Classic or cliche — the power of details

This piece was originally published in First Draft, the SinC Guppy chapter newsletter. I thought of it last week after watching THE ROAD TO PERDITION, with Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law. All their performances were excellent, but Newman’s reminded me of the power of the right gesture, no matter how small. He could convey with a creased brow his approval of his foster, a message not lost on his biological son, and so embodied a character that we nearly forgot it was one of the most famous screen actors ever. As writers, we need those reminders, and lessons. 

CLASSIC OR CLICHE — a brief meditation on the death of Paul Newman–and what his roles say to writers

Remembering an actor who got the details right.

When Paul Newman died, I was reading Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about life in small-town Maine. I’d very much enjoyed the HBO series featuring Ed Harris as the protagonist, Miles Roby, and Newman as his father, Max. Newman so embodied the role that as I read, I pictured him every time Max appeared on the page. It’s a classic role – the charming reprobate, a sometime-house painter who abandoned his wife and young sons for months at a time but always seemed to expect them to be waiting – and they were. Now that his wife is long dead and his sons are grown, he treats them no better. Without a car and always short on money, he bums rides then rummages in Miles’ glove box for cash. He pitches in at the café his sons run, cheering up his teenage granddaughter and enjoying wreaking unnecessary havoc. He knows exactly what buttons to push on his hyper-responsible oldest son. You want to smack him. But when he and the town’s senile, retired priest run off to Florida in the parish car, the moment is so unexpectedly perfect that you almost cheer the old guys on.

Then I remembered Newman’s performance as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict,” the washed-up alcoholic lawyer who takes on a loser of a case and then discovers that buried in the boxes of medical records is evidence of appalling hospital malpractice and a cover-up by the Catholic church. Galvin cleans up, dries up, falls down, falls off the wagon, and eventually redeems himself – and wins the case. Along the way, he’s seduced by a beautiful woman, sent to set him up and trick him up – and it almost works. A classic story that goes all the way back to David and Goliath.

Classic – or cliche? What makes the difference? Newman’s performances – and Russo’s writing – demonstrate that it’s the details that make the characters come alive. Russo’s Max Roby is a retired house painter, and he never had much use for the Catholic church that gave his wife comfort. His son Miles is combining penance and community service by painting the church for free – but he hates ladders and that peeling siding of that spire terrifies him. Max pokes and prods Miles about his fear of heights, not very nicely. But he knows that Miles has constrained his own life in part out of fear, and needs to push through it. The author doesn’t spell that out – it’s in the characterization. Eventually Miles does stand up to Max, he does go high up on the ladder, and he gains the courage he needs to pull off a pair of rebellious acts that enable him to save his daughter and change his own life. Small actions, tiny steps that lead inexorably to redemption – not of Max, who isn’t looking for it, but of Miles, who needs it to fully live his own life. The devil may be in the details, but so is the glory.

Newman described himself as a character actor who looked like a leading man. I think he meant that he liked to lose himself in the details and become someone else – he wasn’t always playing himself. As writers, we need to give our characters those same opportunities. What I particularly like about Empire Falls – and Russo’s latest novel, The Bridge of Sighs – is that most of the characters are ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, but the writer is willing to go beneath the surface and explore each individual character’s particular thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions. To go beyond cliche. And that’s what makes a classic.

Not a criminal, but a victim — a twist on identity theft

Image0073Some stories are almost too strange to believe — or too strange for fiction. This one is frighteningly real — and may give you a few story ideas.

The Missoulian reported earlier this year that last February, federal Homeland Security agents obtained a search warrant for the home of a NW Montana man they suspected of trafficking child pornography. They quickly concluded that the man was not a trafficker, but himself the victim of a form of identity theft. The real trafficker had used readily-available software called E-Phex to establish what’s called a “peer-to-peer connection,” making it appear that emails he sent distributing child pornography had come from another man’s computer.

Once that became clear, according to a lengthy story in the Daily InterLake, the department publicly announced that the man was “not the subject of, or a person of interest in, an investigation. … We believe he is an innocent victim of cybertheft.” The department would not reveal how the thief obtained the man’s Stell’s IP address or how they concluded that it had been stolen, to avoid revealing their plan to catch the thief and trafficker.

The Homeland Security spokesman acknowledged that it was rare for a law enforcement agency to make such a public announcement, but the computer owner is an older man who volunteers with a local charity that suspended him after learning of the warrant and suspicions, which were widely published in Montana. Local agents asked the regional spokesman to speak out to clear his name. “The agents in Montana saw an injustice was occurring and wanted to make it right,” the InterLake reports.

