Do You Need Permission to Write About Somebody?

 

Some of the most common questions I hear from picture book biography writers:

Q: Do I need permission to write about somebody, living or dead?

A: Permission is technically not required if the biography subject is/was a public figure, unless their estate has created a kind of legal fortress. There are rare cases in which permission must be obtained before sharing any likeness or representation. You should be able to identify these restrictions by searching online. The first place to start might be a website dedicated to the person, or the organization that controls their “papers of” or “official collection of.”

First Amendment rights aside, consider appropriateness. Personally, I would feel offended if a writer didn’t attempt to get my perspective or clarification of facts before writing a book about me. We writers should always consider courtesy. Even with ultra-famous subjects, it’s usually worthwhile to attempt contact. Equally important is to consider the subject’s ethnicity, cultural or gender identity, otherly-abled status, etc. Writing about someone outside of one’s own experience is very often frowned upon.

Q: What is the definition of “public figure?”

 I reached out to Jacqui Lipton, literary agent and author of LAW & AUTHORS: A LEGAL HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS, which is chock-full of information about copyright, contracts, rights, social media—and everything in between, packed into thirteen enlightening chapters. Two chapters are dedicated to the sensitive topic of writing about someone else and avoiding defamation. In an email exchange, Jacqui offered this about “public figures”:

A: “There are legal definitions of “public figure” in the defamation context but they’re very complicated and fact-specific–and courts vary from time to time and jurisdiction to jurisdiction–and it’s all very specific to the First Amendment calculus in relation to defamation law . . . the question of what constitutes a public figure will vary from case to case.”

Ultimately, it depends. Do your homework to uncover possible restrictions. If there is no legal barrier, you might be able to proceed full speed ahead, assuming you determine that you are the right person to tell the story.

Q: Why should I try to contact my biography subject or their family if the person is/was famous and well-covered in other books, articles, etc.?

A: Quite simply, if you’re successful, you will get the most accurate information and most intimate perspective. Just as importantly, you might get a feel for the person’s personality and speech quirks that could influence your story’s voice and overall approach. On the topic of accuracy, errors might have been perpetuated through other sources, something I faced when researching The Great Blondin for KING OF THE TIGHTROPE. Because I reached out to Blondin’s great-great-grandson, who eagerly dipped into family records to aid my research, I was able to identify and avoid falsehoods that have been repeated in countless books and articles since 1861. Not only did I correct the historical record, but Blondin’s family provided me information not found in any other publication. And I made a new international friend in the process—someone still boosting the book.

A: Most biography subjects or descendants will be thrilled about your book and eager to provide you with information. In fact, they usually feel honored, especially when they find out you’re writing for kids. Such was the case with my forthcoming book WINGS OF AN EAGLE: THE GOLD MEDAL DREAMS OF BILLY MILLS, co-authored with Oglala Lakota Olympian Billy Mills, being illustrated by S.D. Nelson. Billy’s celebrity status meant that it took me a long time to finally gain access to him and his family. It was worth it! As we get closer to the publication date, I’ll share more about how direct communication with Billy turned into a joyous collaboration that morphed the project into an autobiographical picture book. As a non-Native writer, this collaboration with Billy was the absolute right decision. To do otherwise could have been viewed as a kind of appropriation.

For other examples of authors who successfully reached their celebrity subjects:
Read about Kate Messner’s journey with Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor.
Read about Cynthia Levinson’s journey with Hilary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can

Q: What if I am unable to reach my biography subject or their close relatives?

A: Sometimes, your intended subject, or their representative, doesn’t respond to polite requests for an interview or Q&A. Celebrities and high-profile individuals can be especially tricky to contact, though you should certainly make the effort. If you decide you are still the right person to write the story, seek out people who know/knew them: relatives, co-workers, neighbors, etc.. And search for quality primary and secondary sources that are exceptionally reliable. Documented interviews with your biography subject can reveal feelings, experiences, and direct quotes. At every step of the process, you should gut-check your decision. How will the biographee or their loved ones react to your unauthorized biography? The subject might be considered fair game, but make sure you are playing the game fairly.

