Finagling past reality for fictional purposes

Will the real bridge AND CITY be insulted?


What it’s like to insert a fictional character into a historical event for the purpose of telling a story.

The basic question is unanswered: how to take over a historical event and change it.

Such as how to write a thriller with someone else as President!

So, it’s fiction, identified exactly as so in the beginning of the books, and mine to do with as I will.

I doubt someone has to get permission from the White House to change the President – or we wouldn’t have President Bartlett and The West Wing.

So I’m worried about nothing.


The general rule to changing a name has to be avoiding harm

If you are going to say something negative, it might bring a lawsuit if the named person or organization feels it affects their reputation in some way. And even if a court decides they are wrong, and you get an amazing amount of viral publicity out of this (google the Streisand Effect if you don’t remember it), it is going to take a lot of your time, effort, and money to fight such a suit – and there is no guarantee you will win.

Organizations can have in-house lawyers who eat problems like this for lunch. They will bury you easily – nothing personal – and have no mercy.

Please read books on writing and copyright, and know the legal definitions of Libel (Letter – ie, written – mnemonics mine, probably not original) and Slander (Spoken) and ask yourself, as a start, whether YOU would feel libeled or slandered if you were the subject.

If even you are uneasy, it may be easier to change the name that might get offended.

And you might have to change that to something that is significantly different in enough ways that no reasonable person would be offended (unpredictable).

Where’s this coming from?

For the purpose of NETHERWORLD, I sort of have to insult a famous movie or two, and some actors – in a minor way.

The insult consists in taking away an earned award – and awarding it to someone else, another movie.

The problem stems from everyone’s ‘knowledge’ of how Hollywood works, and what the major awards are from which organizations.

In the same way that President Bartlett is less interesting if he is Superintendent Bartlett of an unnamed or fictitious school district, an actor getting a life-changing nomination for, say, an Academy Award is more interesting than if I make up an organization called FCBM and award my character their Best Actor award.

Along with ‘The White House’ you get an amazing amount of the reader’s foreknowledge of how things work there – which saves a lot of words and explanations.

Along with ‘an Oscar’ you get the same kind of response – red carpet, photographers, exotic borrowed clothing for beautiful women… And the whole suspense thing dragged out as long as possible, followed by one winner and a lot of gracious losers who were honored to be nominated. It’s in your head already, and a writer just needs to mention a few points to trigger a full-blown award ceremony in your mind.

Why do I even bother worrying about this kind of stuff?

Well, first because I’m a worrier.

Second, because I want that identification and value from the awards. I agree with the organizations and the individuals that they are worth a great deal in a career.

Third, because the last thing I need in my state of energy and illness and retirement is some organization getting its panties in a twist because I, well, lied.

Fourth, because I hope to be famous and well-read (not synonymous) some day, I want to do it right, and not leave a mess for my heirs.

Fifth, because, as a writer, it’s my job.


Have you had to face this choice? If so, how did you handle it? Have there been repercussions?

As a reader, have you ever wondered if the author has stepped over the line? Care to share?


60 thoughts on “Finagling past reality for fictional purposes

  1. Widdershins

    I set my story in the 1920’s specifically to avoid such conundrums. It’s far enough away, in time, that we here in the 2020’s have a very clear, and highly romanticised, perception of it, so I can have my story operating in the shadow of that perception, and only have very limited references to real people/places/ things … eg Geissler tubes, the precursors to florescent tubing as a lighting source and ornamentation, only in my world I’ve had my characters improve on the technology, thereby making it ‘mine’.
    This is the first time I’ve written a story in this real world, or adjacent to it at least. It’s an interesting exercise. 😀


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I don’t like historicals to read – and the only reason I’m still writing a story set in 2005/6 is that I plotted it thoroughly enough that I don’t have to consult the history or sites like Wikipedia very often – 1920 is too long ago for me, but enjoy.

      I don’t watch the TV historicals either – the anachronisms drive me nuts, and the way women were treated makes me want to bite someone. Such a curmudgeon!

