Thursday, November 11, 2010

Arresting Research

I like doing research. Years ago, I spent a weekend at a women’s prison. Very interesting and informative -- and I was happy to leave.

Not long ago, I made trips downtown to the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice System. I picked out a particular courtroom and sat in. Didn’t really attend any actual on-going cases, but rather tried to get there while things were getting ready to begin.

One day I arrived about 8:45 a.m. Went through the security check point. For the first time, I got through without being wanded. I’ve decided the trick is to keep on all my jewelry – watch, earrings, ring, necklace. I’d always taken it all off before and gotten beeped. Or it could be that today I was running late and had to run out with my hair still dripping wet. Perhaps the guards decided I was not a terrorist – no bad guy would be caught dead looking like a pool rat.

Took the elevator up to my usual courtroom and found a seat. They were already in the middle of calling names. If they call your name, you holler out that you’re there. The list goes on and on. If you’re late or you don’t hear your name, then later you have to get in line to go up to the clerks and let them know you’re present. Then you go back and try to find another seat since while you were up there, more people filed into the room and took up all available spots.

Some people are called up and instructed to go elsewhere to pay or get papers or hire a lawyer, then return. They go off, eventually come back, and climb over people to get to an empty seat. Lawyers wander hither and yon. Sometimes they know their clients. Most often they call out names and look to see who raises a hand. If your lawyer motions, you stumble over legs and make your way to the aisle, talk to your lawyer either in the aisle or out of the courtroom in the hallway. Then you come back and wonder if you’ll fit in that tiny spot between the young woman wearing the mini skirt, headphones and knee-high fur boots and the burly guy with the dragon tattoo peeking from his muscle shirt.

Eventually the judge comes in. We all stand. He sits. We sit. He chats with passing lawyers. “Good to see your smiling face.” “Like that tie.” “Where’ve you been? Haven’t seen you in a while.” The coming and going of attorneys and clients continues. And the judge sits. An hour passes.

I left around 11:30. Not one single case had come before the bench. Almost three hours since I arrived. I conclude the criminal justice system seriously needs an efficiency expert to come in and do an overhaul. Surely some of that could be taken care of over the Internet. Couldn’t all the checking-in be done in another room? Could the lawyers get there a little earlier to introduce themselves to clients and start negotiating the deals in the back rooms? Why is the judge having to waste so much time just sitting there waiting for something to get going?

I’ve gone up there to the same courtroom about four times so far and it’s always the same. And, no, I don’t plan on going back. I think I’ve learned enough.

But one thing it does tell you, and this is something writers already know, start in the middle. Doesn’t matter what kind of scene you’re setting up -- courtroom, sniper attack, chance meeting of two lovers – don’t start with the mundane, the boring. Start with action or something very interesting. And that’s not always when the bailiff tells the courtroom to rise and the judge sweeps into the room. That could be the point where the boring gets interesting. Start when the judge points at row three and orders the bailiff to remove the wet-headed pool rat drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper and taking suspicious notes.
Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn – or catch her April 30, 2011 at Books 'n Authors 'n All That Jazz in Weatherford, Texas, where she and Sylvia Dickey Smith will be talking about “Jazzing Up Your Characters.”

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  1. "I conclude the criminal justice system seriously needs an efficiency expert to come in and do an overhaul."

    LOL, Amen to that! Having been to traffic court three times this past summer (Yes, you read that right, THREE - and all for silly s**t, I'm NOT a bad driver, no way!) I experienced first hand the mundanity (word?) and booooooring, frustrating lack of efficiency in our court systems. Sheeeeesh!

    But anyhowzit, I do agree - get to the meat and the action of anything you are researching. Makes for a much more exciting book, hmm?

    Marvin D Wilson

  2. We have to give the reader credit for just knowing all that came before, surmising it from the immediate situation. If your experience in the courts is a parallel to too much backstory, or lead-up, I'd be closing the book!

  3. Spending some time in jail sounds like an interesting experience ... as long as you can leave when you want >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  4. Three times, Marvin? Hmmm. ;-) Get to the meat and action is good advice for just about any situation in a book.

    I'm with you, Joanne. If I feel like I'm slogging through thick mud, I'll move on to something else.

    That's the key, Cold As Heaven. Don't go to jail unless you have a Get Out Free pass.

  5. I'm with you, Helen, I really like the in-person research, although I'd hesitate to go to jail for the sake of realism in my writing. LOL

    I like to scout locations for scenes and am kind of stuck in a WIP because I didn't know I was going to need this specific location so I am trying to imagine the placement of an apartment building and things around it. I'd rather see it, so I might have to take a trip to Dallas.

