Law & Ardor — Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law

WPA 2016 2Earlier today, I was interviewed by Wendy Kendall and Julie Cooper for their terrific podcast series, Kendall and Cooper Talk Mysteries. Here’s the link. We talked about Books, Crooks & Counselors, and some of the common mistakes writers make about the law. And next month, I’ll be the guest speaker for the Orange County (CA) chapter of Romance Writers of America, talking about those mistakes. So I thought it a good time to reprint my article from The Writer on that subject — although I’ll confess, the list has grown a bit in recent years!

LAW & ARDOR: Writing about legal themes? An attorney identifies 10 common mistakes to avoid in your fiction (Originally published in The Writer, September 2013)

If you’re writing fiction, chances are a legal thread runs through your story. On screen or on the page, legal issues are often central to plots and backstory.

In mysteries and thrillers, past crimes may surface with present ramifications. Law enforcement officers and P.I.s need to know what’s legal and what isn’t. Amateur sleuths—the chef, gardener, or librarian—may start digging because they fear police won’t investigate or will nab the wrong suspect.

The law figures in mainstream and literary novels, too. And legal plots don’t require a crime. With a good storyteller, civil law can be gripping. Think of the possibilities in adoption (Jacquelyn Mitchard’s A Theory of Relativity; Ann Patchett’s Run), inheritance (Dickens’ Bleak House), even insurance (Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s movie based on James M. Cain’s novella).

But the law can be confusing, too. It changes constantly, and varies from state to state. Information and misinformation abound. Plus most of us, thank goodness, live happy lives without facing serious legal trouble. What follows is one lawyer-novelist’s list of common mistakes—and tips on avoiding them.

1. Using the wrong terms to identify prosecutors and courts.
On  TV’s Law & Order—and I love the show—the prosecutor is the D.A. In other stories, she may be the county attorney or prosecutor, the state’s attorney, even the people’s attorney. A  handle like commonwealth’s attorney might be shortened to “the prosecutor.” Does she try cases in District Court, Circuit Court, or Superior Court? If the terminology baffles you, call the court or prosecutor’s office, the state bar, or a law professor. You may even find a source to answer future questions.

2. Assuming law enforcement officers need a warrant to make an arrest.
Police don’t need a warrant to make an arrest in a public place, or in “exigent circumstances,” such as when an officer witnesses a crime or pursues a suspect. But police still need probable cause—that is, a reasonable belief, based on facts, that a particular person is responsible for a particular crime. “Mere suspicion” is not enough.

3. Confusing direct and circumstantial evidence.
Evidence is anything offered at trial to prove a fact necessary to the elements of the case—testimony, documents, or physical evidence like a gun or DNA test results. Direct evidence is evidence of a fact. Circumstantial evidence is evidence of a fact that leads to an inference or presumption.

An illustration: You tell your kids not to eat the brownies until after dinner. You see your son snatch one—direct evidence of disobedience. You don’t see your daughter touch the plate, but you spot chocolate smears around her mouth and crumbs on her shirt—circumstantial evidence.

In both civil and criminal law, circumstantial evidence may be enough to make the case. If the other side objects, the judge must rule on whether to allow (admit) it or not. The standard is relevance: Does it make facts that matter to the case more or less probable?

4. Giving every suspect a Miranda warning.
A warning is required only before custodial interrogation. In other words, only persons in custody need to be warned, and even then, only before questioning. Voluntary statements by persons not in custody or not made in response to questioning are admissible. A suspect who’s been warned may waive his rights and agree to talk. Of course, mistakes are fodder for defense lawyers—and writers.

5. Failing to distinguish between state and federal crimes.
A crime doesn’t get to be federal just because it’s important. Federal crimes are violations of federal statutes. They include many (but not all) drug and firearms offenses, kidnaping across state lines, and offenses related to securities or banking, immigration, war, terrorism, or interstate communications, or occurring on federal property. Regulatory offenses, such as pollution violations, may be federal crimes. If a crime violates state law, the state prosecutes. Some conduct may violate both state and federal laws, triggering a tug-of-war over jurisdiction. State court systems handle the majority of civil and criminal litigation—about 95%.

If your fictional crime is set in Indian Country, do your research. While the FBI investigates crimes on many reservations, as in Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels, state authorities exercise full or partial jurisdiction on others.

6. Assuming a felon can’t vote or own a gun.
Restoration of civil rights—including voting and gun ownership—after a felony conviction is complex. The Sentencing Project, a national organization promoting sentencing reform, estimates that full or partial state bans—many applicable even after a sentence has been fully served—deny the vote to 5.8 million people and have a disparate racial impact.

While federal felons are barred from gun ownership for life, state law varies widely. Some states prevent or limit gun ownership by persons convicted of violent felonies, but allow it after the sentence is served, including probation. Waiting periods may apply. Court process may be required. Some states permit ownership of hunting rifles but bar handguns.

Debate rages over the constitutional implications of voting and gun restrictions and their effect on a person’s ability to re-enter society. Does your character live in fear of an ex-con ex-husband with a gun—or worry that she can’t buy a gun to protect herself because of her own record? Is your fictional legislator’s re-election in dispute because a faulty list prevents hundreds of ex-felons from voting?

Change will continue, so check your story state’s laws.

