The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers (Get It Write) is part of Behler Publications’ award-winning Get It Write Series.
Maybe you have a novel, story, screenplay, or other writing project that has a character involved with the court system. Or you’re a journalist writing a story about a court case. (Some law students and new lawyers have said they found it useful too, but we can’t vouch for its exam-worthiness).
When you write, sometimes you don’t know where your mind will take you. Maybe there’s a character in your head but you haven’t decided what to do with them. Or you have a plot that’s stuck. The law is a great device for writers. It can add an obstacle, a sexy twist, or a fun character to your story.
The law can also accidentally drift into your plot. Everything your characters touch during their day has something to do with the law. They wake up. Their cereal box has legal requirements about how contents are listed and what claims it can make.
They drive to work in a car that doesn’t explode when hit from behind because of civil lawyers. They go to work and have to be paid wages and can’t be subjected to discrimination.
When they make a purchase, the laws say what businesses have to disclose, what advertisements can say. Doctors have to treat them within acceptable practices or face a suit. Companies handling hazardous materials must dispose of them in particular ways.
When they get a divorce, your characters have to do it through the civil justice system. If a character dies, their will has to go through probate.
The claims characters can make in the law are almost infinite. Anything that can go wrong for them can end up in court. Whether in an accident, the workplace, a business, or in a relationship, the law can offer a slight plot twist or an entire plot. And if you’re a journalist, you probably have legal issues in your stories regularly.
The purpose of The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom is to touch on some of the highlights, to give you a starting point for your research or just trigger an idea for your story. This book is for every writer who doesn’t have a law degree, and even for those lawyer/writers who are writing outside their area of practice.
Most lawyers can’t read or watch stories about law because the factual errors are too frustrating. Gross misunderstanding of how the justice system works can take away from even the best plot. There are over 1.1 million lawyers in the United States, so alienating them with mistakes that are easily corrected can affect your sales and ratings.
I asked some lawyers and judges, including TV’s Judge Alex and bestselling author Brad Meltzer what really bugged them about how the civil justice system is portrayed in books and screenplays, and to talk about which ones really got it right. Their responses are quoted throughout this book to help you see the ways in which “getting it wrong” can alienate readers/viewers, whereas “getting it right” can enhance the story for your audience.
Tell us something about yourself.
You want the interesting stuff? Well, here goes. Feel free to cut any of this if it’s deadly dull.
I worked for two law firms before founding my own employment law practice, Donna M. Ballman, P.A., where I’ve practiced since 1990. I focused my writing on nonfiction for a number of years, publishing numerous articles on issues such as discrimination, sexual harassment, and employment law.
Over the years, my cases have been anything but dull. The then-mayor of Miami once accused me of trying to turn Jose Marti Park into Martin Luther King Park after I forced them to elect their commission members using districts so they would have black representation. I once set a drug dealer’s wife’s deposition back to back with his mistress’s in order to collect on a big judgment. He called the client begging them to call me off.
I once sued a mobster for sexual harassment. The client swears her husband got the Gambino family’s permission before they filed the lawsuit, but I have no way to verify this.
I met my husband in politics, and became involved by volunteering to do election law. I represented Bill Clinton as his Florida General Counsel for his first presidential campaign. When he was sued personally, I defended him, although the case lasted about ten minutes. During the campaign, I got to spend a day riding around with Hillary Clinton. I introduced Hillary to Marjory Stoneman Douglas (also a Wellesley alum), and was present when Hillary met Janet Reno.
My husband and I spent two nights at the White House when Marjory Stoneman Douglas received the Medal of Freedom. I had to help coordinate Marjory’s trip there and back. While there I also got to sit with Marjory and watch the signing of the Brady Bill and talk to 101-year-old Marjory about bees.
Having the attitude that, if you have a minute with the most powerful man in the world, you ought to ask him for something, I convinced then-President Clinton to free the children that were in Guantanamo when it was being used as an immigration holding facility, after Lizbet Martinez, the little girl with the violin, brought the issue to the public eye. I knew the President was releasing them when I got a letter telling me so. He apparently hadn’t told the State Department yet, so they were a bit surprised.
I entered Wellesley College already planning to become a lawyer. I volunteered at Wellesley’s radio station, WZLY, serving as a disk jockey and hosting a program titled, Let’s Change the World where I interviewed representatives of all the major and minor presidential candidates. I figure I’m probably still on an FBI watch list somewhere as a result of interviewing communists, socialists, independents and libertarians, along with the traditional parties.
During law school, I served on the Editorial Board of the Entertainment and Sports Law Journal, and also served and wrote for the University of Miami Law Review. I hosted and produced a radio show called Law Beat and a television show called Legalvision. Among others, I interviewed Gus Boulis, notorious murder victim.
I named my two daughters after powerful women – Madeline, 11, after Madeleine Albright and Amelia, 8, named after Amelia Earhart. I live in Fort Lauderdale in horse country with my husband Ben, shih tzu Frankie, and cat Dean-O. My husband made me stop flying planes and hot air balloons, scuba diving, and ballroom dancing after I became pregnant the first time, but I vow to never be a dull mom.
How did you publish this book? Why did you decide on that publisher?