Q: Are there potential downsides to contacting my biography subject or their family?

A: Possibly

—A biographee or their descendant could explicitly ask you not to write the book, in which case you should NOT write the book.
—They could respond with a vague “no thank you,” leaving you to decipher the underlying message. This happened to me. After many unanswered follow-up emails to a potential subject, my agent and I decided it would be unwise to proceed with my project.
—They could reveal that they are already working with somebody else on a book like yours. That doesn’t mean that you can’t also write a book about them, but the first author will have the authorized biography, which will almost certainly get the most attention. You must decide if it’s worth your time to write a book that will likely be overshadowed.
—They could agree to cooperate while assuming that they have creative control over the storytelling in your book. This could be tricky. You must graciously discuss boundaries and expectations upfront.

Q: If my biography subject says no, can I write the book anyway?

A: Technically…yes. As I alluded to earlier, you might have the First Amendment on your side, but you need to decide if it is wise to go against the person’s specific wishes. Assume that everyone has a big platform or access to media machines. I’m not a lawyer and can’t speak to legalities, but I can imagine nightmare scenarios in which the biographee or their relatives are angry enough to discredit an unauthorized book and its author. Is that likely? Maybe not, but I think it’s wise and just to air on the side of courtesy and respect.

Writing about someone else can be a rewarding experience, but we writers should never forget that our subjects are/were real people. They deserve respect, on and off the page.

A few additional sources about fair use and copyright:

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use and Permissions + Sample Permissions Letter” by Jane Friedman https://www.janefriedman.com/sample-permission-letter/

“A Writer’s Guide to Fair Use” by Howard Zaharoff: https://www.morse.law/news/writers-guide-to-fair-use/

“Twelve Common Copyright Permission Myths” by Lloyd J. Jassin

 

 

Organizing a Mountain of Research

Final fact-checking for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

One of my favorite things about writing nonfiction is research—part scavenger hunt and part archaeological dig into the past. But what’s the best way to organize the resulting mountain of research? It’s a question that always pops up in forums and writers’ groups. The truth is, there is no single right system. Much depends on the topic, the volume and type of materials, and most importantly, each person’s individual style.

Early in my writing career, I flailed my way through index cards, spiral notebooks, file boxes, endless manilla folders. The problem was that, when I needed to find a detail, fact, or quote, it was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So I pursued a more streamlined process—one that allowed easy access for my immersive writing style and comprehensive research style in a low-tech way. When it comes to my work, I want to be able to find what I’m looking for immediately. For some writers, software programs like Scrivener or Evernote are perfect tools for that goal and their own styles. For others, the spiral notebooks and index cards that make me a little dizzy, are ideal. To each her own! I experimented widely until I settled on a system that works for me. No doubt, my process will evolve over time, but here’s my current 4-step system:

#1—Research like the dickens—beyond the obvious sources

#2—Create digital file folders for thoughtfully-labeled, easily-sharable, digitized or scanned documents, interview transcriptions, etc.

#3—D-ring binders—the perfect adjustable container.
* If the book is topical, I organize the binder by related sub-topics.
* If the book is historical or biography, I organize chronologically, with necessary sub-topic categories, too.
* I print the most reliable sources for the binder.

#4 Create a Book Bible—
* Open a Word document and turn on Navigation Pane or Document Map (usually under the Sidebar option)
* Create category headings using a heading style, which automatically triggers the navigable sidebar, like a table of contents. Clicking on one of the headings jumps the cursor to that section of the document. No more scrolling. Nifty, huh?
* Extract relevant quotes, details, information from the binder sources, books, and interviews, and type them under the appropriate headings, with citations. (Most often, a single source, like a book or newspaper article, has information that fits under multiple categories. For example, a single eyewitness account for King of the Tightrope can include rope information, Blondin’s background, Niagara details, and Blondin’s costume—all of which can be extracted for different category headings. This is especially important when there are conflicting details across sources. It’s much easier to scrutinize disparities when the accounts are in one place.