7. Referring to guilt in a civil suit for damages.
A criminal defendant will be found guilty or not guilty (not “innocent”). A civil defendant is either liable for the plaintiff’s damages or not—the concept of guilt does not apply.

Unlike criminal guilt, civil liability is not all or nothing. In a personal injury claim, the jury may decide that the plaintiff—the party bringing suit—contributed to her injuries by her own negligence. If her negligence reaches a certain level—typically more than 50%—she may be prevented from recovering damages. Multiple defendants may share liability.

Picture a slip-and-fall: A shop owner fails to shovel her sidewalk and allows ice to form. A woman falls and breaks her arm—but she walked there daily, knew the danger, and was on her phone. A neighboring shop owner had promised to shovel, but forgot. Who’s liable, meaning who pays? The jury decides.

8. Sentencing a defendant minutes after a criminal conviction.
Sentencing is a separate proceeding, usually held after a pre-sentence investigation by a probation officer or other investigator (terminology varies). Prosecutors and defense counsel need time to review the report and make recommendations. A few weeks is typical. Sooner is possible—Casey Anthony was sentenced a few days after the verdict, but the charges she was convicted of were relatively minor and circumstances may have triggered an expedited proceeding.

Sentence may be imposed right away if a defendant enters into a plea agreement—but only after lengthy negotiations that include evaluation of all the factors that go into a pre-sentence investigation.

If you need sentence imposed quickly to get your character to prison, build in facts that let you do so. Just don’t let your fictional judge hear the verdict and impose sentence without taking a breath.

9. Allowing lawyers—or their clients—to argue with the judge, especially after she’s ruled.
Don’t do it—not if you care about your characters or their case. But if you want to irritate your fictional judge, go ahead. Your chances of success are excellent.

And don’t let your characters interrupt in court, unless you want them hauled to the slammer for contempt.

10. Introducing new evidence on appeal.
Appeals are decided strictly on the record below—meaning the evidence, including testimony, and legal arguments. Parties to an appeal may not present new witnesses or argue legal issues not previously raised. As part of its decision, though, an appellate court might order the trial court to reopen a case to consider evidence or arguments previously excluded.

In a criminal case, new evidence may surface weeks, months, even years after conviction. Other procedures exist to ask a judge to reopen a case after the appeals process has ended.

Obviously, mistakes happen in real life, which is why lawyers file motions to suppress evidence or dismiss charges (in criminal cases), motions to exclude evidence or dismiss claims (the civil terminology), and appeals. But mistakes also add to the drama and create great opportunities for tension and conflict.

Is it ever okay to make a mistake on purpose, to fool the reader? Not in my book. Exaggerate a bit for drama, sure, but deliberately building a story on a faulty premise breaks faith with the reader. As prosecutor turned novelist Marcia Clark said in a panel discussion on forensics in fiction, “The more we tell the truth, the more dramatic it is.” We don’t need to lie about the facts to tell a good story—we need to find the story they tell.

Writers who take time to check legal terms and principles will discover terrific opportunities to twist, deepen, complicate, or simplify their stories. Getting the details right can make all the difference.

 Tracking Down Those Pesky Details

The National Center for State Courts website includes directories of all state court systems with court structure charts, and of public defender systems.

The Sentencing Project map tracks state incarceration, probation, parole, and disenfranchisement rates.

The NRA maintains a directory of state gun laws.

The American Bar Association charts summarize state statutes on domestic violence, stalking, protective orders, and related issues.

– For state-by-state specifics on recording conversations, see this guide from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The FBI maintains a directory of state and tribal sex offender registration laws.

Leslie Budewitz, a practicing lawyer, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction for Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure. Her  mystery Death al Dente is set in Northwest Montana, where she lives.

(Photo: me with driving instructor Colleen Belongea at the 2016 Writers’ Police Academy)

Criminal Law — a few topics for writers

The November issue of the NW Lawyer, the journal of the Washington State Bar Association, focuses on criminal law, and as I read it, I thought several of the articles might be useful for writers, especially mystery and crime writers. Topics that caught my eye:

Police Dogs: Best Practices for Law Enforcement

In the Footsteps of Clarence Darrow: Fiction and Reality for Modern Criminal Defense Lawyers

What if Your Client is Actually Guilty? A Day in the Life of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Federal Prosecution Trends in Washington

Weighing the Evidence at Trial: A New Approach to Eyewitness Identification

There’s more, but these were the topics I thought might prompt story ideas or give you a better idea of the realities of criminal prosecution and defense.

Admissibility of past convictions #lawandfiction

medium_5938168933I spotted this blog post on the NW Sidebar, a publication of the Washington State Bar, titled Witness Backgrounds: What’s Admissible in Washington vs. Oregon, and thought it raises some interesting possibilities for fiction writers. (I’ll wait while you read it.)

In short, every state sets its own standards for what criminal history can be brought out when a witness testifies in court. But these are good examples of two general approaches — one more flexible, one more stringent, though in each state, statutory limits are the starting point.

