In 1990, when I was in law school, my Jessup International Moot Court team won the award for writing the best legal brief in the world. Proud and honored, I remember thinking that if I could accomplish this, I bet I could write a novel too. Writing as a means of creative expression has always intrigued me, but I considered this pursuit far beyond my abilities. So I spent the next two decades practicing law, but also studying the art of writing, working on a manuscript in my spare time. At that time, I learned that being a lawyer brought significant benefits when it came to writing mystery novels and thrillers, but it also came with huge hurdles that had to be overcome.
The good – why lawyers make good detective novels
Lawyers love words.
I suspect many lawyers gravitate to the law because they find lexical nuance appealing or, like me, they suck at math. As a child, I invented a game with my brother where we each opened a dictionary on a random page and saw who knew the most definitions. I have a collection of books on word etymology and phrase origins. I can’t resist a click bait that drags me into a pedantic explanation of why a single sandwich is a panino and not a panini. Given that lawyers produce tons of written material every year, it’s no wonder that many at some point ask themselves, “Why not just write a novel?” »
We know the system.
Probably the greatest advantage of a lawyer in mystery writing is our deep understanding of the criminal justice system. I practiced criminal law for twenty-five years. I know how an investigation works. I have read thousands of police interviews and understand interview techniques. I studied DNA, cell phone technology, knife wounds, blood spatter, and more, all in an effort to understand him and the expert witness I had to cross-examine. I know how courtrooms work: arraignments, evidence challenges, jury trials, etc. I have this knowledge at my fingertips, and if I don’t know something, I know how to find it.
We know the law.
What I’m talking about here are the quirks of the law that can sharpen a good mystery plot. Writers who haven’t been through the crucible of law school may not understand the many shades of gray that surround every legal issue. But I’ve used those little quirks as major plot points in several of my stories. A man may or may not inherit an estate depending on whether or not his father committed a crime; a hearing to authorize electroconvulsive therapy becomes a ticking time bomb; a loophole allows a lawyer to legally breach attorney-client privilege in order to bring a killer to justice. Lawyers are in a good position to take these nuances and present them to the reader in new and intriguing ways.
The Bad – Why Lawyers Make Such Bad Crime Novels
Okay, this one might just be me, but one of the things I struggled with when I started writing creatively was using contractions. Seriously. I had trained myself to write professional and direct sentences, without contractions. I had become so hostile to them that, to me, they stood out like a tattoo on a nun’s neck. But if you read the first draft of my first manuscript, you would see the problem. I wrote about a teenager growing up in Missouri in the 1970s, and the kid refused to talk with contractions. I mean it’s you all not you all. Anyway, I came around to this one. Most.
It’s my pet peeve. Legal writing encourages footnotes, which break out of the flow of the argument to give the reader the information they need. Obviously, novels don’t have footnotes, but they can have the equivalent. I call them asides. An aside is where the writer gives the reader information that he or she feels the reader should know before continuing.
He opened the door and there stood Debbie. Debbie had been his girlfriend in college. She had dumped him for his best friend, so why was she here?
Can you spot the side?
It’s easy to throw that kind of lazy exposition at the reader, but don’t. Instead, use it as an opportunity to drop breadcrumbs. Create questions in the reader’s mind: Who is Debbie and why is her appearance problematic? Suspend the answer during a page or chapter or more. Let the reader realize this. Lawyers need to learn that creative writing is about engaging the reader, not informing them. Which brings me to my last point.
Inform v. recall.
Therein lies the biggest obstacle for any lawyer wishing to become a novelist. Law school hardwired us to target the intellect of our readers. The human brain processes the written word in one of two systems: the neocortex or the limbic. The neocortex is the part of the brain responsible for reasoning. The limbic system controls emotional responses. Legal writing is about informing and persuading, which is why our arrows are aimed at the neocortex. We write directly and give the exact information the reader needs.
Direct writing, however, spells the death knell for a novelist. Direct writing tells the reader the emotion but does not let them experience it. As soon as I write, his heart ached Where she felt crushed, I lost the battle. The neocortex will pick up that sentence, process it, and the reader will intellectually understand what the character felt, but they won’t feel anything themselves. I informed, but I did not mention.
Indirect writing, on the other hand, puts the reader on stage and makes him feel the emotion. To evoke emotion, a writer must create a world with so much detail that the reader can’t help but inhabit it. If the writer is successful, the reader will feel what the character is feeling without having to tell them. For example, in the opening scene of Fredrick Forsyth The day of the jackal, he describes an execution through the crunch of gravel underfoot, the world going black behind the blindfold, the slamming of rifle bolts and the beating of pigeons. It’s so much more powerful than if Forsyth had described the man getting shot. It’s a scene that often comes to mind when I struggle to write evocatively.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “a writer cannot create emotion with emotion”. As John Gardner said, “We are moved by what happens, not by the groans or the bawls of the writer’s presentation of what happens.” For lawyers, trained to inform rather than evoke, mastering this technique presents a particular challenge. Fortunately, there is no shortage of good books that teach and employ the correct technique. My first review is always a hunt for those cliché phrases.
There is no better compliment than having a reader say that my novel made them feel emotional. Sure, it’s nice to hear that the twists were intriguing, but for a reader to say they’re writing to me with tears on their cheeks is a whole other level of wonderful. Mastering this effect was difficult, but believe it from someone who spent twenty years perfecting his craft before publishing his first novel, the results are worth the effort.