Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Subjects Too Painful to Write About

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Memorandum

To: Myself
Re: Subjects too painful to write about
Date: Now

I made the decision to write a violent rape scene in Blame because bringing the reality of the street, as it appeared in my courtroom, to my readers is what my books are all about. Rape in all its forms is the single dominant violent crime in this country — and in the world! The numbers of women assaulted by strangers, soldiers, police, boyfriends, relatives, baby-sitters and husbands are staggering. A small fraction is reported and those are usually instances where the ancillary injuries are too severe to ignore. Fewer still are the number of rapes prosecuted.

rape-1I remember the case of an eighteen year old who took the stand in my courtroom hoping to recant her accusation of rape against her stepfather. The defense attorney reached up to place a letter from the girl denying that the crime had occurred. (A physician’s report had documented the searing tears to the girl’s vaginal wall, the bruising of her bladder, and the herpes infection she would have for life as a reminder of the encounter).

I was having difficulty breathing, so great was my growing sense of rage. There was little recourse available to me and I watched the prosecutor shrug his shoulders as he stood to question the girl. Would he compound the assault by his cross-examination? I wasn’t about to wait for that to happen.

“Ms. X,” I said, turning toward her in the witness box, “would you please read your letter aloud so that everyone here in the courtroom will understand your decision to withdraw your complaint against the defendant?” I handed the letter to my bailiff who passed it to Ms. X.

There was silence in the courtroom. We waited as the girl stared at the slightly rumpled paper in her shaking hand.

“Ms. X, can you read?”

“Not so good,” she replied. “Leastwise, not some of these words.”

causes-of-rape-graphIt was high drama as I denied the motion to dismiss the case and ordered the defense attorney to appear and show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for presenting a clearly fraudulent document.

So, I wrote the rape scene in Blame and, at times, I felt the physical and psychological pain of the victim in the telling. I’d like to avoid these scenes and I consider from time to time switching genres to write about romance or, perhaps, inspirational stories.

This is on my mind because the case on which Blame was loosely based is about to go to trial here in West Palm Beach. It is a case I expected would have been concluded years ago. It is a tragedy in progress, a subject too painful to write about. I cannot write the ending as I did in Blame.

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Could you be Casey Portman?

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Oliver asking for more Cruikshank 1846Here’s a question for you, dear reader:  Do you picture the character(s) depicted in a novel, characters for whom there is no physical description to confirm your mind’s eye invention? When Charles Dickens wrote, his folios were regularly accompanied by pen and ink drawings of his characters and the settings in which they appeared. The same is true of much of our early literature in America. Even Thoreau felt it necessary to include some illustrations of the abundance of nature’s beauty at Walden.

Walden_Thoreau cover first editionThe corollary to my question to you is, naturally, whether I see my characters as I write them.  Indeed, I do. Some of the characters come to me crystal clear and complete. Pleasure Jones, the prostitute and entrepreneur in Blame is one of those people. I not only see her, I know her. I know her voice, her temperament, her style and even her favorite colors.

Other characters are less intuitive for me and I’m often surprised by what emerges on the page. Casey Portman, an important player in my books, has intrigued me, and baffled me, on more than one occasion because, as a young woman, her life is often in flux, her emotions are frequently close to the surface and she is changing, growing into the woman she will become over time. I see her clearly, but not consistently with the same physical features.

Could you be CaseySo it was a bit of a shock when I caught sight of a woman at a restaurant in West Palm Beach and exclaimed to my companion, “Look over there — at the bar — that’s Casey!”

I took a few pictures, although she was facing away from us, and thought briefly about going up to her, risking a tap on her shoulder followed quickly by an explanation of my interest. It didn’t take much to dissuade me. Awkward, I thought, extremely awkward and intrusive. 

But, I’ve come across the picture a few times recently and I can’t help but wonder about the young woman and whether one day she’ll walk into Liberty Book Store on Clematis Street and pick up a copy of Punishment or Blame. Will she recognize herself?

“Every court case is like a small opera.” Jeff McGinnis interview in Toledo Free Press

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

jeff mcginnis on twitterSometimes an interviewer prompts thoughts you knew you had but had never quite expressed in the same way before. Jeff McGinnis, pop culture reporter for the Toledo Free Press, recently interviewed me about Blame and about why people enjoy legal thrillers:

They understand the stakes. For so many people, it is life or death. It is loss of career or opportunity. And too much of it, in my view, remains a sort of profound mystery that is highlighted only when we see incidents such as what has occurred in Ferguson, and most recently on Staten Island.

 

I think the fascination is, it is always drama. Every court case, particularly criminal cases, is like a small opera, playing out on a stage where the parts are kind of preordained, and emotions run deep and high at the same time. And the characters are usually true to form. But as we all — at least at my age — have learned from “Perry Mason,” there are often surprises.

McGinnis wondered where I got the ideas for my novels, something I haven’t mentioned on this blog before:

I always take a real case as the centerpiece that all the other action kind of revolves and evolves around. So, in Punishment, it was a pit bull case that actually transpired in my courtroom. And in Blame, it is a case that is actually occurring here in West Palm Beach as we speak.