How can you use this in your story? Is a witness afraid to report a crime, or to speak honestly to police, or to testify in court because of her history? How will your fictional prosecutor deal with an eye witness who has a lengthy criminal history, even though it may have nothing to do with what the witness saw? Even bad guys can innocently, by coincidence or bad luck, witness other bad guys in the act. How will your fictional defense lawyer deal with the same situation? What emotions does the fear of testifying trigger in your witness? She and her new husband were beaten and robbed; if they testify against the thug, will the ten-year-old arrest for forgery that she’s never told him about be used against her in court? What will she do to prevent that—lie? Insist he testify? Develop laryngitis or an excuse to be out of state visiting her supposedly ill sister? Will a jury really hold a minor criminal history against a witness or victim in evaluating credibility?

Note that we are talking about witnesses here, not defendants. We’ll talk about the admissibility of a defendant’s criminal history another time.

Law and fiction — blogs with a real-life view of lawyering

IMGP2188

Writing a character who is a lawyer, but you’re not one — or closely related to one? A recent post on favorite blogs for lawyers on the Washington State Bar Association blog mentioned these, so I took a quick look. Good inside info.

Corporette: subtitled Fashion, Lifestyle, and Career Advice for Over-Achieving Chicks. If your image of women lawyers is pumps and charcoal gray suits, take a look. Things have changed, thank goodness!

Attorney at Work: No pictures of shoes or ruched-sleeve jackets (love ’em!) here. Lots of practical advice for the working lawyer, including ideas for business development, better meeting strategy, and being a good employer. I like this for writers because it reminds us that lawyers are business people, too — and like all business people, some handle it better than others. The pieces here will give you a better idea of a lawyer’s daily life, and may suggest some conflicts, small and large, that you haven’t thought of.

More than 50% of lawyers work on their own, or with only one or two other lawyers. Solo Practice University gives advice for the solo and small-firm lawyer. Like Attorney at Work, quite a few posts apply concepts from other fields to lawyering, which I like very much.

Remember that the more you understand about your character’s real life and daily struggles, the more conflict you can add to your stories and the more fully you can develop your characters — and understanding what they want and will do to get it is what leads to plot. Blogs are a great way to catch a glimpse of daily concerns and struggles, the very stuff that help us build intiguing characters on the page.

Wrapping up the year with Justice Breyer, a police firing, and forensic hair analysis

gavel stock image MslnI’m wrapping up the year with links to a broadcast I enjoyed, a report of a police officer’s resignation in lieu of being fired, and a story that could make a great legal thriller.

I’ve long admired Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer. This NPR podcast includes a frank and fun interview, in which the justice describes the court’s decision-making process, offers his comments on the new musical on Alexander Hamilton, and opines on the art of compromise.

The Seattle Stranger reports on the resignation of an officer who faced termination for violating “several department policies, including policies on honesty and professionalism, a requirement that police record their work using their in-car cameras, and the prohibition on using their positions for personal gain.” The officer had responded to a complaint from a woman who said patrol officers were sleeping in their cards instead of patroling, and repeatedly texted her, inviting her out. Interesting note: as in most jurisdictions, prosecutors are notified when an officer is found to be dishonest, because that finding can be used against the officer when testifying in court. But, it turns out, there’s no agency charged with looking through police records or past testimony for other evidence of dishonesty. How can you use that to make life harder for your fictional characters—officers, lawyers, victims, or witnesses?

The FBI recently audited the use of forensic hair analysis, concluding that much of it — by both state and federal analysts — was flawed. As reported in the Missoulian, several states are now conducting a review of cases in which hair analysis contributed to convictions. Flawed forensic evidence is a fascinating — and terrifying — problem, making it great fodder for crime writers. Read this article for a peek at how reviews are conducted, what factors go in to the decision to reopen a case, and some of the impact of flawed forensics on the accused. (This related article discusses two recent Montana cases involving hair analysis.)

Law & Fiction — a few recent discoveries

The “law” half of this blog has been fairly quiet recently. My apologies; I’m not as good at splitting myself in two (or more) personalities as I ought to be! I’ve come across a couple of articles recently that I thought worth sharing, even without a full blog post on the topics.

What happens when a person dies alone, without close friends or relatives, and not under a doctor’s care? This NY Times story, The Lonely Death of George Bell, describes the detailed process undertaken by the NYC Public Administrator and its agents and investigators. Other cities and counties follow a similar process, though not always so thorough.

I’ve written before about houses where crimes occurred, and the obligations of a seller or real estate broker to disclose murders on the premises — “When Crime Taints a House,” and “Ghostly Tenants and the Duty to Disclose.”  Now, there’s an app for that. (Hat tip to Seattle Mystery Bookshop.) “Died In House” tracks confirmed deaths by residential address, using obits, news accounts, and other searches. Many buyers want to know, and not just because they’re afraid of ghosts or because stigma can lower the price or make resale tricky. State laws on disclosure vary, and enforcement is difficult, so where there’s a gap, there’s an app.

I’ve also written about girls in the justice system. The Washington State Bar blog presents an in-the-courts-and-trenches view about girl-focused reform.

What it’s like to be a kid in jail or homeless

sparrows nestToday, I’m linking to a handful of articles that look at young people in the justice system. Their stories should matter to us as writers and readers, but mostly as humans—beyond a list of issues and a chart of statistics, each of these kids matters. And when they are lost, we as a society, as a community, lose, too.