      Whatever makes your story work for you – there will be people who love that kind of story, and don’t want to have to write it. Witness the success of Titanic. (I didn’t go.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I am convinced that there will be some people in the US (mostly Traitor Trump supporters and Trump himself if he ever hears about my new book that was released last month) that will want to kill me, threaten me with harm or death, or drag me into court to punish me for making white supremacists and Traitor Trump look horribly awful.

    But as long as the 1st Amendment exists and is enforced, I’m not worried, because I have this statement on a page before the story starts.

    “The Patriot Oath is a work of fiction. names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or person, living or dead is entirely coincidental.”


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I have a similar disclaimer, and anyone who might not like what I’ve done (I just finished the scene) is not likely to come after me.

      Please be careful!

      And you couldn’t make them look any worse than they are.


  3. joey

    Ahh, I’m SO fond of President Bartlett!
    Sorry, I know this isn’t about that. I did read recently about how one can’t write about the USMC without permission and approval, lest there be any disparaging reflection on the corps. I don’t know if it’s true, because it was online in a forum, but I did read it.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Disparaging isn’t in the works – just twisting and tweaking to insert a fictional set of characters and situations.

      It may be just me, but it’s coming out okay. I’ll put the question to my beta reader, too – she has good instincts.

      If something HAS to be done, do it as well as you possibly can!

      Bartlett was great – thoughtful, intelligent, able to make tough decisions.

      As far as I know, there is no procedure for getting the various awarding organizations to approve something – and I’m not saying anything negative about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. acflory

    Mmm…if I understand you correctly, you want to take a real movie that did win the Oscar and give that Oscar to another movie? Or to a fictional movie? If it’s a fictional movie that just happens to win in the year XXXX, and if the actors you’re bagging are also fictional, then I can’t see a problem. But…taking a movie that people know won, and changing /that/ part of history…seems like a very dangerous, and kind of pointless endeavour. Why do it? Readers know they’re reading fiction so they won’t be surprised if a fictional movie wins the Oscar. Do you really need this particular ‘bridge’ to reality?


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I’m NOT mentioning the reality – just giving the Oscars to others than you’d find by looking it up. Or remembering if you’re good at that.

      If you go looking, you’ll spoil the illusion – but the story has been building to the awards season and the whole point is the kudos. And the spotlight that goes with it.

      That’s fiction. As much as President Bartlett – who we all wish would have been real.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. acflory

        Oh! Well then you’ve got nothing to worry about. I doubt there’d be any readers who’d look up who and what won the Oscars in a given year.
        Actually…if they do look up the year then you’ll know you’ve done your job so well they had to do a reality check. 🙂


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I say nothing negative about those organizations and awards – it’ll have to do. Finished one today – it was much better after I walked myself through all the research material, and used Google Earth.

          Then I removed the extraneous stuff, and went with what the character feels and needs in that setting.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I put up a piece of the scene as answer to your previous comment. Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow italics – which I use for direct thoughts; but direct thoughts are also First Person, present tense, and should still be visible.

          Tell me what you think. Can you feel for him?

          Liked by 1 person

        3. acflory

          lol – I keep reading comments from the top down so the sequence is wrong. I found that passage and yes, I do feel for him. I can almost see the dawning wonder on his face. Genuine wonder, unlike the well-rehearsed ‘what? me?’ that seems to be de rigueur at the awards. 😀


        4. acflory

          -giggles- you make me feel so much better about my own writing. Even when I’m ‘inspired’, each scene goes through so many iterations before I’m happy enough to move on to the next one. I can’t just write it all and edit at the end. For me, nuance can turn on a single word. :/


        5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Exactly. The whole advantage of writing a story is that you can tweak it until it’s RIGHT.

          That’s also true of things like TV and movie scripts, which makes me wonder why there are so many bad ones. Sometimes the writers aren’t allowed the time or maybe don’t have the maturity to do all the necessary rewrites.

          It’s also known that studio executives like to have a ‘hand’ in things, and there are some funny movies about how badly they can change things. Problem of having group authors, I guess.