 

The doctor who is the inspiration for the case in Blame lives near me and has become a good friend. I never imagined three and a half years later, his case would not have come to trial. But that is, in fact, true. So in some ways, I’ve cheated myself, because there are more twists and turns to come. But I’ve promised him he’ll at least get part of a chapter in the forthcoming final book, Innocence.

You can read the full interview here: “Former Ohio Judge Pens Legal Thrillers.”

And for those of you unfamiliar with the “surprise endings” on Perry Mason, this will give you a taste.

Please be reassured: my endings are much more plausible.

Why I Write

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Words, phrases, characters, and plot—they are the foundation of my soapbox. I write because I care deeply about making a difference in those areas of our lives touched not only by criminal justice, but by social justice, as well.

I have discovered, as have so many writers in the past, that while the pedantic may have a devoted audience to hear her message, she will be a change-maker only if she can wrap the lesson in a good story. Will George Washington admit that it was he who chopped down the cherry tree? Is Little Red Riding Hood a victim or a naughty runaway? Although the readers of these fairy tales are young, the moral messages they convey are ancient and their lessons stay with many of us throughout our lives.  We look to our justice system to epitomize those lessons.

We Americans are diverse culturally, religiously and politically, but we share in great numbers our sense of what is right and what is wrong. We know instinctively when human frailty is a reason, but not an excuse. That is a powerful theme for a storyteller. I’m lucky. I have such a wealth of material and personal experience to draw from based on my involvement with the law and the courts that it is sometimes difficult to not fit it all in.

parson-weemss-fable-amon-carter-museum-of-american-2

Parson Weems’ Fable by Grant Wood (1939) Weems created the story about Washington and the cherry tree in his 1806 biography of Washington

Let me give you an example: Early in my tenure as a judge, I received a case involving a very young woman who was retarded and had issues with mental health and drug abuse. Mary’s newborn child had been placed in a foster home, but despite reports from social workers of disturbing home visits with Mary, the child was returned to her in the interest of creating an “intact family.” In a matter of days, Mary had caused the death of her child who “would not stop crying.” This pathetic woman, already abused by the system that was supposed to protect her, stood before me to enter a plea of guilty to a charge of manslaughter. The morning of her scheduled court appearance, I issued a bench warrant to bring the Director of Social Services to my courtroom for the hearing. When Mary stood to enter her plea, I ordered the Director to stand, as well.

“I’m deeply pained, “ I told her,” that only Mary will pay a price for your indifference or incompetence or both.”

I haven’t yet found a place in my books for Mary’s story or a myriad of others just like it. What I’m able to do in my writing is to expose flaws such as Mary’s story and, at the same time, to applaud those in the courthouse who daily work to improve our performance. We have a right to expect our laws to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. Opening the doors at the back of the courtroom, explaining the rules, both written and undisclosed, and providing a glimpse of life for the accused or imprisoned is enough to keep me at the keyboard for a very long time.

And so, I write the morality plays without stage directions, but if a reader looks closely, my books are meant to be fairy tales for grown-ups.

“One Book” Kind of Woman

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

jennifer lawrence readingI’m a “one book” kind of woman. I know that multi-tasking has received very good press over the last several decades, but it’s not my preferred way to approach life and I simply cannot do it when it comes to reading. Yes, yes, I know lots of readers who love the challenge of moving with ease from novel to treatise and from short stories to histories. But this reader will take complete absorption over impatience-driven diversity any day of the week.

martha grimes strathmore mansion 2012For example, the charming and very approachable mysteries written by Martha Grimes. I’ve just begun Vertigo 42 and I know with delicious certainty that Richard Jury will exhibit all the quirks that set him apart—and keep him apart—from most of London’s finest. What’s more, the favorite haunts of his crowd of human malapropisms will be their usual pubs of choice where they will order predictable cocktails, which I have noticed they imbibe earlier and earlier with each book.

The mysteries are, themselves, approachable. They are less complex than those I write, but the settings, characters and language used by Ms. Grimes more than compensate for the slower and less demanding unraveling of the story.

P D James meets her readersP. D. James is also a British novelist whose tastes run to mysteries and decidedly more sinister and complicated ones, at that. Her willingness to extend herself in order to portray characters as close to three dimensions as is possible on the printed page rewards her readers with such richness that I have to applaud her generosity. She is a role model for me. And, speaking of “roles,” a friend of mine wrote her doctoral dissertation on “The Role of the Reader.” It is so important to remember that, like a good marriage or friendship, a book is a partnership.

I’m flattered by the wonderful reviews my newest book, Blame, has received, but I’m also open to learning how I can improve on this partnership that you and I enjoy.

Where My Characters Come From

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

jacques-louis-david-the-combat-of-mars-and-minervaI cannot imagine a story in which I have no picture in my mind of the characters who will stroll across the pages and help me speak to my reader. Perhaps that accounts for my awe at the talents of writers of science fiction. I learned long ago that all literature is derived from mythology. I cannot find any flaw with that concept other than those creations that demand a landscape so original that, although the conflict may be as old as Minerva and Mars, the setting is a miracle of imagination.

Occasionally, clerks or bailiffs will ask if they were the models for a character in my novel. Chances are pretty good that they are there, in part, adding a nuance to a manner of speech, offering platitudes for every occasion, or providing comfort or encouragement to everyone around them. A good friend calls them “my peeps,” and I try to take care of them—unless I have to kill them off.