View Full Version : Need advice

05-14-2008, 03:51 AM
I don’t think it’s uncommon for people to hold onto letters from significant others, right? When writing my memoir, I not only went back through my correspondence with this guy, but I embedded it throughout the book to give a clear picture of who he was and what my experience entailed. This is wrong because it’s plagiarism, I know. Some have suggested I fictionalize the story – if I do, is there any way to leave the correspondence in without getting in trouble? (I wouldn’t really be ‘fictionalizing’ as much as leaving it as is and calling it fiction). I think the guy I wrote about is in prison for his crimes, so I’m taking a wild guess that I won’t ever have his permission to publish. I just can’t bring myself to cut the words that had such an impact on me. What should I do?

Also, there’s a post on my blog entitled ‘A Monologue’ (5/10 – you don’t have to scroll very far) which explains my story a little bit. Any advice would be appreciated, thanks!

Little Red Barn
05-14-2008, 04:00 AM
What a good question--and I think it's best for legals to answer. There are all kinds of things coming into play here.

Were the letters mailed to you via USPS? Hmm. Do you in fact own what letters you receive in the mail--cards--is it your property in perpetual? Federal issues... are they considered gifts?

ETA: A letter is given to you--handed to you. Is it yours? A gift to do as you wish...????

05-14-2008, 08:14 AM
is there any way to leave the correspondence in without getting in trouble?

No. You can't publish someone else's letters without their permission. I happen to know someone who wrote a book about a friend of hers who had been murdered, and could not use her friend's letters to her because the woman's parents refused permission. See also the multi-year legal kerfuffle around Ian Hamilton's book In Search of J. D. Salinger (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,967473-1,00.html).

The recipient of a letter is not the owner of that intellectual property under US law; the author is. And the last person you want to give a chance to sue you is someone in prison, because they have nothing but time and access to law libraries.

05-14-2008, 08:58 AM
While I agree with the Empress about reproducing the letters in your book (no) I do think you could paraphrase them and get the same effect.

05-14-2008, 06:45 PM
You can paraphrase them with no problem. I also suggest changing names (and indicating you have done so). This is common practice in memoir.

Even if you do everything possible to protect yourself legally though, nothing is foolproof. I myself sold my memoir to a publisher who then killed the book shortly after I was paid the advance. No explanation was offered for the book-kill, but I do know a lot of publishers are getting gun-shy about publishing memoirs because of the legal issues surrounding the genre.

05-14-2008, 07:38 PM
Thanks guys. I have another question that's separate from the intellectual property issue. Last year I pitched to an agent at a conference and he thought my book would be best marketed as true crime, but there'd have to be an arrest. At the time, there wasn't one. As of this past March, I heard my guy was caught by the FBI, but I don't know how to verify it. Googling him didn't bring anything up. It's been at least a year since I filed a report with the LAPD, but I hate to bother them with a stupid question about whether or not someone got caught. Should I forget about this true crime business and stick with fiction?

05-14-2008, 07:55 PM
It seems to me true crime would be better since we're in such a 'reality' faze, media-wise. (Does that make sense?) It may mean delaying things a few months to track down the necessary paperwork, but it sounds like it could make your story that much stronger.

Good luck.

05-15-2008, 04:48 AM
Tracking down the necessary paperwork - that's where I get thrown. What is the necessary paperwork, how do I get it?

Little Red Barn
05-15-2008, 05:15 AM
Tracking down the necessary paperwork - that's where I get thrown. What is the necessary paperwork, how do I get it?
Public Record. Available to anyone, usually at your corner courthouse. Records room-Clerks Office. You'd have to talk to a Field Agent in a local FBI office or go to jurisdiction where crime was committed about their records and where to get.

And ETA: Do you mean a person must go to jail-prison before it is considered a true crime noval? Just curious...

05-15-2008, 07:05 AM
I'm not too familiar with the genres of true crime and memoir, but I'm more inclined to say that the genre a book belongs to is one where it naturally fits with as few requested changes as possible. And if it falls into both in a way never seen before, that would be something, right?

Basically, the important thing is that your story is true to you and coming from your own heart. :)

05-16-2008, 12:34 AM
The only way we can use letters verbatom is to get permission from the person who wrote them. Even though they sent the letters to us, they remain their intellectual properrty because they wrote them. Just like you could write a book and send it to someone, and then they couldn't just duplicate your writing without your permission.

I've used personal letters in my memoir but since we can't use them verbatim I've read over the actual letters to get the feel of them and then paraphrased them for my book. The same information gets across to the reader, and it actually gives me more control over crafting it the way I want to (cutting out unnecessaries, fixing punctuation, etc.)

Hope this helps.