Is it ethical to use real people in fiction?

This past week I’ve been reading about Real People Fiction. Until after I had a chance to read Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands, I was blissfully ignorant that a category such as Real People Fiction existed.

I have read fictionalized accounts of real people in the past and I was never bothered by them. I thought Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun and Andrea Chapin’s The Tutor were cool stories, the former is about Beryl Markham and the latter, about Shakespeare. So what happened with Enchanted Islands that left me with a nagging question in my mind by the time I reached the end of the book?

You see, if you google Beryl Markham or Shakespeare, you will find all sorts of information about them, including their biographies. When I googled the real people/fictional protagonists of Enchanted Islands, Frances and Ainslie Conway, I came out with nothing more than the bibliographic data of their published accounts of their life on the Galapagos Islands. In the case of Markham and Shakespeare, I could confirm or contradict McClain’s and Chapin’s fictionalized portrayals, and therefore, judge the plausibility of their tales thanks to the existence of other sources who have studied their subjects too. With the Conways, it was not so, which led me to the question, Is it ethical to pluck real people from obscurity and fabricate all kind of stuff about them, especially unflattering stuff, just because they’re dead and you’re a writer?

As writers, we love the “what ifs.” That’s how our stories start taking flight. But unless the person is a celebrity, a historical figure or the person is fictionalizing himself, I would certainly have some qualms about somebody else using my name and spinning tales about my life that may not be my life at all. As for using dead people’s names, the law may say we can’t libel the dead. However, I think the dead deserve their reputation and some respect even if as writers, we claim in fine print that our story is all a product of our imagination. The thing is that our fabrications may be so memorable that they may make readers overlook the fine print.

And so, I set out some rules for myself for using real people in fiction:
1. Celebrities and historical figures are fair game. Their names and actions are in the public realm. There are plenty of sources to draw upon and use for confirmation or contradiction of facts and speculations so that readers can judge the value of a fictional account.
2. My parents, siblings, third cousins, anybody in the family are off limits to anybody else except themselves or I’m the one doing the fictionalization with their consent. If they become celebrities or historical figures, then see Rule 1.
3. The use of real names is prohibited unless it is a biography.
4. Anybody can be a source of inspiration. And depending on the degree of inspiration, you’ll either be thanked by name or just acknowledged as “somebody I knew” or “it’s a mash up of a number of people I knew,” or “it came from something I read about.” No real name is used in the story because of Rule 3.
5. If I’m really, really tempted to use a real person (and his/her real name), who’s not covered under Rules 1 and 2, and all I wrote about this person is “a product of my imagination” then I promise to think about it twice and answer the following questions: Why do I need to use this person’s real identity? Is using the real name a marketing ploy? Am I hoping my book would indirectly benefit from the person’s accomplishments or weirdness? It this story written out of a need for revenge? Am I hoping people will think I’m so clever because I was able to make up such a “good” story out of nothing but a real person’s name and a few known facts?
6. Do no harm (to the living or the dead).

Using ordinary real people in fiction is up to each individual writer. I, for one would prefer a reader come to me and say, “I cried. I laughed. I thought that character was so real. She felt like a real person” than “She was a real person but this story is all made up? Oh, I see.”

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Where did my free time go?

vintage clock

Image by Amaia Li

Really, where did my free time go? I asked myself the other day when I realized that I would not have time to squeeze a 30-minute workout after I was done with writing but before getting dinner ready. I used to be able to do a long workout in the mornings and a short one in the afternoons on weekends. But that was before I started writing regularly (a.k.a. working on my book). Before Writing, it seemed that I had more free time even when I was going to college and holding a full-time a job at the same time. After Writing, I feel like I’ve been cutting down on all the other stuff I used to do for fun on the weekends like exercising, going out, watching TV, and reading. Yes, reading! I used to read at home! Thank goodness for bus commutes. They’re my reading time now.

But it will be unfair to blame my writing for eating up all my free time because in reality it hasn’t. The real culprit sneaked its way at about the same time I started writing and when we got Wi-Fi. Before Writing, I had a PC with no Wi-Fi capabilities. All I could do with that computer was do work. I couldn’t access the Internet unless I run a cable and plug it to my telephone jack. And then the connection was super slow.

Of course, in due time I decided to catch up with technology, and now that I have Internet access at my fingertips, well, the gates to distraction were thrown wide open. It’s amazing how much time one could spend just by surfing the Internet. Following one link after another one or browsing online stores can be relaxing, but if I don’t keep an eye on the clock, I could find myself spending two hours on the Web instead of the 10-minute break I first intended. Lengthy Internet surfing without a purpose can also leave me in a sort of a daze. I call it “the cobweb-ty feeling in my head.” And I don’t like it.