The NW Sidebar, the Washington State Bar blog, reports on homelessness, school suspensions, and criminalization among LGBT kids. Anthony Gipe writes: “Nationwide, there are estimated to be in excess of 350,000 gay and transgender youth who are arrested and/or detained each year. While these youth account for only 5–6 percent of youth overall, they account for over 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system. It is also a startling statistic that of the LGBT youth in juvenile justice, more than 60 percent of those youth are also black or Latino.”

This article in Slate highlights the work of Richard Ross, a writer and photographer who’s been chronicling girls in the juvenile justice system. Ross says “Girls are the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system, accounting for hundreds of thousands of arrests and charges—often for minor offenses, like running away from home or breaking curfew—every year.”

In my own valley in NW Montana, the Bigfork Eagle reports that more than 300 children have been identified as homeless, including teens who live on their own—many not by choice, and many not part of the child protection system or foster care. Examples: a 14 year old girl living in the woods, taking shelter in a portable toilet or a Dumpster at night; a teenage boy who searches for unlocked cars to find a warm-ish place to sleep. School is their safe place. Some are still in school, but too old for the foster care system. A former church building was donated as a shelter for kids not in the system; a consortium of local churches raises funds for the project. In an April “awareness” campaign called “Somebodies,” mannequins dressed as homeless teens were placed on benches downtown. I watched the confusion as people tried to figure out what was going on; even with educational info posted nearby, it was too hard to digest, to understand that this is really happening.

A couple of other articles that caught my eye, from Crosscut, an online news source in Seattle: Kids and the American dream denied: A Conversation with Robert Putnam, and Trai Williams’ dream house for youth of color — one activist’s goal, grown from her own experience.

In mystery and crime fiction, all variety of characters touch on these issues: teachers, law enforcement, judges and court officers, prosecutors and defenders, social workers. Is your character a parent worried about her kid—or about her child’s best friend, who’s been kicked out of her house for dressing like the boy she feels she is, and not the girl her parents think she is? Each of these articles includes links to studies, books, and other resources that writers can use to dig a little further.

I’m big on showing emotion on the page, using emotion to drive the plot. What you just felt, reading these stories? Find where it resonates in your body—how it grips your jaw, makes your heart heavy, causes a damp eye or a tight throat. Give those feelings to your characters, and show us how they respond. Your stories will be stronger, your people a little more real. And all our eyes and hearts a little more open.

Domestic Abuse

I’m continuing to reprint a few articles from my website, to keep them available after a redesign. This was originally published in 2009.

DOMESTIC ABUSE: Legal issues to keep in mind when writing about this all-too-common situation

A writer whose plot involves domestic abuse posed several questions.

Consider this scenario: 
A woman is in a violent marriage that’s getting worse. Her husband assaults her one night and is arrested. At his initial appearance in court the next morning, bond is set at $1,000. He posts bond by credit card and after spending one night in jail, goes home. Later, as a condition of a plea agreement, he agrees to attend anger management classes and AA. His wife reconciles with him, but is angry with her family and friends for making clear that they do not trust him and think she should leave him. As a result, she becomes more isolated, and one night, when he decides he’s tired of the wagon, of people telling him what to do, and of her disapproval, he drinks a half-rack of beer and most of a fifth of whiskey and beats her badly. The oldest child, just twelve, calls 911, and police and EMTs respond. She’s taken to the hospital, he’s taken to jail, and the kids are taken to a neighbor’s house to wait for their grandparents to arrive from out of town.

What’s going on, and what’s next? 
Pre-trial release: The amount of bail and other terms will depend on the charges and circumstances. In this scenario, the charge is probably a misdemeanor and a first offense. Potential charges in domestic violence vary widely, depending on the facts. Some are misdemeanors, others are felonies of several types, each with its own elements–the minimum facts that must be proven in court. Terms also vary: is it partner assault, domestic assault, family assault, simple or aggravated, first or second degree, or something else? Check the law in your story state.

Many factors affect pre-trial release, but the amount of the bail bond might be low if the victim isn’t seriously injured, the accused is particularly contrite, and no drugs, alcohol, or weapons are involved. Another factor is whether the accused has a steady job and ties to the community–not because that makes him less culpable, but because the primary purpose of bail is to ensure that a defendant shows up for later court appearances and those ties make him less of a flight risk.

And yes, some courts do indeed accept credit cards.

Release on bond typically involves numerous conditions. The main one: no contact with the victim. But if she tells the prosecutor she doesn’t want that–that she’s sure it won’t happen again, he’s really a good man but was upset over a problem at work or with one of the kids or she made him mad–the prosecutor won’t request that condition, because it’s clear she wouldn’t honor it. And the prosecutor wants her trust–there’s no point alienating the victim. If she’s in court, the judge might ask her if she wants him ordered to stay away. Some women genuinely believe the problem won’t recur. Others fear that a no-contact order would just make things worse. Some want limited involvement with police, courts, or government agencies for their own reasons; some fear the possibility of a Child Protective Services investigation; and others worry about finances or keeping their children from their father. Other typical conditions of release: refrain from drinking or using drugs, attend AA or NA, make all court appearances, and cause no further trouble.