The computer owner and his wife were questioned extensively, separately and together, for several hours. More details on the investigation and its toll on the couple in the InterLake article.

(Photo: Flathead Lake in winter, by Leslie)

 

On the move …

Sometime soon, probably next week, my two websites will become one, at www.LeslieBudewitz.com, and this blog will be found on that site. I’m hoping to keep the address www.LawandFiction.com/blog, so your favorites and bookmarks will still work, but if you subscribe to the blog, through Feedburner or RSS, you may need to re-subscribe. The website and blog may be down for a day or two while I move hosts.

Please keep this message so you can find me in my new on-line home—I love keeping in touch, and hope you do, too!

Leslie

Let the party begin!

Champagne

 

It’s that time of year again: Book Launch! For the next two or three weeks, my fiction side will take over — but don’t worry. My Tuesday legal posts and Saturday writing quotes will continue.

And if you’re in western Montana, do join Mr. Right and me for the Launch Party, Friday, June 27, from 5 to 8, at the fabulous Frame of Reference Gallery in Bigfork. More than a dozen artists have created wonderful new pieces for the 2d Bigfork in Paint & Print exhibit, and they’ll be on hand during the opening reception, where I’ll be signing books and the Prosecco will be flowing!

CrimeRib_CV.inddHere’s where you can find me on line this week:

Sunday, June 22: Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen, with an excerpt from Crime Rib, and a recipe for Cabernet-chocolate sauce — EZ-PZ, as Erin would say, and perfect over ice cream. Or pound cake or cheese cake or angel food cake, or fruit.

Monday, June 23: Lisa K’s Book Reviews, an interview with a chance to win a copy of either Death al Dente OR Crime Rib.

Friday, June 27: Killer Characters: Where the Characters Do the Talking. An excerpt from Crime Rib, and a give-away. In fact, Killer Characters is sponsoring  the Cozy Days of Summer Contest! Every day in June and July, leave a comment for a chance to win a book from that day’s author!

Saturday, June 28: The Debutante Ball, a fun interview.

Sunday, June 29, a two-fer: On Jungle Red Writers, I’ll be talking about the Food Lovers’ Bookshelf—some of my favorite recent reads in “kitchen lit.” And on Shelley’s Book Case, I’m naming names, talking about how I name my characters.

And if you’re a member of Goodreads, my publisher Berkley Prime Crime is providing TWENTY-FIVE copies of Crime Rib for a giveaway, open until July 15. 

Finally, two fun print appearances to share this week: A delightful interview with Vince Devlin of  the Missoulian, and my regular column in 406 Woman magazine (scroll to p. 40), featuring an excerpt, a yummy summer steak recipe that plays a key role in Crime Rib, and the story of how Mr. Right and I created it!

Thanks for joining me on this journey!

Leslie 

 

Electronic court filing—one more complication to sleuthing

flathead-kalispell-courthouseBefore you send your fictional lawyer or legal assistant to the courthouse to file those papers, check whether your story state allows electronic court filing. Some even require it, as the federal courts do.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all filings are visible online. In the federal courts, the PACER system (short for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) provides access to all case and docket information filings by parties and the bankruptcy, district, and appellate courts, including the Supreme Court. Users must register, but need not be lawyers. A small fees is charged — 10 cents a page, capped at $3 a document, with charges under $15/quarter waived — to cover the costs of running the system. Here’s what’s available, according to the system website:

“PACER provides access to federal case information nationwide. The PACER system offers quick, accurate information about current federal cases. You can obtain:

  • A listing of all parties and participants including judges, attorneys and trustees
  • A compilation of case related information such as cause of action, nature of suit and dollar demand
  • A chronology of dates of case events entered in the case record
  • A claims registry
  • A listing of new cases each day in all courts
  • Written judicial opinions
  • Judgments or case status”

In some jurisdictions, the pleadings themselves may be available through PACER; each court maintains its own database, and systems differ. Information is available in real time, because of the mandatory ECF or Electronic Court Filing system.

In Montana, the Supreme Court and a handful of districts will begin a pilot program in 2014, to switch from paper to electronic filing, using an electronic file manager similar to the federal system. Rules and manuals are still being developed. Because filings often contain confidential information, access will be limited to judges, attorneys, and court staff; the public will have to go to the court to read files, to limit dissemination of confidential information online. Washington and many other states already use similar systems. Be aware that they vary, and don’t always include lower courts such as justice and municipal courts, where parties often represent themselves.

