Writing Wednesday — getting out of your characters’ way

My friend Donnell Bell found this quote from me, in a long-ago online discussion, in her files and made this fun graphic. I honestly don’t remember the context or the conversation, but I know what I meant — or what it means to me now. To create a well-rounded character, you need to give them deep backstory. Give them baggage — experiences, emotions, biases, misconceptions they don’t see or don’t want to change, flaws they don’t want to acknowledge or fix. Aches, joys, jealousies, regrets, and fantasies. When you give them a full suitcase and you know what’s in it, you can unpack it at just the right time. You can pull out an experience that gives your character a particular way of seeing events and responding to them, you can hear that amazing bit of wisdom or that horrible misjudgment come out of their mouths. When they act from their own mixed bag of life, they’ll come alive on the page.

And what do I mean by keeping your own baggage to a minimum? Simply that you need to stay out of your characters’ way. When they horrify you, let them. When they say something that makes you cringe, write it down. Reserve judgment. Let that first draft be all theirs. Only when you have a complete draft is it time to exercise some judgment. Maybe the character showed a side of himself that’s exactly right and you didn’t plan it or expect it, but you unlatched the bag and out it came. In revision, you can decide if it’s too much or needs to be played up. Your writing voice, your subconscious, may have seen opportunities your conscious mind would have been blind to. Get it all out, see what you have, and then edit, sharpen, and polish.

That’s the best way to take your readers on a real trip.

Bitterroot Lake — the celebration continues!

Bitterroot Lake

So happy to hear from so many of you about your trip to Bitterroot Lake. This venture into darker waters has been surprising in many ways, and I’m delighted to have shared it with you.

If you’re in the Flathead, the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center and Roma’s Kitchen Shop in Bigfork have signed copies. Bookworks in Whitefish sold out of the signed copies the first day — yay! — but has unsigned copies now. If you’ve got a copy and would like a signed bookplate and bookmarks, drop me a line. And if you’ve already read the book, I do hope you’ll post a review online, tell a friend, or otherwise spread the word.

Just one event next week to share with you and it will be terrific! On Thursday, May 13, at 7 pm Pacific/ 8 pm Mtn, Northwest authors Ellie Alexander, Emmeline Duncan, Angela Sanders, Alexis Morgan, and I will be joining forces for a conversation about cozy mysteries, why the Northwest is such a great setting, how we write, how we drink our coffee when we write, and much more! Join us via Zoom and this link.

Blogger and reviewer Marshal Zeringue conducts the most interesting interviews! This week, I’m featured on his blog, talking about the origins of the title, Bitterroot Lake, how the names of three major characters led to a critical story insight, and more.

And stay tuned, because next week I’ll be telling you about a completely different project! Hint: While we’ve been reading, and writing, other things, Erin and the Villagers have been busy!

Bitterroot Lake — the celebration continues!

Bitterroot Lake

Nothing quite like the high of celebrating a new book! Bitterroot Lake with its gorgeous cover is finding its way to readers everywhere. I do hope you’re one of them!

If you’re in the Flathead, the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center and Roma’s Kitchen Shop in Bigfork have signed copies. Bookworks in Whitefish sold out of the signed copies the first day — yay! — but has unsigned copies now. If you’ve got a copy and would like a signed bookplate, drop me a line.

Two events this week to share with you, both via Zoom. I’d love to see you.

Saturday May 1, 7 pm Pac / 8 pm Mtn
Third Place Books, Seattle
Chatting cozies and suspense with Emmeline Duncan, author of the debut cozy Fresh Brewed Murder, at one of my favorite bricks & mortars bookstores.

Thursday, May 6, 7 pm Mtn
N. Jefferson Co Library (Clancy, MT)
Chatting mysteries — call the library for the Zoom link.

