Writing about the law — and a common mistake to avoid

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference last April, I met author and teacher Carly Stevens, who asked me to chat with her on YouTube about writing about the law and lawyers, as a followup to my PPWC presentation on common mistakes writers make about the law. Our conversation is now up, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (We also talked last summer about building your characters, based on another PPWC presentation I gave, and you can watch or listen to that interview, Writing Better Characters, too.)

Carly and I talked about the types of lawyers and practice, the relationships between lawyers, discovery (that is, how evidence is shared before trial), and some of the common mistakes writers make about the law. You can revisit my blog post on common mistakes as well, which covers a few topics she and I didn’t discuss.

I came across another common mistake recently — one not on the list only because it has so much competition — and that’s the availability of juvenile records. Many people assume juvenile records are automatically sealed or destroyed at a certain age, but that’s not always true. State law varies tremendously, as do the records themselves. Factors include the nature of the crime — was it a misdemeanor or felony, a crime against property or a person? Repeat offender status. Age. Whether the offender was sent to a juvenile prison. Other factors may be considered, depending on state law.

Even if the records are sealed, a potential employer may have some access. Law enforcement retains access to most juvenile records, unless officially expunged. This state-by-state summary of laws relating to juvenile records from the National Conference of State Legislatures is enormously useful.

Do your homework!

Saturday Creativity Quote — accepting self-criticism

I’m deep in a first draft, at that stage where I’m not sure that anything I’m doing makes any sense, that I’ll be able to make it make sense, or that readers will care. Whether you write, paint, make music, or create in any of countless other ways, I am confident that you know the feeling.

partially open door of a weathered cabin

And that’s about the only thing I’m confident of write — er, right — now. So I like these words from my favorite blogs on writing, one of the contributors I always read because I always know she’ll give me useful, practical insights.

Accept that your work will never feel satisfactory, because without that self-critical element, we’d never try to improve. Our yearning to accomplish more is what makes it possible to endure a learning process that for quite some time may offer little promise of external reward.
. . .
[I]t isn’t up to us to believe in ourselves, it’s up to us to do the work.
– Kathryn Craft, on Writer Unboxed

Saturday Creativity Quote — more on the value of a schedule

I’ve been emphasizing the value of a schedule, of a regular commitment to writing. One more quote to bolster that:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
— Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

What’s my routine? After decades working as a lawyer in firms and courts, now that I’m pretty much writing fulltime, I still keep office hours. Ideally, I’m “on the page” — that is, writing or editing — by 8:30, sometimes 9:00. I work until just after noon, eat lunch, and tackle promotion and writing business, along with personal stuff, in the afternoons. When I’m researching, or pondering, scouting the world and my brain for the story, that can get thrown off. I don’t make appointments on Mondays unless absolutely necessary, so I can start the week focused and protect my time.

Your life is probably more complicated than mine, but think about your schedule, a routine you can create and keep. Protect it. Honor it, and your creative spirit will shine. I promise.

Pepper’s Bookshelf – Between a Wok and a Dead Place

(With the Lunar New Year approaching, I went to the blog in search of this post to share it again and discovered I’d never posted it! But if you enjoy a bit of seasonal reading, then the timing is just right!)

Spice Shop readers tell me they love spotting names of books and authors they recognize and potential new reads on Pepper’s bookshelves, both in her loft and in the shop. And Pepper and Kristen, who handles most of the Spice Shop’s book buying, love creating seasonal book displays.

For the Lunar New Year, they’ve set out several foodie cozies with an Asian theme: Vivian Chien’s noodle shop mysteries, Jennifer Chow’s LA Night Market series, and Mia Manamsala’s Tita Rosie’s Kitchen mysteries, set in a family-run Filipino restaurant. I have read and enjoyed them all. And I’ll confess that I’m the customer who told them about The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones, a fascinating novel about an American food reporter who meets a Chinese-American chef in China, a man determined to keep alive an intricate, formal style of Chinese cooking far beyond what most of us can imagine.

Pepper forges a working relationship with the owner of the new cheese shop in the Market, Say Cheese!, and seals it by giving her copies of For Cheddar or Worse by Avery Aames and Cheddar Off Dead by Korina Moss, both mysteries set in cheese shops. Food puns rule.

