19 January 2018

Guest Post: V.S. Kemanis on "Writing Legal Suspense"


I'm pleased to host V.S. Kemanis today for an insightful guest post on writing legal suspense fiction. I know Vija best as a fine short story writer whose work has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and the EQMM anthology The Crooked Road, Volume Three, among other places. But she's also a novelist—Deep Zero, the fourth book in her Dana Hargrove series, releases next week—and as she discusses here, much of the series draws on her background as an attorney herself. As her website explains, "In her legal career, she has been a criminal prosecutor of street crime and organized crime for county and state agencies, argued criminal appeals for the prosecution and defense, conducted complex civil litigation, and worked as a court attorney for state appellate courts." An impressive career, an extensive resume, but how do you draw on one career in law when pursuing another as a writer? In her essay here, she addresses that point and more. Welcome, Vija! — Art Taylor

Writing Legal Suspense: Navigating the Personal and the Professional 
By V.S. Kemanis

V.S. Kemanis

Writing what I “know,” drawing on my legal career, I created a series featuring a female assistant district attorney. To clarify, I recall a pleasant chat I had with two people in a noisy bar—the KGB Bar in Manhattan—on an evening I was scheduled to read from my work. A bit later, when they didn’t realize I was standing nearby, I heard one of them say to the other, “I can’t believe that woman told us she used to be a prostitute!”

Sorry to disappoint, but my protagonist is a female prosecutor, not a prostitute. I’ve given her some enviable qualities without being too liberal in the idealization department. She’s not without her vulnerabilities, some of which are taken from my own experiences.

I went to law school in the late seventies, a time when the male/female student ratio was finally approaching 50/50. By the time I entered the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the class of new recruits was almost evenly split along gender lines, but the courtroom was still largely a man’s world. I never had to break new ground, to go where women had never gone before, but I rode in on the tidal wave of female entrance into the legal profession.

Even so, it was not easy. I remember times when I felt like the fifth wheel or the unwanted interloper in the old boys’ club. A few uncomfortable situations from the early years will never fade from memory. There was an appellate judge who told me during oral argument that I sounded like a “schoolteacher.” A boss who made jokes about not being able to get around me in the hallway when I was pregnant. A roomful of seasoned investigators explicitly discussing a woman’s body, unmindful of my presence.

But these indignities were insignificant compared to greater challenges. Working in the criminal justice system can be an emotional rollercoaster, dealing with shattered lives, tough adversaries, and conflicting views on policing and punishment, to name a few things. For a young professional starting a family, juggling the demands of career and personal life can be nearly overwhelming.

So, when I embarked on my legal suspense series, I wanted to wrap all of this up in my strong-female-lead-with-vulnerabilities character. Her name is Dana Hargrove. For some years now, I’ve been throwing impossible ethical dilemmas at Dana, many involving the intersection of her career and family.

In creating these novels, the easy part is plotting Dana’s criminal cases and ethical dilemmas. A pool of this stuff swirls in the back of my mind, cases I handled as a prosecutor or read about in the latter part of my career as an editor at an appellate court. Insert fictional characters, change some details, find a connection to Dana’s life, and the plot emerges.

The tough part for me is to incorporate the law into the story, without making it sound like a legal brief. I endlessly rewrite the sections with the legal underpinnings for Dana’s conflicts, dilemmas, and decisions. My goal is to be accurate and to make the law accessible and interesting. Not boring. (Really? The law can be boring?) This is where questions of writing technique and target audience come in. I imagine that any writer who relies on technical knowledge to advance a story faces similar challenges.

Let me back up and make an embarrassing admission. I’m absolutely fascinated by criminal law and courtroom procedure! This stuff has everything: it’s intellectual and technical and absurdly detailed but also grounded in basic moral tenets. Who couldn’t love it?

Well, I’ve come to learn that many fans of crime fiction do not share my thrill at the clever gymnastics of incisive legal argument. To be fair, many do. I could decide to limit my target audience to legal nerds like me. But I’d rather make my stories appealing to a broader audience, without sacrificing the legal conundrums. Comments from beta readers, reviewers, and fans have helped with this.

The main technique I use for making the law flow is to cut out a lot of filler. The dramatic bits are highlighted: a brutal cross-examination, the surprise testimony, the jury’s verdict in a close case. This doesn’t make it inaccurate or unrealistic—just condensed. Focusing on the consequences of a prosecutor’s decision, instead of the technical rules, is another way to make the story come alive. If Dana does X, she could be disbarred. If Dana does Y, the killer could go free.

Thanks to popular entertainment, basic legal terms are now part of everyday language: probable cause, Miranda rights, suppression of evidence. The writing challenge arises with ideas that haven’t made it into common parlance: statutory elements of specific crimes and rules of professional ethics. Sometimes, Dana goes through mental gyrations or discusses a problem with her colleagues. I read these scenes out loud to myself and others. Do they make sense? Does the dialogue sound authentic? Funny or not, a lot of lawyer-speak is completely authentic but won’t sound that way to a non-lawyer. “People don’t talk like this.” Actually, they do. But anything that bogs down the story should be trimmed or rewritten to make it more colloquial.

After four novels, my journey through Dana’s fictional world has been a new mix of the professional and the personal. The pastime of fiction writing has morphed into a profession. The creation of characters has morphed into my alternate reality. Dana, her friends and family, have invaded my life.

I ask creators of series if you agree: It’s a lot of fun having a second family.

7 comments:

Art Taylor said...

Thanks again for joining us today! Hope the conversation here is a good one—and congrats again on the new book!

janice law said...

A fine post- welcome to Sleuthsayers!

Steve Liskow said...

Welcome to Sleuthsayers, Vija. And excellent introduction.

I can sympathize with your dilemma about how much background to put into the books. It's a fine line whenever the story demands technical details and I often find myself cutting back in later revisions.

As for series characters becoming a second family, yes, absolutely. I have two ongoing series, and I constantly worry about what the characters are doing in their lives outside of solving crimes, especially since they're in long-term relationships. I wouldn't be surprised if one of my female leads gets pregnant one of these days and throws the stories into a new direction...

Barb Goffman said...

It's always nice to hear from another recovering attorney. I haven't read your books yet, but I intend to make up for it. Just bought the boxed set of 1-3. Looking forward to it.

V.S. Kemanis said...

Art, thank you for hosting and for your great introduction! It's an honor to be here. Thanks Janice, Steve, and Barb for the welcome and your comments. I hope you like the books, Barb. The criminal investigation in the first novel, Thursday's List, is loosely based on a case I developed in the '90s against the Cali Cartel, involving money laundering of narcotics proceeds.

Eve Fisher said...

Thank you for joining us - fascinating article, and I can only imagine (having sat through a number of court cases) how much you must condense / edit to make the dialog understandable and enjoyable to a wider public. (Legalese is amazing: I love this dialog in Sinclair Lewis' "Cass Timberlane": "Jekshn leading quest," said the city attorney. "Jekshn stained," said the Court.)

V.S. Kemanis said...

Eve, your quote from Cass Timberlane stumped me! I've never read that book, but I just found the relevant pages on the internet. In context, the attorney had just asked a leading question, so "Jekshn leading quest," must mean "Objection, leading question," which the judge sustained (not "stained"). The judge is described as being very sleepy on the bench. I'm thinking that Lewis wrote it this way to further illustrate that the judge was half asleep; perhaps the objection sounded like this to him and he ruled on it with slurred speech. What do you think?