Dear Author Enabler,
I am writing a novel that mentions an organization with a trademarked name. What is the path I need to take to use the name of this organization in my novel? Do I pay a fee? And if so, how much, and where do I go to get their approval?
Jeffrey Kozinski
Edwardsburg, Michigan

Let me state up front that I am not a lawyer, nor have I read your writing. That said, if you are simply mentioning a company in your story in a neutral way, then I do not believe you need to ask for permission.

For example, let’s say two of the characters in your novel are meeting at Starbucks, and a third character is working there. In this scenario, you do not need to ask Starbucks for permission to use their name. However, if you are portraying the company in a negative light, I would suggest using a fictional name in place of the real one. For instance, if one of your characters works for the company you name in your novel and the character engages in illegal or negligent activities—or if you portray the company as being poorly managed—you may be risking the ire of the company and its lawyers. They could argue that your book has done damage to their reputation. If you have any doubt at all whether there might be a problem, I suggest you make up a fictional name for the company.

Dear Author Enabler,
I’m trying to write a novel about a fictitious romance between two lesser-known historical figures. The problem is that, while they’re from the same country, they lived 150 or so years apart. This was around the late Middle Ages, when both figures were warring with the same enemies, so mashing them together, I feel, is entirely possible. Do you have any advice on how to gracefully reconcile the time gap?
Lexi Byrnes
Waterloo, Iowa

If you write a story in which two historical figures from different centuries are set in the same time period, you run the risk of driving the readers of historical fiction crazy, which might end up being counterproductive.

One solution is to choose to write about one of the two historical figures, set your story in his or her time period and then create a wholly fictional character patterned on the other figure.

However, this may not be a satisfying solution for you—perhaps your story is inspired by the very idea of the two historical characters interacting. If this is the case, you might want to think of your novel as alternate historical fiction. In alternate historical fiction, historic events unfold differently than they did in the real world. A well-known, somewhat recent example of alternate historical fiction is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president of the United States in 1940 and collaborates with Nazi Germany. Another is Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a story about a time traveler who attempts to alter American history by preventing John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

You can also simply ignore everything I’ve said so far by breaking the rules of historical fiction (and physics), writing a great story and letting the chips fall where they may. This is creative writing, after all—ultimately, there are no rules.

In the March column, I had an exchange with reader Gail Lipsett about novelist Linwood Barclay’s use of expletives in his book Trust Your Eyes. Reader Larae Graham of Woodbury, Connecticut, wrote in to defend Barclay, and I wanted to share part of her note: “I truly kept wondering if the letter writer and I were considering the same book. Barclay is an outstanding author who is able to define his varied characters through intelligent dialogue. In Trust Your Eyes, he uses an occasional swear word when the character is in a particularly stressful situation, which is normal for any thriller. It is not at all overdone.”

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