  6. "Don't start with the mundane." That's excellent advice. I wonder why it comes after 600 words in a 700-word essay.

  7. Hey you could have stayed home and watched MSNBC's show called 'Lockup' it's one of my favorites.

  8. Road trip! Love road trips, Maryann, although I'd rather not have to do one in the middle of a project.

    LM Preston, I haven't seen Lockup. Can't get cable. There are some shows that are really gritty, though. My short visit to the women's prison was not "gritty" but it did give me a feel for the layout and some of the rules the prisoners have to follow.

    Anonymous, I guess the word "mundane" came so late in the post because I had no reason to use it before then. Thank you for reading the post so carefully.

  9. This is great, Helen, and so true. My latest novel involves attorneys, courtroom scenes, etc., and begins in the middle of a trial where information vital to the story is being extracted from a suddenly reluctant prosecution witness. I attended only one court session, but I did get tremendous input about the law, lawyers, juries, and courtroom procedure from 4 different attorneys. Feedback from my readers to date indicates this research paid off well. Bottom line: nothing substitutes for great research, but I'm with Maryann on the going-to-jail thing. You're a brave lady.

    Maryann, I found some terrific information on the Internet when doing a preliminary review of a manuscript. The story began in China, and the writer described the location of an office building on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I've never been to China, so I surfed the Web and found lots of pictures and descriptions and even 360° views of the Square. Hugely helpful, and the writers were wrong. Big red flag—this two-man writing team hadn't done its homework.

    Thanks for reminding us that, in order for our readers to suspend disbelief, our stories must ring true down to the minute details.

  10. After I was a witness in a couple of federal cases (one civil and one criminal), I realized "hurry up and wait" is the court's motto. One time I was subpoenaed to LA from Florida and had only a day to pack and fly, waited and waited, and then was sent home because the judge got sick. Witnesses really get yanked around.

    I can't even imagine how to make a courtroom scene exciting anymore.

  11. Good point on starting in the middle. As you saw first hand, life is boring, so our fiction shouldn't be. Good post!

  12. Going to the prison was brave indeed. But I'm sure it was worth the research.

    Efficiency is not something commonly associated with the legal system LOL.

    I'm a long winded writer. I have to write up all the boring to figure out where the meat and action is. Note: I'm not afraid of editing, it is my best friend :)


  13. Donna, that's not a bad process. If you remember to go back and cut the mundane, then you're fine. And writing all the details down can help you establish what is great and what can be culled.

  14. Linda, isn't it amazing what you can find online? Just search and you can find so much - and save time.

  15. Great points, Helen! That seems to be one of my main tasks as a freelance fiction editor - to convince the author to leave out all that "warming up the engines" explanation and description stuff at the beginning of their novel, and instead jump to a telling scene with the protagonist starting to feel the heat. And include action and dialogue!

    James Scott Bell, in his excellent book, Revision and Self-Editing, suggests, in the revision stage, canning chapter one and starting your book at your original chapter two. Of course, you'd probably have to slip in some of that info from chapter one here and there in chapter two and later.

  16. Excellent article. Having been a court reporter in the criminal justice system for several years I can attest to the need for a complete overhaul. And what goes on in Judge's Chambers is even more interesting.

  17. We're turning into Comedy Central around here. LOL. That was a hoot, Helen, thanks!


  18. I admit I once spent a night at a men's shelter. Strictly for research purposes.

    I dressed like a homeless person, ate dinner with them, then bought some of the guys and myself each a pint of whisky (don't want to share a bottle, major ewwww!). Then we had to be inside by a certain time if you wanted to spend the night.

    They washed my clothes for me, then the next morning we had breakfast and a sermon and I left.

    I was basically interviewing the guys. They had an assortment of backgrounds, problems, criminal records, and some stories I hope was the alcohol talking and not true. It was a most interesting experience.

  19. Jodie, I find that true in my own writing!

    Linda, I want to see what happens in the Judge's chambers!

    Interesting idea, Stephen. That sounds scarier than going into a prison for a weekend!

  20. Helen: Love the "show don't tell" in this post. Great job.

    Unfortunately, this post serves as a metaphor for my writing life some days. With social media, e-mail, blog posts, and the numerous interruptions offered up by writing organization obligations and everyday life, I often look up to see it's 11:30 a.m. and my WIP court is not in session, either!! I think I need an overhaul of my own justice system: no social media until after noon. (This comment written one day late and at 9:33 a.m. lol).

  21. Hi Kathryn, I'm also trying to get a handle on my social networking. I'd let it get to the point that I had no time for writing. And you're welcome whatever day or time you can get over!

  22. Now that I know someone who has actually gone and sat in a courtroom being detached from the individual dramas, I just might have the courage finally to do it myself.


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