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Author Topic: Based on Real Life
Elan
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I've been mulling around an idea for a story for a while. My dilema is that the story would be based on real-life events and people. It involved a major scandal with a non-profit agency and I was one of the insiders at the time. The story would be more about the people and millieu prior to the scandal. The scandal was just something that happened along the way; however, the scandal caused the demise of this high-profile agency and cannot be ignored because of its impact. Most of the people who were involved are still living. I'm still friends with most of them. Even if I changed the names to protect the innocent, they would recognize themselves.

The story won't leave me alone. Should I make it pseudo-fiction? Should I write it as it happened? Should I pull a pillow over my head and hope the story will quit bugging me to be told?

I'm experiencing an ethical dilema of re-opening an old wound for the person who was the central figure of the scandal and was nearly driven to suicide at the time. On the other hand I could write it without publishing it--but that seems rather counter-productive to put the work into it and then do nothing with it.

So, does anyone have experience with this sort of thing? Any advice?


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Beth
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Kind of sounds like it has "lawsuit" written all over it, to me.

I'd consider writing it as a non-fiction book.

Or, if you're committed to telling it as fiction, spend some time thinking about what exactly it is that intrigues you about it, and then consider ways to transplant that to a completely different story. I mean, if it's a particularly striking character that is the essence of it for you, maybe you could put that character in charge of a handwavium mine on the new planet Xena. Or whatever the essential bit is - abstract it from its setting and use it somewhere else.


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Survivor
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What is your goal in telling the story? That is to say, what outcome will make this story stop bugging you? Make that your main criterion in writing it. If heavy fictionalization of the story, including transfering it to an exotic milieu, serves that purpose, then do it. If only a non-fiction publication will serve, then do that.

But first you have to figure out what outcome you desire from telling the story. And whether you really desire that outcome or it is merely tempting you.


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Elan
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My interest in the story revolves around the years I did volunteer work with the homeless community. The story would be primarily about the people I encountered during those years and the experiences I had. The scandal figured into it because it was triggered after the organization decided to move to an area targeted for development by big money investors.
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MaryRobinette
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This is the time for pseudonyms. If it's a story begging to be told, then tell it. You do have to decide if it's going to be fiction or non-fiction, but once you've made that choice then just write the darned thing.
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hoptoad
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Agree with Survivor.
Why do you want to tell this story?
Figure that out.

It may sound harsh but the 'charitable organisation brought down through the greed of one person preyed upon by a designing corporation' is neither a new nor original story idea. If, in fact, that is where this story is going. If it is not a central, important part of the story, why include it in your story at all?

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited July 30, 2005).]


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Spaceman
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Why do you need to include the scandal? It sounds like the story you want to tell happens before the scandal. If that's the case, then why even bring it up? Or change the scandal.

You also need to change the players. Unless you like lawsuits, you never drop a real person into your story. You need to think very carefully about what story you want to tell and how close to reality it needs to be.

In truth, some of the most powerful stories are almost completely true, except for one vital element that makes them fictional. Such stories have won Hugo and Nebula Awards. That being said, you also live in the real world, and have to address the possibility that your words can hurt people. In the end, the choice must be made by you.


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JmariC
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You could do the following:
1) write it privetly, to get it off your chest
2) stick it on a shelf for a while, till you've had a good amount of time without thinking about it
3) then, with fresh eyes, go back and edit it.
At this point you should be able to see what needs to be changed (besides names and locations). When you go over the story you will probably find you want to change a bit of dialogue or even add a scene or two that never actually happened, perhaps even change POV.
4) if after running through it you find that the story or situation it 'bothers' you go back to step 2.
Eventually you will have a story that borrows off of a real event but isn't a biography.

At least that's what I would do.


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Elan
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I doubt I'd be the subject of a lawsuit - as long as the words I write are true. I could treat this as a non-fiction piece by writing them as memoirs. Or I could write my experiences into a fictional character and set it in some vague metropolitan area.

I want to tell the story because it has a lot of humor and pathos in it, because there is a tremendous amount of dignity mingled with a tragic loss of hope among the homeless. The stories are powerful. I have always thought the millieu would have made a perfect TV sitcom (similar to the old TV show "Barney Miller"), but as one friend said once, "No one would believe it's true." When you get a group of people working with folks on the fringe, they have to go a little nuts themselves to stay sane. Sort of like "Hawkeye" on M*A*S*H.

