re: Fictionalizing Real-Life Settings

posted 9/26/12

Dear Editor…

My mc attends a design school in LA closely based on the Fashion Institute (FIDM) there, a fairly well known school. Should I change the name? Details regarding curriculum, location, and the facility will play into the story and her decision to be a student there. Am I allowed to use the material I received in my research trip to the school and NOT call it by its real name and not be “plagiarizing”?

Thanks,
K. R.

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Dear K. R….

I see two issues here. Regarding plagiarism, don’t pull words from their promo materials, class materials, or even course titles. Summarize or write fictional materials and course titles. Most readers probably won’t know the difference—or care. More murky is the potential risk in using a private school’s name and staff. Must you be so real? Anybody can sue, forcing you to spend money and time defending yourself, even if their claims ultimately have no legs. Do you want to go down that path? Sure, writers do set stories in private institutions like Yale, using the school’s real name. It depends on how your particular institution feels about its portrayal in your story and how litigious it is when it comes to protecting its “brand.” If the school will get a good or an even portrayal in your book, why not ask its permission? Then you’d have a definitive yes or no. The school might love it! If you don’t want to ask, your safest bet is to fictionalize the elements.

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Creative Process, General fiction, Teen/Middle Grade Fiction
Comments to "re: Fictionalizing Real-Life Settings" | Add a Comment
    1. Laura C. wrote (on 09/26/12 at 6:37 pm) :

      I may be paranoid, but I make up names for cities, buildings, public parks, brands, schools and even bands and songs on the radio. I don’t want to take the chance of any legal action leveled against me and also don’t want to date my novel. However, I have mentioned a historical, public figure (long dead) in a recent novel as once owning a made-up building. Not too worried about being sued though. I doubt the deposed King’s family will sue (if any of them are still alive).

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    2. Johana Gast Anderton wrote (on 09/26/12 at 7:50 pm) :

      I don’t think you’d get hauled into court for setting your story in/near/close to the existing school. You might want to give it a name other than “Fashion Institute.” I assume nothing you write would be derogatory even though one or more of your characters might be other than Straight A students with their own quirks. Maybe work the info about the school into the story as discoveries made by the characters but never direct quotes from brochures, etc and change a few details. And maybe even find a different location other than LA – Maybe San Francisco, San Diego, or a town outside of LA, a suburb. Describe the campus differently than the actual campus of the actual school? Difficult to answer your question without knowing more about your story, but I’ve read many a novel that refers to real schools – University of Georgia, New York schools, and even set one of my own at Columbia. Don’t take this as scripture; I’m just airing my thoughts on it.
      Johana

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    3. Real Or Fake? « Writes By Moonlight wrote (on 09/27/12 at 7:33 am) :

      […] Fictionalizing Real-Life Settings […]

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