Protective orders: I want to distinguish between a no-contact order issued after criminal charges have been filed or after a criminal conviction and a protective order. The purpose of a p.o. is to prevent future violence. According to statistics reported by the ABA (link below), 86% of women who received a protection order state the abuse either stopped or was greatly reduced.

The requirements and terms depend on the law in your story state, but a p.o. typically requires a showing that violence has occurred in the past and could occur in the future. (See the state-by- state info in the ABA summary of statutes, link below.) It does not require criminal charges or a criminal conviction. Common terms prohibit contact with the applicant and any minor children, including phone calls and emails as well as physical contact, harassment, and going to or near a school or day care that a minor child attends or to an adult’s work place or church. Protective orders may also prohibit use or transfer of real or personal property, and in some states, can be used to establish temporary child support. The person to be protected must apply for the order by going to the local prosecutor, legal aid office, or court–usually justice court. You can’t get a p.o. for someone else, except that a parent may obtain a p.o. covering minor children. A violation doesn’t trigger arrest; the person who obtained the order must go to court to request that the person restrained be found in contempt and fined or jailed.

All too often–again, because of the complicated relationships–the person getting the order ignores violations, or ignores it herself, which makes later enforcement much harder.

Going to trial: So charges are filed and the case is set for trial. Cooperation problems can crop up again. If a victim refuses to testify or threatens to recant her story, then prosecutors must weigh the evidence and decide whether they have enough to make the case without her testimony. Police investigation, eyewitness testimony, and medical reports may be enough–especially with photographs. Jurors will wonder why they’re not hearing from the victim, but most will be savvy enough to figure it out.

It’s not uncommon for a woman to testify at trial and recant her prior reports of violence. Some courts allow experts, such as social workers or psychologists working in the field of domestic violence, to testify that this is typical behavior. The expert can’t comment on the witness’s credibility or say that she was actually assaulted–both are decisions for the jury–but can offer a explanation for inconsistencies in testimony.

Note that the spousal privilege does not apply in criminal cases involving charges of violence against a spouse or the minor children of either spouse. (My column on spousal privilege discusses it in some detail; see my website.)

Sentencing: As I mentioned previously, the charges possible in domestic violence vary widely. So do the sentencing ranges and options. Some states give courts a wide degree of discretion in sentencing; others dictate mandatory minimums and establish aggravating factors. The particular circumstances are critical. What happened? What injuries occurred? First offense or repeat? Was a weapon involved? What about drugs or alcohol? Were both partners violent, or just one? Some couples develop a relationship based on mutual abuse and violence, making intervention much harder, and complicating the legal situation.

Suspended sentences are common, either on a plea agreement or after a conviction at trial. Release will include extensive conditions, such as successful completion of a drug or alcohol treatment program, anger management sessions, and restitution.

Other options: What do prosecutors do when faced with a woman who needs the financial support her husband or partner provides to care for herself and their kids? This is a tough one. The biggest problem prosecutors face is lack of cooperation from the victim. Because of the complicated emotional situation in abusive relationships, many women are reluctant to end these relationships. Often, the victim doesn’t want the man jailed–she just wants the violence to stop. If an assault has caused serious injuries, it’s hard for a prosecutor to accept a plea agreement that doesn’t involve jail time. A typical solution is a plea agreement with a sentence length appropriate under the statutes and circumstances, but with most of the time suspended. That way, the defendant serves some time in prison but will be released with supervision by local probation officers. If he violates the terms of his release, or commits another assault, he can be charged with violating those terms as well as for any new crimes–a strong incentive to keep one’s nose clean.

Prosecutors often refer victims to social services. These run the gamut, from counseling services to assistance with food and housing to organizations that supervise visitation or transfer of children between estranged or hostile parents.

The “battered wife defense:” Some women strike back. The “battered wife defense” to a homicide charge is a variation of self-defense, and requires proof that the accused was in imminent danger, and that her own actions were intended to protect herself.

Resources:
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence http://ncadv.org/
American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violencehttp://new.abanet.org/domesticviolence/Pages/default.aspx survey of recent statisticshttp://new.abanet.org/domesticviolence/Pages/Statistics.aspx including prevalence, stalking, same-sex violence, recidivism, and workplace violence, as well as breakdowns by race and ethnicity, and age. Its resources pagehttp://new.abanet.org/domesticviolence/Pages/Resources.aspx includes a summary of state statutes and resources for survivors and attorneys.

 

Death by Details

 

I’m continuing to reprint a few articles from my website, to keep them available after a redesign. This was originally published in First Draft, the SinC Guppy chapter newsletter.

DEATH BY DETAILS How much does the writer need to know about the story background vs. how much the reader needs to know?

A while back, I begged off my regular column because I was jammed by deadlines in federal court. In true editorial fashion, Susan [Evans, then First Draft editor] asked if I could make a column out of that. How on earth, I wondered, could I make civil discovery and disclosure deadlines in a groundwater pollution case interesting? Or the expert disclosures and settlement discussions going on at the same time in a state court case involving three electric utility companies and the state of Montana over water rights and the navigability of certain rivers at statehood in 1889?

And that brought me to a larger question: how much do you the writer need to know about the background of your story? And how much does the reader need to know?