I have no doubt the vast majority of the folks who were there at the time would be fine with anything I wrote. There is just one person for whom this would be hard, and it is someone I respect a great deal and wouldn't wish to hurt.

I guess I'm asking for opinions: if there is a powerful story to be told, would you write a non-fiction real-life experience even if it would re-open old wounds for someone you respect? Or would you disguise it as fiction and hope the person never knew about it? Or would you forget about it?

Oh... and as to the outcome I seek for myself? I want to feel like I've contributed to seeing that the homeless are not forgotten. Homelessness was the political "fad" in the late '80's and the issue of homelessness was brought to national attention in large part due to the efforts of one of the people I worked with. I want to give voice to this subject. I want to make sure that somewhere, this story has been told and isn't left in the gutter, ignored, like an old wino. I still have a great passion for this subject, and these people, although it's been 15 years since I worked among them. They still exist. They still need people to advocate for them. If I can do that through my writing, I feel a sense of responsibility to do so.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited July 31, 2005).]


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Gwalchmai
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If you are still able to, why not contact the people involved, especially this one person for whom you have a lot of respect, tell them what you would like to do, assure them that all names etc. will be changed to protect their anonymity, and ask them if they would mind? At least this way they will be warned about it and if the story achieves publication at a later date they will know to ignore it if they think reading it will bring up too painful memories for them.
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Survivor
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I never felt like I needed anyone to "advocate" for me when I was homeless. But it's probably different for some.

In any case, if you want to write a book about working with homelessness, I don't see how the scandal works into it at all. But if it does, then you need to write about that too.

It's interesting, though. I'm thinking of it in terms of translating this into an SF/Fantasy/Western/etc milieu, and it doesn't seem like those settings have much space for the "plight of the homeless". Since, more often than not, the heroes in those stories are themselves homeless. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to be heroes.

So I guess that you'll have to leave the setting pretty much as is. You might fictionalize the names a bit, particularly if you want to avoid recalling the scandal associated with a particular organization and the people working there. But if you do include the scandal, there is no point fictionalizing anything or presenting it as fiction. There isn't even any point trying to make anything but the scandal seem like the primary focus of the story.

That doesn't mean that the story can't focus on what you want to bring to the fore. But it is no use saying "this is about X, not the scandal at the end of the story."


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Beth
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btw whether you're telling the truth or not has little to do with whether someone sues you. They might not be able to win the lawsuit if you're telling the truth, but it will be very expensive to get to that point.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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You have two different kinds of stories there, really, don't you? If what you're really interested in is the human interest stories about homeless people, what point is there in bringing in the scandal story?

You would only bring in the part about the scandal if that was your real topic all along.


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yanos
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I'm not an expert on law but if it came to a lawsuit I think it'd be up to you to prove you were telling the truth, but only if the other person proves you are writing about them. Always a risky undertaking.

There is no reason why you could not dilute the closeness of this story a little. If you go for non-fiction then you will be mixing in other subplots with this one until it may not even be recognisable to anyone but you.


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Spaceman
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That's exactly what I was trying to say.
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rjzeller
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I'd be VERY careful here. You could still do the story, but I would try to distance it as much as possible from real persons and organizations. You may end up with a section that involves a colleague or friend that you intended as inoffensive, but which they take to be libelous.

You could really alienate a log of people, and face lawsuits. Just becuase you write the truth doesn't mean the people you offend won't be able to make you pay for it. They may not WIN a lawsuit, but they could still cost you big $$ and headache.

At the very least, I would make absolutely certain that the characters and organization do not in any way resemble real life characters.

I guess I go with Survivor, in a sense: Decide WHY you want to tell the story and WHAT you want to tell, then craft it to fit those needs. Anything else can change, this IS fiction, after all. You may be suprised at what story does evolve if you don't force yourself to stick strictly with the real events that occured.


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Elan
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While I appreciate the advice about legal concerns, that thread is getting off track from what I want to know.

My question is more basic than that: would you write a story about a real life event, even if you presented it as fiction and changed names, if you knew that it would open old emotional wounds for someone you respected.

In essence, how would you approach writing a story based on real-life events?


