Writing Wednesday — 10 Favorite Novels About the Law

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

This month I’m celebrating the publication of my first book, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Two weeks ago, I shared the backstory of how the book came about and linked to my list of Common Mistakes Writers Make About the Law, first published in The Writer in September 2013. 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?

Celebrating Books, Crooks & Counselors!

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

Ten years ago today, my first book was published: Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. I actually first saw it in late September, at a display inches inside the book dealers’ room at Bouchercon, the international mystery convention, held that year in St. Louis. Screaming may have been involved.

The book had its origins in my dual life as lawyer and fiction writer. Other writers often asked me questions about the law: How can my character get a search warrant? Can this character inherit from that one? Who is Miranda and why are are we always warning her? So I created 160 Q&A covering 12 topics from Trial and Error to Research and References — and yes, the book proposal included the whole darn list, though they changed a bit as I wrote and under the probing of my editor, Kent Sorsky. (He’s responsible for me expanding a couple of questions about judges into a full-fledged section of the book.)

I was beyond thrilled when BCC, as I call it, won the Agatha Award the next year for Best Nonfiction, over books about Sherlock and Agatha and Sookie! The award meant I’d correctly identified a niche and filled it. Writers, like lawyers, live and die on our judgment, and that stamp of approval of mine kept me committed to writing my own mysteries, while continuing to help other writers get the facts about law straight in their stories.

leslie budewitz agatha award winner

And even though the book is ten years old now, it’s still pretty darn relevant, IMO!

For years now, I’ve been talking to writers’ groups about common mistakes writers make about the law. Here’s my list, as originally published in The Writer magazine in 2013, along with a few resources for getting it right. (Sisters in Crime members can watch my webinar in the online archives. And if you’d like me to speak to your writing group, drop me a line!)

Writing Wednesday — death investigations

Once upon a time, I wrote a book called Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books, 2011), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. One section discussed medical examiners and coroners, the two types of death investigation in the U.S. Since I had to look up a few details of Washington State’s system recently, I thought you might need a refresher, too.

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

Remember that terms and laws vary state by state. Whether your state uses a coroner, an ME, or a mix of the two, as Washington does, the role is the same: to investigate deaths as required by state law. As the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners says: “Coroners and medical examiners use the same forensic death scene investigation process,  forensic autopsies, toxicological testing and decedent histories to determine the cause and manner of death, resulting in consistent, professional and high quality death investigations.

Cause and manner. That’s their focus. In other words, what was the medical cause of death, and was it natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, undetermined, or pending. This summary from Washington’s Snohomish County website gives more detail on the five manners of death and specific considerations for each. Remember that particulars in your story state may vary. Coroners and ME’s don’t investigate the who and why—that’s up to law enforcement, whether it’s local police, a sheriff’s department, or a federal agency.

Coroners may be elected or appointed. In some states, they are independent, while in others, they are part of the country sheriff’s department. Medical examiners are typically medical doctors appointed to the position. Autopsies may be done within the department or done by forensic pathologists employed by a local hospital. Some states, like Montana, have a combined system where the sheriff is also the coroner, although a deputy may take on the primary responsibility, while autopsies and forensic examination are done by pathologists and forensics examiners at the state Crime Lab. How can you find out more about your story state’s system? Start here, with the CDC’s summary of Coroner/Medical Examiner Systems, by State; it also provides links to info for each state. The site also provides additional info that will intrigue crime writers. You might also glean useful details from the National Association of Medical Examiners website, including how to become a medical examiner, the violent death reporting system, and more.

Finally, the U.S. Department of Justice publishes this guide, Death Investigation: A Guide for the Scene Investigator, full of legal and other details for dealing with the body, the scene, medical history, and more.

Writing Wednesday

Since last week was the launch of my tenth novel, The Solace of Bay Leaves, the 5th Spice Shop mystery, I figured it might be good, in talking about favorite references, to mention my first book, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011). When I first joined authors’ groups, other writers asked me questions about the law—how would my detective get a search warrant, can this character inherit from that one, who is Miranda and why are we always warning her? Like DP Lyle’s Murder and Mayhem which I highlighted a couple of weeks ago, it’s aimed at mystery writers, but it’s equally useful for nonfiction writers, including journalists. 160 questions and answers in a dozen topics, illustrated with examples from real-life cases, including some of my own, and books and movies.

And yes, I still pull my own copy off the shelf now and then to remind myself of the facts about the law. Because even though it’s fiction, we owe our readers the truth.

By the way, Books and Crooks, as it’s known in my house, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Such a special moment, because it told me I’d correctly identified a need and filled it. Though it’s been out several years, it is still largely accurate, though there have been quite a few developments in the law of the death penalty since then. Use this blog’s search function for some updates.

