Ah, writers. Where to begin? To start, let me quickly explain myself (in case you do not know)…
My first three novels are built around fictionalized to varying degrees versions of myself, my [now late] uncle, and lots of others. I crossed the line from fictionalized to plain fact in one instance (aside from obvious public figures) in those books: I wrote in one real person, a dear friend, who appears under her real name in the second volume as a small tribute after her far too early death in 2014. It is a biographical insertion that had her sister’s permission, and she also told me her late sister would have been incredibly flattered I had written the REAL her into a novel.
I have two free short stories on here as well – clickable links seen above. One is based on an experience I had trying to fly across the Atlantic, while the second stems from my last few days working in a London university. Both contain characters based on actual people who are heavily reinvented as fictionalized.
My most recent two novels, and a third due out shortly, are historical “extravaganzas.” Their main fictional characters are far less inspired by any living individual(s) than anything else I have written, but those characters are still somewhat based at times on bits of myself as well as the likes of my now late mother and others I know and have known. More important for those tales is I have taken lots of inspiration also from real people I have seen on social media.
For example, in 2018 while writing that novel above I had a minor epiphany thanks to seeing an Instagram post. For reasons I cannot understand and probably never will, unexpectedly that post got me thinking about the less explored realm of the early US relationship with the Spain’s colonial empire in the Americas until about 1820… and I was then off and writing on it (in addition to what I had planned already to write about). Essentially, Tomorrow The Grace’s South American independence revolutionary “Diego Sánchez” and his daughter “Ana” were inspired by a single Instagram post from a relatively well-known woman tennis player.
I have also invented several new characters in the coming novel who are rooted again in aspects of my personal experiences as well. And there are also again those inspired by social media and then fictionalized. None of them from any source are biographical.
Which, good grief, leads me here. In our
at times increasingly it feels ridiculous era, more than ever before we never know what might accidentally make us “famous,” and chances are if it happens we will probably not like what does so. Case in point: this in the New York Times Magazine, which is unfortunately behind a membership/pay wall…
If you cannot read it, allow me to attempt to summarize that mess, which boils down to, as I see it, essentially this. In 2015, “Author 1” decided to donate a kidney for a transplant and write about that in a small, private Facebook writers’ group. (I kid you not.) A year or so later what she had written on Facebook appeared to have been or flat out was (depending on your point of view, it seems) “borrowed” and “fictionalized” in a story published by “Author 2” of that same Facebook group. After “Author 1’s” discovery of that publication not long after, she was infuriated that her “donor experience” had been “stolen.” (I kid you not.) Worst of all some of what “Author 1” had written on Facebook certainly appeared to have been published by “Author 2” uncomfortably close to verbatim – meaning it certainly looked plagiarized by “Author 2.” (Again, I kid you not.) Angry emails now started to fly between them, public accusations started to be hurled back and forth, friends jumped in to defend both, something from one of them (I forget which) ended up I think in the Boston Globe newspaper (honestly, by then I was losing the will to live reading about this), claims of “privilege” were leveled at “Author 1” by “Author 2” (“Author 1” is white; “Author 2” is Chinese-American), lawyers and lawsuits entered the picture, and by 2020 it all ended up in US Federal Court for defamation and copyright infringement… and, well, you get the picture by now, I am sure… all having resulted from a Facebook private post in an authors’ writing group for a few authors few had ever heard of outside of their small circle.
And if you fictionalized THAT all as a story, a publisher would probably laugh in your face for it being way too hard to believe.
Three choice bits that might serve as “highlights.” First:
On June 24, 2015, a year after completing her M.F.A. in creative writing, Dorland did perhaps the kindest, most consequential thing she might ever do in her life. She donated one of her kidneys...
And I will say it again: Beware of anyone waving an MFA in creative writing – especially if they seem to imply it “makes” them a “real” writer. In fact it is only a degree to confer upon the holder the “right” perhaps to teach creative writing. I say “perhaps” because my (now late) uncle did not have one and taught creative writing… on the strength of half-a-dozen or so published novels over a couple of decades.
Never forget Jane Austen barely ever even set foot in what we would today consider a proper school.
It didn’t take long for a clue to surface. On June 24, 2016, a Facebook friend of Dorland’s named Tom Meek commented on one of Dorland’s posts. Sonya read a cool story about giving out a kidney. You came to my mind and I wondered if you were the source of inspiration?
To be clear: “Inspiration” that leads one to “borrow” something written in another book or on another web site verbatim or nearly so in order to put it into your book or your story is called PLAGIARISM.
Plagiarism IS theft.
For many years now, Dorland has been working on a sprawling novel, “Econoline,”... ...The writing world seemed more suspicious to her now. At around the time of her kidney donation, there was another writer, a published novelist, who announced a new book with a protagonist who, in its description, sounded to her an awful lot like the one in “Econoline” — not long after she shared sections of her work in progress with him. That author’s book hasn’t been published, and so Dorland has no way of knowing if she’d really been wronged, but this only added to her sense that the guard rails had fallen off the profession.
There have NEVER been “guard rails” in the writing “profession.” And now with social media, theft is easier than ever: anything you write and share online can be STOLEN. So be wary in ONLINE writing groups… and also of so-called BETA READERS you find ONLINE. How many times have I said it! Don’t assume ALL other writers out there are your pals!
As my uncle once more or less advised/warned me, and I agree by now having seen the behaviors of too many writers myself, that there are writers out there who would push you off a cliff from behind if it meant they would get a bestseller.
The Guardian here in Britain, in a free-to-read piece, has some fun with this whole thing – but also posts a serious question stemming from it:
“Revived a moral argument” about basing characters and stories on what we see around us? All of those involved in that situation described above are “overthinking” this. Importantly there are two distinctions within that “moral argument” which are rarely if ever addressed and worth bearing in mind:
A. The “muse”…
1. …can know they are because you told them. Meaning I told my uncle I had written a fictionalized character based on him and he had thought it was fine – fortunately. It had to have been so because the story would not have been the same without “him.” There is no harm in using a “muse” who knows what you are doing.
2. …cannot know and you must hide it so anyone fictionalized does not easily guess they have been written about – or more importantly cannot be easily identified by others who know them, too. It is not always possible to manage that, though. However, even if they do guess it is worth trying to write so there is at least SOME DOUBT who they are and NO ONE else in the wider world would be able to guess their identity.
B. “Borrowing” from others’ lives?:
1. It is impossible NOT to do so – there would be no literature without someone doing so. I know of course I am not the only author to “borrow” from those I know and have known for characters for my books. It is what writers DO and HAVE ALWAYS done.
2. It is NOT “a violation” – as long as names are changed and enough fiction is otherwise also thrown over the tale so the original factual person’s identity is not easily uncovered.
That is a quote from the “fictional” novelist based on my uncle who appears in that novel. It came from a comment my uncle had shared with me many years ago and I never forgot it… because it rang so TRUE to me. Fiction comes from what was fact… somewhere, sometime, in some form or another.
CONCLUSIONS: Three suggestions for writers:
3. Be VERY careful in online writers’ groups. (And you should be writing your book and not messing around on Facebook anyway.)
2. Do NOT plagiarize from Facebook or from anywhere.
1. Do NOT write seeking other writers’ approval; write for the public.
Have a great weekend, wherever you are. 🙂