It was through Litopia Writer’s Colony that I met Lynn Price, editor of Behler Publications. Lynn loved my fiction but Behler doesn’t publish children’s books. When Lynn heard that I was a lawyer, Lynn told me that she loved my writing, and that she wanted a “real writer” to do the book. How could anyone say no to someone who had called me a real writer? The writer originally signed to do the book hadn’t turned it in by the deadline. I not only met my deadlines, but turned my manuscript and edits in early, much to the shock of my editor, who wasn’t used to such outrageous behavior from writers.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
As a child in the good old days of writing contests, I entered and won loads of contests requiring me to write short essays. I also used my writing skills to prepare a petition in my elementary school to force the school to go to a more green method of waste disposal, although my reason was largely practical – the incinerator spewed ashes over the playground, forcing the students to flee inside and lose play time.
Between college and law school, I was inspired by the worst boss on the planet to write my first novel, a murder mystery. While it was utter drek, I knocked the boss off in the book instead of real life, thus saving myself years of imprisonment. I continued to work as a paralegal and then a law clerk in order to put myself through law school. In all my spare time, I wrote my second novel, another murder mystery, which still sits in a drawer somewhere in my house.
Once I started practicing law, I focused on my nonfiction, and wrote quite a few articles on legal topics. I’ve been featured on Sky Radio Network on the Forbes “America’s Most Influential Women” program, Lifetime Television Network’s 1996 special, “Full Disclosure: Sexual Harassment,” and Bulgarian TV Co-Op’s program: “Women in Americ Atlanta/Miami.” I’ve been interviewed about my cases and as an expert on legal issues by numerous media, ranging from radio and television news to newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.
I’ve taught numerous seminars for legal and community organizations. I’ve served on the Editorial Advisory Board for James Publishing, a legal publishing company. I also wrote a foreword for a nonfiction book about the law.
The birth of my two daughters led me to return to the writing I love most – fiction. I penned picture books for the girls, then joined SCBWI to learn the craft of writing for children. My story The Year Santa Shaved was a finalist in the South Florida Writer’s Guild children’s story competition in 2006. I took that tiny bit of encouragement and focused on my writing with a new zeal. I took workshops through Writer’s Online Workshops, SCBWI, and MediaBistro. I began to write middle grade and young adult novels. And I joined Litopia, an online writer’s colony.
As an employment lawyer in weird, wonderful, multicultural South Florida, I’ve had many unusual and quirky experiences, but none have made a better cocktail story than when a guy I sued for sexual harassment of his employee put a voodoo curse on me, and then another client’s Santeria priest offered me the antidote. That true story led me to write Cursed, my middle grade novel that highlights what happens when voodoo meets Santeria meets a suburban middle school girl. I have hopes it might find a home at the right publisher. I found my genre in teen paranormal. Now I’m working on other paranormal fiction novel for teens.
What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?
I think the hardest part is actually finishing. I have so many people tell me they have an idea for a book or they started writing a book. Most people never finish. Doing the first draft from beginning to end is a major accomplishment that most people never manage.
How do you do research for your books?
Fortunately, I wrote loads of this book based on my personal experiences and training in the law. To the extent I needed outside resources, I looked online first, then had a research assistant pull sources from the library to double check those sources.
Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?
It was a great refresher course for me. Sort of like going through a mini law school all over again.
What are you reading now?
Under the Dome by Stephen King and the House of Night series by P.C. Cast.
What types of books do you like to read?
My love of the written word began early, as I was lucky enough to have a wonderful elementary school librarian named Mrs. Parrish who realized early on that I preferred murder and mayhem in my stories. I went through the entire mystery section of the school library and moved quickly to horror. By the time I reached junior high school and read Carrie for the first time, I was hooked on stories of the paranormal and supernatural.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
All these years I’ve written fiction to get away from the law, but my latest work in progress is a Young Adult novel that is probably what would happen if John Grisham, Stephen King and Eoin Colfer collaborated. That’s all I’m saying for now.
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Learn the craft. Read all the books you can on how to write, from general to those specific to your genre. Take workshops. There are plenty of online workshops, so there’s no excuse not to get professional help. Then learn about the industry. Understand submission guidelines and industry terminology, but also learn about what’s happening. If you don’t understand what’s happening with e-books, you might lose out when your contract is negotiated.
What are you doing to promote your latest book?
I’ve been teaching at writer’s conferences, which I love. Plus I blog about using the law in writing, write articles on the topic, and generally try to be available to help writers when they’re stuck with legal issues in their books (not legal advice on copyright, etc. but helping with ideas and general information involving situations their characters are involved in. I do two podcasts a week. On Mondays I’m The Debriefer on the Litopia Daily Podcast, covering the latest legal news in writing and publishing. Every Friday I’m a panelist on the Litopia After Dark podcast, where we talk about serious issues in the industry, plus engage in all sorts of hijinx and silliness.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
My author’s website is http://www.donnaballman.com. The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom has a Facebook fan page. My blog is The Write Report, http://writereport.blogspot.com. I also Twitter as WriterDonna. The book is available on just about every online bookseller out there, and we’ve recently made it available on the Kindle. Hopefully other e-reader formats will be coming soon. The Litopia podcasts are at http://www.litopia.com/podcast.