From writing briefs to best sellers?

Issue June 2010 By Christina P. O'Neill

One might think that after a day spent organizing facts and events and creating narratives intended to enlighten and persuade, attorneys would want to put the pen down.


Interestingly, not all lawyers who are writing fiction and nonfiction books independent of their chosen profession are trying to become the next John Grisham or Scott Turow. Those who write fiction and true-crime novels are possessed by the basic human urge to tell a story. Others delve into scholarly or historical themes that have relevance to today's crucial issues, such as civil rights and the treatment of detainees.

Chapter 1: That's my story and I'm sticking to it

"Listening to other people tell their stories is a critical part of being a lawyer and probably strengthens a writer's ability to allow fictional characters to tell theirs," says Iris Gomez, who, after publishing poetry, had her first novel, Try to Remember debut last month. "Ordinary storytelling is so much more interesting, though it may not be very linear."

"You'd be surprised as a writer, how many people are willing to be interviewed," says Margaret McLean, who teaches business law and constitutional law at Boston College and whose fictional métier is courtroom drama. She also serves as president of the Mystery Writers of America New England branch. "Bad guys sitting in prison, lawyers who work with detainees. And this person will help you, and they can give you 20 other names. People want their stories out."

"I don't think I would have tackled writing a novel if I hadn't spent a decade as a lawyer before I started," says attorney-novelist David Hosp. "Particularly as a junior trial lawyer in a large firm, most of what you do is write. The people who are judging your writing expect your work product to be flawless. As a result, the mechanics of writing became second nature."

Crime novelist Raffi Yessayan formerly served as chief prosecutor in charge of the Suffolk County District Attorney's office gang unit. "A lot of work was drug and gun cases, [where] you can send people to jail for a long time," he says. "When you get a guy caught up on a serious drug case, a lot of times they want to deal. They also help solve other crimes."

Attorney Michael Fredrickson had always wanted to write. "In all candor, I fully expected I would fail," he says, but he took the plunge anyway. He at first doubted his ability to translate his solid capabilities as a legal writer into good dialogue. Once he established a creative outlet, he says, his legal writing became "less flamboyant" because he had a creative outlet. "The wonderful thing about writing fiction is you can let pieces of your character loose," he says. He's now working on his fourth book.

Chapter 2: The first draft is the hardest

Wendy Sibbison is redrafting her first novel, trying to whittle down its 75,000 words. As an appellate lawyer, she does a lot of writing. She makes an effort to work on fiction on days she is not writing appellate briefs. "The two forms of writing are very different, as well as the creative process in each form," she says.

Online reviewers complain recurringly that novels by lawyers have too many characters, too much detail. "Lawyers want to include everyone," Boston College's McLean says. "Less is more, simpler is better." She has the somewhat unique experience of adapting her first book to the stage and screen, for which she had to whittle the number of characters down. The fewer the characters, she says, the stronger the remaining ones must become.

Yessayan's agent panned an early draft of his second book, 2 in the Hat, (which last month broke the top 10 best seller list of The Boston Globe). "He said, 'You're writing like a lawyer. You've got to stop.' … One of the problems when you write like a lawyer is you try to cover all your bases. You don't want to do that in a book - to bore the reader with repetition," he says. "When writing fiction, you've got to take off that lawyer hat."

"To me, there are similarities, in that litigating a case very much involves the art of telling a story," says David Hosp, author of Among Thieves, a novel based on the art theft at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum 20 years ago. "You have to research the facts, develop the characters, and (within the bounds of avoiding deception) tell your client's story in the most compelling way so the judge or jury connects with your client and becomes invested. The writing style is very different, and obviously, when writing fiction, there are liberties you can take that are not available in working as a lawyer."

He adds, "In those instances where I have tried to write characters based on real people, it's been a mess because I start to try to justify their actions, or I try to be 'fair' to the real life person. It never works for me. If one of my characters needs to do a bad thing, I want to allow them do it without feeling guilty about it. The only exception so far is Whitey Bulger."
On the nonfiction front, Christian Samito started his first book while he was a senior at the College of the Holy Cross, finishing it in law school. He's been writing ever since. "My goal is to hook my reader and get him or her to engage with what I'm trying to say and, hopefully, think about and consider my arguments and evidence," he says.

Chapter 3: One for the history books

Nonfiction and historical authors seek to set the record straight, to bring closure after a life-changing event, to unearth previously forgotten material, and to shed new light on the mindset of another era.

Robert A. Shaines was a 23-year-old Air Force lawyer in 1953 during the Korean War when he represented an officer in a military court martial in connection with the killing of an Asian civilian within the military encampment. The officer was convicted of murder, but served a greatly reduced sentence and went back to civilian life.