The staff steered customers planning a trip to France to cookbooks by two American food writers who focus on French food, David Liebovitz and Dorie Greenspan, along with a shop favorite, The French Country Table: Simple recipes for bistro classics, by Laura Washburn. Not coincidentally, all are favorites in our home.

Between a Wok and a Dead Place -- book cover, showing shop interior decorated for the Lunar New Year, and an Airedale terrier
Book cover for Between a Wok and a Dead Place

The book Lena insists Pepper read is The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, set in Seattle’s Chinatown during World War II and the present day.

I discovered some terrific resources in my research, mentioned in the acknowledgments: Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels, by Marie Rose Wong, Ph.D., an account not just of the CID’s residential hotels but of the economic, political, and social forces that shaped it.

Two books provided helpful personal accounts, photographs, and historical research: Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle by David Takami, and Reflections of Seattle’s Chinese Americans: The First 100 Years by Ron Chew and Cassie Chin.

I was totally absorbed by the memoir Long Way Home: Journeys of a Chinese Montanan by Flora Wong and Tom Decker. The experience of American-born Flora, whose daughter is a friend of ours, in returning to China as a small child in the 1930s, enduring tremendous hardship on a small family farm, then returning to the US in the late 1940s through an arranged marriage pulled together all I had read, and helped me understand more about the hardships of life in China and the tug that many immigrants felt, even after making the difficult decision to leave.

Another interesting reference, though one I barely dipped into, is Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace, Tamara Venit-Shelton, Ph.D. And while not part of my research, some readers may be intrigued by The Middle Kingdom Under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana by Mark T. Johnson. Both Professor Venit-Shelton and Professor Johnson speak widely about their research, and videos of their talks are available on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet.

Finally, I always learn something interesting from Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City by David B. Williams.

The murder is fiction. The food is fact.

Saturday Creativity Quote — keeping a routine

You’ve all heard me talk about intentional creativity and the importance of making a commitment to do the work, whatever your work is. It’s easy to start the year excited about our creative plans, but sometimes we need a little help making them become reality.

An open box of colored pencils
Pencils (photo by the author)

That’s where a creative routine comes in. As my writer pal Mark Hummel, who also writes as Mark Leichliter, says,

The trick is to put writing first even if it isn’t literally the first thing you do, and if it’s not, then creating a ironclad routine to which you adhere . . . That can be to write an hour before bedtime or for half an hour in your car at lunch, a set number of pages produced while hiding out in your secretive place so that you can be undisturbed. Whatever it is, I am convinced that routine matters.”

Some people say you have to write every day. You don’t. It’s ideal, but life isn’t always like that. I wrote my first three manuscripts on Fridays, because that was the time I had. My muse, or creative voice, or subconscious, showed up and we did the work–because she knew I would be there, sitting in my office in the back bedroom of a little white stucco farmhouse at the foot of the Mission Mountains.

As the man says, “routine matters.”

Countdown to the Lunar New Year!

Between a Wok and a Dead Place -- book cover, showing shop interior decorated for the Lunar New Year, and an Airedale terrier
Book cover for Between a Wok and a Dead Place

The Year of the Dragon! So fiery after the sweet and mild year of the Rabbit. (HA! Have you been paying attention to the world? The dragon it is!) The Lunar New Year arrives on Sat, Feb 10, so I’m celebrating with a countdown. After all, my latest Spice Shop mystery, Between a Wok and a Dead Place, is set at the Lunar New Year. For the next 10 days, I’ll be sharing snippets of the story and its origins, recipes, other books of the season, and more. And there will be giveaways — signed paperbacks and audio codes.

Ceremonial gate above street in Seattle's Chinatown International District
Ceremonial gate, Seattle’s Chinatown International District (author photo)

Here’s how it all started. A few years ago, Mr. Right and I visited Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum, chronicling the history of the Asian community in the Pacific Northwest, and toured the Kong Yick Hotel, a community center and residential hotel dating back to the 1880s. Naturally I started to wonder: What if a body was found in the basement of an old hotel? What other secrets might linger in a building where so many people had lived and worked—and died? So I created the Gold Rush Hotel on what was, when I last saw it, a vacant lot in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. 

The research was a book nerd’s dream. I pored over oral histories from early residents of the CID, as it’s called, along with maps and photos, and an intriguing account of the residential hotels, which were vital to the region’s culture and economy. 

