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Monday, February 6, 2012

WHAT DO LAWYERS AND AUTHORS HAVE IN COMMON?


While I was preparing my non-fiction trial guide, SEE YOU IN COURT! for publication, it came to me that it was a good reference work for writing fictitious court scenes. It is full of nuances and quirks that could lend credence to a narrative.  And that got me to wondering what, if anything, lawyers and authors have in common. Go to the mystery and thriller section of a bookstore (if you can find one of those) and you will see that a lot of authors are actually lawyers who write novels. I came to the conclusion that there must be something they have in common. But what?


Of course, they both need to know how to write. But what you write about and the forms that you use to convey your message are completely different. To begin with, lawyers tend to want to tell. And they use funny words you could never get by with in a novel; words like “notwithstanding” and “submit” (not the kinky kind) “quash” and “subsequent.”  Authors like to show and be omniscient. Sometimes they don’t even write sentences, or whole ones. You’d never get away with that in a legal brief. So, “no” authors and lawyers don’t really have writing in common.


Unless they’re extraordinarily successful, authors don’t dine where lawyers do. They don’t go business class. And they don’t usually dress in suits. Authors often need day jobs. Authors sometimes need lawyers. Lawyers rarely need authors. Lawyers practice civil or criminal law. Authors are civil or uncivil.  Lawyers need a license to practice. Authors have license.

So what accounts for the plethora of lawyer/authors?  What accounts for, John Grisham, Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, Lia Matera, John Mortimer, Richard North Patterson, Henry Fielding, Marissa Piesman and Studs Turkel? I think I have an answer: observation. Authors and lawyers are in the business of paying close attention to human behavior, body language and the physical surroundings in which events occur -- good ones, at least. 

 

Now you are saying, “Wait a minute, other occupations rely on observation too. What about cops and doctors, for example?” The difference though between those other occupations and lawyers is that the observations are generally used within the profession. More often than not, doctors report to other doctors and cops work with cops. They both tend to use lawyers when they want to translate their observations into language for public consumption. 

 

Trial lawyers, especially, are trained to closely observe jurors' responses to their questioning during a selection process called voir dire. We scrutinize documents for evidence of forgery or late creation. We examine forensic evidence. We size up witnesses in pre-trial depositions. And our task is to communicate those observations to jurors, a judge or the public in general. Authors who have that skill can ascribe to their characters behavior from nuances and quirks to more definitive conduct. Authors can make their characters sweat, blush, pull their arms across their chests or stare.  These kinds of descriptions can show the reader a characters’ personality. Readers will come to empathize or despise, based on the behavior described. Readers can pick up on these descriptions to draw their judgments, rather than having the author tell us how the character feels. Likewise the physical environment can be shown, rather than told about. The gun can still be hot to the touch but the show would be inability to hold onto it, and then perhaps licking some burnt fingers. A stiff wind can whip clothing into knots or cause a wayward piece of trash to wrap around a leg. If I were to write: “As he walked, sheets of newsprint swirled about the sidewalk and the front page of the morning rag decided to wrap tightly around his leg,” the reader might guess that it was wind that caused it.  

 

The law might call the dropping of the gun or the paper-wrapped leg “circumstantial evidence” that the gun was hot and the walk was windy. In See You In Court!, I explain that legally, circumstantial evidence is as good as a percipient narration, but in fiction,  circumstantial evidence is better. It is those kinds of details that make the best narrative. Attention to detail, through relating these small clues makes the story. So just as a lawyer is shown evidence, the author can show the reader the evidence, whether it be a weapon, a room, or a document, paying attention to clues, which constitute the circumstantial evidence that makes for the best reading. The best of the lawyer/authors possess this ability to process the evidence and then to communicate it in plain, simple, easy-to-read language.

 






6 comments:

  1. Came over from the WCP group. Good article. Didn't realize that so many lawyers were into writing, but I understand how observing human behaviour would lead to writing.

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  2. Lawyer work for civilians and crime reporting in court. That connected with judicial department which control on crime and flow of wrong turns.
    Best Criminal Lawyers in Toronto

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  3. Excellent article. I really enjoyed your take on things. I've been reading Criminal Mind by Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. for just that reason. Adding real life to my fiction. Thank You.
    Billie
    www.billiewilliams.com

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  4. Barry I totally agree with your assessment about observation. I'm also an attorney/author. I still practice a little law on the side to pay the bills (lol) but I am committed to spending most of my time on my writing career. I was also amazed at the number of lawyers turned authors but when you think about it - it does make sense.

    In my opinion, I think there is a natural progression from lawyer to author, that just falls into place for lawyers who want to explore the outlet of writing (fiction or non-fiction). In court, lawyers on both sides have to 'tell their client's version of the story' by showing it through evidence and testimony. We spend days and hours plotting out our case, methodically placing our witnesses in a certain order to testify in the most logical manner in an attempt to prove to the jury/judge that our client's version of the story is what really happened.

    In my mind, that's the same way the 'author' in me tries to plot out a story line with character arcs, setting up external and internal conflicts, raising the bar to intensify the drama or romance. I'm currently working on revising my first romantic suspense novel.

    Kris M. McConville, Esq.

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    1. Kris, you are right. The transfer from lawyer to author though involves keeping the audience. Trial lawyers have a captive audience. Once sworn, the jurors are almost prisoners. You can bore the hell out of them and they can't leave. If you are not perceptive, you might not even realize that your story is not coming across. Not so with a reader. They can put your book down and give you a bad review with their friends. You've really got to keep a reader interested, and with mystery/thrillers, get them invested in who done it, or why, or how are we ever going to catch this guy? That's the writer's challenge.

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