by Leslie Budewitz
Check out our review of Leslie’s book Crooks, Books and Counselors & enter for a chance to win a copy of the book in this issue of KRL.
As a mystery-writing lawyer, I’ve been fielding other writers’ questions about the law for years. Now I’m thrilled to share some of my knowledge in Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Quill Driver Books, 2011). The book is aimed at the writer–of novels, stories, screenplays, and more–who recognizes that a legal thread runs through the fictional world, and that getting key details wrong can unravel the entire plot. It’s also useful for nonfiction writers who want a primer on the criminal and civil legal systems, and for readers who want to know a little more about the legal system–and see if they can catch their favorite books and shows in a mistake!
My experience writing fiction helps me understand what non-lawyer writers need to know about both criminal and civil law. The book also suggests ways legal issues can deepen plots and subplots, complicate characters, and create rich, vibrant settings.
Why does getting it right matter? “It’s fiction,” some writers say. “Why does it matter whether I’ve called the crime first-degree murder instead of deliberate homicide, or called the prosecutor the DA?”
Because writers build our fictional worlds one detail at a time. If we get the details wrong, our readers’ ability to live in that world for a few hours crumbles.
But while the devil may be in the details, so is the magic. A character comes alive by the details used to portray her actions, thoughts, and feelings. The trick is plausibility. Make the setting and character action feel real. Like it could have happened that way. Use enough of the right details accurately that the reader trusts you.
Many readers are familiar with the law–or think they are! Getting the legal details as right as a writer can is important, because readers trust us to not only create a world they can get lost in, but to reveal some truth about our daily world in the process.
What’s in the book? The law is complex and often daunting. It varies tremendously among the fifty states, federal system, and tribal systems. Books, Crooks & Counselors uses examples from actual cases (many of them my own), and fiction, movies, and television to answer questions on more than 160 topics on criminal and civil law.
The book focuses on general principles, giving common variations, and showing how they might apply. It outlines the trial and appeals processes, including evidentiary issues and problems related to witnesses. A key topic is legal investigation, including search and seizure. “What is probable cause to search or arrest?” “After my character was convicted and sent to prison, someone else confessed. Now what?” I also discuss common crimes and terminology, and sentencing, including the death penalty.
Writers ask a lot of questions about adoption and probate. “What adoption records are available?” “What happens to assets in a case of murder-suicide?” “Can a character buy a life insurance policy on someone else, without that person’s knowledge?” “When can a missing person be declared dead–and what if he comes back to life?”
If you’re writing about a lawyer or a judge, it’s important to know how they think. The Q&As address everything from law school classes to what it takes to get disbarred and readmitted–with some famous examples. They also discuss legal ethics and practical questions. “What courthouse and courtroom security measures should a writer be aware of?”
Finally, I’ve tried to show writers when they might need to research further, with research tips and links to dozens of websites for organizations, resources, and databases.
I blog regularly on the ways writers can use legal issues in their stories. How does a recent Supreme Court ruling changes search warrants and procedure? How does a recent event or trial illustrate a legal issue that crops up regularly in fiction, such as self-defense or jury selection?
But writing would be dull if I only wrote about the law. With a mystery series debuting next year, you probably think it’s full of lawyers. Nope. I’m equally obsessed with food, and life in Montana. The Food Lovers’ Village mysteries are set in a lakeside resort community in northwestern Montana, on the road to Glacier Park. Erin Murphy manages a specialty regional food market. She’s got a passion for retail, pasta, and huckleberry chocolates–and a talent for solving murder.