10 Things to Remember When Writing a Legal Thriller

“Lawyers can make brilliant heroes,” as author Meg Gardiner pointed out in her ThrillerFest panel “Boxers or Briefs? Making Your Attorney Stand Out.” With that in mind, here are some lessons we drew from the panelists to help you sharpen your protagonist, and bring your legal thriller to life for readers.

1. Take full advantage of your attorney’s profession.

Characters such as investigators look into situations; they either know what’s going on or they don’t. “Lawyers make choices and have tactical advantages that they can take or forgo in the courtroom, and that gives you a lot of opportunity to make them colorful or pivotal in a story in a way that an investigator can’t be.”

–Al Giannini

2. Let your attorney mess up.

“Lawyers tend to be in the center of situations. … They’re given an awful lot of opportunity to make mistakes, and they do. This too can drive a narrative.”

–Walter Walker

3. Stress stress.

“As lawyers we see people under stress, and stress of course drives a story. It causes people to say and do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. The stress can occur in the initial crime, it can occur in the buildup to the trial, and it certainly occurs in the trial itself.”

–Walter Walker

4. Know the law.

“Get the law right the first time. You’d be amazed how many people don’t do that. … The law can be horribly complicated, and the most important thing is to simplify it for people. … If you don’t get the law right, you’ve lost credibility.”

–John Sheldon

5. Don’t create an infallible character.

The strategy: “You have a lawyer who is not necessarily as confident as he or she should be.” Let the reader see the lawyer’s potential greatness/skills between the lines throughout the book. Then, use those skills to give your lawyer a chance at redemption in a case.

–Walter Walker

 6. Rip from the headlines for ideas.

Consider starting with a trial everyone has heard of, and then ask, “What if?”

–Walter Walker

7. Consider all the viewpoints at your disposal.

The defendant. The plaintiff. The child of a victim. The court reporter. The security.

–John Sheldon

8. Know your vocab.

Different jurisdictions use different terms. One element of the law can be termed something else in another county. “You’ve got to find what your jurisdiction is, real or mythological. You pick one, and stick to it.”

–John Lescroart

9. When in doubt about a fact or a piece of research, pick up the phone.

“There are enough friendly people in this business that you can get the answer.”

–Linda Fairstein

10. Avoid getting lost in technical details.

“Know more than you show.”

–Meg Gardiner

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