These days I use the timer not only to force myself to write when I have a block, but also to keep me from “wandering” to the Web when I’m writing. Exercising some self-discipline is also a good way to cut down on mindless Internet surfing. Lately, I’ve been telling myself to close down the Internet browser and pop my workout DVD in my computer or go play with Miss Kitty. Every time I walk away from unnecessary minutes or hours on the Internet, I make a real connection, one that involves being in the moment. And that’s where I find my free time again. When I consciously choose what I’m doing and where I’m, I’m using my free time. When I checked out of my head while Internet surfing, time drifts away. Free time is precious; use it well.

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The Daily Prompt: Longing for Gravity

I’m taking up today’s Daily Prompt challenge: Longing for Gravity

You are on a mission to Mars. Because of the length of of the journey, you will never be able to return to Earth. What about our blue planet will you miss the most?

It’s true. You don’t know what you have until you lose it. I’m on my way to Mars and I won’t be back. They will make sure of that. As I look through the little window, I can swear that I never knew how beautiful Earth is. From up here, it sure is. All the blue of the oceans; the greens, yellows and browns of the continents, and the swirling white of the clouds—it’s a veritable jewel against black velvet.

There are things I won’t miss though: overpopulation, poverty, sickness, violence, air pollution. We really are fools. We think we are masters of the universe. The whole universe is ours! But from here I realized what a tiny bit of real estate we were given and we’re messing it up. They say it’s not my problem anymore. I’m going—no, they are sending me to Mars. What an irony! I’ll spend my days in a place that may be a model of what our Earth may become one day: sparse, empty, dusty…the very things I’ve been warning them against if they keep up destroying our jungles, polluting the water…all the extracting, logging, building, levelling and the taking.

The Earth is just a blue dot soon to disappear from my view. One blink. There, it’s gone.

Now that I think about it. O, freedom, yes, I’ll miss freedom too.

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A little sample

Happy New Year! I really enjoyed my holiday break. I feel recharged and ready to get back to my writing and my book. Speaking of books, here’s a little sample (from the still-in-the-works first draft) of what I hope one day I’ll see published as the second book of my World Beyond series:

A high-pitched trill eeeeee eeeee brought him back to consciousness. David lay on his back, listening to the piercing, intermittent sound until it occurred to him that it was a bird singing. He opened his eyes and held his hands in front of him. They were normal. He was human—still. He sat up and looked down. He was whole.
“About time you wake up.”
The young girl’s head hovered above him.
Once again, he was stricken by her beauty. Now that she was no longer surrounded by the reddish light, he could appreciate that the undulating long hair framing her round face was black and that her eyes were a soulful dark brown set against olive skin.
“They won’t like it that we’re taking this long—”
“Wait,” David said. “I’m missing something here. We’re taking too long? They? Who’s they? And where are we?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Noble serpent,” she started.
“David, my name is David.”
She sighed. If she were to have hands, David could imagine that she would be throwing her hands up by now.
“David, we must leave. My guardians have discovered that I’m missing. The High Priestess will unleash the fiery rain on us again if we do not return soon.”
David was still trying to make sense of her words, but he understood the urgency in her voice. He stood up. “Okay then,” he said. “Where are we going?”
“Over there,” she said.
David looked in the direction the girl faced. A range of snow covered mountains rose so high that some of the peaks were hidden by clouds.
“I live at the foot of that peak,” she said, nodding toward one whose summit looked particularly sharp and jagged.
“I’m ready,” the girl said. “You may take me now.”
It took David a couple of seconds before it dawned on him what the girl meant. “I can’t,” he said. “I don’t know how.”
She blinked fast in disbelief. “You don’t know how? But two days ago, you—we escaped from the house because you turned into an amaru and brought me here!”
“I have no idea how I did it! It just happened!”
The girl sighed loudly.
David could tell she was disappointed, but he really did not know what else he could do about it. He gazed around him. He was in the midst of a plain that extended as far as the mountains. A few trees and clumps of tall yellow-brown grass dotted the plain, breaking the monotony of the landscape. He could not tell the time except that it looked like a few moments before sunset. Tinges of orange and pink colored the sky.
“Well, we can’t stay here,” the girl said, breaking the silence between them at last. “If you must walk, then walk.”

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Say “cheese” to your selfie

My nephew is back at home for the holidays. We all had lunch together on Christmas day. We took advantage of the occasion to take our family portrait pictures for the year. However, this time, Uncle not only dug out his tripod from his drawer of gadgets but also a Bluetooth-enabled selfie stick. As my nephew watched Uncle perching his iPhone on the stick, he turned to me and exclaimed, “Uncle looks so young with the selfie stick!”

