Friday, April 5, 2013

Be Careful What You Write

I recently went through an ordeal that was very stressful and unpleasant -- I was wrongfully accused of something at work. I’ve been there for nearly 19 years, have a sterling track record, no discipline in my file and I consistently receive above-average performance evaluations. The accusation was false and I fought like hell to prove it.

This appears to have begun as the result of a book I released a few months ago, a contemporary erotic romance titled Snowflakes and Palm Trees. It’s a total work of fiction but one of my co-workers thought the female lead was based on her, even though it wasn’t. There may have been some vague physical similarities but not enough for someone to read the story then say, “Hey, that’s me!” I guess I should feel lucky that she didn’t demand a cut of my royalties.   

I know what you’re thinking – there’s a disclaimer stating that it’s a work of fiction. That should have protected me, right? Not necessarily. In cases like this your civil rights go by the wayside and the mantra is “Guilty until proven innocent.” It fell on me to prove that the story was fictional and any resemblance was purely coincidental. The issue was eventually resolved in my favor.

Writers depend on that cover-all statement, thinking we’re protected by the First and Fourth Amendments. That might hold up in a civil trial, but in a trial by ambush where it’s more “he said/she said,” you can’t count on that. During this inquisition I found myself defending my right to free speech, touching on everything from censorship to book burning. I was literally on fire at the idea that someone could single out my work of fiction then question my right to publish it in the first place. I was grilled about petty details like how I chose the names for my characters, what kind of a relationship I had with this co-worker, and if the erotic parts were based on personal knowledge. When that last issue was brought up I invoked my right to remain silent.       

Many of us who write contemporary fiction (especially mystery or crime thrillers) get our ideas from current events. If it’s in the public domain of news you’re pretty safe, as long as you don’t use actual names. When you get your inspiration from something that happened to you or someone else, it gets a little tricky. People have vivid imaginations and it’s often easy to blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

This whole experience has taught me to be more cautious and obtuse when I’m crafting characters. It’s doubtful that I will ever use the name of a friend or acquaintance again, and my physical descriptions will also undergo tighter scrutiny. As for drawing on personal experiences, I’m joining a monastery and changing my name to Brother Orchid.    

Tim Smith is an award-winning bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com. The controversial book “Snowflakes and Palm Trees” is available through Extasy Books and Amazon Kindle.


Missy Jane said...

Wow, I'm sorry you had such a horrible ordeal! I'm glad it came out in your favor. I've had co-workers ask me to write them into a book a few times. Though I might use their first names I make sure that's where any resemblance stops. Thanks for this post. It definitely gives me something to think about.

Tina Donahue said...

Wow - that sucks, Tim. I've made it a point to keep my 'real' life completely separate from my 'writing' life. I never discuss my novels with the people I know in my 'real' life. They're not a part of my writing world and I really don't want them to be.

Kelli Scott said...

WOW! My worst fears. It's no secret at work that I write and that I'm published under my real name in non-erotic romance. I even belong to a writers group of co-workers that meet and eat and talk writing. And some of my co-workers have read my non-erotic titles.

It's only a nasty unsubstantiated rumor that I secretly write erotic under a pen name. I get teased a lot and flirted with. It's sometimes fun and often times a pain to keep my dirty little secret. There's no one to share my good news with except my FB friends, Twitter followers and the couple dozen people who follow my blog.

And I have a great idea for a story that revolves around my line of work (write what you know). I guess I should keep it in my head until I don't work there anymore.

I hope you come through your ordeal unscathed. And thanks for sharing.

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I guess this is what happens with small minded, self-involved people. I hate it for you that this person involved you in her dismal self-image. I think we all use our life experiences and characters we've met in our real lives in our fictional accounts, but really, for someone to take it so seriously is just a glaring statement of how they feel about themselves.
A cartoonist who wrote comic strips about backwoods characters like Mammy Yokum once wrote in a character called Joany-Phony and Joan Baez decided the character was based on her and tried to sue him for deflamation of character or some such thing. I wish I could remember his name, but anyway, he said,(I'll paraphrase)"If you think this obnoxious and grotesque woman is based on you, then you must not think much of yourself." She dropped the case.
I am amazed that your employer would even consider confronting you with such a ridiculous claim.
Actually, I thought you had great presence of mind to come up with the defenses you gave. When suddenly confronted with a surprise attack, I go mute and only in retrospect come up with the good stuff. I give you credit for for an intelligent response. I've learned an important lesson from you. Thank you.

jean hart stewart said...

That's a complete bummer! If it happens to me I hope I handle it as well as you did.

Tim Smith said...

Thanks, everyone, for the supportive words. I wouldn't wish this on anyone (even my accuser LOL).

I've kept my two worlds seperate for the most part, although there are people at work who know what I write. Those days are now over.

Sarah, the cartoonist was Al Capp, the comic strip was "Li'l Abner" and I wish I'd had his quote handy a few weeks ago!

Justine Szot said...

I tell you.... Us writers take a beating. What we go through to entertain people. I'm sorry for your experience. I'm a homemaker part time and no, my elderly clients have no idea, neither do their family members. I pray every night that one of their daughters doesn't find me on FB.