The Perils of Turning Fact into Fiction

'To avoid lawsuits tonight's news will not name names.'

‘To avoid lawsuits tonight’s news will not name names.’

Fact, Fiction or Memoir?

If you’re familiar with family history research, you’ll know there is a lot of information available. From the ten yearly census records, to births, deaths and marriage certificates, Parish records, copies of wills, newspaper articles or Trade Directories (for example), you can pull together a pretty detailed picture of how your ancestors lived.

If you ever come to write it up, however, you soon realise how many gaps you actually have. What you do with these gaps largely depends on what you want to achieve. If you just want to catalogue the facts as you find them, and you’re not thinking of publishing the information, I wouldn’t expect you’d run into many problems.

If you want to publish your memoirs on the other hand the process can be more difficult. If you are writing about long dead relatives and basing the work on actual facts, you shouldn’t run into many problems. If, however, you are writing about people who are still alive, especially if any of the story is conjecture or of a critical nature, you are well advised to run it past the lawyers!

What happens if your story is based on real events but ends up being more fiction than fact? That’s the situation I’ve found myself in with The Ambition & Destiny Trilogy. When I started writing my book, I felt I had a lot of information and a good grasp of the story. In truth, however, the information I had was just the tip of the iceberg and in trying to develop a page turning novel, I have needed to add a lot of fiction. Since I’ve made the decision to publish, I’ve wondered about the ethical dilemma of writing part fact, part fiction.

Slander, Libel and Defamation of Character

Clearly you have to give all your characters a personality, and you need a villain or two. The chances are that these depictions will not reflect the true nature of the real person but my dilemma, even a hundred and fifty years after the story has played out, is ‘Should I be worried about legal matters, such as slander or defamation of character?’  

The people who inspired the book are long since dead, but through a brief study of their descendants I know that at least one of the characters still has living relatives who are not part of my immediate family (and who probably don’t even know we exist).  By the end of the book, there is an implicit suggestion that their ancestor was a murderer (amongst other things).  There is absolutely no basis for the accusations other than me trying to write an exciting book, but given that the story is based on facts, I do wonder about the potential problems this could cause.

Like all good ostriches, for now I am putting my head in the sand and carrying on regardless.  I am hoping that disclaimers will solve any problems, and I won’t be using real names, but if anyone has any advice or experience of this sort of situation, I would be very grateful!

Addendum: Since this article was written I have found that you cannot slander people who are no longer living. That said, as a courtesy, due care should still be taken to ensure that any living relatives are not adversely affected by your work.

About Val McBeath

Born and raised in Liverpool (UK), I live in Cheshire with husband, youngest daughter, and cat. In addition to family history, interests include rock music and Liverpool Football Club. Prior to writing, I trained as a scientist and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years. In 2012, I set up my own consultancy business and now split my time between business and writing.
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6 Responses to The Perils of Turning Fact into Fiction

  1. rosesscott says:

    Hmm. Your journey sounds a little familiar! My favourite books are ones that are based in real life stories. I look forward to hearing more!


    • Val McBeath says:

      Yes, I thought the same thing when I saw your comments on the ‘Challenge’ website. Congratulations on getting published, it just seems so complicated to me. I may come back to you at some point about legal disclaimers for using real life stories…if I get that far!



      • rosesscott says:

        The way I approached it, was I let the “live” people read what I had written and asked for their feedback. The people who are no longer with us, I didn’t worry about too much, but maybe I should have…


      • Val McBeath says:


        I can do that to some extent, but the story involves some characters who are not direct family and so I don’t really know who their descendants are (I think there is just one adult female, but can’t be certain as it is harder to search after 1911). One of the unrelated characters in the book is actually portrayed as the villain, so a bit nervous about upsetting anyone. He did die in 1897 though and so there will be nobody around today who knew him. I plan on changing all names and having a good disclaimer. I may even write under another name, not decided yet.


      • rosesscott says:

        I guess that makes it a bit more tricky, if the character is not a neutral one! Hopefully you can find an experienced editor or writer of historical fiction who could help you figure out what to do.


      • Val McBeath says:

        Yes, it does! I’m having a chat with Tim tomorrow about possibly signing up for the coaching he’s doing and so I might bring it up then. Thanks for your support


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