          Liked by 1 person

        6. acflory

          lol – I’d rephrase that to ‘only you can tweak it until it’s right’. I know TV and movies have to be a team effort, but committees are notoriously bad at creative work.


        7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I wonder how Margaret Atwood has taken the cooperative approach to The Handmaid’s Tale and TV. She wrote the first novel a long time ago, in the times of only traditional publishers, and they like to fiddle with the product, and edit, and decide on the cover…

          We just watched the last of Season 4, and will have to wait a while for 5.

          Liked by 1 person

        8. acflory

          I haven’t seen any of The Handmaid’s Tale, although I have heard it’s good. Hopefully she had enough clout to keep the spirit of the thing.


        9. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I think Elizabeth Moss has taken over – she’s now Executive Producer, and directed a couple of the last episodes of Season 4 – a good step for a talented actress (hehe – using it in Pride’s Children already).

          Collaborations have lives of their own; I wouldn’t – as Kary wouldn’t – be able to compete in a group setting. Too easy for a person with no energy to get buried in a meeting.

          It’s been fun watching – we usually have an episode of something streaming before bed and one with dinner.

          Liked by 1 person

        10. acflory

          lol – I really will have to watch it somehow. The only tv that’s grabbed my heart strings recently was the adaptations of Gerald Durrell’s 3 Corfu books. Totally fell in love with the TV series, to the point of looking up some of the books. If the name sounds familiar it’s because Gerald is the younger brother of Lawrence Durrell of Alexandria Quartet fame.


        11. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Never heard of any of them or it. Search says it’s set in the 1930s. Too historical for me. They annoy me – if they’re accurate, they treat women as they did then; if not, the anachronisms drive me nuts. And I hate the costumes.

          Pain in the neck reader/viewer. Fortunately, a lot of people like them.

          Liked by 1 person

        12. acflory

          I have no idea how accurate the series is to the books, much less how accurate the books are to the lived experience, but it’s got me hooked. 🙂


        13. acflory

          p.s. that’s also one reason I’ve never been able to work in collaboration with others. The story has to be 99% right in my head before I’m able to open it up to even the most trusted of beta readers.


        14. acflory

          Amen to that. My beta is someone I trust implicitly, but even so, the story has to be as near perfect as I can make it before it leaves the roost, even temporarily.


        15. acflory

          I had the great good fortune to have a fabulous editor for Vokhtah. I learned so much from that process, lessons I’ve continued and enlarged on to this day. Sadly I haven’t been able to afford an editor since, but I’m very happy I had one right at the beginning.


        16. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’ve never had an editor, don’t want one now.

          I had to learn my way through the hard stuff – and now I’m ever so grateful that I put in the work. It’s been a ton of books, and a lot of practice, but I liked guiding the process.

          The other great help has been Dramatica – and how I’ve learned to use it. It’s a very long learning curve, especially for someone like me, but it pulls some fantastic stuff out that I’ve used to build characters and scenes, and some special items such as the way to write fiction that is meant to appeal to men AND women. Plotting with it is complicated – and ultimately worth it.

          Liked by 1 person

        17. acflory

          I think that as with a beta, you have to trust the editor not to let their own ego overwhelm their professionalism. I was very lucky to choose someone who is a brilliant writer in her own right, so I knew she ‘had the goods’. These days my beta and I exchange editing services as we both write scifi, although in different niches.
          I’m afraid I’m too much of a ‘touchy feeley’ kind of writer to use tools like that, but ultimately it’s the end product that matters. 🙂


        18. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I can’t do more than a tiny bit in reciprocity, so I haven’t been in a partnership with another writer since the turn of the century. And we’re still friends (she finally got published in thrillers) because we instinctively stopped correcting each other, and just got together for lunch, supposedly to read a bit, and talk. Support but no critique seems to have preserved our friendship. Fortunately, she’s good (except I hate jazz and her character loves it).

          My beta reader is much younger – I think she’s very mature for her age, but she is very gentle even when pointing out an obvious typo (and it sometimes isn’t a typo).

          Until and unless she doesn’t want to continue, I’m hoping to finish with the same system, to keep the books more of a piece.

