06 July 2021


     A few weeks back, Barb Goffman wrote a column in which she discussed writing what you know. She widened the lens on that convention and talked about finding core emotions and desires central to humans. She wrote about connecting to characters quite different from herself by finding the truth in human behavior. Focusing on elemental characteristics freed Barb to tell her stories through a wide array of voices. 

    I agree with her. I'm glad that we get to assume the role of other people. That's one of the ways I find joy in writing. I don't really care to write stories about lawyers. Part of the fun of this exercise is to get away from my day job and to learn a little bit about somewhere or something different, to depart from my daily routine. Consequently, I've not written many stories about lawyers. (I have a couple of tales of an attorney set in pre-revolutionary France, but I don't count those. They are far removed from my day job.) Play other people, but find the core that connects to everyone. 

    It is, however, not an inviolable rule. I've written a couple of stories featuring an attorney. The trial lawyer is a good vehicle for thinking about rejection as a part of the human condition. I tell people that my career as a courtroom attorney was a good prologue to writing and to submitting stories. I got used to rejection. Generally, I found juries to be rational bodies earnestly striving to do the right thing. But there is always an element of mystery built into the system; no one can guarantee an outcome. I've won some cases I expected to lose and, conversely, taken acquittals in some trials I thought I'd win. The uncertainty motivates negotiated pleas. Many times, neither side wants to know what a jury might do when certainty of outcome is available.

Flickr-Joe Gratz

    I've tried some cases where at the outset, I knew that my evidence was weak. I didn't think my chances of success were particularly good. Yet during the trial, one finds the slim reed of hope upon which to grasp. My witnesses exceeded expectations or perhaps weren't as disgraced by opposing counsel as imagined. A cancerous optimism began to take hold. We might win this. Despite everything, invariably, I convinced myself, if only myself, that our side would be victorious. When the jury's verdict returned me to reality, it still hurt. I was always disappointed when the outcome didn't go my way. The expected acquittals, however, were easier to lay aside, enabling me to move on to the next case. 

    The ones that lingered were the ones I didn't see coming. The case went smoothly. The testimony delivered as expected. As the prosecutor, I felt confident. More telling, the defense attorney could be heard on his phone lining up his case for the punishment phase of the trial. The judge blocked out time for the additional punishment evidence. Everyone knew the outcome. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the jury. Some of the worst professional days I've known were when I had to watch a jury acquit my defendant and then try to explain to child witnesses (usually in sexual abuse cases) why the jury did not believe them sufficiently to convict. The honest truth was, I didn't know. 

    Painful hangovers have occasionally followed those days. Drinking was an immature response to the problem, and I can't condone it, but I've now and again practiced it. We all need to figure out how to handle rejection. (For writers, Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti among others have SleuthSayer columns devoted to this topic of rejected stories.)

    A prosecutor's courtroom difficulties lay at the heart of "Catch and Release," my story in the most recent Guppy anthology, The Fish That Got Away. 

    Guppies are a chapter of Sisters in Crime. The name is an acronym for "Great Un-Published," although members include those who've been published many times over as well as those who are still waiting to see their name on a printed page. They, like the SleuthSayers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society, are an association of writing comrades. 

    As a prosecutor in a large urban jurisdiction, I had officemates surrounding me to celebrate the successes and to commiserate after the failures. Sometimes they lent an ear while I complained; sometimes they bought the first round. A network is important. It motivates you to press forward and helps you up after a fall. I appreciated my fellow attorneys back in my courtroom days. As writers, we tap away as solo practitioners. The networks are virtual but still real and still valuable. 

    Thank you for your support. 

    Until next time. 


  1. You're right. Sooner or later, everyone feels the need to belong to a like-minded group, however large or small it is. The group gives them support and validates their way of life.

  2. Bonding is the way to survive, because life is hard, and writing is harder, and we all know (with some fortunate exceptions) that getting published is hardest of all.

  3. I was so surprised to see my name when I just rolled into SleuthSayers (with 45 minutes to go in the day). And then I had to remember what column you were talking about. But then I did, and I was glad to see your take on this subject. Your segue into the importance of the support of the writing community ended up being quite timely for me today. Virtual networks are indeed real and valuable. Thanks, Mark.

  4. Mark, I sat on a jury where young prosecutors were clearly taken off-guard by our verdict. I don't think the judge was surprised, because the assistant state attorneys were convinced they had a slam dunk: In the days immediately following 9/11, the accuser and her witnesses were very pretty girls and the accused was an Arabic student. The somewhat inebriated parties apparently threw drinks in each other's faces and he was accused of following up with a slap… so said her not-so-sober-at-the-time girlfriends/witnesses. One of the witnesses admitted she heard the slap rather than saw it. When the victim finally took the stand, she was reluctant to the extreme and appeared to suffer from buyer's remorse. There was even a hint she threw the slap. When the not-guilty verdict was read, the prosecutors looked stunned. They asked the judge to poll the jury and, once the accussed was dismissed, asked the judge to allow the jury to be queried. We felt the ASAs relied too much on post-9/11 anger and not enough on actual evidence.


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