"None of us in the military knew what the hell was going on. Just that we were fighting the communists," he says. He had intended to make the Air Force his career, but instead voluntarily left the service after the case was concluded (although he remained in the active reserve for many years). Years later, he recalls, the prosecutor in the case came to him to apologize, saying that he had felt his own career was in jeopardy if he didn't get a conviction.

Shaines says the need for closure has intensified with time. In the 20 years since he started the book, many of the sources have died. The book's publication will also coincide with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report due out this July. It will outline some of the events surrounding the Korean War - the genocide of 1.5 million people accused of being leftist sympathizers prior to and after the U.S. installation of the government of Syngman Rhee, and numerous mass graves, identified by the commission. Emblematic of political and ethnic tensions was the name given to the unknown Asian civilian who was murdered. The "John Doe" name created for him for pleading purposes was Bang Soon Kil.

Chapter 4: The past is prologue

Samito reaches further back into history. The author of six nonfiction books about the Civil War, he uses a wide variety of sources - letters, newspapers, congressional records and court-reporting transcripts in longhand. His most recent book focuses on the civil rights of Irish and African-American soldiers in that war. In studying the courts-martial of black soldiers, he discovered that they received what he calls "an amazing amount of due process," even in an era in which mutiny was punishable by death.

In one particularly outstanding case, a black private warned a white captain of mutiny brewing and said if the incipient insurrection was not put down, there would be hell to pay. The captain interpreted this as a threat and brought the black officer up on court-martial - but the defense prevailed. In another mutiny case, a black soldier was exonerated - imprisoned, but not executed - because the cause of the mutiny was discontent over unequal pay.

Chapter 5: Bahston as a charactah

The city of Boston is prominent as a character for many authors, in both fiction and nonfiction. Crime novelist Yessayan grew up in Boston's neighborhoods, wrote an honors thesis on Boston, and includes a bit of urban history education in his second book. "It's too good of a city not to use as a character," he says. "There's just so much out there, that you wouldn't run out."

Whitey Bulger and casinos have cameo appearances in several attorneys' books. In Brian Goodwin's most recent book, Whitey has disappeared from Boston, and the fictional protagonist, a transplanted mob cop from Buffalo, steps into the vacuum created in the New England mob scene. "I like doing factual fiction, based on actual events," Goodwin says.

His protagonist also tries to bring a legal casino to Boston. Fiction author McLean also imports real-life dilemmas. Her next book, an arson murder case, which brings in the mortgage crisis, casinos and the governor, is due out in May. "I wish it was coming out in time for the election," she says.

For historians like Samito, Boston history is prominent. Boston's African-American population served in the Civil War in proportions that far outweighed their percentage of the population. Boston also had a large Irish-American population by then, the result of the 1840 potato famine in their home country. The Ninth Massachusetts unit was composed mainly of Boston Irish-Americans.

True-crime novelist Timothy Burke also evokes a strong sense of place, whether it's the Combat Zone or a deserted area in North Andover where assaults and murders are believed to have taken place.

Chapter 6: Killer app

Burke's account follows a chronological pattern documented by police reports, grand jury minutes and trial transcripts. In and of themselves, they tell the story, he says, but "it's really incumbent upon the author to bring it to life." Of Paradiso, the real-life convicted murderer at the heart of The Paradiso Files, he says, "There's a definite logical pattern to his actions, and he was obviously operating under what psychologists describe as repetition compulsion." Burke's ability to translate interpersonal relationships into a few crisp lines of exposition and dialogue keeps the story moving, and often provides much-needed comic relief, as well.

What fiction readers want, says Yessayan, is a really good killer - one who interests people - and scares them. "I didn't want to create a killer that someone could copy." As a prosecutor, he says, he didn't want to glorify violence against society's most vulnerable people. "As much as I could, I kept the violence off the page," he says. The feedback from the book club readers he's spoken to is that violence is not scary - it's the victim's not knowing that someone is watching them and/or stalking them.

Chapter 7: Telling your own story and making a difference

Burke says the Essex County DA has reopened three cold murder cases based on links that Burke describes in his book.

Samito notes that the topic of citizenship has relevance today as it remains contested ground both legally and culturally.

McLean's first book, Under Oath, has morphed into a play and a screenplay. "You learn a lot from the first book," she says. "You write about what you know." The classroom plays an important part in her work - this past semester, she had almost 100 students. "I bring stuff from law class right into the book," she notes, and foresees the time when she will be able to produce a book every year.

Sibbison's novel-in-progress examines a political and social culture that was quite different than that which we take for granted today. She says she hopes that if it is published, "it will remind people of those particular dark ages in the not-so-distant past."

Gomez bases her novel on her own experience and that of other women she has known who have tried to balance the expectations of family and society at large, particularly when crisis puts loyalty to the test. "Each one of us has some kind of story to tell. I hope readers of my novel will find in it some inspiration to tell or invent their own," she says.