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If it would hurt someone I didn't want to hurt, I would either not write it (there are plenty of other things to write, right?) or I would write it so as not to let any more time pass and memories fade but I would not try to have it published until after the person I cared about could no longer be hurt by it.
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hoptoad
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Agree. Nothing worse than picking off old scabs and making them bleed.

"Wizard of the Pigeons"
Take a read.
A homeless guy in in the city is the main character.
Love that story.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited August 02, 2005).]


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EricJamesStone
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The president of the local businessman's club goes to the podium. "I want you all to welcome our speaker, Mr. Dan Smith. Mr. Smith comes to us from Texas, where he just completed an oil deal with a profit of a million dollars. Mr. Smith."

To light appleause, Mr. Smith approaches the podium. "I'm very pleased to be able to speak to you today. First, though, I need to clear up a little inaccuracy in my introduction. I'm not from Texas, I'm from Oklahoma. And it wasn't an oil deal, it was a cattle deal. And it wasn't a million dollars, it was a hundred thousand. And it wasn't a profit, it was a loss. And it wasn't me, it was my brother-in-law."

-------------

Change the details of a "true story" enough, and the story becomes pretty unrecognizable.


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Robyn_Hood
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A while ago, mikemunsil posted some links in a thread about creative non-fiction in the Non-Fiction forum.

Here are some I found particularly interesting:

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/articles/issue05/05editor.htm

http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/articles/issue%2016/16clark_theline.htm

http://journalism.ukings.ns.ca/magazine/Readings/creativewhat.html


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Survivor
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I think that there is a question as to whether or not you want to hurt this person. After all, just because you respect someone doesn't mean you're friends, eh? And even if you are, you might not be wanting to pull any punches.

If you want to dredge up the past and shove it back in the face of someone who'd rather forget it, well, sometimes it needs to be done. If it's a personal relationship thing, then probably it's better to do it in a private setting than in a publication. If you can't handle talking it over in person, then it's BS to say you're worried about that person's feelings at all. You're only worring about looking like the bad guy to everyone else.

Don't worry about that. Maybe you are the bad guy. Only when you've made a clear decision that you're going to be the bad guy should you start thinking of ways to fool people into thinking that you aren't, and then only if it serves your evil plan.


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Elan
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Perhaps I should sketch some of the details of the situation. I was on the Board of Directors for the organization, which made a decision to move out of our rat and cockroach infested quarters, to a new location. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the rich and powerful had targeted that specific area for massive redevelopment. Within a short period of time, a local "alternative" newspaper began publishing accusations against the most high profile person in the organization. There was an investigation, no criminal act was found. The investigation was initiated by an individual who had stolen $20,000 of goods and donations from the agency, and the two primary people "accusing" the high-profiler had 1) a certified mental illness, or 2) had been fired from the agency because they threatened to kill a staff member.

However, regardless of the fact that no wrong was done on the high-profiler's part, the person's reputation in the community had been trashed. The notariety was enough to cause donations to dry up, and the agency eventually folded.

The scandal was emotionally devastating for this person, and caused this person to move to another state where the work could continue in a different venue. This is a good person who has done good work.

The scandal is more an example of how people with agendas will take them to an extreme, regardless of who's life has been hurt. I still know how to get hold of this person and if I write my story I may just pass it by them first.

But that is MY example. I was actually hoping to find out if anyone has been faced with a similar dilema -- there's a good story to be told but due to considerations for someone living, do you write or not?


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Survivor
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Well, if you're casting this person in the role of good guy, I don't know what the problem would be. Just ask straight out, "Do you mind if I write about my perspective on what happened?"
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Spaceman
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I think I would probably do what EricJamesStone suggests. You just described your motive quite clearly, and it has nothing to do with the person you don't want to hurt. It could just as easily take place on Ganymede and people die from good intentions. Or closer to home, you could even make this in a publicly traded corporation that is brought to ruin by a disgruntled executive. The possibilities are endless and don't have to come close to the real situation to give the impact. Think of how you felt in those days, then change to a new scenerio that will make you feel the same way. When you find the scenerio, you've found your story.
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rickfisher
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Or write two stories. One a "Barney Miller" for the homeless type of thing, with no hint of the scandal, the other the story of an undeserved scandal that takes place Rigel IV, and has nothing to do with homelessness. Get both stories out of your system, but the latter in an unrecognizable way.
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