It’s All About How You Tell the Story by Leslie Karst
Like Debra—the host of this fabulous blog—my career before becoming a mystery author was in the legal profession. I spent twenty years as a civil attorney specializing in research and appellate work, which was basically akin to writing a term paper every day of your working life.
It was a job that could be mind-numbingly tedious, yet punctuated by moments of supreme elation. I’d spend hours and hours reading through dusty old legal tomes, searching for case law that supported my argument. And then, when I’d finally discover that perfect published opinion, it was like striking gold.
But in general, I found the work pretty darn boring. Which is why I retired as soon as I could from the law and turned my sights to writing mystery novels, instead. Because—as we all know—writing fiction is about as far away from drafting legal briefs as can be.
Or is it?
I was recently asked whether all that writing I did during my years as a research attorney aided me in my subsequent career as a mystery author. My immediate thought was, No way; they’re totally different. But then, when I truly thought about it, I realized that they actually have quite a bit in common.
I think we can all agree that one of the most important components of writing a good mystery is the story: how you set it up, how you place your clues and red herrings, how you characterize your protagonist, suspects, and villain.
Well, the same is true in the law. The purpose of a legal brief is to convince the judge that, based on current law as applied to the facts of your case, you should prevail. Thus, how you set forth the facts of your case in your brief is vitally important.
First, you must decide which facts to include and which to leave out. Of course, there’s the ethical component to consider, i.e., you can’t leave out facts relevant to the case simply because they’re harmful to your client. But the same is true in a mystery novel, where it’s considered unfair to leave out information vital to resolution of the mystery simply because it might make readers more easily guess whodunit.
In addition, legal cases are often won or lost on how you tell the story. Which elements do you emphasize and which do you play down? This is, of course, similar to how one employs red herrings and clues in a mystery novel.
And finally, there’s voice and readability. As with any great novel, the attorney drafting a brief wants the judge to be drawn into the story and truly care about the case.
So on further reflection, my answer is yes, I guess all those years as an attorney did in fact help make me a better mystery author!
Readers: Have any of you had a previous job that you were later surprised to discover ended up making you better at something you now do?
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The daughter of a law professor and a potter, Leslie Karst learned at a young age, during boisterous family dinner conversations, the value of both careful analysis and the arts—ideal ingredients for a mystery story. Putting this early education to good use, she now now writes the Sally Solari Mysteries (Dying for a Taste, A Measure of Murder, Death al Fresco), a culinary series set in Santa Cruz, California.
Originally from Southern California, Leslie moved north to attend UC Santa Cruz (home of the Fighting Banana Slugs), and after graduation, parlayed her degree in English literature into employment waiting tables and singing in a new wave rock band. Exciting though this life was, she eventually decided she was ready for a “real” job, and ended up at Stanford Law School.
For the next twenty years Leslie worked as the research and appellate attorney for Santa Cruz’s largest civil law firm. During this time, she rediscovered a passion for food and cooking, and so once more returned to school—this time to earn a degree in Culinary Arts.
Now retired from the law, Leslie—along and her wife and their Jack Russell mix, Ziggy—splits her time between Santa Cruz and Hilo, Hawai‘i. When not writing, she occupies herself with cooking, reading, singing alto in the local community chorus, gardening, cycling, and observing cocktail hour promptly at five o’clock.
Leslie Karst blogs with the Chicks on the Case (https://chicksonthecase.com). To learn more about Leslie and her books, visit her website at lesliekarstauthor.com
13 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Leslie Karst – It’s All About How You Tell the Story”
Excellent analogy, Leslie. Readers don’t realize how difficult it is to plot a mystery,to play fair with the reader with clues, and still, hopefully, have a surprise reveal at the end.
Thanks for stopping by. Leslie definitely makes her point well – one that as you note, most don’t always realize.
Yes, it’s a bit like Goldilocks: can’t be too hard or too easy, but has to be juuuuust right! 🙂
Great post! Your question got me thinking and yes, I think writing research papers and reports has helped with the discipline of writing. I will make myself sit down and do something, even if it’s just changing a character’s name.
No doubt, Frankie! (And if you’re studying to be an astronaut, that would help even more!)
By the way, the astronaut comment is a reference to Frankie’s book, No, You Can’t Be an Astronaut.
Thanks for stopping by. Like Leslie, I have a legal background … and I think it helps me especially in both the analytics of plotting and the “joys” of revision.
Great post, Leslie! Now I wish I’d gone to law school.
Ha! (No you don’t, Lisa.)
Ditto … some of the time .. to what Leslie said 🙂
Do you think writing that much during your career–the discipline of seat-time–also helped when you turned to fiction?
Absolutely, Vinnie. Nothing like the fear of losing a multi-million dollar lawsuit if your brief isn’t filed on time to get you comfortable making deadlines!
I’ll beg to differ with Leslie in one respect — the nature of the writing didn’t lend itself to my fiction efforts. Discipline was there (somewhat …. I don’t think I was ever as disciplined as Leslie), but the “facts and law” only approach I needed to use in briefs, pleadings, and decisions actually stilted my creative writing style.