Writing Wednesday — Location Scouting

Leslie’s desk

Nothing like boots – or sandals or tennies – on the ground.

I’m a very placed writer, and walking possible story locations, in person or in my mind, helps spark ideas. I’m at that point in the beginnings of a new novel, and fortunately, a good chunk of it is set close by, so I can check out locations I think might be important to the story. I can see what my character sees and begin to think “if he parked his RV in this campground, he’d want to be way at the end, away from other people.” That thought helps me flesh out what I know about him and his worldview and worries. Then I look out at the patch of river and begin to imagine ways it could be part of the story. I can see where a divorced dad might meet his teenage daughter for breakfast on Saturday mornings, and get a feel for their relationship. In a book where the conflict between the haves and have-nots is an important part of the back story, I can see how the grand historic home of one man, with its views of the river and the mountains, might grate on another man, who feels he can never get ahead no matter how hard he tries. Their sons go to the same school but go home to very different worlds. How will that play out?

I say a specific spot “might be important to the story,” because I don’t know. It’s early. The characters will tell me, as we take our journey together, whether they do in fact live in this house or another one. But by taking a look at the possibilities, I’m feeding my subconscious, the key to any kind of creative work.

Grab a friend if you can. My husband scouted an RV park with me. When my BFF visited, I dragged her to a town thirty miles away for breakfast (no serious hardship), then we prowled through a historic building together, walked a city park I’d never visited, and explored an old cemetery. Her questions about the town and neighborhoods prompted me to think about my characters in new ways. She saw things I might not have seen—how the trees would have grown and changed a view from when thirty years ago when the story conflict began, for example.

We’ll talk another time about using Google Maps, Facebook photos, and other online tools to ground-truth a story. Meanwhile, lace up your walking shoes, grab your phone or camera, and walk the mean streets with your story people.

Writing Wednesday — eavesdropping on our characters

Leslie’s desk

So there I was, sitting at the keyboard, making a few notes about the secondary protagonist in my fledgling WIP, a man in his late 50s, a wildlife biologist whose father was murdered when he was in college. And all of a sudden, I found myself transcribing a conversation only I could hear, between the man and his therapist. I didn’t know he had one — now that I’m further into the planning process, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t, and my subconscious invented one on the spot, to give me an ear on the man’s innermost thoughts. And in those few minutes, the character got a name and a broken marriage and a daughter and a lot of history I would not have discovered, or would have needed a lot more time and work to unearth, if I hadn’t been willing to listen to those voices.

Try it. Take your character out for coffee and scribble in your notebook what she might say, how the conversation would go, if she were sitting across the table from you instead of in your mind. What is she wearing? Did she dress with care or throw on her stained gardening clothes? Is she calm or fidgety? Talking slowly and deliberately or a mile a minute? How does she take her coffee and does she cradle the cup for warmth or let it grow cold? Does she care what you think? Is she sweet to the server or rude?

Maybe you and your character think by moving. Take a walk and speak your conversation into the recorder on your phone. And no, no one will care — they probably won’t notice, assuming you’re on the phone for real.

Imaginary friends. They truly are the heart of fiction.

Writing Wednesday — “There’s a video for that”

You may know this already — or not. People will post YouTube videos about almost anything. I just finished the 2022 Spice Shop mystery and when I wanted to know how the pandemic (“the P word,” as one character calls it, or “the time that must not be named”) affected Seattle’s Pike Place Market, I spent a Sunday morning watching YouTube videos. A vlogger (video blogger) who is rather boring so I won’t name him posts a video of himself walking through the Market the last Saturday of every month. Seeing the differences from February 2021 to June 2021 was really useful. Another vlogger focuses on downtown Seattle, including Pioneer Square, the CID — Chinatown International District, and South Lake Union. Yet another focuses on downtown coffee shops. Just go to YouTube and use the search function and you’ll be amazed — you name it, there’s a video for that!