Creating a book bible is tedious and time-consuming, and the process makes me grouchy. But once completed, I feel empowered and confident. A single book bible (usually 50-100 pages for a picture book) contains the most relevant and important information for my book project in one Word document. When does it come in handy? When it’s time to craft a bibliography; when I need to share a source with my editor; when I’m knee-deep in revision or rewrites and need to quickly find information; if anyone questions the content in my nonfiction narratives. And just imagine how ready I’ll be if Hollywood comes knocking, or if an opportunity related to one of my books arises in the future, when the research is no longer fresh in my memory.

Could I write a nonfiction picture book without researching as deeply and as widely as I do? Probably. Could I wrangle the research without going the extra mile with my binders and my book bibles? Sure, but it would feel like wearing ill-fitting shoes. I know myself and my immersive writing and research style enough to know that condensing and containing information is what I need.

Writer friends, you do you. Whatever your style, however you roll, allow yourself time to flail around until you find what works best for your unique comfort level. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your own suggestions in the comments.

Happy researching!


Above: Book bibles for Step Right Up (92-page document), Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (54-page document), and King of the Tightrope (49-page document)
Below: A Sample page from my King of the Tightrope book bible, with partial sidebar visible

 

 

Secondary Sources to the Rescue!

There’s a common belief among new nonfiction writers that primary sources are the only way to find absolute facts. Secondary sources are assumed to be inferior, less trustworthy, less valuable.

I beg to differ.

Don’t get me wrong, I get a rush when I find primary sources. As kids in my school visits can attest, I’m downright giddy when I talk about turning the pages of original 19th-century newspapers or scrolling through microfilm. I’ve had palpable reactions while donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling Beautiful Jim Key scrapbooks at the Tennessee State Archives (Step Right Up), or when I found Lincoln’s handwritten letter with his duel terms (Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words). For each book’s research, I was reminded that primary sources are not a guarantee of accuracy.

The primary sources I uncovered while researching for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara were especially suspect.

First page of Lincoln’s 1842 letter with his duel terms, housed at the Library of Congress

 

When I found the first biography of Jean Francois Gravelet, aka The Great Blondin, published in 1862, I thought I had hit pay dirt. In the preface, the biographer claims that Blondin himself was part of the book’s creation. It was as close to an “as-told-to” account as I could ask for. If Blondin was feeding the author information and approving the content, the book was as good as a primary source. What a gold mine! Or so I thought!

Seems like everything ever written about The Great Blondin originated from this book, either directly or secondarily. I believed every word until I expanded my primary source search and dove into secondary sources with a critical eye. AND, luckily, I successfully tracked down a well-informed descendent of Blondin.

Following are just a few of the many inaccuracies found in the primary sources I turned to:

The 1862 collaborative biography claims that young Jean Francois was accidentally introduced to acrobatics and tightrope-walking when a traveling troupe camped near his French home. He purportedly taught himself the skills of acrobatics and funambulism and was quickly considered a prodigy. His parents sent him to L’Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon—a special school for acrobats.  By the age of nine, the biographer states, the future Blondin was orphaned. What a story! An orphan who grows up to be the best in his field. Unfortunately, much of the book was falsified.

My ultimate research revealed that, in truth, Blondin was part of the third acrobatic generation in his family. There was no circus camped near his home. He came to his vocation naturally and was part of his parents’ act even as a toddler. He literally grew up on the rope and on stage. As for the acrobatic school in Lyon—my research revealed no such school—a fact confirmed by Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

Later, the biography claims, as an adult sailing to the United States for a two-year acrobatic tour, Blondin proved the only person brave enough and strong enough to dive into the Atlantic during a raging storm to rescue a rich nobleman that had been pitched overboard.

Nope! Not true. According to the ship’s passenger list (another primary source), there was no nobleman. And, since there’s no other record of a storm during this sailing, I must assume the entire episode is an invention. 

