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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.