When I read a historian’s account of traveling with her father as a child in the early 1970s delivering fruits and vegetables, and his visits to the old Chinese hotels and restaurants, I felt one of those satisfying clicks writers live for. Community is key to immigrants, but especially to those who have faced extreme prejudice and legal exclusion. That, I realized, was why Francis Wu, my fictional hotelier, held on to the Gold Rush long after it closed. Why he was so determined that it stay in the family, despite his son’s indifference. 

And why he did not destroy the apothecary in the basement, despite what it had cost him. 

Join me over the next week and a half to celebrate the Lunar New Year as only book — and food — lovers can!

(If you’re seeing this on my blog, please chime in on Facebook or Instagram for a fun conversation and a chance to win WOK.)

The Saturday Creativity Quote — stuck on what happens next?

“If you are stuck and asking what should happen next, head straight for what cannot happen. That’s the direction you want to go. The goal is not to play within the rules, but to break them. Story is not about what is realistic, reasonable, safe and ordinary. It is about the extreme things that happen to people who are not ready. It’s about the dramatic things that people like you and me might do-but do not-under duress.”

– Don Maass, Writer Unboxed: It Can’t Happen Here, 3/4/2020

I first heard Don say this years ago when he spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference held by the Authors of the Flathead, a multi-genre writers’ group based in Kalispell, Montana. I remember the moment clearly. “What is one thing your main character would never do?” he asked. “Wear lipstick,” I wrote in my notebook, clueless enough not to realize what he would say next. “Now make them do it.”

photo of welded sculpture of a heron, with a mountain lake in the background

And that’s become one of my most important tools for unfolding plot from the characters themselves. Not wearing lipstick might seem trivial, but in that unpublished manuscript, it led me to think about where my MC, a deputy sheriff, might feel she had to wear lipstick. Another character is a national news reporter who’s just been fired from her job and retreats to her summer home in Montana where, naturally, she responds to her lover’s unsolved murder by filming a television segment, including an interview with the deputy sheriff.

In my Spice Shop mysteries, Pepper Reece would never ask her ex-husband, a Seattle cop on the bike patrol, for help — until she has to.

What would your character never do? Betray a friend? Betray a confidence? Fire a gun? Run into a burning building? Run from a burning building? Take a welding class? Wear pink? Eat a sweet potato? Make it matter. Make her do it.

Well, except maybe for that the sweet potato.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — the importance of writing from within

“Good writing is remembering detail. Most people want to forget. Don’t forget things that were painful or embarrassing or silly. Turn them into a story that tells the truth.” — Paula Danziger

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” — Virginia Woolf

“You are a writer. You have a story to tell. You have something worthwhile to say. What you’ve already learned on your journey will play a part in what you write, one way or another. And your writing has a job to do: entertainment, teaching, healing, passing on wisdom or passion or comfort.” – Juliet Marillier, on Writer Unboxed

“You need to claim the events of your life to make yourself yours.” – Anne Wilson Schaef, who wrote extensively about addiction and popularized the concept of co-dependence

I think you catch my drift.

The Saturday Creativity Quote — outlining a book you admire

One of the best tools for improving our writing is to analyze what we read. I mentioned this last week when I talked about reading. Let’s take that to the next level.

“The ability to see our own work clearly is one of the greatest challenges of writing. Authors fill in the blanks of their characters and world and stories in their heads without realizing whether it’s coming across effectively on the page to readers. It’s almost impossible to assess our own work as objectively as we can with other people’s.” — editor and novelist Tiffany Yates Martin, writing on publishing guru Jane Friedman’s blog

An open box of colored pencils
Pencils (photo by the author)

Start, Martin says, with yourself. Your reaction. Then dive in, analyzing more deeply.

I’ve suggested this before, offering specific suggestions for outlining a book you want to learn from. Yes, colored pencils or highlighters are involved. I’m actually gearing up to do this myself, reading several books by an author I admire, then choosing one to outline deeply to watch how she handles story. Heck, I might do two. She’s doing something readers love and respond to, and I want to grasp it more fully. There’s no better way than breaking it down, scene by scene, element by element.

Sharpen your pencils — or your highlighters — and go!