By Amy Shojai
In a former life/day job I worked as a legal secretary and have the utmost respect for attorneys. So I was delighted to interview author and attorney Leslie Budewitz about her award-winning nonfiction book designed to help fiction authors “get it right.” Her BOOKS, CROOKS & COUNSELORS was the 2011 Agatha Winner for Best Nonfiction and 2012 Anthony and Macavity Nominee.
Leslie has tried cases before judges and juries, resolved cases in mediation and arbitration and has experience in everything from personal injury and child abuse litigation to multi-million dollar corporation issues. Leslie also writes mysteries and understands what fiction authors need to know about the law to effectively incorporate these details in the story.
Thriller novelists get to make stuff up, but it needs to ring true and include enough real world details to engage the reader. So I asked Leslie about her writing process and how her work can help authors of thriller fiction.
What’s your book about?
A legal thread runs through the fictional world. Legal issues often crop up in mystery and crime fiction, TV shows, and movies, of course, but they also play a part in many other types of stories. BOOKS, CROOKS & COUNSELORS helps writers understand the legal system and get specific facts about the law right. It also helps them see unexpected ways to use the legal issues in their stories to create more compelling characters, deeper plots and subplots, and vivid settings. As both a lawyer and a mystery writer, I see the mistakes writers make–but I also see the potential writers might miss for twists, complications, and the telling detail.
How do you balance your career as a writer and your private life as an attorney?
I’ve been really fortunate to work in a small firm with lawyers who understand that life is about so much more than our professional work. But it can be tricky. Court deadlines are not flexible, and clients rightly expect your attention when they need it. Most of my legal work these days is research and writing. For years, I took Fridays off to write. Now, the balance has shifted, and I’m able to practice part-time and spend more time writing. I’m fortunate to have a day job that provides both some security and a window on the conflicts that bedevil folks.
The biggest challenge is that I write and work at the same desk and computer, and sometimes it’s hard to remember whether I’m in fiction world or the real world!
As a pet care and behavior expert, one of my pet peeves is novels that get animal information wrong. Do you find that authors include inaccurate legal information in their stories?
Definitely. Writers are TV-educated, like many readers. Obviously, legal procedures are complicated and have to be boiled down to their essence to hold reader interest. But many mistakes are easy to fix: Use the right terminology–the prosecutor is the DA on the LAW & ORDER television show, but what’s she called in your story state? Know the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence, what is probable cause, and when a Miranda warning is and isn’t required.
I firmly believe that we can tell a good story and create an atmosphere that feels real without straying too far from fact. After all, readers and viewers want to be able to trust what they’ve seen, as well as enjoy it.
How does your book help authors “get it right”?
The book is divided into twelve chapters, and answers more than 150 questions about criminal and civil procedure and trials, evidence, criminal sentencing, inheritance, the daily lives of lawyers and judges, ethical conflicts, and more. I’ve also included a section on research and extensive links to websites of useful organizations and resources for writers who need to know more. (Those links are also on my website.)
I’ve also included examples from real cases, many of them my own, and to books and movies. I think the book is pretty easy to navigate, and the publisher provided a terrific index.
I’ve written nonfiction books for many years and have only one published novel. But I find the process of writing nonfiction very different than writing fiction. You also write both. How is your process the same or different when wearing these writer-ly hats?
Nonfiction is easier to manage, because each chapter stands alone. I did have to research some issues, but after nearly thirty years, research is a big fat piece of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting!
Fiction is harder, because it has to make sense. Sometimes I get lost in my story and forget that it’s Sunday on the page but Wednesday in real life. My hunny has had to recognize that sometimes I’m “in writing world,” and dinner will be late. The cat is less understanding.
Many professionals in a variety of professions aspire to write. What advice do you have for those wishing to publish a nonfiction book based on their expertise?
Great question! The most important question to ask yourself is who your audience is, and what they really need to know. Is it other professionals, looking for a how-to on a particular subject? Lay people looking for an overview, or for a how-to such as how to represent themselves in court, train a dog, live with diabetes, or raise organic vegetables? Or are you writing a memoir in which your profession is just one part of the story?
A professional or academic writing style may not work, and it’s not easy to admit that you don’t know how to write accessible, pleasant prose. Read widely in comparable books. Find good books on writing. Don’t hesitate to join a writing group or take a class. You succeeded in your profession by developing skills in analysis, communication, problem-solving, and more. Recognize that writing requires its own skills, and draw on yours to help you learn them.
Spend time in bookstores, looking at what other people have done. Study the market. Get to know who publishes books like yours. Learn about traditional and emerging options for publication. And have fun.
Is there anything you’d like to tell a reader who has just now discovered your work?
Dear reader, thank you for your time and interest. I hope my book gives you useful information and sparks ideas for deeper, richer stories. The best part about receiving the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction is knowing that other writers felt my book filled a need, and enjoyed reading it.
The conversation started in BOOKS, CROOKS & COUNSELORS continues on my blog, where I answer writers’ questions, share stories about the law, and comment on legal issues I think will interest writers.
And I hope you’ll be interested in my cozy series, THE FOOD LOVERS’ VILLAGE MYSTERIES, set in northwest Montana, where I live. The first, DEATH AL DENTE, will debut from Berkely Prime Crime in summer 2013.
Thank you, Amy, and ITW, for the chance to talk with you a bit!
Leslie Budewitz graduated from Notre Dame Law School, and clerked for the Washington State Court of Appeals, researching all variety of criminal, civil, and constitutional issues and working closely with the judges. She practiced in Seattle until 1992, when she returned home to Montana. She’s tried cases before judges and juries, resolved cases in mediation and arbitration, and served as an arbitrator. Her firm’s clients have included individuals and businesses, from sole proprietorships to multi-million dollar corporations, including truck drivers, car dealers, builders, fishermen, doctors and patients, radio stations, insurance companies, manufacturers, retailers, interior designers, parents and children. Leslie has worked on a wide range of civil cases including auto accidents, child abuse claims, property disputes, employment and discrimination matters, insurance coverage and claims handling disputes, and all variety of personal injury and business litigation. She’s also worked on criminal defense and constitutional law issues and her current practice focuses on civil litigation.She is an active member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, and a founding member of SinC’s Guppy chapter.