There’s a theory that you should be able to look at page 69 of a book and know what it’s about — or whether you’ll like it. Now, I think that’s just a creative way of talking about a book — no single page, except maybe the first or last — can possibly encapsulate the other 300+. But it was sure fun to try it out on Bitterroot Lake! Here’s my take, on the blog The Page 69 Test.

If you write, you’ll want to pick up a copy of How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, ed. by Lee Child and Laurie R. King, which came out this past week. It’s full of wisdom and advice for newbies and veterans. I contributed a short piece of getting unstuck, when life or your plot won’t behave.

I had reason to follow that advice this week, as I got back to work on the next Spice Shop mystery — oh, did I tell you I signed a contract for the 6th in the series? Christmas in the Market. Look for it in June 2022 — I don’t know the date yet. But thank goodness I DO know now what happens in Chapter 18!

Happy Reading!

Writing Wednesday — a day early!

When I was learning to write — well, I still am — I devoured books on writing and editing. But the one I went back to over and over was Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, ed. by Sue Grafton with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman (Writer’s Digest Books, 2002).

And now there’s a new reliable: How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook by Mystery Writers of America , ed. by Lee Child with Laurie R. King (April 27, Scribner). If you write mystery or crime fiction, in any subgenre, you need this book. I can say that because I contributed and I have actually seen the full ms. It’s out today. See the full list of topics and contributors on the MWA page, where you’ll also find links to the major retailers. Or ask your local indie.

The moment you have it in your hands, you’ll be smarter already. Pinkie swear.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”

Metal sculpture, Michael Jones (photo by the author)

– Scott Adams, cartoonist and creator of “Dilbert,” quoted by Adam Grant in Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016)

We are so hard on ourselves as artists. But without the courage to bend the metal a different way, toss a rhyme into a line in a novel, deliberately tweak a well-known quote in a bit of dialogue, or take a melody up instead of down, we would never create anything new. We would never truly create.

Celebrating Bitterroot Lake — upcoming events and recent guest blog posts

Ganesh, reading (photo by Edith Maxwell)

Well. Bitterroot Lake is out in the world. Readers and friends have sent me pictures of their copies, paired with coffee, wine, or a curious kitten, or of the book on bookstore shelves. I adore those sightings in the wild—if you post one on Facebook, make sure to tag me so we can all join in the fun.

Just one event to mention this week. Tuesday, April 20, at 7 pm Mountain, I’ll be joining the mystery readers at the North Lake County Library in Polson, MT, by Zoom. Call or email the library for the link. The staff and readers there are great fun and I know we’ll have a lively conversation.

This past week, I was the guest at several blogs, talking about inspiration for the book, the writing process, and a few things I learned along the way.

At my friend Clea Simon’s blog, I talked about the influence of a book I read more than 35 years ago, “. . . And Ladies of the Club” by Helen Hooven Santmyer, a loving (and long!) illustration of the crucial connections women forged in small towns of the past.

I visited with my friends at Chicks on the Case, writing about “If A Tree Falls”—how real life influences story events and the writing process.

At the Jungle Red Writers, I revealed “Five Amazing Things Alicia Beckman Learned While Writing Bitterroot Lake.” With pictures!

My friend Dru Ann Love, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Raven Award for her excellent blog and reviews, featured my main character, Sarah McCaskill Carter, in her “Day in the Life” series.

It was lovely to get out and about for a drop-in signing at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center Saturday afternoon and to visit with readers, new and old. BACC has signed books; Bookworks in Whitefish quickly sold out of the signed copies but will have new stock shortly, as will the Bookshelf in Kalispell.

Happy reading!

Writing Wednesday — Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law

If you’re a member of Sisters in Crime — and if not, what are you waiting for? — you may have watched the webinar I gave in October 2020 called Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law. (Members can watch it free in the archives.) Or you might have heard me talk on the subject at the Writers’ Police Academy, Colorado Gold conference, or Flathead River Writers’ Conference. It’s an important subject and one I enjoy discussing.

