Writing Legal Fiction: 4 Research Tips

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.

Shawshank Redemption Tim Robbins Andy Dufresne first day in prison

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!

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About Christina Kaye | @topshelfedits

Christina Kaye is an award-winning suspense novelist, editor, writing coach, and instructor. Her first novel Like Father, Like Daughter was named 2017’s Suspense Winner for the Indie Excellence Awards. Christina is CEO and founder of Top Shelf Editing, which offers a variety of services for authors. She’s also the host of Write Your Best Book, a podcast on writing, which airs every Friday.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Christina!

  2. I spent 8 years as a legal secretary (back in the day, that was the designation) and almost 30 as an attorney. My favorite legal novel writers are Susan Isaacs and Scot Turow. Susan’s law offices and lawyers feel authentic and many of her books are laugh out loud funny.

    I avoid almost all legal movies and television programs and a lot of legal fiction because the inaccuracies just jump out. And don’t get me started on why is it that all female attorneys seem to be tall women with long luxurious hair, designer suits and stiletto heels.

    It’s important to get small details right. Legal work involves a lot of tedium and even court trials are slowed down by a lot of required “foundation” to get evidence and testimony admitted. I can accept the need for dramatic effect making total accuracy inadvisable.

    However, small details can totally ruin a novel for me. One period piece had a secretary using the heavy old upright typing at speeds that just were not possible. I learned to type on one of those behemoths. At the speeds asserted in the novel the keys would jam. Same work did not understand how work was distributed when their was a hierarchy between typist, secretaries and the office manager. I stopped reading after a few chapters.

    Good writing is important too. I love Scott Turow,. On the other hand,John Grisham’s novels make great films, but I find his prose unreadable.

    • topshelfedits says

      I’m glad someone else understands how hard it is to watch legal dramas on TV or even read books, especially when they don’t accurately portray the system! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. I know it was a guest post, but it’s really one of my favorites on your great site – I always look forward to alerts of new posts – I’m nurturing two ideas for historical (1840s-1880s) legal fiction – can you or Christina offer any suggestions of good examples by modern writers? Keep up th egreat work and best wishes for continued success and inspiration to both of you!

  4. I’m currently working on a series of Legal Thrillers. The trilogy centers around Jill Adair. The first book, ‘Guilty until Proven Innocent,’ was published in September of 2018 and updated in 2019. The second book, ‘Innocent for the Moment,’ is due to come out on Friday, February 14, 2020.

    My research was done in the courtrooms in Salem, OR. I spent a lot of time there! And I interviewed three criminal lawyers. It was great research AND I learned about the pitfalls of basing your courtroom scenes like the ones on TV.

  5. “….Because criminal defendants who are acquitted cannot be retried, due to the double jeopardy rule…..”

    Unless your courtroom is in the UK where the double jeopardy rule was scrapped in 2005. I’ve seen some recent UK dramas use this to their advantage. Series 1, you thought he’d got away with it.
    Series 2, back to fight another day and finally nailed him.

  6. If you’re writing legal fiction, know your terminology–and not just the stuff in Black’s Law Dictionary. Listen to real lawyers talking. We have shorthand references for practically every aspect of the case, and they’re not always pretty. (In my old firm, a medical malpractice (med mal) case involving an infant who was injured during childbirth was known as a “bad baby case.”)

    The line that screams “not written by a lawyer” to me is when a legal professional talks about how the case will “settle out of court.” In 27 years of practice, I’ve never heard a lawyer, judge, paralegal, or court employee say that. We say the case settles; we don’t add “out of court.” It’s redundant and frankly silly, because any lawyer knows the settlement discussions aren’t going to take place on the record (a/k/a “in court”), so by definition, any settlement is out of court.

