Law & Fiction — the state of public defender systems

Black question mark on white background

I gave a talk on common mistakes fiction writers make about the law last night to the Puget Sound chapter of Sisters in Crime last night, and while we didn’t talk about public defender systems, when I saw this profile of a young public defender on the Washington State Bar website, Walking in Their Shoes: A Day in the Life of a Spokane City Public Defender, I remembered other articles I’d seen recently, and thought a quick roundup might be useful.

Public defender systems around the country are facing enormous pressures. So, honestly, are prosecutors’ offices. Work loads are high, pay scales are low, and the inherent stresses of the job have worsened with repeated attacks on the judicial system by some public officials. The Washington Post reports that the DC Public Defender Office is instituting mandatory furloughs. The Seattle Times published this piece on the breakdown of the state’s public defender system and reported on a recent proposal to reduce case loads.

Prosecutors’ offices have faced some of the same issues, as noted in this article from the Flathead Beacon reporting that although the public defense system in my valley is functioning well, the system is struggling in other communities in Montana, and our local prosecutor’s office is having trouble with recruitment and case loads, in part because of chronically low pay. I’m aware of several criminal trials that have been put off repeatedly because the prosecutor is so badly understaffed; several homicide cases had to be turned over to the state Criminal Justice bureau for prosecution, a rare move, because the local office could not try the case within the timeframe needed to preserve the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

Should this affect your fictional lawyers and defendants? Maybe, maybe not. But it does affect all of us as citizens, and understanding the issues will help you write more authentically about the system and the people who work so hard to make it work.

Saturday Creativity Quote — on creative confidence

Mixed floral bouquet -- author photo, taken at Pike Place Market
author photo, taken at Pike Place Market

I subscribe to the newsletter of Tiffany Yates Martin, an editor, teacher, and writer. She recently wrote about meeting artist and illustrator Bob Eckstein at the 2024 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference, and talking with him about his work. One topic was creative confidence—although that’s my term, not theirs—and I very much appreciated this observation:

“[I]t’s more than simply believing in yourself. It means allowing yourself a free hand in your initial creative efforts, knowing that you have the talent and skill and persistence to be able to continue to hone it in subsequent revisions to make it what you want it to be. That kind of faith is freeing, allowing you to take chances, to loose your wildest imagination, to risk failing because you know it doesn’t make you a failure. It’s simply one step on the road to success.”

It’s a natural follow-up to last week’s quote about perseverance, because you get confidence not from rubbing a magic shamrock, but from doing the work.

Although rubbing magic shamrocks never hurts. .

BLIND FAITH is a Kindle Daily Deal, today only! 

I love every book I’ve written, each for a different reason. But Blind Faith — sparked by memory that haunted me for more than forty years — may be my favorite. (Don’t tell the other books I said that.) And the Kindle version is only 2.99 today only, Saturday, June 1. 
From the cover:
Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks. For decades, the unsolved murder of Father Michael Leary has haunted Billings, Montana, the community he served. Who summoned the priest late one autumn night, then left his body in a sandstone gully for the ravens and other wild scavengers?
And it’s haunted no one more than Lindsay Keller, who admired and confided in him as a teenager. Compelled by his example to work for justice, she became a prosecutor. But after a devastating case left her shattered, she fled the rough-and-tumble for the safety of a desk, handling real estate deals and historic preservation projects. Good work, but not what she’d dreamed of. Now Lindsay finds herself in possession of the priest’s wallet, the photo of a young girl tucked inside. She’s sure she knows the girl, and that it’s tied to his death. But how? Detective Brian Donovan, a hot-shot Boston transplant, would like nothing more than to solve the county’s coldest case. Probing the life and death of Father Leary takes Lindsay and Donovan deep into long-simmering tensions in this seemingly-peaceful place. Then another woman far away digs up unexpected clues about her own family’s past—a history rooted in a shocking truth—and her questions bring her to Lindsay and the detective. But the dangerous answers could rock the community to its very core.

Saturday Creativity Quote

Tulip Festival, Roozengarde, LaConnor, Washington

I needed to read this. Maybe you do, too.

“[A]llowing yourself to feel pride and delight in your craft is what keeps you coming eagerly back to it day after day, which is what keeps you constantly improving.

Be honest with yourself: How do you feel when your daily writing time approaches? Are you chomping at the bit to get in there and start weaving your imaginary worlds? Or do you dread it, worrying about whether you’ll hit your word count, whether you’re any good, whether the story is working, whether anyone else will ever read it or like it?

