While I'm too young to remember the show Dragnet, "the story you are about to hear is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent" can still be found as a common disclaimer when real life infringes into a story being told.
Recently, I made what some might call a rather bold move by telling stories about growing up with my dad. I basically called him out on some of his not-so-proud moments, but he's a good sport so he hasn't extricated me from the family--yet. I've even put myself under the microscope a time or two, admitting things about myself that would've embarrassed my mother, because god knows I have yet to embarrass myself. I think most people that know me would say I'm not one to fabricate the truth of life. It is what it is. I've never been one to think about the repercussions of my words or actions, unless they're going to get someone hurt (I'm not a total monster) but storytelling can walk a fine line in that department.
I've been working on two stories that stem from fact. The first is loosely based on a local, well-known, tragic event that took place several years ago. The Girl Who Didn't Go formed when a coworker of mine told me a story about three young girls that were killed by a drunk driver and the fourth girl that was still alive today only because her mother didn't let her go out with her friends that night. What I started writing two years ago is a fictitious story about the girl's life ten years later and how she's handled being the girl that lived. Other than the general statistics of the event itself, everything I've written is made up.
Then there's the other story. It's an untitled work-in-progress also based on true events that makes me too nervous to give out any details. And while I can change the names to protect the innocent, the parties involved will definitely know it's about them the second they read it. And that's where it gets sticky.
Many writers are inspired by real life--from historical events to local news stories to personal relationships. The rub is not pissing off the people you're writing about especially if it shows then in a not-so-great light. Outing your "sticky fingered" Uncle Wally who gets drunk at every Christmas gathering and confides in you on his recent "scores" or uncovering details of your good friend's salacious affair with a high profile politician, may still cause some drama no matter how much you change the details.
But what if the content is so good, so unbelievable and raw that you can't bear to not write about it? Does a writer risk a defamation claim by keeping it all exactly the way it happened? And if what you're writing is so damaging, wouldn't those individuals be admitting that the story is true by coming out against it?
Of course, just because it happened doesn't make it good fiction. My story-that-shall-not-be-discussed has fabricated elements to help generate suspense and tension. My characters need to be relatable and there should be a larger significance to it other than "this happened." Otherwise, it might not be compelling enough to make someone read an entire 80,000 word novel. The question isn't will I write it, I'm already 100 pages in, the question is: do I want it out there under my name?
Recently Writer Unboxed published the following article online: "To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym." It speaks to the different reasons a writer chooses to publish under a different name. People use a pseudonym for several reasons. When you are known as, say, a romance writer, and your new novel is a departure from that genre, you may be letting down your readers if they don't particularly like fantasy or horror. Nora Roberts, renowned romance writer, publishes her suspense novels under the name J.D. Robb. Perhaps, you want to keep your personal and public persona separate. Every writer hopes for success. What if that success means TMZ is parked outside your house? Should you change your name so they can't find you? Frankly, I think they still will.
Here's another mid-bender I uncovered on dealing with the consequences from one of my favorite authors, Sandra Brown, who I could only hope to have one tenth of her story-telling talent. She actually turns this idea into a novel in one of her current books, "Low Pressure." The protagonist of her story writes a story "under a pseudonym to protect her family from unwanted publicity." A nosy reporter exposes the main character's cover along with a family scandal. Now, I doubt that my story would turn into something like this, but you never know. But I found it funny that she wrote a story about a writer using a pseudonym and here I am thinking about publishing one of my stories under a different name.
As I blog this today, I realize I'm copping to the truth behind my current works-in-progress so sue me, I guess. Hopefully, I'll be able to work on both stories I referenced in July when I attend Camp NaNoWriMo.