    That said, there are terms that vary in meaning, such as the aforementioned “record.” The phrase “on the record” means anything that’s been said in open court before a judge and recorded by a court reporter (as distinct from conferences in the judge’s chambers, where there’s no court reporter), whether or not the transcript has been transcribed. If your character talks about the record in general terms (“The defendant’s motion wasn’t in the record”), they may also be referring to whatever is contained in the court’s file of the case–the pleadings filed by the parties and the decisions filed by the court–in addition to what’s occurred on the record. If your book is about a pending appeal, the record encompasses not only those things, but also other material from trial, such as exhibits (both those that were admitted as full exhibits and those that were only admitted for identification). Your legal professional characters will need to know what they’re talking about–which means you will, too.

    Before you publish your legal fiction, ask a lawyer who practices in the same area as your characters to look it over with an eye toward authenticity. (There’s very little point in having a real estate lawyer review your criminal lawyer’s dialogue, because the RE lawyer probably doesn’t know any more than the average lay person about how criminal lawyers speak–unless, of course, the RE lawyer has a criminal history and has heard their own criminal lawyer speaking. 😉 )

  7. Natalie Aguirre says

    Thanks for the tips, Christina. I was an attorney for 30 years so laugh when I watch TV shows where everything is so dramatic and gets solved so quickly. I haven’t tried to write legal thrillers, but definitely use your tips if I ever do.

  8. Denise Greene says

    I used a trial in a historical Western. The bad guys won due to lack of adequate evidence, leaving an opportunity for an exciting chase to recapture them, bringing them in on different and more serious charges. I love it! My Western Adventure novels always involve mysteries and the law. I just retired from working as a paralegal out here in Cochise County, AZ, the last bastion of the Wild West. Lots of material, and my novels are getting better and better thanks to your books and your blog. I can’t say thanks enough.

    • topshelfedits says

      Denise, I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Thank you so much for your comment! Best of luck with the book. I’d be very interested to read it.

  9. Lance Haley says

    I have been practicing federal and state criminal law for 30 years now.

    So many people tell me I need to write a memoir or novel given all the wild cases I have had over the many years. Including one case where an Asian lady decapitated her 6 year old son’s head off. To say the least, I got a lot of press off that case. As well as getting her off on insanity. Which is like catching lightning in a bottle.

    Many of the cases I have handled or taken to trial would curl the hair on the back of the average layperson’s neck. Yet, I have absolutely no interest in writing legal fiction. I have read Turow and Grisham’s work. Watched a number of their movies. Great stuff. That’s as far as I will ever go in legal fiction field (at least for the present moment).

    OK, I have to get back to work on my next federal criminal trial set for April. And it is going to trial – there will be no pleading guilty this time around. My client declined his last attorney’s attempt at getting him to take a plea. As we like to say in our sphere, “the plea ‘blew up’ in court” (the client backed out while standing in front of the judge). I was appointed by the court to take the case over. Drugs, several hundred guns – it carries a gun trafficking charge, as well – and a host of really bad dudes.

    And that’s just one of my seven federal cases pending right now. These cases are mind-bending. Just another “normal, boring day” in the life of a criminal defense attorney! 🙂

    • You criminal defense attorneys are a special breed of cat. I can see why you don’t have the energy left over to write about your past cases when you are moving on to the next challenge. I did a few criminal trials but mostly family law which has its own drama. One of my clients murdered his wife and told the cops if I had done a better job trying to get his child away from his wife it would not have happened!

  10. The courtroom scenes are precisely what I did not like in Where The Crawdads Sing. Time and again, the attorneys in the novel asked compound questions which is a definite no-no. I wondered who had advised the author on the legal aspects of her novel. There was no-one mentioned in the acknowledgments, and I thought it showed. Sorry, I think writing courtroom scenes is exceedingly difficult if you’ve never been a trial attorney.
    When I was writing my third novel, one of my characters was a young ADA. I followed a real ADA around for several weeks, and liked what I saw so much, I gave up on the novel and went to law school. In the end, I never got to practice criminal law, but I did get the best job in the world as a law clerk to a judge. Now, I’m retired from practicing law, I’m back to novel writing, but I still wouldn’t include a courtroom scene without asking a seasoned trial attorney to look it over.