Which approach do you think is more likely to entice you back to the desk? Which do you think is more likely to put you in the relaxed, open state of mind required to tap into your fullest, freest creativity? …

Let yourself love what you do.
– writer, editor, and teacher Tiffany Yates Martin, newsletter, 4/4/24

Saturday Creativity Quote

Tulip Festival, Roozengarde, LaConnor, Washington

A few weeks ago, I had to replace the wireless mouse and keyboard I use (liquids were involved but Mr. Kitten is blameless), and in the process, cleaned out the lap drawer tray on my desk where the keyboard lives. I had all kinds of notes and quotes taped inside it. (Plus some fur, for which Mr. K is entirely to blame.) This one is worth sharing:

“You never get it done and you cannot get it wrong. Life is supposed to be fun: you are creators; you are a focusing mechanism, and you are here in an environment that is very conducive to that. When you get hold of an idea, play it out for the pleasure in it. If you are doing it for any other reason, then you are not connecting to your Source Energy.”

– Abraham, via Esther Hicks

(So maybe you aren’t keen on spiritual entities channeled via humans. Not sure I am, either, but let’s forget that and focus on the substance. A reminder, regardless.)

Pike Place Market: Magic in the Heart of the City

An edited version of this essay appeared in the program for Left Coast Crime 2024: Seattle Shakedown, held April 11-14 in Bellevue, Washington. There wasn’t time for me to take readers to the Market and show them some of the places I love, so I’m grateful to have been asked to contribute this piece. (All the photos are mine.)

Pike Place Market: Magic in the Heart of the City, by Leslie Budewitz

“This market is yours. It is here to stay and there is no influence, no power, no combination and no set of either political or commercial grafters that will destroy it.”
—Seattle City Councilman Thomas Revelle, dedicating Pike Place Market on November 30, 1907

I fell in love with Seattle’s Pike Place Market as a wide-eyed college freshman just a few years after residents voted to save the Market from “urban removal.” It was funky and vibrant, and I adored every inch of it. I made it my mission to eat my way through the place, and since it’s constantly changing, I’ll never be finished.

In the late 1970s, not every corner was clean; not every pillar and post stood upright. The Market is an amalgam of buildings erected over the decades bearing history-laden names like the Economy Market, the Sanitary Market (no horses allowed!), and the Soames/Dunne Building. Suburban growth and the economic downturn that hit the city hard had taken their toll. Many farm stalls and shop fronts stood empty. Some days, it’s said, pigeons outnumbered potatoes.

Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?
—1970s billboard

After a years-long public campaign, voters approved the creation of the Pike Place Market Historical District in 1971, later the first mixed residential and commercial use project named to the National Historic Register. The mission was clear: Preserve Seattle’s history. Foster the direct link between the region’s farmers and food producers to the community they fed. Provide public services and low income housing. And do it with Northwest style!

And while the Market was coming back to life, a few ghost stories emerged as well: The early Market Master who wore a top hat and loved to dance and who, some say, can still be seen dancing past upper story windows. The orphaned stable boys who slept in the hallways and now occasionally toy with shop merchandise at night. The ghosts of men murdered for bounty money who haunt the old mortuary, but are appeased by a pitcher of beer left out at night.

When I was a college kid trekking down the hill from Seattle University to prowl the cobbled streets, behind-the-scenes renovations were upgrading the structures and utilities. The Preservation and Development Authority was busy ensuring that farmers could sell their produce, fishermen their catch, bakers their breads and rolls. The PDA helped stabilize and grow existing businesses and incubate new ones. They created the network of arts and crafts vendors who fill the daystalls in the Main Arcade, and established funding sources for the community foundation that provides social services.

Later, as a young lawyer working downtown, I developed a simple routine: Twice a week, I walked to the Market. Bought a slice of pizza at DeLaurenti’s on the corner of First and Pike. Stood at the newsstand browsing newspapers and magazines from around the world with my eyes—hands off until my pizza was gone. Strolled down to Market Spice for a sample cup of tea redolent with orange and cloves. Watched salmon fly at Pike Place Fish, where men (and later women) in rubber boots and aprons sang, joked, and tossed the catch threw the air. (“Crab for Montana!” they called back and forth when my visiting mother made a purchase. She was mortified and delighted.) I tasted food and flavors I had never known.

Then I went in search of a cookie, nibbling while listening to street-corner musicians, marveling at the man who rolled his painted piano along the sidewalks. I bought books and scarves from merchants in the lower levels known as “Down Under” and earrings and a Hmong quilted pillow from Market artists. I bought fruit and vegetables, bread and cheese and coffee, and occasionally, flowers.

