On television crime dramas, DNA comes back in three minutes, crimes are solved in less than forty-two minutes, and defendants always confess to everything right there on the stand in front of judge and jury. While I can see the entertainment value in this type of show, I often want to hurl my remote at the television. Why? Because none of it is an accurate portrayal of the judicial system and how it works. As someone who’s worked in the legal field for over two decades, it’s beyond frustrating.
What Is Legal Fiction?
Before we talk about the how-tos of writing legal fiction, let’s first define the genre.
Legal fiction is a genre that revolves around the legal system in one way or another. While protagonists don’t necessarily have to be lawyers, they should somehow be involved in the justice system. For example, they could be judges, bailiffs, court reporters, or paralegals.
In my award-winning novel Like Father, Like Daughter the protagonist is a paralegal. Working in the legal field for many years gave me all the tools and information needed to write a compelling and realistic legal suspense. Likewise, it gave my protagonist all the information and tools needed to investigate and solve the crime in question.
Legal novels are typically set (at least in part) in a courthouse or other peripheral locations central to the justice system, such as jails, lawyers’ offices, etc.
The most popular type of legal fiction comes in the form of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers.
If you’re wondering if there’s a market for legal fiction, I have a prime case study which proves legal fiction can make a killing (pun intended): John Grisham has sold over 250 million books, makes an average of $50 million per year, and his net worth is a whopping $350 million.
We can also find plenty more literary works set in the legal world. In her post “Beyond John Grisham, a Guide to Legal Fiction,” Terri Frank writes:
Presently, legal fiction is evolving into so much more than it was when John Grisham’s The Firm hit bestseller lists twenty-five years ago…. Readers are gravitating to books with more diversity among attorneys and clients, smart humor and dialogue, and plots that enlighten them about contemporary legal issues.”
Remember To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee? Atticus Finch, the protagonist in this classic, is often cited by many attorneys as their inspiration for becoming a legal professional.
More recently, one of my favorite legal reads is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The courtroom drama doesn’t play out until the second half of the book, but the way Owens portrayed the courthouse in the Deep South, as well as the myriad of interesting, well-developed, even quirky characters, was so accurate, I could envision the entire trial in my mind.
So, while thrillers are more commonplace than other subgenres, any book can have a central theme surrounding the justice system.
4 Tips for Writing Legal Fiction Readers Will Love
Let’s talk about ways you can make your legal fiction interesting.
1. Use Trials as the Compelling Plot Devices They Are
Courtrooms offer great plot devices because protagonists must win/save the day/succeed before trial ends. Why? Because criminal defendants who are acquitted cannot be retried, due to the double jeopardy rule.
The outcome of a trial, whether it results in acquittal or conviction, can also be used as a beginning point for a legal novel. Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption begins with protagonist Andy Dufresne being convicted of his wife’s murder.
2. Pull Your Cast of Interesting, Unique Characters From a Courthouse
Every work of great fiction includes a cast of colorful and compelling characters. Legal thrillers are no different. A great place to find and mimic unique characters is the courthouse building. There you can find judges, lawyers, jurors, bailiffs, sheriffs, reporters, courtroom observers, and of course paralegals. For example, the movie Erin Brockovich centered around an unwitting, unlikely heroine who stumbled into the paralegal profession and wound up solving the case and saving the day.
3. Ensure You’re Accurately Portraying the Justice System
When writing legal fiction, you must get the facts right. The legal community will know when you’ve got it all wrong. Even lay readers will be able to tell when you aren’t clear about your character’s chosen profession.
Research the facts about how the legal system works. When I say research, I don’t just mean perusing the Internet and reading Wikipedia (although there is a wealth of information out there in cyberspace). I’m referring to actual, hands-on, in-person research. Find an attorney willing to answer questions and tell you exactly what you need to know to pull off a convincing legal thriller.
Further, ask the attorney for a copy of a deposition transcript (redacted, of course). You will learn a lot from a deposition, including how objections really work, as well as legal terminology and attorney lingo.
Even better, call your local court clerk and ask when the next civil or criminal trial will be held. Trials are open to the public, so you can sit in the gallery and take extensive notes on everything you hear and observe. I truly believe this is the best way to learn how the legal system works.
4. Accurately Portray Your Legal Professional
You must also be clear on what it’s really like to be an attorney (or other legal professional). Write up a list of questions to help you get to know the profession and the professional in a way that will help you create a more compelling and believable legal protagonist. Ask your helpful attorney questions like:
- What is a typical day for you in the office?
- How often do you really go to trial?
- How do you prepare for a trial?
- What are some of the biggest stressors of being an attorney?
More specifically, when you have questions about the technicalities of the law, ask your attorney those questions. Keeping in mind laws vary from state to state unless they fall under federal codes, ask you attorney things like:
- What is the statute of limitation on robbery?
- What are the potential sentences for murder in X state?
- What are the rules on discovery?
- How would you file an appeal?
- How are criminal charges brought after arrest?
There’s no better way to research your protagonist’s chosen profession than to actually get to know someone with the same job.
Whether you choose to write a legal mystery, suspense, thriller, or even a more literary novel, it’s imperative you understand how the justice system works, what settings you’re going to be using, and how your characters would conduct themselves in real life. This will help you in writing legal fiction that is all the more compelling and convincing.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions? Have you ever tried writing legal fiction? Have you ever written a lawyer or a trial into a story of a different genre? Tell us in the comments!