Today author and guest blogger V.S. Kemanis has some tips for writers who want to add authentic courtroom drama to their stories…
“Write what you know” is the advice we often hear as writers. The wisdom of this maxim is often debated, not to mention its meaning. For me, the best and wisest meaning refers to the writer’s use of emotional knowledge gained from personal experience in shaping character and story. Here’s a short video by author Nathan Englander giving a great explanation of “write what you know.”
Every writer, like every reader, views fiction through the lens of his or her unique personality and life experiences. I’m a lawyer with a background in criminal justice, so it comes naturally to write legal suspense and courtroom drama featuring my protagonist, prosecutor Dana Hargrove. Viewing “write what you know” as an expression of emotional knowledge, every writer—lawyer or not—can write legal suspense. For non-lawyers, resources are available to help you achieve accuracy in your courtroom scenes and procedural details. More on this, below.
The criminal justice system is the arena for the highest human drama and wrenching ethical dilemmas. There’s always something interesting to find in the nuances of the law, the personalities in the courtroom, and the psychology of the battle. Even better, the writer can tell the story from any one of several viewpoints or choose more than one to craft a novel with alternating perspectives. Take your pick among the participants in the case: victims, witnesses, defendants, investigators, attorneys, judges, or friends and family of any of the above.
Like writers and readers of fiction, each witness to a crime views the events through his or her personal lens. Focus is skewed by environmental conditions, emotion, bias, and past experiences. When you also consider the varying communication skills of witnesses and possible motives to bend the truth, you end up with a very interesting mess. This happens every day in real life in the courtroom: inconsistent testimony about the same event. What is the jury to believe? In recent decades, the reliability of eyewitness identification has been called into serious question. Here is an interesting article on eyewitness misidentification, with links to other articles on the subject. Conflicting testimony and questionable eyewitness accounts make for great reading in fiction.
If you’re a lawyer writing legal thrillers, you know that exclusionary rules, inadmissible evidence, and the code of professional ethics suggest plenty of interesting dilemmas for your characters. Perhaps you are, like me, absolutely fascinated by criminal law and courtroom procedure. This stuff has everything: it’s intellectual and absurdly technical but also grounded in basic moral tenets. Who couldn’t love it?
Well, I’ve come to learn that many fans of crime fiction do not share my thrill at the clever gymnastics of incisive legal argument. To be fair, many do. I could decide to limit my target audience to legal nerds, but I’d rather make my stories appealing to a broader audience, without sacrificing the legal conundrums. To do this, the law should be woven into the story in a way that won’t make it sound like a legal brief.
Jurors, and even judges, can be caught napping in court. If my novels included every detail of the case, I’d put the reader to sleep too! The main technique to make the law flow is to cut out the filler and highlight dramatic moments: a brutal cross-examination, the surprise testimony, the jury’s verdict in a close case. This doesn’t make the narrative inaccurate or unrealistic—just condensed. Another way to make the story come alive is to focus on the consequences of a prosecutor’s decision, instead of the technical rules underlying it. If prosecutor Dana Hargrove does X, she could be disbarred. If Dana does Y, the killer could go free.
Thanks to popular entertainment, basic legal terms are now part of everyday language: probable cause, Miranda rights, suppression of evidence. The writing challenge arises with less common ideas, like elements of specific crimes and rules of professional ethics. Lawyer-writers: beware of “lawyer speak!” Read your fiction out loud, especially the dialogue, and ask yourself if the meaning is clear. “People don’t talk like that!” your readers might say, even when the dialogue is very authentic (hence, the sleeping jurors). But, unless it’s important to the storyline to depict the character in this light, legalese that bogs down the story should be trimmed or rewritten to make it more colloquial.
For non-lawyers who want to give the legal aspects of their fiction the ring of authenticity, you can, of course, consult a lawyer, or you can get guidance from any number of resources. Join the Legal Fiction group on Facebook and post a question about your fictional scenario. The information given on this site is helpful to the layperson, and I’ve found the answers posted by the administrator to be accurate. Another great resource is Leslie Budewitz’s Agatha Award winning guide, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure. When consulting any resource, you should beware that, although basic aspects of criminal procedure are similar throughout the USA, technical terms and elements of crimes vary from state to state. This level of technicality usually isn’t necessary to advance a good crime story, but if a specific locality is important to your novel, you might want to seek out a practicing lawyer in the area.
Finally, Sidebar Saturdays is another site that covers a variety of interesting legal topics, including the meaning of legal concepts and terms to use in writing accurate courtroom fiction. The lawyers who write these blog posts also give great advice on legal issues that affect all fiction writers, such as contract negotiation, copyright, literary agents, fair use, and rights management. When we’re writing legal fiction, we want to be on the right side of the law!
All links, in order:
V. S. Kemanis grew up in the East Bay Area of California, earned a B.A. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from the University of Colorado Law School, Boulder. In her legal career, she has been a criminal prosecutor of street crime and organized crime for county and state agencies, argued criminal appeals for the prosecution and defense, conducted complex civil litigation, and worked for judges and appellate courts, most recently as the supervising editor of appellate decisions. Ms. Kemanis is also an accomplished dancer of classical ballet, modern jazz, and contemporary styles and has performed, taught, and choreographed in California, Colorado, and New York. Short fiction by Ms. Kemanis has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and The Crooked Road Volume 3 Anthology, among others. Her award-winning stories are available in four collections, and her novels of legal suspense feature prosecutor Dana Hargrove who, like the author, juggles a high-powered legal career with family life. Ms. Kemanis lives in New York and is a member of the New York chapter of the Mystery Writers of America.
Links for V.S. Kemanis:
Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/V.S.-Kemanis/e/B00ALIX7NI/
Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6653593.V_S_Kemanis
The Dana Hargrove Legal Mysteries Collection: https://www.amazon.com/Dana-Hargrove-Legal-Mysteries-Collection-ebook/dp/B07815G7FV/