I recently read a mystery – Higher Authority, an early entry in Stephen White’s excellent and successful series – involving a young woman’s claim of sexual harassment by an older woman she’d worked with. The lawyer filed suit within days after taking the case – without first filing a state or federal administrative claim. Outrage! Malpractice! Even a dumb lawyer – and there are plenty, despite the brains it takes to get in and out of law school and pass the bar exam – knows better! But the process takes weeks, even months. Including it would destroy a story that depended on the pressure of the lawsuit to trigger bad actors to do still more bad things.

So how much do you the writer need to know? I have no doubt White knew about the administrative claim process and simply decided to leave it out. Only trained professionals and a handful of readers would know he’d skipped a legally necessary step, and surely they would forgive him, for the sake of the plot. I did, barely a moment after creasing my forehead at the omission. After all, it’s a novel, not a civil procedure text, and readers aren’t looking to the plot for legal advice.

But knowledge can help you avoid mistakes that readers will notice – mistakes that affect the plot, or that introduce unnecessary error or confusion. A writer recently asked me about the spousal privilege, thinking she could add tension to her plot by if her protagonist married the good guy wrongly suspected of murder, preventing the protagonist from testifying against him. She didn’t realize that the privilege wouldn’t protect her character from being compelled to testify about what she saw him do, and that the law in her story state would not protect her from testifying to what he told her, because the conversations occurred before their marriage.

Another writer became concerned when a critique partner questioned her story’s setting in a small-town casino. The critter thought a casino had to be connected to an Indian tribe – a possibility that hadn’t even crossed the writer’s mind. Turns out her story state does allow non-tribal casinos – but readers might not know that, so she decided to forestall potential furrowed eyebrows by making the point in a brief dialogue exchange.

Back to those deadlines. If I were writing a story set around environmental litigation – wait, I did that. It’s in a box on a shelf in my office closet – would I spend precious pages detailing the emergency response, what state law requires, the VPH test results, test pits to delineate the scope of the dissolved-phase plume, and the hours after hours spent writing it all up for the various agencies, then more hours preparing documents to meet pressing deadlines? You know my answer, don’t you? But rather than skip over those details entirely, consider their role in your story. If your mystery centers on the environmental problems, would it benefit from weaving in a bit of the real-life complications? Is your character exhausted and seeing double after working till midnight sorting through boxes of disorganized records? That might be a good time for the villain to follow her home, when she’s least prepared mentally and physically. If you want to get her away from the office and civilization – and out of cell phone reach – consider a site visit to a remote mine or tailings pit. If you want to set up a court room confrontation, let her find a surprise in those boxes – a report that wasn’t disclosed when it should have been, a letter of complaint that predates the polluter’s first acknowledged notice, or an internal report on the dangers of the product or practice at issue. (“At issue” – lawyers say that a lot.) Use those details to complicate your story. But if the legal issue is more of a subplot than the heart of the story – as in White’s Higher Authority – you can safely leave your readers innocent of the finer points.

You don’t need to know all the details. If you do – from personal experience – you have the tough job of deciding what the reader needs to know. If you don’t, you have an equally tough job of learning just enough, and not getting lost in your own research. Talk to the experts. Run a scene by one of them. Ask a friend who knows nothing about the technical aspects to read your scene and tell you what she understood and didn’t. Sharpen your red pencil and be prepared to be ruthless with those details. Because “the curse of knowledge” can be the enemy of a good read.

Copyright Basics

I’m republishing here a few of the articles currently on my website before it undergoes a major revision. While I’m not a publishing lawyer, one thing any decent lawyer can do is research, then analyze and synthesize the results. Herewith, those results. 

COPYRIGHT BASICS Answers to the most frequent questions about copyright–how to establish it, avoiding infringement, and other issues

(First published in the Sisters in Crime Guppy Newsletter, First Draft, 2004 but still valid)

This month, by request, I’m straying slightly from my mission to provide legal information for use in fiction to discuss the basic principles of copyright law.

What is copyright and what does an unpublished writer need to know? Forget everything you think you know about copyright. In 1978, Congress enacted a new system which has since undergone further changes as a result of both Congressional action and Supreme Court decisions. Yes, 1978 was a while ago, but myths and assumptions take a long time to die. So euthanize yours, and read along with me.

Copyright, at its most basic, is the right to claim ownership of a creative work and earn profit from it. Copy, the word-within-a-word, fools us into thinking copyright pertains only to written works. Copyright principles apply equally to literary works, music (including lyrics), film and sound recordings, paintings, photos, architectural plans, and other works.

You may not copyright ideas, titles, names, phrases, slogans, common symbols (although trademark or service mark registration may be available), or processes (patent protection may be available).

Copyright gives its holder specific benefits. These include the exclusive right to reproduce the work, prepare derivative works (J.K. Rowling’sQuidditch Through the Ages or Harry Potter mugs), distribute the work by sale or license, and perform or display the work publicly. Transfer of ownership does not transfer the copyright unless expressly agreed in writing; an artist who sells a painting still owns the copyright and has the exclusive right to reproduce the painting in prints, posters, cards, t-shirts, or other media.

Copyright arises automatically as soon as a work is created. The work need not be completed or published, but it must be fixed in a medium. For literary work, of course, that means it must be written. You have automatic copyright in your partial outlines, rough drafts, and finely polished final copy. But you have no copyright to an idea or a plot outline kept in your head.

