Years ago I was a panelist at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books when an obviously perturbed woman stood up in the back of the huge UCLA auditorium and directed a question my way.
“How can you write legal procedurals when you’re not a lawyer?” she demanded.
“I sleep with one,” I responded.
My flippant answer brought the house down, but both the question and the response encompassed the truth about procedurals. Those who read them want the authenticity; those who write them better have a way to deliver.
I have always been a justice junky. Even before I met my husband I was fascinated by crime and read the genre voraciously. After we wed, I was privy to the rigors of law school, the tension of passing the bar, his experiences as an assistant U.S. attorney specializing in terrorism and organized crime, and, finally, his terms as both a criminal and civil court judge. My interest in his work was not the courteous curiosity of a wife but that of a writer passionate about the law as the basis for fictional entertainment. While my husband was my in-house research, his help could only be given in response to my direction. That meant, I had to know what questions to ask and how to use the information I received.
So how does a nonprofessional tackle a thriller based on a specific profession? Here are a few ideas:
Passion and curiosity are essential. Don’t read professional journals; devour them. Then write with the vigor and confidence of an expert. If the passion to understand the professional arena you are writing about isn’t there, your hard-core procedural readers will not take you seriously.
Grasp the profession’s standards: Sure, you can deviate from reality for creative purposes but don’t massacre the system. It is one thing to explain why a trial was fast-tracked, quite another to ask the reader to believe a murder trial will start two days after a character’s arrest.
Expand your knowledge to tangential procedures: In my best selling Witness Series Hannah Sheraton is a sixteen-year-old ward of the main character, attorney Josie Bates. In order to write about Hannah and Josie’s challenges, I had to understand how child protective services and children’s court worked. Other books in the series found me researching safety regulations, coroner’s procedures, will provisions, and fathers’ rights. A procedural works best when all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
Talk to a human or watch them work: If you’re not a lawyer, judge, cop or doctor (or married to one) find real world help. Courts and hospitals have public relations professionals to correspond with, most police departments have ride-along programs. Seek out college and university professors who can help you with forensics, anatomy or police studies. Go to a law school and ask to audit a class. Sit in a courtroom and watch a trial. Courts are open to the public. There you will get a bird’s eye view of how the system works and real life procedures will inspire fictional situations. Always acknowledge those who help you.
Understand jargon: Every profession has its own jargon. Listen closely, and use it sparingly and appropriately. Always explain the jargon if the meaning will not be immediately evident to the reader, but do so with a deft hand. Your book should not read like a primer.
Understand jurisdictions and designations: A bluff will not fool the procedural reader so understand the parameters of your fictional jurisdiction. There are differences between a federal crime and a state crime, an assistant U.S. attorney and a city attorney, courtroom etiquette and a breach. Utilizing this information will enhance your character and endear you to the procedural reader.
Walk a fine line: The procedural is a balancing act between systemic knowledge and artistic freedom. Too much procedure overshadows the story and slows the plot; too little and you are not competing in the genre.
Above all, remember that the thrill of a procedural stems from pitting your characters against a big, unwieldy, specialized system that is stacked against them. Understand the system and how your characters challenge it, and you will write a heck of a thrilling procedural.