Writing Wednesday — our old reliables

Murder and Mayhem, with moose bookmark, lovingly crafted by my mother!

We’ve all got a collection of books we pull off the shelves over and over, references we rely on to help us find the right word, get the legal or medical details right, or figure out how to ramp up the emotional content of a scene. (“I said emotional content. Not anger,” as Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon.) Over the next few weeks, I’m going to highlight a few of mine. If you’ve got a favorite to recommend, please chime in in the comments.

Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers by D.P. Lyle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003). A medical doctor who writes thrillers, TV tie-in novels with a medical theme, and books on forensics, Lyle also writes the “Forensic Files” column for the Mystery Writers of America answering questions for writers of both contemporary and historical crime novels. His blog, The Crime Fiction Writer’s Blog, is another terrific resource, often featuring fascinating guest bloggers from the worlds of medicine and science.

My copy of Murder and Mayhem barely fits in its slot on the shelf anymore, stuffed with articles and emails from Doug that I’ve printed out. When you need to know what drugs might cause cardiac arrest or what happens to body and brain when one character pushes another down the stairs or off a cliff, this is THE book.

And columns, book, and author were a big inspiration for me in writing my first book, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011), a book that should be on YOUR shelves!

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)

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story — guest Lisa Preston

Orchids coverGather round, children, as we welcome Lisa Preston to the blog. A veteran police officer and EMT, as well as a horse trainer and backcountry adventurer, she’s the author of the new novel ORCHIDS AND STONE. (Read more about Lisa, below.) Today, she’s sharing a cop’s perspective on Miranda warnings, and how you can use them to strengthen your story without breaking the law. 

Miranda Magic: Strengthening Your Story

I once read (part) of a novel by a best-selling author in which a character pleads guilty to murder then the rest of the plot develops over the succeeding criminal trial. Of course, this is not at all what would happen; there would not even be a trial. Only those who plead not guilty receive criminal trials.

Most legal goofs are not so egregious and will likely be missed by many readers, but the writer will lose credibility with readers who roll their eyes when a writer bends the legal system too far for the reader to ride along. As a retired cop, I am one of those readers who doesn’t tolerate fiction with significant goofs in legal procedure. As a writer, I was amused when an editor thought the police officer who had arrested my protagonist should have Mirandized her. This brings me to the two major misunderstandings I see writers struggle with on Miranda warnings.

[LAB: Just because the cops turn the proper noun Miranda into a verb by adding -ize does not mean you may do so in any other context. We shall tolerate this one grammatical misuse only!]

First, Miranda [LAB: Named for the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in Miranda v. Arizona) applies to custodial interviews. The cliché scene of a cop snarling Miranda warnings the minute the suspect is handcuffed is not the way police Mirandize. To do so would create an adversarial approach, lessening the chances of the subject being cooperative. Moreover, there’s no reason to Mirandize if there’s no interview.

Whether or not an interview is custodial for the purposes of determining if Miranda warnings are required is not as straightforward as asking whether or not the person is under arrest. It’s possible to not be under arrest, yet be in custody. Here is the 3-pronged test to establish whether or not the interview was custodial:

∙ What did the officer believe (about whether or not the subject was free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject in the back of a patrol car (from which he could not let himself out)? The officer knows that person is not really free to leave at any time; the interview is custodial and Miranda is required.

∙ What did the interviewee believe (about whether or not he was free to leave at any time)? Was the interviewee in a police station behind locked doors? If he was escorted deep within the building and doesn’t feel free to leave, Miranda is required.

∙ What would a reasonable person believe (about whether or not a person in that situation would feel free to leave at any time)? Was the interview subject first told by the police officer to sit down on the park bench? Maybe the officer is standing over the person now, asking questions. A reasonable person could find that custodial.

Second, there’s nothing magic about a police officer giving the Miranda warning; the key is that the interview subject must waive Miranda rights before being questioned. The 3-prong test for a clean waiver of the Miranda rights is a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiving of the right to not talk and to not have an attorney present. If the officer read Miranda but the interview subject never waived his rights, then anything learned in the interview could be suppressed or not admissible in court because there was no waiver.

Of course, a writer can use good information to develop a story in any direction. Want the cop to be incompetent? Have him scream Miranda at the arrestee, scaring the subject right out of talking to a cop with an aggressive attitude. Want the cop to be dirty? Have him bait the guy into talking then turn on a recorder and catch what he says without benefit of a Miranda advisement and waiver. Want good procedure? Follow good procedure. Use reliable resources to clarify the legal rules that apply to your fiction. Leslie’s guide, Books, Crooks and Counselors, is an excellent resource, one I recommend to all writers. For details that touch on all senses in a given police scenario, talk to officers who have been in similar situations. We’re happy to share experiences with writers who want to strengthen their stories.