Copyright can be inherited; when an author dies, rights to her work, published or not, go to her heirs.

You don’t need to register your work to obtain copyright. The U.S. Copyright Office says this: “In general, copyright registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record of the basic facts of a particular copyright. However, registration is not a condition of copyright protection.”

You don’t need to use the © symbol to establish copyright. The rule requiring copyright notice on the work has been eliminated for all works published since 1989. The word or symbol does give notice that the work is copyrighted, and thus can help make or defend an infringement claim, but use of the symbol is not necessary to establish copyright. If challenged, you can establish your copyright by showing creation through the work itself, drafts, outlines, journal notations, dates on computer printouts, and personal testimony.

If you use the symbol, the U.S. Copyright Office suggests this format, in a location that gives the reader reasonable notice:

©2004 John Doe

Some writers claim that agents & editors consider a writer who puts the © symbol on her work to be an amateur. I haven’t been able to confirm or rule that out. I have been told that most book publishers prefer that authors not register their work but let the publisher do so at the time of publication; that way, the copyright date inside the book is current and doesn’t cut sales by giving the false impression that a book is older or a reprint.

What are the benefits of registration and how do I register copyright? The chief benefit of registration is to establish a public record and make it easier to establish copyright if someone steals your work or accuses you of stealing hers. Other benefits include protection against illegal importation of unauthorized copies.

Registration requires an application and $30 fee for each work, plus copies for deposit in the Library of Congress. See the U.S. Copyright Office website for specifics and forms.

How long does copyright last? For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright lasts for the author’s life plus 70 years after death. For joint authors, copyright lasts 70 years after the last surviving author’s death. In a major change from prior law, copyright may no longer be renewed. You may think this short-changes authors, but the trade-off is that the term of copyright is now considerably longer and copyright holders can no longer inadvertently lose their rights. (Under prior law, copyright was 28 years with a 28 year renewal term, but renewal was not automatic and copyright was lost if not renewed during the original term).

Any work created before 1923 is no longer protected by copyright and has entered the public domain. That means the work can be quoted freely without permission. (You should still give credit, though, to avoid confusing your readers and triggering suspicions of plagiarism.)

Copyright obtained between 1923 and 1978 may be current or may have expired. Check with the U.S. Copyright Office for specifics on the copyright of older works.

What are the risks of sharing my work before publication or registration? Whether sharing work creates a risk of theft depends largely on how and with whom you share. Choose wisely. Submitting work to a reputable agent or editor rarely creates problems. At nearly every writers’ conference or workshop I’ve attended, a novice has expressed concern about theft of an idea; the published writers, agents, and editors uniformly respond that the writer’s concern marks him as an amateur and he should not worry. If you share pages with a face-to-face critique group or an online group in whom you’ve built trust, the risk is probably minimal. Sharing in a less secure environment, such as an online writers’ forum or chat room where you don’t know who is participating, is far riskier. Choose what you share carefully. If you have a concept for a book that’s never been done, it’s probably better to spend your energy writing the book than touting your concept.

Keep in mind that ideas, concepts, and facts cannot be copyrighted. Sometimes an idea is in the air. Maybe you mentioned in the bar at Left Coast Crime your idea for a mystery with a frozen body found in a glacier. The next year, Dana Stabenow published a Kate Shugak mystery in which a receding glacier reveals a dead body. She wasn’t in the bar with you and her book was already in the pipeline. Neither of you stole the idea from the other. Writer Les Standiford, head of the creative writing department at Florida International University, often testifies as an expert in copyright cases involving novelists and screenwriters. He reminds writers that similarities in story structure or overall concept do not mean the story was stolen; the focus in determining theft (copyright infringement) is on content and style — that is, how the writer develops the idea.

How much can I quote without violating copyright? What is fair use? Copyright gives its holder the exclusive right to use a work. However, an exception exists for limited use of quotes without authorization. A long-standing myth says four lines or fifty words can be quoted without fear. Slay that bugaboo now.

The key to determining whether quoting infringes copyright is whether the quoting is “fair.” In the landmark case, Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), Harper sold Time magazine the right to publish an excerpt from former President Gerald Ford’s forthcoming memoir. The Nationobtained a pre-publication copy and ran an article quoting three hundred words. Time cancelled the deal and refused to pay Harper. In finding againstThe Nation, the United States Supreme Court set out several factors to be considered:
— the purpose and character of the use. Quotation in a review, even if critical, is obviously fair, so long as it is accurate. Quotation for profit, as inThe Nation’s scoop, weighs against fairness.
— nature of the copyrighted work. Are you quoting historical facts or compilations, or fiction or poetry? The more factual and less creative, the more “fair” the use.
— amount and substantiality of use. The Supreme Court held that the 300 word excerpt quoted in The Nation — Ford’s reflections on pardoning Nixon — was the heart of the 200,000 word manuscript. Point: it’s not the length that counts, but what you excerpt and how you use it. Four lines from Crime and Punishment may be insignificant, but four lines from a Langston Hughes poem may be the bulk of it.
— effect on potential market or value. The Nation scooped Time for profit and market share. A reviewer or a professor giving a talk on literary criticism doesn’t have the same negative effect on market.

