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.