18 March 2024

Novel to Short Story to Novel (Again)


Photo by Stephen E. Morton

A special treat today.  Kevin Egan is the author of eight novels and more than 40 short stories. His three legal thrillers, each set in the New York County Courthouse, were inspired by his 30 years as a staff attorney in that iconic building. Kirkus Reviews listed his Midnight as a Best Book of 2013.

He has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Magazine, and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.And now he's appearing for you. - Robert Lopresti



by Kevin Egan

In the early 2000s, I experienced a writing crisis. I had published four novels, including a three-book golf mystery series, but my dream of writing "bigger" novels had vanished in a welter of half-baked ideas. My agent, more than once, suggested that I look to my day job as a source of ideas. At the time, I was a law clerk to a judge in the New York County Supreme Court. Wouldn't some of the cases I observed lend themselves to a novel? I didn't think so. This was a civil courthouse, not a criminal courthouse, and the trials I observed, though they may have been interesting in the legal sense, were hardly dramatic in the novelistic sense. 

I decided to take a different tack -- writing a courthouse novel that would take place not in a courtroom but in a judge's chambers. A standard chambers in the New York County Courthouse is a self-contained three-room suite that evolves its own culture, dynamic, and morality. Three people populate this unique world: the judge, the law clerk, and secretary. As my real-life judge described at the time, judge and staff essentially "live in each other's pockets" for 40 hours a week. And three people, as the saying goes, are a crowd, which in chambers can manifest itself  as an ever-changing kaleidoscope of allegiances and alliances.

With this setting firmly in mind, I came up with ... another half-baked idea. My plot involved: a judge who has just presided over a bench trial targeting a powerful union boss; a hapless law clerk secretly in love with the secretary; and a secretary who recently ended her own secret affair with the judge. 

The story opens on the Third Monday in July (the working title) when the staff arrive to find a thug sitting behind the judge's desk. He informs them that the judge tragically died over the weekend, that the union boss has secreted the body in a friendly funeral home, and that the law clerk and secretary are to collaborate on writing a post-trial ruling that awards a multi-million dollar judgment to the union boss.   

I banged out almost 400 pages of this mess, and my agent actually tried to sell it. (She later confessed that she never expected it to sell; she merely hoped that some editor somewhere would volunteer to collaborate on a re-write.) After seeing the comments she received (several of which incorporated the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief"), I returned to the comfort of  launching yet another golf mystery series. 

A few years later, I saw a manuscript call for a MWA anthology. The theme for the anthology was institutional law enforcement -- the police, the FBI, the courts. Hmm, I thought. I work in the courts, maybe I should submit a story to the anthology.

Ideas come slowly to me. Rarely have I experienced the "flash of creative genius" touted in my Patents & Copyrights course in law school. The only idea that kept popping into my head was that ridiculous Third Monday in July plot, which at the very least I would need to miniaturize into a 20 page story.

That necessity sparked new and critical ideas on how to construct the story.

First, I decided that the judge's staff needed to be actors, not pawns or victims. They needed to have a definite plan and a definite stake in the outcome. But what?

Second, I needed to have a clock running. The novel's time-line meandered through most of the month of July, which strained the reader's suspension of disbelief as well as my own imagination. But how fast?

I found the answers to both questions in the New York Judiciary Law. By law, a judge is entitled to two personal assistants -- a law clerk and a secretary. By law, these assistants are personal appointments who serve at the pleasure of the judge and therefore can conceivably keep their jobs for the entire length of the judge's 14-year term. Also, by law, if the judge dies during that term, the assistants keep their jobs until the governor appoints a successor. As a practical matter, and partly for political reasons, the governor usually delays appointing the successor of a deceased judge until the end of that year. Therefore (because I'd seen it often enough), the staff of a deceased judge usually can bank on keeping their jobs until the end of the calendar year in which their judge has died.  

Consequently, if you work for a judge, the worst day of the year for the judge to die would be New Year's Eve. The best day? Obviously New Year's Day itself.

Thus, the short story "Midnight" was born. A judge dies in chambers on the morning of December 31. The law clerk and the secretary, both desperately seeking to keep their jobs, hit upon a plan to "float" the body to make it appear that the judge died after midnight. The odds are in their favor: the courthouse is virtually empty on the day before the holiday, the judge is elderly and not in good health, and the judge is one of the few judges who owns a car and actually drove it to the courthouse that day. Plus, the judge's only family is a brother who lives in Florida.

The law clerk and the secretary spirit the body out of the courthouse after dark, drive to the judge's apartment, and tuck the body into bed. They wait in the apartment until well after midnight, then go to their homes. They arrive back at the courthouse on January 2, planning to report the judge as missing when he doesn't show up in chambers by the end of the morning. But then, of course, the unexpected happens.

I missed the deadline for submitting the story to the MWA anthology. Instead, I submitted it to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I was thrilled when Linda Landrigan accepted the story and even more thrilled to see it featured on the cover of the January-February 2010 issue of the magazine. But beyond the thrill of the story appearing in one of the finest and most respected mystery publications, I knew that the act of miniaturizing that original embarrassment of a novel created the blueprint for writing a new one.

Two years later, I finished writing Midnight the novel. The short story, expanded from 20 pages to just over 100 pages, became the first day of a four day timeline that runs from December 31 to January 3. Structurally, each day presents a new problem for the desperate duo to solve, and each day they seem to overcome that problem only to discover that they have unwittingly created a more complicated obstacle until ultimately ... well, you need to read the book.


  1. Kevin, thanks for pitching in on SleuthSayers! I love the whole idea of the short story and the novel. Having been a Circuit Court Administrator myself, whose office was between the Presiding Judge's and his Court Reporter, I know all about that mysterious ecosystem that is "backstage" of the courtroom. And you have hopefully inspired me to write about it! Thank you!

  2. Hello Eve, You are welcome, and I am honored to have the opportunity to do so. Nice to hear from a writer with a working knowledge of that "mysterious ecosystem." What a great description!

  3. Really enjoyed this, Kevin — fun journey for this story in its various forms and for you as a writer too!

  4. Thanks, Art. Yes it was fun to look back on that phase (now that I know the ending!).

  5. Your story is a great inspiration for new writers, who can see that a story can take many twists and turns before finding its final resting place as a published short story or novel, like your journey with Midnight.

  6. Kevin, I enjoyed learning about the evolution of Midnight, one of my favorite novels! I hope you have more courthouse dramas in the making.

  7. I still like the third day in July idea and think you should rework the idea.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>