When launching The Hanging Wood recently, I answered a few questions about the thorny topic of libel and fiction. Of course, given that (for instance) I have written a book featuring a library influenced by a real life model, it’s something that occupies my thoughts. And even if I were not a lawyer, I think it’s a very good idea not to be cavalier about the law of libel. Because one of its nasty features is that it is possible to libel someone unintentionally.
The risks are perhaps greater in crime fiction than in other types of book. After all, almost by definition, a crime novel will include a number of dodgy characters. Even the innocent among the suspects are likely to be flawed characters. Having said that, I do think that in practice, writers need to get things into perspective and not be too paranoiac. Taking sensible precautions by not using names or descriptions that you know to be mirrored in real life is advisable. But it’s simply impossible to eliminate all potential resemblances and coincidences.
One tactic I use might seem contrary to the idea of precise research. You might call my method ‘related research’. In The Hanging Wood, for instance, which features a caravan park, I talked to someone who owns such a park – but based in Wales, not the Lake District. And St Herbert’s Library is also based on a Welsh, rather than Cumbrian model. There is plenty of action on a farm, but the farm I visited to research the book was in Lancashire, not Lakeland. I talked to a veteran police officer to get the police procedure (more or less!) right, but he’s someone who works in Lincolnshire, not in the same area as Hannah Scarlett and her team. The historian who helps me is a retired Oxford don, not someone who has ever moved away to live the dream, as Daniel Kind did. The idea, in short, is to capture the elements that will create an impression of realism without turning the book into a pseudo-documentary.
I really would hate anyone to think that I’d depicted them, or their company, negatively in a novel. For me, fiction is in part about escaping from real life, not about using it to take pot shots at people (much though most of us writers may joke about so doing). I did take a very different approach with Dancing for the Hangman, which is the story of Dr Crippen’s life. But not only is poor old Crippen long in his grave, so are all the other characters. Just as well, really.