made to your needs.

That’s why in Deadly Curiosities, I mention walking past famous locations like the Charleston City Market, but locations where the big supernatural battles happen are fictitious. Likewise, I’ve made up restaurants and other locations that I want to be able to use as ongoing parts of the story’s setting. I don’t want to have to change names every time a locale changes hands, or worry about what the new owners might think. It’s easier and safer to make it up, and then the location can be a permanent part of my world.

In Iron and Blood, we use a lot of real buildings and locations. Some are already famous or infamous. Others were well-known back in the late 1890s, but are long gone. Some are still standing, and are historic landmarks. Others have changed names and usage, but still exist.

If there already was a documented serial killing at a location that doesn’t exist anymore, using that location in your story probably isn’t going to cause problems. So if there was a murder at a real hotel which has since been torn down and replaced with a parking lot, using the murder site is probably okay, because it’s not going to hurt the property’s existing owners. However, alleging that the location’s owners were complicit in the killings is not okay. The building is gone, but the people or their descendants might still be around and could be damaged by those claims.

Using real people is trickier, because they can have descendants. The farther removed you are in time, the less likely people are to take it personally. Hence Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Can you say that a historic figure was something unsavory if there is a body of published documentation and the weight of history holds it to be fact? Probably, because fact is generally a defense against claims of defamation. (Again, I’m not a lawyer, so you should check with someone qualified for your own situation.) For example, mentioning Ulysses S. Grant’s drinking problem is probably safe, since it was well-documented by historians.

When in doubt, make up a person or place to fit your needs. It’s always easier to invent a character or location than it is to respond to a lawsuit, especially once your book is on shelves.
My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for stories and books by author friends of mine. And, a special 50% off discount from Double-Dragon ebooks! You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here:

Trick or Treat: Enjoy an excerpt from Deadly Curiosities here:
And a bonus excerpt from Bad Memories, one of my Deadly Curiosities Adventures short stories here:
And a second bonus audio from Literate Liquors podcast by my friend John Hartness discussing what best to imbibe while reading Deadly Curiosities:

Gail Z. Martin is the author of the new epic fantasy novel War of Shadows (Orbit Books), the Deadly Curiosities urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (new book November 2015 Solaris Books), and Iron and Blood: The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (July 2015, Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin. She is also author of Ice Forged and Reign of Ash in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books.  Gail writes two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures and her work has appeared in 16 US/UK anthologies. 
Find her at, on Twitter @GailZMartin, on, at blog and, on Goodreads and  free excerpts on Wattpad

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