I couldn’t help but chuckled. Uncle is nearly 65, an age not exactly associated with selfies and their related paraphernalia. The people who wield sticks to take pictures of themselves are the 20-something tourists, mainly, honeymooning couples. As we all squeezed ourselves into the frame, I thought how by the time I was my nephew’s age, I could estimate there were about only 20 or 30 pictures of myself. Now, we are able to record ourselves whenever and wherever we want to, and post our pictures for the world to see. A couple of weeks ago, I sat, watching fascinated how two teen aged girls on the bus were posing and making funny faces into their smartphones, completely oblivious of where they were. And just recently, at work, the youngest of my coworkers happened over two discarded artificial branches of berries (from the Christmas wreath). She stuck them in her hair, pulled out her phone, and started to take selfies. It was her playfulness and the lack of self-consciousness that struck me the most as she giggled and turned her head this and that way as she kept shooting. Had it been me, I wouldn’t think I could pose with such abandon in the office or anywhere but the privacy of my own home—and that is, if only I stop listening to childhood voices, my elders’ voices, warning me against vanity while encouraging modesty. Yes, I belong to the days when spending too much time in front of the mirror was frowned upon. Today, you know all about your best angles and facial expressions. If you’re not taking a picture of yourself, you may be missing a chance to awe not just your friends but the entire world too.

I don’t do selfies at the rate young people do. Selfies are cute when you’re eighteen, but at my age, I’m afraid I might be thought as going senile not cute. But in spite of all the navel-gazing selfies and social media may cause, I think there is something about selfies that do make you feel young again. Maybe it’s because there is no stranger holding the camera, but instead it is just you (and the knowledge that you can delete any photos that don’t please you) that can be so liberating to the spirit. My family’s and friends’ selfie group pictures seem to be so much happier and spontaneous. Just crowding into the frame requires us to break formality. Instead of holding ourselves seated or standing stiffly, we looked like a bunch of people jockeying for the center of the picture. We look like we’re just having fun.

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Merry Christmas!

To all my family, friends, fellow bloggers and readers:
All the best to you.
Christmas tree

Image by Amaia Li

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I can still reach my toes

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other.”


image by Amaia Li

image by Amaia Li

It’s true now and I hope it will remain true for years to come. The older I get and still do it, the better it would be. It would be a sign that I haven’t given up on myself, on exercising, on practicing yoga, on getting up to move around and live in awe of the miracle of my body. Now that I’m reaching that age when reading glasses, knee problems and chronic aches and pains are part of the promise of the future, I appreciate being in good health more. Let’s face it, so much depends on being and staying healthy: your family, your independence, your job, your enjoyment of the moment.

For every day I had to run after the bus or walk to the store, for every little dance I do after reaching my writing goal of the week, for every night I look out of the window and watch the moon, I’m thankful. I’m old enough to not take for granted being able to do all those things and more. If jumping jacks and downward dogs will keep my body flexible, I hope writing will keep my mind supple, so that as I move into the future, I can exclaim in wonder and delight, “Hey, I can still reach my toes!”

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Can’t Drive 55 – The Daily Post’s Writing Prompt

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Can’t Drive 55.”

These past weeks I’ve had one song going in circles in my mind, Christian Castro’s “Angel”. I don’t know why. It’s just one of those things that happen. One day I wake up with a song that I haven’t heard in ages, and it stays until one other day I realize it has left me. Just like that; it slips away. To find the third line of this song, however, I had to look it up on the Internet.

And it reads, Encontrarme en tus labios. That’s it. I find myself with your lips. What am I supposed to do with such a line?

I find myself with your lips
I’m aghast that that I’m holding them in the palms of my hands.
(I must be getting ready for Halloween!)

I find myself with your lips
And I try them on
How could you left them behind?
In the drawer, with the socks.
(I’m no songwriter)

I find myself with your lips
And I have one more minute to go.
Let me say I’m sorry for marring the lyrics with my silliness.

In reality the line runs like this:
Encontrarme en tus labios
En un beso sin final
or loosely translated in English:

(I’d like to) find myself with your lips
In an endless kiss.

Here’s a very young Christian Castro performing “Angel”

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Big Magic, creativity and me

Recently, I have the good fortune to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s upcoming book, Big Magic. I may not agree completely with all her views; but it still spoke to my heart. I thought her concept of ideas as free-floating energy life forms, looking for the right person to make them into reality was “cute.” Hey, that’s how she visualizes creativity, the Big Magic. And that’s how she explains why two people may come up with the same idea for a book. If one person gets the idea but says no to it, the idea will look for somebody who’s more receptive to it. Who am I to say that it’s right or wrong?