Writing Wednesday — “Read What You Like”

In mid July, I participated in the “More Than Malice” online literary festival, created by the organizers of the annual Malice Domestic convention celebrating the traditional mystery as a way to bring readers together with authors for a conversation. Some of the authors usually attend “Malice,” as I do, while others don’t, because they write other types of mystery or crime fiction. My panel was moderated by BOLO blogger and reviewer Kristopher Zgorski and featured Carol Goodman, Rachel Howzell Hall, Wm. Kent Krueger, PJ Vernon, and me. What we have in common is that each of us writes in multiple subgenres — the list Kris read off was amazing, and amusing!

The conversation kicked off with a question about what we read — and alphabetical order put me first! Writers, I pointed out, don’t read like readers who don’t write. We’re always studying, noticing what an author does, how well it works, whether it fails and why and how could the problem have been solved or avoided. “Reading forensically,” Rachel called it. When we first start writing, this can take some of the joy out of reading. “Ruined for reading,” as Carol said.

But now, after thirteen published books, I realize that for me, the noticing has become part of the joy. I can both relish what I read and notice what insights it prompts for me, for my own work.

My co-panelists all agreed. There can be moments of jealousy — “premise envy,” as its sometimes called. (I felt that when I read Kent’s This Tender Land — oh, what a terrific story and lead character!) Envy of a fluidity with language, a comfort with metaphor and description, an ability to make a setting pop or set a mood that keeps us glued to the page long after we should turn out the light. Rachel glowed when she described a rare afternoon home alone, her day job work done, when she simply sat and read. And PJ talked about the importance of “cross-pollenization,” when you read, for example, a literary mystery like Kent’s and see a few things you can borrow for your suspense novel, or how an approach to portraying one underrepresented community can influence writing about another.

I also quoted a piece of advice from Elizabeth George, who is as great a teacher as she is a writer. She says “read up.” That is, read writers who are working at a level or in a style or genre you aspire to. While I try to follow that bit of wisdom, I’ve also discovered I can learn something from almost anything I read. And learning is part of the joy.

(The More Than Malice panel discussions were recorded and are available at the Malice website to conference registrants.)

Writing Wednesday — writing about different generations

A while back, I attended a video webinar sponsored by the Washington State Bar Association on bridging generational differences in the workplace. The theory was that boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z approach work differently, have different expectations about the work environment, and take a different approach to leadership.

While working on the next Spice Shop mystery, I pulled up the handout — and because I’m a Boomer, albeit a late one, I printed it out. :) Pepper’s employees range from 22 to past 60; she’s 43. Her friends in the Market are equally spread across the age categories. A major new character was 24. I wanted to understand the differences. Obviously, comfort with technology is one — Sandra and Vinny aren’t going to be 24/7 with their cell phones the way Reed and Jamie are. What else? Generally speaking, Boomers want to be recognized for their experience, want to be motivated to make a difference, and want to be part of a team — perfect for retail. Gen Xers prefer a casual atmosphere and a hands-off manager — works for me, as it gives Pepper lots of freedom to leave her shop on investigations! Milennials want a fun workplace, a positive contribution to the world, and both a challenge and flexibility. All those are easy traits to work with in creating, or discovering, our characters.

Then I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post by a sociologist challenging the use of these terms. Generational labels have “no basis in social reality,” Philip Cohen writes, and should be retired; they lead to stereotypes and caricatures. Donald Trump (born 1946) and Michelle Obama (born 1964) are both Boomers — and two more different people you could not find. That they were both born in a post-WW II population boom is pretty much coincidental. Sociologists and demographers recently sent a plea to the Pew Research Center, responsible for much of the generational labeling and research, to use alternative categories, and Cohen says the response has been encouraging. Cohen stresses that there are other ways to describe groups of people that are more useful, such as decades, or issues, like “2020 school kids.” There are so many more influences than simple generations, such as race, gender, home access to technology, and immigrant status. I’d add a urban/suburban/rural background, parental education, growing up in a religious or nonreligious family, and more.

