The wherefores and whatofs if back when...
November 9, 2012 3:13 PM   Subscribe

I would like to write a fictional novel based in actual events that occurred in the West in the 1700s. It would draw extensively from the true story ( which is likely already enhanced through the centuries ). The names would change, though the locations would be actual places. Is there anything I should be aware of with regards to the "legality" of retelling such a story? Ie. the storyline is not my original creation. I'd be adapting it for my story, but it would have a lot of similarity. The story is told, with minor variation, in a number of historical sources.
posted by ecorrocio to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This is the domain of the Historical Fiction genre, and you have license to say what you want. The only thing you must be careful about is what you represent as true fact, I would say. Placing original characters at famous historical events, palling around with genuine people is perfectly normal. Less normal, but still legit, would be altering history either temporarily or permanently.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:34 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Altering history (if that's the focus) is crossing over into Alternate History, which is a sub-genre of Science Fiction.
posted by Hawk V at 4:05 PM on November 9, 2012

Dead people cannot be libeled, in most cases, in the US. Certainly everyone who lived in the 18th century is free reign.

If you rely heavily on a specific historian's research, it is good manners to acknowledge their work in an afterword or acknowledgments.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:13 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Disagree strongly with Hawk V's comment. Altering the details of historical events doesn't make a work of historical fiction a work of alternate history. For example, Gone With the Wind compresses the timeframe of the Battle of Atlanta significantly, but it isn't a work of alternate history; in Robin Maxwell's Mademoiselle Boleyn, Leonardo da Vinci becomes mentor to the young Anne Boleyn, but that isn't a work of alternate history, either. They're just regular old historical fiction.

A work of alternate history makes major changes that affect the whole world in which the book is set. In Robert Harris's Fatherland, the Axis won the Second World War; in Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, the CSA won the US Civil War; in Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, there was no Lutheran Reformation.

Historical fiction can take liberties with the details of history, but not in ways that change the nature of the world.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:18 PM on November 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can't "steal" from historical events, really. So long as you don't plagiarize historical research sources and have something that says "none of these people are real" you should be fine. George R. R. Martin's SoIaF series drew heavily, at least in the earlier novels, on events in British history. Law and Order: SVU "rips" from the headlines every week and has a placard saying everything is fiction. I've also read literally dozens of romance novels that use famous true and fictional stories of the past as the marrow for the plot.
posted by xyzzy at 4:28 PM on November 9, 2012

Let me strongly recommend the Historical Fiction subforum at There are some really wise and experienced folks posting there!
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:39 PM on November 9, 2012

[Folks, this is not the place for a definitional discussion. Feel free to take that sidebar to MeMail. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:02 PM on November 9, 2012

I'm having trouble imagining any potential legal repercussions, unless you live in Germany and plan to write about a really nice dictator named Kitler who is framed for exterminating the Jews, or in Turkey and intend to tell the story of an evil tyrant named Atatörk.
posted by threeants at 5:03 PM on November 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a similar project where I'm adapting a true historical story to a screenplay.
I consulted with both a Hollywood writer's agent and a pro screenwriter, and both told me that as long as your story adaptation (the narrative, where it starts, ends, arcs, etc.) is original, you should be okay.
However, wherever you do pull from something that actually happened, you should keep a log that legal departments will be able to pull from later. If all of your source material (or a good chunk) came from one book, there could potentially be a need to cite that your work is based on the book.
Again, this may not necessarily come up, but worth keeping in mind... additionally, if you're going to sell it as based on a true story, probably good to have specific resource material available should the need from PR, documentarians, History Channel, etc., come up.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 9:39 PM on November 9, 2012

Great stuff. Thank you!
posted by ecorrocio at 9:01 AM on November 10, 2012

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