But when I read the third book in a few months in which a character is arrested and immediately given Miranda warnings, I realized it might be time for a refresher. Herewith, a repeat of an article I wrote for The Writer (September 2013). (And if you want more details on using the law in your fiction, check out my guide for writers, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011). Pay close attention — especially to the section on Miranda warnings.

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

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.

Launch Day for Bitterroot Lake!

You know how you know a particular event is going to happen—say, your wedding day or a big trip—but it’s so far away, it doesn’t seem real, and then, all of a sudden, here it is?

Bitterroot Lake

That’s what launching a book is like.

Today, please welcome Bitterroot Lake, by my other self, Alicia Beckman. It’s out today in hardcover, ebook, and audio (narrated by the amazing Linda Jones). 

When a young widow returns to her family’s lakeside Montana lodge in search of solace, murder forces her to reconnect with estranged friends and confront everything she thought she knew about the tragic accident twenty-five years ago that tore them apart. 

I want to acknowledge that this is still a difficult time, a time of loss and grief for so many, and it feels a little strange to be celebrating a book launch. And yet, we are all readers here and we know what comfort books have brought us this past year.

I hope a few hours in an imaginary lodge on an imaginary lake outside an imaginary town in NW Montana will bring you some much-needed pleasure.

And a bit of armchair travel is always a welcome break. 

I’ve long wanted to write a book focused on women’s friendships—although if you read my Spice Shop mysteries, you know female friendships are central to the books, especially The Solace of Bay Leaves. And the historic lodges of western Montana, public and private, have fascinated me since I first set tender foot in them as a young girl. I’m sure I’m not alone in believing that places convey emotions, and that houses and the woods sometimes talk to us. All that and more come together on these pages. 

If you’d like to see some of the images that inspired me, take a peek at my Pinterest board, Life at Bitterroot Lake. 

Whether you’re part of a book club or read solo, I hope you’ll find some food for thought on the For Book Clubs page of my website. 

Thank goodness libraries, booksellers, and community groups around the region are welcoming authors and readers to their virtual spaces. I’ll be doing quite a few online events this spring, by myself and with other authors, to celebrate the launch of Bitterroot Lake. The full schedule is on my website.

And today, I’ll be posting several short videos, taking you behind the scenes on launch day, on my Facebook Author page, going live at 5 pm Mtn / 7pm E, when I’ll toast you all with the ritual pink champagne and give you a peek at my office!

It is a bit unnerving to send a book out into the world. Any book or story, but especially something new. A piece of ourselves goes out with every project. All I can do is sit here and wave, and wish it well, and hope you love it the way I do. Let me know, and if you like it, tell your friends. 

My thanks, as always, for joining me on this writing journey. 

From my heart,
Leslie 

PRAISE FOR BITTERROOT LAKE 

“A complex, richly imagined, atmospheric mystery,  Bitterroot Lake kept me guessing whodunit until the very end.”
—A. J. Banner, #1 bestselling author of The Good Neighbor

Atmospheric, character-driven, and truly absorbing, Bitterroot Lake is crime fiction at its finest.
—Christine Carbo, award-winning, best-selling author of the Glacier Mystery Series

Bitterroot Lake is a twisty, haunting thriller propelled by a delicious hint of otherworldliness. It’s a book that’s both an expert mystery and an affirmation of love and family. I was absolutely enthralled.”
—Emily Carpenter, bestselling author of Burying the Honeysuckle Girls

“With a rich sense of place and a deft handling of fractured relationships, the pull of the past, and the pain of new grief, Alicia Beckman weaves a satisfying tale of secrets and lies eating away under the surface of happy families and close-knit small towns. And a touch of magic too!”
—Catriona McPherson, Edgar-nominated author of Strangers at the Gate

“Beckman paints a gorgeous picture of an idyllic small town. With some paranormal aspects, secrets past and present, and a multitude of murder suspects, this suspense debut is sure to attract readers.”
—Library Journal