The dangers of operating too close to home

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I had an email recently from an aspiring novelist wondering if there were problems about setting your story in a real place.

The answer is: well not so much the place, as places rarely sue for defamation of character.

But the people living there... well, some might be wildly flattered at being identified as a character in a book. Then there are the ones portrayed as, say, predatory sex-offenders.

Well, not intentionally, obviously. How were you to know that somebody with the same name as your predatory sex-offender lived in the same street of the same small West Wales town where your story was set?

Sorry... no excuse. Or not much of one, anyway. Pretty soon you could be talking to a solicitor - and you know what that can do to your royalties for the foreseeable future.

As a long-time journalist, I’m deeply paranoid about accidentally libelling somebody. I once invented a notoriously bent councillor in a distant town where I didn’t even know the names of any councillors.

When I went back after the book was published, I kept getting the nudge nudge, wink wink treatment from people who said things like, "Oh yes, you got HIM bang-to-rights. We all had a good laugh about that." Huh?

Anyway, this Sunday’s Phil the Shelf deals with writers who operate dangerously close to home, in all kinds of ways. Starting with Sally Spedding, one-time horror novelist, now writing Gothic crime novels - like Cold Remains - set around the village of Rhandirmwyn, Carmarthenshire.

Re. villages, my usual advice is: don’t go there. Villages, particularly in Wales, still tend to have small populations. Never mind the names, if you describe a character as having red hair and a limp, you could easily be seen as pointing the finger at the sub-postmaster.

Rhandirmwyn, as I recall, is rather picturesque place - hills, river, waterfall, etc. Sally Spedding’s Rhandirmwyn is grim, evil and has residents like Old Gwenno... known as The Rat.

As Sally lives in the area you’d expect her to know if there actually is a white-haired creepy old lady of that name who happens to be housekeeper at a sinister old pile owned by an Irishman, but it’s easy to miss the obvious.

Did Rhandirmwyn take offence? Sally’s sent me an email she received, beginning...

Hi There, I've just finished reading Cold Remains, and it's a fantastic story! I'm actually from Rhandirmwyn...


So far, anyway...

Laura Wilson burrows into her own dark childhood for her latest novel, A Willing Victim.

Laura had the slight misfortune to be have been brought up inside a cult - the deceptively-named School of Economic Science, whose members followed Eastern esoteric disciplines which could be serious inhibiting to a small child who just wanted to watch TV and play with other kids.

As there’s no indication anybody linked to the cult was actually murdered, it’s probably as well that Laura sets her story in a different decade and doesn’t use the name.

However, real names - and a real house - appear in the comic thriller Briefs Encountered.

The house was once owned by Noel Coward. Well, no problem there, Noel being long dead. Dead people can’t sue and living people can’t sue on their behalf.

But wait... who’s this?

I had once visited a gay club called the Phoenix in Cavendish Square (writes the novel’s narrator on Page 5) I was standing innocently at the urinal when several bouncers burst in and banged furiously on a cubicle door. Aghast, I just managed to zip myself up as a red-faced, white-nosed Clary was escorted off the premises with not one but two wild-eyed youths whose appearances might best be described as dishevelled...

Hmm... even Julian Clary might visit his lawyer over that.

If he hadn’t written the novel.

Listen to the final episode in the current series of Phil the Shelf from 5pm on Sunday on BBC Radio Wales.

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