We’re writing characters who can be characterized in specific ways, but must always remain individuals. Stereotypes are bad for fiction! In the WIP, for example, a brother and sister were raised apart — and oh, the differences! Calling one a Millennial and the other Gen X may be a good way to start, but that’s all it is.

BOTTOM LINE: Use categories like generational labels to start your character analysis, but go beyond them. Make your characters individuals, who may share common experiences with others their age, but are always influenced by so much more than when they were born.

Writing Wednesday — dressing your characters, part 2

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about using the way your characters dress to convey their work, their hobbies, and their personality, and how that differs with age and locale. But you can also use a piece of personal style for deeper purposes.

In Chai Another Day, my fourth Spice Shop mystery, Pepper encounters a woman who always dresses in black and wears beautiful cinnabar pendants. Turns out the woman, Melissa Kwan, began buying them for good luck after her young son became ill. The boy’s illness, and its effects on the family, twist her judgment and lead her to attack another woman, who Melissa sees as the beneficiary of her own misfortunes. When Melissa later comes after Pepper, the cord breaks and the pendant slides across the floor, catching just enough light for Pepper to see it and identify her attacker. It’s a symbol of all Melissa had hoped for and all she’s lost, in one shiny red object. But it’s good luck for Pepper, who then knows how she can get the upper hand and hope to survive.

Pack the objects that matter to your characters with meaning, and we’ll all be able to identify with them.

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.

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.

Writing Wednesday — dressing your characters

Once upon a time, we put on real clothes and went out into the world. Now a good chunk of us work from home in our torn jeans (and not fashionably torn), sweats, or yoga pants. Our characters, though, are still going about their business, running a Spice Shop in Seattle or a local foods grocer in Montana, and going all kinds of places. Which means that while I can grab the nearest thing on my closet shelf, I actually have to think about what they wear.

And because I live in a small town in western Montana, I don’t get to see the full range of clothing styles I could glimpse in just an hour sitting in the window of Starbucks on 5th Avenue in Seattle or nursing a cappuccino in a hip Missoula coffee house. When I do get out of town, I’m always looking, looking, looking. Turns out city lawyers don’t dress as formally as when I was a downtown Seattle lawyer—except when they do. There’s a lot wider range of styles and outfits these days.

Both physical magazines and catalogs and websites are a great source. Of course, you have to look beyond the companies you shop from. For Erin, my 32-year-old Montana girl, I browse Title 9, Athleta, REI, and other companies with an outdoor or “activewear” style. Her mother, Francesca, dresses from the pages of Soft Surroundings. For a special event, I’ve dressed characters from J. Peterman — take a look; the catalog copy itself is pretty wild. Pepper, who runs the Spice Shop in Pike Place Market, wears black yoga pants and T-shirts with her shop apron on workdays, but I let her go bright, bright, bright away from work, and on dry days, she loves to wear a pair of petal pink Mary Janes she splurged on in Assault & Pepper.

Bitterroot Lake

For Bitterroot Lake (coming April 13, written as Alicia Beckman), I thought about how different the four friends who are the focus of the story are. Sarah’s quite aware that her upscale Nordstrom look is right on par in her toney Seattle neighborhood, but a little out of place in Deer Park. Janine is a baker who’s showed up in town with only her work clothes. Sarah lends her clothes, but because of the tensions in their relationship, she’s self-conscious about it. Besides, everything’s too long. Nicole — Nic — is a lawyer whose workday wardrobe isn’t too different from the casual pants and fleece jackets she wears on her spur-of-the-moment, long-distance drive to Deer Park.

Dressing the men is even trickier. Around here, for men of a certain age — like the age of the man I’m married to — dressing up means a sport coat over Levi 501s and popping the dried mud off the cowboy boots. (Wear the ones with the nonskid soles this time of year.) Daily wear for the younger men tends toward cargo pants and T-shirts, although the “active wear” influence of the ski slopes and hiking trails is strong, too.

Think carefully about how your characters dress and what their clothing conveys about them. And do tell me some of your favorite tricks and sources for dressing your story people!

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.