LisaPreston_01With one semester to go in high school, Lisa Preston moved to Alaska and almost immediately began mountain climbing. To improve her first aid knowledge, she took an Emergency Medical Technician course, which included ride-alongs on the Fire Department’s Advanced Life Support ambulances. She moved to Oregon for training and was soon back in Alaska, pulling 24-hour shifts as a paramedic.

After a number of years, she transferred to the Police Department. Her second career started with the position of street officer and she still claims it is the most demanding job in law enforcement. Faced with a choice between K-9 and detectives (she’d trained protection and tracking dogs), she became a detective, working in the Vice unit  and later in Crimes Against Children, with a special assignment as a Hostage Negotiator. She went back to the street as a sergeant, and eventually returned to investigations, supervising Internal Affairs.

She teaches three writing workshops (The Query Class; The Right Rewrite; Ambulances, Badges and Courtrooms). She’s an ultrarunner and rides solo for long distance on her AKhal Teke horses, exploring in the backcountry.

Her publishing credits include nonfiction on the care and training of animals Her thriller, ORCHIDS AND STONE, will be released in trade paperback, e-book and audiobook in April 2016. Connect with her on her website, http://www.lisapreston.com 

My favorite writing books

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A reader spotted this photograph I’d posted of dictionaries and other references on my desk, and asked what books I think every writer should have. Besides Books, Crooks and Counselors, of course.

Language and style references:

A good dictionary and thesaurus, of course. In addition:

GarnerGarner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner (Oxford; 3d Ed, 2009) Many of us remember the old Fowler’s Modern English Usage. This is better—smart, American, and up-to-date, by a lexicographer who shies not away from opining.

Chicago Manual of Style, a recent edition. Most publishers rely on the CSM, and if you use it, you can’t be accused of serious stylistic errors, even if some publishers or individuals have other preferences.

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (various editions). The classic. Dated, maybe, but still a useful guide to many nuances of good writing.

The Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (2012) Readers read for emotion, but writers often use cliches and limited descriptions to show emotion in action. The lists of physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and more will help you deepen your writing and show the internal and external signs of emotion in stronger, fresher ways.

I also love the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, in part for its essays on language and word meanings, but it isn’t an essential.

You should have a decent guide to grammar, as well. Contrary to your grade school recollections, they need not be dull. What’s most fun is to read not a prescriptive guide, but a volume or two by writers who clearly love the language and have strong opinions about it. I loved Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose; any of her books will be a fun read.

I was recently reminded of the late William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; it’s a classic, geared towards nonfiction, but helpful to all serious writers. I hear tell that there’s an audio version, read by Zinsser, perhaps abridged, that a friend enjoyed tremendously.

Writers should love words and cultivate an interest in them. My favorite sources won’t necessarily be yours, but I do think any serious writer needs to spend time simply playing with words and reading writers who play with them. Read poetry. Listen closely to song lyrics. Heck, do the crossword puzzle and play along with Will Shortz, NPR’s Puzzle Master. It’s all words.

Writing Craft:

Lately, I’ve been diving into James Scott Bell’s craft books for writers, and highly recommend them. Plot & Structure (Writers Digest, 2004) is a detailed guide to structure, with excellent sections on plot problems, how to generate ideas, and more. It’s a book to use over and over. Write Your Novel from the Middle (Compendium, 2014) explores Bell’s observation that the best stories have a “mirror moment” or midpoint shift in context; he shows how both plotters and pansters can find that moment, and write to and from it. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue (Compendium, 2014) is another winner, and I’m eager to dive into his new book on voice.

The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel, both by Donald Maass (Writers Digest, 2009 and 2001), are classics every writer should reread regularly. I’ve just started his Writing the 21st Century Novel (2012), and love, love, love his exercises and suggestions for diving deeper into character and emotion. If you like his columns on Writer Unboxed, you’ll recognize the approach—much of that material is here.

For something totally different: Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (2007) is a slim volume I love for its lessons on meter and rhythm, on finding the right word and the exact meaning, and on learning to love working a line. I also enjoyed The Art of Description by poet Mark Doty.

Other faves:

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Write Away, by Elizabeth George. I took a week-long intensive writing workshop with her eons ago, and it changed my writing life.

Self-Editing for Writers, Renni Brown and Dave King

Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose

IMGP3435For Mystery Writers: 

Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure and Investigation  (Writers Digest, 2007)

DP Lyle, Murder & Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forenscis Questions for Mystery Writers The book that inspired me to write Books, Crooks & Counselors.