As for the sad fact about Blondin becoming an orphan at age nine…you guessed it. It was false. Though his father died while Blondin was young, his mother lived into her 50’s, dying while adult Blondin was performing in the U.S.

 

I’ll never know if Blondin falsified his story for this biography or if the author falsified Blondin’s involvement and simply made stuff up. It was not the only primary source with unreliable information.

In 1859, Blondin carried Harry Colcord, his agent, across the Niagara River on his back, much to the amazement of all who witnessed it. Colcord’s later accounts of his experience, and of Blondin’s process of engineering his ropes, survive as primary sources. Unfortunately, Colcord was quite a storyteller, and he changed his details with each telling. In one interview, he was quoted as saying that sixteen horses powered a windlass on the American side of the Niagara River to stretch Blondin’s rope. I believed it, hook, line, and sinker. Maybe I subconsciously wanted it to be true because of the drama of the scene.  Illustrator Adam Gustavson even created a gorgeous spread depicting the equine laborers. Then I discovered that it was false. There were no horses used in the stretching process. Grrr! Poor Adam had to change his illustration.

We cannot assume that primary sources are accurate. Sometimes, the creator has a biased perspective or a limited perspective or, naively, incorrect facts. Sometimes, the source is exaggerated or altogether falsified for dramatic effect.

This funny newspaper line made it into my book
This one claims that Blondin fell to his death at Niagara
This report claims there was no such man as Blondin

 

Newspapers, too, are notoriously inconsistent. You can’t imagine the frustration of finding wildly different reports about the size of Blondin’s walking rope—from 1 1/2″ to 7″ diameter, wide, circumference, thick, around—even the units of measure were inconsistent. And, don’t get me started about the lack of reportage about Blondin’s process of engineering his rope across the gorge. What details do exist are also inconsistent and missing chunks of information. For those missing details, there were no primary sources to refer to.

Secondary sources 

The best secondary sources result from the distillation and evaluation of information from many sources and different perspectives. While a primary source is like seeing facts through one rigid lens, a good secondary source is like a carefully curated panoramic view.

Had I relied solely on primary sources for King of the Tightrope, I would have invariably perpetuated falsehoods. Thanks to modern experts, engineers, scholarly analysis, and a family connection, I was able to uncover the true story about The Great Blondin and his notable feats at Niagara, and the STEAM connection that threads my narrative together. I can feel confident that my book—a secondary source—will provide accurate information going forward. Had my topic been purely science or technology-based, it would have been equally important. Consider how breakthroughs of the past would be viewed today.

Dig for those primary sources, friends. But don’t stop there. Look for quality secondary sources that will help you form a more complete and accurate picture of your topic. You’ll feel triumphant when your true story comes into focus.

You can read more about my primary and secondary research on this Knowledge Quest blog for AASL.

It took a lot of wrong information to get to the truth
Research binders for King of the Tightrope

Reverse-Engineering an Engineering Process from the Past

They are short and for kids, but nonfiction picture books can require the sleuthing skills of Veronica Mars, the puzzling wizardry of Sherlock Holmes, and the science chops of Bill Nye.

When I set out to write about how The Great Blondin engineered his tightrope across the Niagara Gorge in 1859, I hoped to find the honey pot of details in the countless newspaper articles I uncovered. But instead of a step-by-step reveal, I faced scattered and inconsistent details and humongous gaps in information. Though my picture book narrative couldn’t possibly include every single step, I needed to understand them, to ensure accuracy and a you-are-there sense of tension. Piecing those steps together required that I step out of my comfort zone and into the world of STEMs. Beginning with rope.

The Mysterious STEM of Ropes

You’d think that the simplest detail to nail down would be the rope Blondin performed on, right? Afterall, witnesses could touch the “hawser.” Alas, though most sources correctly estimated the length of the walking rope to be ~1300’ feet long, the rope’s circumference was another matter. Reporters claimed it was 1.5-inches, two, three, 3.25, 3.5, four, six, ten-inches “wide,” “thick,” “diameter,” “around,” “large,” “circumference.” Oy vey! What a snarl to untangle. Was it really that important? Absolutely! There was only one way to solve this hempen-braided mystery, 160-years after the event. I turned to an engineer. Specifically, one with a vested interest in my project—Blondin’s great-great-grandson in France.