I think any creative person makes his/her own rationalizations as to how the process works. Mine is that whatever we experience, read, see, or hear about remains within us. I might have read an article about the discovery of an ancient mummy in Peru because first, it is news about my country, and second, I find ancient societies fascinating. That’s what drew me to that particular article among the many others on the screen. Once my need (curiosity) has been satisfied, I go on the next piece of news that catches my eye. I may think I have dismissed that article, but it is “filed away” until the day I’m in front of my laptop, perhaps, trying to get something written down, and suddenly, voilà!, my brain synapses make a fortunate connection and out comes a detail I had read on that article that will become the seed for a story, or complete a scene, or give a character a reason for action, or change the direction of a story for the better. In other words, a trivial piece of information ceases to be trivial and finds a place into my stream of creative consciousness.

To be creative, to make these connections among seemingly unrelated pieces then is to be able to see things from a different angle or under a different light, or even under a light that probably didn’t exist before. Creativity, for me, is not floating out there. It’s rather inside you. It’s inside the brain, and inside the heart and the soul, because it’s not just about facts, but also about feelings and experiences. If two people come to the same idea, I think it’s because we all have common experiences. We fall in love; we know about disappointments, and we have shared interests, or read the same books. It’s like what in computer lingo is called, hashing. When you create a computer password, it’s converted into zeros and ones and then chopped, scrambled, and transposed scores of times until you get a hash code. The funny thing is that in spite of the millions of combinations a computer can make, it’s still possible that different passwords may result in the same hash code (I just read about it recently. I’m not sure that I got it right, but I found it amazing). I think the same may happen with ideas. Out of our own collection of experiences and facts, we make combinations and once in a blue moon, two different people may come out with something very much alike.

Yes, my concept of where ideas are and how we come up with them is more computer-like and akin to Sherlock’s Mind Palace (although mine is rather a mind attic or a mind basement because, no, I don’t have everything cataloged in alphabetical order or in any order). But whether you go for ideas fluttering around us like butterflies or for our brains crunching out all kind of data, Ms. Gilbert is right about one thing. The thing that gets the ideas to land in your butterfly net or lit up your mind is that we have to be willing to be creative; in other words, we have to remain committed to being curious and open minded. The best way to get rewarded by it is by becoming a partner to our own creativity. In her book, Ms. Gilbert has a lot to say about how to go on accomplishing just that. From my own experience, I can say this: Relish it, nurture it, respect it, trust it, play with it, work hard for and with it, and just be grateful for this gift.

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Older and wiser

I have turned a page on another birthday already, and I’m surprised that I have not given it too much thought this year. I didn’t feel like I was at a crossroads or that it was a milestone. Instead, I found myself, well, catching myself doing my usual yet wondering if it was still age appropriate to do so. When my mother was my age, she wouldn’t have been caught wearing leggings or mid-rise jeans. Heck not, she wouldn’t have been caught wearing jeans at all. And here I am, still shopping at Charlotte Russe, Jeans Warehouse, and at the juniors section of any department store. It helps that I’m still tiny and slim, but I’m certainly saying no to skinny and low rise jeans, miniskirts, and anything with slits all the way up there and all the way down there. Age is a mindset, but the mirror tells me that those kinds of clothes look better on younger bodies.

Then, the other day while I was waiting my turn at the salon, I reached out as usual for Glamour magazine. It hit me. Shouldn’t I be reading Good Housekeeping instead? Something more in tune to my age bracket rather than poring over boho style dresses and bikini-ready body tips? What was going on with this new self-consciousness? In the end, it was one of my bosses who ended up giving me a clue. He said that when you get older, when you get to a certain age, you want to tell your age because it’s like earning a right to brag, to say, “Look, I have live this much and this long! I have conquered. I have overcome.” So maybe my questioning what it is age appropriate doesn’t have to do with a preoccupation with eternal youth or an urge to live up to our ageless culture, but rather with a natural, internal call to acknowledge this life, the years I’ve had on this earth so far. They amount to something. They’ve made me into who I’m.

Giving recognition doesn’t mean I have to wear polyester pants with elastic waists and give up shopping at the juniors section. After all, I love the prints, the shapes and the colors I find there. They speak to my creative side. Same for magazines like Glamour. I find inspiration between those pages. But it’s time to own my older self. She’s here after all these years. She’s a learner. She has made mistakes. She’s wiser. She has survived. She’s still laughing and dancing. Together, we hope to thrive for years to come.

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