The Market is home to more than seventy-five farmers, two hundred shops and restaurants, two hundred craftspeople known as daystallers, a score or more of buskers ranging from musical trios to balloon artists, and nearly five hundred residents, all on nine acres. Not to mention ten million visitors a year.
Between a Wok and a Dead Place, by Leslie Budewitz

As Seattle has changed, so has the Market. Neighborhood groceries offer more variety than in years past. Weekend farmers’ markets dot the city. But Pike Place—which is both the main street and the name locals use—continues to thrive. The focus remains a direct-to-consumer farm connection, served up alongside a dizzying array of shops and restaurants. Artistic delight has become a bigger part of the experience. Light fixtures take the shape of cast aluminum figures who climb the walls, globes in hand. Tile walls celebrate flora and fauna. No one knows the point of the disgusting bit of psychogrunge that is the Gum Wall, but it adds color and story nonetheless.

My Spice Shop mysteries are an example of the urban or city-based cozy, a subgenre built around a community within a community. The Market embodies that perfectly. My goal has always been to convey the literal and figurative flavor of the place. To create a world where the reader can taste the food, meet the people, and smell the salt air tinged with coffee and salmon, all while absorbed in a mystery that means something, in a story that could be set nowhere else.

“It’s the Market. Anything can happen here.”
—Pepper Reece, in Assault and Pepper, by Leslie Budewitz

After more than a century, Pike Place Market remains the heart and soul of Seattle—and its stomach. I hope you’ll make a visit while you’re here, on foot or on the page, to experience the magic for yourself.


Leslie Budewitz lives and writes in NW Montana, but a piece of her heart will always walk beside the ghosts along the cobbles of Pike Place.

Saturday Creativity Quote — on community

In April, I went to both Left Coast Crime, the mystery fan convention held in late winter or spring somewhere in the West, and Malice Domestic, the fan convention celebrating the traditional mystery held in Bethesda, Maryland the last weekend in April. Two weeks apart — remind me not to do that again. But it was great fun. (More photos below.)

Nominees for the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel (clockwise from lower left: Korina Moss, Tara Laskowski (winner), Annette Dashofy, Ellen Byron, Leslie Budewitz (moderator), and Gigi Pandian)

I love meeting readers in person, and both cons are great opportunities for that. It’s also wonderful to hear authors, readers, booksellers, and editors speak on panels about various aspects of the writing craft, bookselling, and publishing. The conversations over coffee or dinner and in the hallways are priceless, especially for a writer like me who is happier and healthier because I spend most of my time alone with people who only exist because I made them up.

I always come home exhausted, but inspired. Inspired to read more, write better, connect with more readers and writers. No doubt that’s why I reached for a notebook during Nina Simon’s remarks on accepting the Lefty for Best Debut for Mother-Daughter Murder Night, when she said “Creativity comes from the community.”

It does, doesn’t it? From our brains and hearts, but in communication with all we experience and all those we connect with.

On this writing journey of yours, don’t go it alone. Create a community, online or in person, with others who care about books and creative work just as you do. Nurture it. You — and your readers — will be happy you did.


Join the fun next year! Registration is open for both Malice and LCC.

Three Sisters in Crime presidents! Past President Lori Rader-Day (2019-20), me (2015-16), and current president Kelly Oliver

Ten Favorite Novels About the Law

With courtroom drama taking up a lot of ink and news time lately, I thought I’d reprise an article I originally wrote for The Writer in September 2013. The Writer published my list of common mistakes mistakes writers make about the law, as a follow-up to my nonfiction guide for writers, Books, Crooks, and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011). The editors asked me for a list of favorite novels about the law, published in a sidebar. And you know what? Though I’ve read hundreds of novels since then, I don’t know that I’d change a single one.

Herewith, one lawyer-writer’s list:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960) – None of us will ever be Atticus Finch, but we’re better for trying.

Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson (1995) – Trial and prejudice, with brilliant courtroom dialogue.

The Firm, John Grisham (1991) – A newbie with a dog named Hearsay outwits his wily bosses—what’s not to love?

Rumpole of the Bailey series, John Mortimer (1978-2009) – Taught me everything I know about the British legal system.

Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow (1987) – The epitome of the legal thriller.

Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver (1958) – A classic by a Michigan judge, basis of the fine and fiery movie.

Every Secret Thing, Laura Lippman (2003) – A castoff Barbie, a missing baby, and two young girls—a heart-breaking look at juvenile justice.

If I’d Killed Him When I Met Him, Sharyn McCrumb (1995) – Domestic violence is nothing new.

The Trial, Franz Kafka (1925) – Still gives me the chills.

The Indian Lawyer, James Welch (1990) – A tale of anger and revenge, beautifully told.

Got a favorite book or movie touching on the law?