    • The courtroom scene I hated the most was years ago in Kramer vs. Kramer when the father’s attorney attacked the mother by vicious cross examination. No family law attorney would attack Mom! And if he/she did the judge would admonish. It certainly would not help the father’s case to have the Mom break down in tears.

  11. Kathleen Freeman says

    Great article! Thank you for sharing! I’m writing a story that involves the Bar Exam. There is a lot of great info out there. Fascinating stuff.

  12. I learned so much from this post, Christina, now I want to write a legal thriller in space.

  13. Great tips! This article reminded me of when my theatre group did Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution a couple of months ago. None of us wis an expert on 1950s UK law, but it seemed neither was Christie. She certainly focused more on dramatic effect than accuracy. Still a great play on many levels and fun to do but you wouldn’t exactly want a group of lawyers in the audience…

  14. I was wondering what are the legalities for writing a fictional novel that is based off someone’s life. I’m delving into writing a western and also a novel about a boxer, both about real people, but a fictionalized version of their real life. So how would I go about finding out information on how to write this type of novel, and the legal work needed to do so, especially if these people have decedents?

    • topshelfedits says

      Luann,
      Do you have the permission of the deceased’s family? That’s the first thing you want to do. See if you can find the court record of their probate (court records are public and free in most states). Then find out the attorney who recorded their probate and reach out for permission to portray them in your novel. Of course, that’s if it’s someone you know or knew peripherally. If you’re speaking of historical figures, in that case, you can have them in your book as long as you don’t defame them in any way or say something that is wholly inaccurate or untrue.
      Hope that helps.
      Christy

      • As a retired attorney, I’m not giving legal advice, but my understanding is that it would not be necessary to obtain permission from heirs. Most rights to privacy and libel die with the person. However, state laws may vary and i could be wrong. I suggest you check with your local bar association and try to find an attorney who practices entertainment law. If your local bar association can’t lawyers are now advertising on the internet and you can probably find a qualified attorney with a google search and a checking of their references.

  15. Denise Greene says

    It’s my understanding from prior research that as long as you are not presenting the character in a defamatory sense that you’re all right. Living in SE Arizona, I write often using the Earps, Clantons, Johnny Ringo, etc as secondary characters. If I portray them in a sinister fashion, I stick to known fact.

    • topshelfedits says

      Denise,
      I’m not sure what you mean. True, if you’re portraying historical, real-life people, you can do that as long as you’re not defaming them or their legacy. But I am referring in this article to courtroom drama, mainly. So I’ve misunderstood you somehow, please let me know if you have any questions! Great input!
      Christy

  16. I write legal mysteries and my favorite part is researching some far-out-there issue.

    It is important to know the terminology and the court system. In my live critique group this writer wrote a wonderful story, everyone was complimenting her. I waited to go last. It was hard to burst her bubble – that’s a civil action, it doesn’t come with jail time.

    What I think is funny are critiquers who for some reason don’t think professionals are real people. Some examples of what I mean –

    In a scene a client comes into MC’s office and I had MC slip her shoes back on before getting up from her desk. The critique – why would she have her shoes off, she’s a professional? Really, because she’s a real person. I’ve come back from court and taken off my bra.

    My MC hears someone crying in the reception area of the firm and her inner thought is ‘Please don’t be for me.’ I had a few people tell me they didn’t like the character because a professional should be more sympathetic. Beside for a funeral director or conman and maybe a physiologist – a person already crying when they walk in is not a good thing.

    • Thank you for your share. So many folks have commented about my characters having real issues – tight shoes, fear of speaking in front of crowd – despite being a prosecuting attorney.

  17. D. Lloyd-Jones says

    Thank you very much for your tips and insights. I am hard at work on my first novel about a Prosecuting Attorney.

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