Bottom line: Think carefully about whether you need to quote a copyrighted work, how you are quoting, and how the copyright holder will view your quote. When in doubt, discuss getting permission to quote with your publisher. Contact the publisher of the work quoted or the Authors’ Registry, a clearinghouse for contacts and payments, or search the Copyright Office database.

Remember that copyright protection doesn’t apply to titles and short phrases. Even though the music and lyrics of “Proud Mary” are still under copyright, you may use the song title as a book title. Most readers will make the connection to “Proud Mary, keep on burning,” especially if a character mentions to John Fogerty or a Creedence Clearwater Revival concert, or if the plot involves a riverboat — or even a woman named Mary. But if you intend to quote the lyrics in the text or as an epigram or a chapter heading, copyright protection applies. Requesting permission in advance is a lot easier than responding to a “cease and desist” letter asserting an infringement claim when your book is already in print. A new author using a short quote in a paperback edition with an average print run may be given permission to quote at no or low cost. If the price is too high, revise to use only a title or an image, not a quote, or to quote only material in the public domain.

Copyright protection also applies to material used in a free publication. Most copyright holders will charge only a nominal fee for non-profit use. You might wonder why a wealthy musician or a Pulitzer prize winner would charge at all in that situation. Charging, even if only ten dollars, helps the copyright holder demonstrate that it is actively protecting its right to control the use of the work, which could be important in an infringement claim where more money is at stake. Remember that copyright law protects the holder’s right to decide how and where the material is used, not just the right to earn profits from the work.

If you’re writing parody, or rap music with sampling, the rules differ. Check them carefully.

What about photocopying? If it’s for your own use, relax. However, copying articles for archival use in a corporate setting is a problem if systematic or institutional; research the practice before continuing it. Brief excerpts for educational use are acceptable, but systematic use or creation of “course packs” for students is not.

(I am indebted to Crawford & Murray, authors of The Writer’s Legal Guide, for their insights into the Harper & Row decision.)

May I use a real play as background in a mystery set in a community theater? May the characters discuss the title, plot, their roles, or the author? Plots and titles can’t be copyrighted, so you can freely use both and let the characters in your novel discuss them. Novel characters may discuss play characters, but you cannot recreate a character from the play in your novel without permission. That is, you can write a novel in which an actor discusses playing John Proctor in “The Crucible,” and you could also write a historical novel featuring John Proctor so long as you based your work on historical research and not on the Arthur Miller play. But if a play is still under copyright, you may not take a character and use him as your own.

Fair use principles apply to quoting. You need permission to quote if you write a scene where characters recite lines from the play while rehearsing. But if your characters simply discuss how they’ll act out the confrontation between John and Mary Proctor without quoting lines from Miller’s play, no permission is needed.

Discussion of the author of the play is regulated not by copyright principles but by the law of libel and slander. The characters in the novel may freely discuss what they think Miller intended in a certain scene or the political context in which he wrote “The Crucible.” They may also discuss the facts of Miller’s own life, so long as they do so accurately. Opinions may be freely given so long as they are clearly opinion; a character may say “In my opinion, Miller’s over-rated” or “I think he was crazy to marry Marilyn.”

In addition to the sources already mentioned, you may be able to contact the copyright holder of plays through Dramatists’ Play Service, which publishes plays and licenses production rights.

Magazine publishers may copyright articles by freelancers as “work for hire.” Magazines commonly copyright an entire issue as one piece of work in the publisher’s name. This avoids the expense and trouble of registering copyright for each story in the name of the magazine (if staff-written) or the freelance writer. Typically, contracts specify that the writer is providing the story as “work for hire,” but has the right to publish the piece on her website, in an anthology, or after a specific period of time, in another publication. Magazine publishers rarely refuse permission to reprint if given credit for the original publication. Magazines often retain the right to publish the piece on its own website or in their own anthologies (e.g., “Sunset Magazine’s Guide to Western R.V. Travel”).

What copyright protection exists internationally? There is no “international copyright;” the laws of individual countries govern. Happily, most countries have signed treaties giving copyright protection to non-citizens, agreeing to enforce each others’ copyright laws, and providing an enforcement mechanism.

Full U.S. copyright protection is available to any person who, when the work is created, is a “national or domiciliary” (meaning generally a citizen or resident) of the U.S. or any country that is a signatory to international copyright treaties. U.S. copyright law also applies automatically to works first published in the U.S. or treaty parties. In short, most countries have signed international copyright agreements and honor copyright no matter what the author’s citizenship or residency.

If your work is first published abroad and you are a U.S. citizen or resident, your copyright is protected by both foreign and U.S. law. The treaties provide a relatively uniform system of protection.

If you sell foreign rights and your work is published in translation or in a different edition (e.g., a book first published in the U.S. is published in German for distribution in Germany or in a British edition with differences in spelling), a separate copyright exists in the new edition.

For more info, check out the U.S. Copyright office for circulars on specific topics or their Frequently Asked Questions. Or consult a legal reference book for writers such as The Writer’s Legal Guide, an Authors Guild Desk Reference, by Tad Crawford & Kay Murray (3d Ed. 2002, Allworth Press).  (When I spy a new edition, I’ll raise my hand.)