Clerks of court believe electronic filing will make things easier for all the parties involved, eliminate the lag time of sending and receiving paper documents and reduce the costs of postage and driving to file documents. The change will require some adjustment, especially for judges. Clerks may need to help parties who represent themselves.

Missoula County CourthouseSo there goes one more reason to get your fictional lawyer or law firm staffer out of the office and give her the opportunity to snoop, overhear a conversation in the clerk’s office, or run into a witness in the hallway. Electronic systems make everything easier—except when they don’t!

Top left: Historic postcard of the Old Flathead County Courthouse, Kalispell, Montana, from the Montana Historical Society. Bottom right: the Missoula County Courthouse in Missoula.

How to Destroy a Legal Career with Facebook

I’ve written before about social media and the practice of law (The Case of the Juror with the Twitchy Thumbs — the Oregon juror sanctioned for sending Tweets from the jury box, and Investigating with Social Media). But two recent cases illustrate the dangers to lawyers of misusing Facebook and other social media.

A Montana lawyer, whom I do not know, filed a lawsuit on his own behalf against a construction company. According to this news account, he then threatened to harm the District Court judge assigned to his case and her house, on his Facebook page, apparently to get the judge to recuse herself from the case. Instead, he was charged with a felony count of obstruction of justice. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of violating the privacy of communications. According to the AP account, he received a deferred sentence and was ordered to turn in his license to practice law in Montana.  (Deferred sentences and lawyer discipline are both discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors.)

Update, November 2016: The lawyer involved has contacted me twice, saying he made no threats and asking if I would like his side of the story. Since my purpose here is only to alert writers of potential story lines for plots, I am not engaging in any conversation with him, but have removed his name from the original post. Writers, remember that there are as many “sides” to a story as there are people involved. Remember, too, to explore your characters’ psychology and emotions, which drive their actions and as as important to a novel is as plot.   

And last year, in a case involving abuse of social media, a lawyer in Virginia named Matthew Murray was ordered to pay a fine of $542,000 and his client Isaiah Lester a fine of $180,000, with a $10 million dollar jury verdict in Lester’s favor, resulting from the death of his wife in a collision with a cement truck whose driver lost control, reduced nearly in half.

Why? “Spoliation of evidence,” meaning intentional destruction of evidence. After getting a discovery request for Lester’s Facebook pages and profiles, Murray directed him to “clean up” the account to remove any evidence that could damage the case — including pictures of Lester out at a bar with friends after his wife’s death wearing a T-shirt  “I [heart] hot moms” while holding a beer — and withholding the evidence from the opposition and the court. Judges get cranky about things like that.

An aspect of spoliation that might help you stir up trouble on the page: if evidence is destroyed and can’t be recovered, the law assumes that it would not have been favorable to the party who destroyed it — and so instructs the jury. (This is why any party who wants to do destructive testing, as in a products liability case, should get a court order or written consent from the other side, and often includes the other side’s expert in the testing.)

Murray also resigned as managing partner of his law firm and is under investigation by the Virginia State Bar.  More about the case, Allied Concrete Co. v. Lester, from bloggers here and here. Read the Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion here.

If you want to cause trouble for your fictional lawyer, try this at home.

 

Summer Vacation

lab's poppiesAh, summer! Sailing and hiking, enjoying fresh flowers and salad greens from the garden. Not doing much of that — just a little — because the writing life rarely takes a vacation. That’s fine by me — I’m loving it! But my usual Tuesday posts on legal issues for writers will be taking a short vacation, until early September. I’ll be busy writing Spiced to Death, first in the Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries, and launching Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries.

Meanwhile, you can meet me in person in Seattle in late July, in Western Montana in August, and in Denver in late September. Details on my Events calendar.

I’ll also be a guest on several wonderful blogs hosted by other readers and writers. I’ll share those links here.  Till then, happy summer!

Leslie

 

Wanta buy a courthouse?

Have a hankering to pound a gavel on a bench? To slide your bottom across old wood pews made glossy with decades of use? To huddle in your own private holding cell? Or just to own a former federal courthouse? Now’s your chance. The GSA is selling the 221,000 square foot building in Billings, Montana to the highest bidder. It even comes with a sculpted metal wall mural of Montanans at work. (And with a ton of asbestos, although if the buyer doesn’t alter the building much, removal is apparently not required.) More specs and photos from the Billings Gazette.  And no, I have no idea how you might use this in your fiction — but I thought you’d want to know anyway!

(Photo of Lyndon Pomeroy mural from the Billings Gazette.)