          Liked by 1 person

        19. acflory

          I’m friends with my beta too. Well, long distance pen pals. lol I think it requires a lot of give and take on both sides. I’m sure she’ll keep helping you. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        20. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Her husband – a very nice young man – is determined to support the family so she has choices. they live near family. She’s young and healthy and super smart. And I am so very glad to know her.

          And worry about them (they are vaccinated but live in Louisiana near New Orleans, a state with very high delta rates right now).

          Liked by 2 people

        21. acflory

          Yes. I’m not very good at short stories, but that is the one thing I did learn – you have to trust your reader to have an imagination, and enough general knowledge to be able to fill in the gaps. Apart from making the writing ‘cleaner’, I believe it makes the story more vivid for the reader herself. Because she’s interacting rather than just sitting passively.


        22. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          If you want passive, watch a movie or TV – they’ll tell you everything except what I want to know: what is the character thinking?

          Good actors give you a lot to work with, but they could still be thinking about something entirely different.

          Thinking is such an interesting part of being human – I want to feed it.

          I don’t write many short stories – they take a lot of work – but every scene I write is constructed much like one, deliberately. Which is why I hesitated to put part of that scene out there. I work hard on beginnings and endings and turning points and beats, as well as language – because it has to slip easily into someone’s mind, not make them stop and have to work at it.

          Fun discussing craft with you!

          Liked by 1 person

        23. acflory

          Isn’t it odd how similar our processes can be despite the fact that our starting points are so different? You outline everything before you write, I jump in and work it out as I go, and yet ‘every scene I write is constructed much like one [short story]’. That is exactly how I work as well. And for exactly the same reason. 🙂


        24. acflory

          Exactly. For my money, the one piece of writing advice I follow religiously is ‘the story is all that matters’. How we get there is kind of irrelevant except to other writers. 🙂


        25. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Each writer seems to find a different mixture of plotting and pantsing, if left to it long enough. Regardless of where they start or who their instructors (people, books) are.

          Even mine has changed somewhat over the course of writing PC – I’m much faster at the things I’ve turned into checklists, so I get to the actual writing part without quite as much time spent in prep. Of course, a lot of the prep was done years ago, but it’s surprising how much work I still have to do on research.

          I think I did enough ‘back then’ to know something was feasible, and store the links and other bits, and make basic decisions, but didn’t realize how much work was ahead of me, such as in the actual way an awards ceremony is performed.

          So there’s still plenty of fun in both the research and the writing sides.

          Liked by 1 person

        26. acflory

          Yes! Writers have all sorts of tools at their disposal, and each one adds value to the story. Not using those tools would be like expecting a carpenter to build a table using only a saw! Can’t be done. 🙂


        27. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’m hoping the full production set of tools I depend on will last until my Mac is finished with the trilogy. Already I can’t upgrade the system software. I’m backing up to external drives and the cloud, but some of my software will no longer work when I get a newer Mac.

          This is one of the many problems of being so very slow.

          Liked by 1 person

        28. acflory

          Damn. Are there no upgrades to the most important software?
          I wonder if you could keep your old MAC just for those bits of software? Or can you not separate the story from the tools?


        29. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’ll keep this Mac going as long as it is willing – love it – and I think it will handle the software upgrades but Dramatica didn’t have one, last I checked, and I use it daily. Also, I use Office 2011 for Mac, which Microsoft has kept available for registered users, with the warning that they don’t support it and won’t do changes. I use Word after Scrivener2 – don’t know if Scrivener3, which I’ve purchased but have not installed, will be able to handle the special things I use Word 2011 for.

          It’s always something.

          Liked by 1 person

        30. acflory

          I kind of know what you mean. I have Win. 10 on my lap top, but I do all my serious work on the desktop which still runs Win 7. I guess it goes without saying that I hate Win 10.
          StoryBox [like your Scrivener] is updated and still works happily with Win. 7 and I use Word 2016 for graphics heavy stuff like how-to books, and/or some editing.
          Fingers crossed we can both keep working without major disruptions for a few years yet.


        31. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Just have to finish the current book – I don’t want to change in the middle of a trilogy.