Adam Plantinga, 400 Things Cops Know (Linden/Quill Driver Books)

Inspiration:

tnWritesOfPassageYou know the usual suspects: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. And Steven Pressfield’s War of Art and other titles. A wonderful new entry is Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, ed. by Hank Phillippi Ryan, with essays by 60 members of Sisters in Crime, including me.

I find inspiration in reading a good writer. I hope you do, too.

More suggestions? Tell me in the comments.

Talking terminology: More on “not guilty”

Garner

Last week, I gave you part one of lexicographer and legal writing guru Bryan Garner‘s comments on the phrase “not guilty” and its common-but-improper substitute, “innocent.” Today, his rant on another common misuse of the phrase, the implication that that a jury’s verdict of acquittal is itself “beyond a reasonable doubt,” rather than a finding that the prosecution did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here’s what Garner says, in his daily usage blog.

“Not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

This phrasing is ambiguous. The standard by which a jury decides criminal charges is this: a defendant is guilty only if the evidence shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he or she committed the crime. Otherwise, the defendant is not guilty. Thus, we say that a defendant was not found “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

But it doesn’t follow that we should also say that a defendant was found *”not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Is that “not guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt)” or “not guilty-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt”? The latter idea makes more sense — e.g.: “The question is whether a judge can reach a contrary conclusion on the second charge — deciding that though a defendant was not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he nonetheless probably committed the crime.” “High Court’s Highhanded Decision,” Chicago Trib., 26 Jan. 1997, at 20.

Yet many readers will misconstrue the phrase. Thus, regardless of the writer’s intention, some will think of * “not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” as a strong vindication — rather than as the slight vindication it is (we, the jury, had the slightest bit of reasonable doubt, so we had to find the defendant not guilty). The writer might have gotten it right in the following sentence, but nonlawyers are likely to be misled: “When you know all the facts [of the O.J. Simpson case], you’ll see that the prosecutors failed to meet their burden of proof, and how, contrary to the court of public opinion, the jury arrived at their verdict of ‘not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.’ ” Patricia A. Jones, “Uncensored: Authors Answer Questions Left with Simpson Verdict,” Tulsa World, 1 Dec. 1996, at G5.

If somebody is found not guilty, say “not guilty.” Omit the standard (“beyond a reasonable doubt”) to prevent a miscue.”

For more on reasonable doubt and how to recognize one, read the Q&A “I know the prosecution must prove a criminal defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but what is reasonable doubt?” in my guide for writers, BOOKS, CROOKS AND COUNSELORS: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver Books), winner of the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.

Party Time! Help me celebrate BUTTER OFF DEAD!

IMGP2970Time to celebrate! Join me for a launch party for BUTTER OFF DEAD, third in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, from 5-8 p.m., Friday, June 26, at Frame of Reference Gallery in Bigfork, as part of the 3d annual (!) “Bigfork in Paint and Print” exhibit. Owner Derek Vandeberg has put together another terrific show featuring new and familiar artists and their renditions of the sweet town and stunning region that inspire my “Jewel Bay, Montana.” And Chef Dan Solberg is providing the food—from the book!

From the cover of BUTTER OFF DEAD:  “As the national bestselling Food Lovers’ Village mysteries continue, the merchants of Jewel Bay, Montana try to heat up chilly winter business with a new film festival. But their plans are sent reeling when a dangerous killer dims the lights on a local mover and shaker …

In an attempt to woo tourists to Jewel Bay and cheer up the townies, Erin Murphy, manager of the specialty local foods market known as the Merc, is organizing the First Annual Food Lovers’ Film Festival, popping with classic foodie flicks and local twists on favorite movie treats. But when her partner in planning, painter Christine Vandeberg, is found dead only days before the curtain rises, Erin suspects someone is attempting to stop the films from rolling.

To make matters worse, Nick—Erin’s brother and Christine’s beau—has top billing on the suspect list. Convinced her brother is innocent and determined that the show must go on, Erin must find who’s really to blame before Nick gets arrested or the festival gets shut down. And as the anniversary of Erin’s father’s death in a still-unsolved hit-and-run approaches, her own beau isn’t so keen on her leading role.

But the closer Erin gets to shining a spotlight on the killer, the more likely it becomes that she’ll be the next person cut from the program…”

Yes, THAT Christine Vandeberg! BUTTER‘s official release date is July 7, but my publisher, Penguin Random House, has given me permission to sell physical copies early this one night only. (Sorry, no e-books until July 7.)

And if you’re worried about getting to both the book launch and the Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival concert that same evening, don’t fret (pun intended) — I’ll be at the gallery early, with books, food, and wine!