The blessed planets aligned for this fortuitous connection. Jean-Louis (thankfully, an English-speaker) and I exchanged clues from historical accounts, then he tapped into his expertise to determine the tension/breaking rate of fiber ropes of different sizes until the mystery was solved. Historical clues + Modern science. Voila! Now I could accurately state that The Great Blondin’s walking rope was 3.25” diameter, or ten+ inches circumference (circumference= diameter X pi [3.1459]). That concrete detail affected every step of Blondin’s process, including the 40,000’ of other ropes. It seems like a lot of effort for something as simple as rope, but accuracy matters. For classrooms, I hope my STEM research mystery inspires a hands-on approach to learning math and engineering concepts.

It’s All About the Questions

Now that the rope mystery was solved, I extracted more research clues to determine necessary questions. How did Blondin and his helpers get the walking rope from the American shore to the Canadian shore in a rowboat? How far upstream did they have to begin to compensate for the wicked current, in those days before human intervention, when 1.5 million gallons of water per second flowed over the Niagara Falls? How did the men transport, attach, lift, transfer, tie, splice, stretch each rope for its intended purpose? Step by step?

Looking back, I see an evolution of my own thought-process in my early diagrams and moodling, often with my engineer-son’s help. The engineering calculations were over my head, to be sure, but my inner Veronica Mars embraced the challenge of connecting the proverbial dots.

Once Blondin’s process was nailed down, I could put Blondin on his rope. Almost.

The Science of Balance

I couldn’t write about a rope-walker without feeling rope beneath my own feet, so I found a four-foot-long, 2 ½”-inch diameter manila rope (the largest available). I walked back and forth on the rope, as it rotated under my feet, and I struggled to keep my balance. More questions emerged: What is balance? How does a balance pole help a tightrope walker? Suddenly, I was a kid again, wobbling on a balance beam, a cavaletti, that crazy swinging playground bridge—oblivious to concepts of gravity, inertia, mass—the secret recipe to keeping me upright. I like to think that, had I read a story like King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara at that time, I would have been inspired to solve the mystery of my own STEM connection.

I encourage kids to think critically and to embrace historical and STEM topics when I visit schools. To help educators, there’s a curriculum guide, a one-page related STEM glossary, and two experiments to inspire students’ inner Mars/Holmes/Nye.
Find the full curriculum guide and more information at http://www.donnajanellbowman.com/book/king-of-the-tightrope. Follow me at  https://www.facebook.com/donnajanellbowmanauthor and on Twitter @donnajbbwrites__________________________________________________________________________

Donna Janell Bowman is the author of award-winning and lauded nonfiction books, including Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Peachtree, 2018). STEAM-infused King of the Tightrope: When The Great Blondin Ruled Niagara (Peachtree, 2019) released in October 2019. Donna has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She enjoys mentoring and inspiring writers of all ages, especially during school visits. Donna lives in Central Texas where she does NOT walk on a tightrope.

Picture book biographies—My most-viewed posts

We’re working to re-establish the blog archives and categories that got tangled up in the recent website import. For now, if you’re looking for past posts about nonfiction picture books or picture book biography (or ies), simply type those terms into the blog search box. You can also find the most-viewed posts below.

*DISCLAIMER: These posts were written in 2010 and 2011, as I was teaching myself how to write picture book biographies by dissecting other books. Since then, picture book biographies have evolved and I have evolved as a writer. When my imaginary household staff, interns, and assistants catch up on the backlog of responsibilities, I hope to return to the topics with a more recent perspective. Til then, enjoy!

NEW! Listen to The Porchlight Podcast where author Cynthia Levinson and I discuss the challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Nonfiction Picture Books- the power of THEME

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

Revising like a Sculptor

Revision

SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre