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The Transition from Legal to Fiction Writing: Two Lost Boys by L.F. Robertson

Article by L.F. Robertson ©.
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Fiction writers often come from careers that involve writing of other types.  They may be newspaper reporters, doctors, police detectives, advertising copy writers, college professors.  Many writers of legal thrillers are lawyers or psychologists.  I began writing my first novel, Two Lost Boys, well into a long career as an appellate lawyer.

I write for a living – sometimes hundreds of pages in a year, of legal briefs, motions, research memoranda, and so forth – and edit the work of other lawyers.  I work in death penalty appeals, in which an opening brief can easily run to three or four hundred pages, a project similar in scope to writing a book.

The writing and editing I’ve done has taught me valuable skills: from how to organize a scattered set of facts into a coherent narrative that also advocates for the result I want, to how to make a legal argument as clearly and concisely as the law permits. We are bound, professionally, to be faithful to the record of the case being appealed; we can’t pretend uncomfortable facts and findings don’t exist.  But even with those limitations, good lawyers find ways to get their points across, by how they tell the story of the case, what facts they choose to emphasize, the careful choice of descriptive words and phrases.  The best appellate lawyers are masters of persuasion; their legal arguments are lucid and focused, and they’re skilled at marshaling the facts in the record to support their position. That said, legal writing is bound by the constraints of litigation, and options for being creative are limited.  It’s perhaps a bit like driftwood sculpture, where the artist creates a work within the existing shape of the medium.

In my legal work, I am a professional, writing for other professionals.  My opposing counsel and the judges who decide my cases are all lawyers, and that audience, trained in the conventions of legal writing, expects a certain level of formality in my presentation.  The transition to the wide open spaces of fiction writing was a bit like being in a cage from which the bars are suddenly removed.  Here I was, free to go.  But where?

It took awhile before I acclimatized to the fact that when I was writing fiction I had really been released from the forms required in writing for the law, and it took time to learn to reset my thinking and approach.  The first few drafts I wrote of short stories were articulate and clearly written, but my partner, a far more experienced writer, told me they lacked the spark of dramatic tension.  I was good with words and description, it seemed, and years of listening to clients and witnesses had given me an ear for dialogue, but I needed to learn to create forward movement and the feeling of suspense that compels the reader to turn the page to find out what happens next.  Sometimes it was as simple as choosing the right sentence to end a chapter.  Other times it involved a calculation of what to reveal, and when.  These are skills you can learn, and I had not only to learn them, but learn when and how to use them, to marry technique and art.

I’ve always been a reader, but where I used to read fiction just to enjoy the effect, the journey in a different reality created by a good novel, I now found myself reading consciously to see how the effect was created, the devices writers use to keep me immersed in the story and wanting to follow it from chapter to chapter.

Over time I grew more comfortable with the idea that the story I wrote, and the facts in it, weren’t preordained but could be made up as I chose, and that I had a larger and more colorful palette of words, phrases, and literary devices at my disposal.  I began ranging more freely, watching where my characters were taking themselves and me, painting scenes, feeling the emotional weight of the story and the flow and music of the words on the page.

Legal writing and fiction writing both require a combination of intellectual and creative effort, but the balance for each is different.  Fiction writing is more difficult because less is given you to begin with.  You have to explore your conscious and unconscious mind and the world around you, scavenging the raw material of your story from what you see and experience.  It’s a much more disorganized process than shaping the material of an existing case into an effective piece of advocacy.  But both genres of writing insist on integrity.  In legal writing, it’s the integrity of your word, that you can be trusted not to mislead your audience about what the truth is.  In fiction writing, the integrity is faithfulness to the truth of the world and the characters you have created.

It all takes getting used to. An American politician, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said, “Every man is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  In the world of reality, Moynihan was right.  But one of the exhilarating discoveries of fiction writing is that, with a certain amount of care, you can have both.

(c) L.F. Robertson

About Two Lost Boys:

Janet Moodie has spent years as a death row appeals attorney. Over-worked, underpaid, and recently widowed, she’s had her fill of hopeless cases, and is determined that this will be her last. Her client is Marion ‘Andy’ Hardy, convicted fifteen years ago along with his brother Emory of kidnapping, rape and murder of two prostitutes, but Janet discovers a series of errors made by his previous lawyers. Andy may well be guilty of something, but what?

“Scott Turow and John Grisham had better look to their laurels. There’s a new writer of legal thrillers in town, and her debut novel, Two Lost Boys, is going to win her a seat at the table.” Richard A. Lupoff, author of the Lindsey and Plum mystery series.

“The author’s work as a defense attorney handling death penalty cases brings authenticity to an exciting debut that focuses on providing grist for the slow-moving wheels of the criminal justice system.” – Kirkus Reviews

Order your copy online here.

L.F. Robertson is a practising defense attorney who for the last two decades has handled only death penalty appeals. Linda is the co-author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Unsolved Mysteries, and a contributor to the forensic handbooks How to Try a Murder and Irrefutable Evidence. She has had short stories published in the anthologies My Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: the Hidden Years and Sherlock Holmes: The American Years.