          The good thing is that I made lost of decisions during Book 1, and don’t plan on changing most of them, so I can focus on the plot.

          I prefer not having the sophomore slump in the middle of a trilogy; this one has to be and end significantly better than the first, and I liked the first.

          Liked by 1 person

        32. acflory

          Totally agree. The aim is to make each one better than the last. Apart from author pride, I don’t think readers give us too many second chances. 😉


        33. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Sorry – no. But I now know so much about it, walked around with Google Earth (present day, of course, but I know where it was that year), have watched what video Youtube has on it, and read so many articles that I feel as if I HAVE been there. Certainly enough for a few details:

          “Best Director goes to Norman Endelson—for Roland.” Fist pump—yes! Norm took his victory walk, thanked the Critics’ Association, his cast and crew, and spoke about fulfilling his dream of making the medieval poem more than a bard’s stylized tale for his supper. Endelson brandished the statuette for the cameras, returned grinning to the table. Allison kissed Norm’s cheek.

          Best Actress went to the tiny blonde Witherspoon for Walk The Line, to the audience’s immense and voiced approval. The theme music played as she skipped up the broad staircase.

          He steeled himself to be gracious in defeat. It was easy––knowing ye had no shot took the sting out of it. Bianca would commiserate, and he could be down for a few days without having to explain. His head hurt––he should have eaten more of the rubber-chicken-and-mushroom goop. He sipped the dry white wine. See?––his hand was perfectly steady.

          “And the award for Best Actor goes to”––the beautiful klutz in the scarlet taffeta-stiff strapless contrived to get her nail under the flap––“goes to…” she savoured the moment, beamed at the assembly, “to Andrew O’Connell—for Roland!”
          A battering ram hit him in the chest. The room erupted. Surely they can’t be that thrilled for me. But the American faces were smiling, the actors, actresses, directors, producers starting to stand, one, more, whole tables full, their hands clapping, the roar deafening.

          Norm gave him a push. “Go on kid, you earned it.”

          He arose somehow, felt an eejit grin spread across his eejit face, managed to …

          Liked by 1 person

        34. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Andrew is Irish. I’ve picked a small set of things to remind readers of this. One is a few of the words he’d use. Another is a different word order, something I picked up from listening to unscripted radio talk shows. Another is British/Aussie spelling for his pov.

          You got a small sample of the scene – maybe a third of the awards part. Thanks for the compliment – being consistent is so much easier now that I’ve been doing it so long.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Will Once

    I think it’s okay to write a fictional President as long as the factual element of your writing is the office of President and not a named individual who is or was the President. So you can cheerfully invent the next President or play “what if” your fictional President had won instead of Joe Biden. You can give your President all the trappings of office, such as the White House and Air Force One. But you should be careful not to have a President Ronald Tramp who made his fame and fortune in real estate.
    A trick I’ve used in the past is to base my semi-fictional characters on two or more real-life people or well-known fictional characters. So when I wrote a secret agent, I made sure that he had elements of James Bond as well as Austin Powers, Jason Bourne, Derek Flint, etc. Right now I’m writing a treasure hunter who might be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft or the Nick Cage character in National Treasure or Allan Quartermain.
    I think it’s okay to write about jobs where it is much riskier to talk about individuals.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I agree, Will. Individuals have to carefully NOT be a fictionalization of a real person – and there are plenty of techniques for making sure of that.

      And you might get away with President Tramp IF the portrayal is wonderfully flattering to whoever your model was (in HIS opinion).

      Or is clearly marked ‘satire,’ which has more leeway except they might still TRY to sue. Again, the Streisand Effect may bite someone who sues – but not after more trouble than it might be worth to the author. ‘Might’ being the operative word – I’m sure there are people who do this, hoping to go viral, and not caring about the consequences.

      There’s a lot of thinking going on about details right now – because I don’t want certain institutions mad at me!

      That still leaves a lot of room for fiction. And I would stay away from people and institutions you think you know – but really don’t. I wouldn’t write about a British Prime Minister, for example. Too ignorant,



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