Here are a few of the rules I've set up for myself.
1. If I refer to people and use their names, I send them a copy of the chapter of the manuscript in which I cite their name and include a permission slip. (See my next blog entry for an example.)
2. If I have to write something negative, I tell the story as truthfully as I can and use only a first name—not the real one. Here's what I sometimes write in my books immediately after the copyright page in my books:
"I've tried to tell true stories in this book, but sometimes I had to protect the guilty or shield the privacy of others. When I use a full name, that means I have permission to tell the story. When I use only a first name, it means the story is true, but I've altered a few facts to avoid lawsuits, the loss of friends, or disdain from the person cited."If the individuals are dead, my understanding is that we can write whatever we want without impunity. If we write about people who are in the public eye, publishers have told me that we have more leeway in which we write about them.
For example, years ago I wrote the autobiography of a famous jingles singer who grew up in Detroit. She told unflattering stories about several other performers. I wasn't comfortable with them, but she insisted, so they went into the book. We also included a statement at the front of the book that the author was solely responsible for the content. (No one sued.)
When I write about others,
I try to be considerate.
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 Making Sense when Life Doesn't: The Secret of Thriving in Tough Times by Cecil Murphey, (Minneapolis, MN: Summerside Press, 2012).