Friday, March 14, 2014

Author RC O'Leary Shares His Trials and Tribulations When Writing Hallways In The Night - A Special Thanks to the Sleepy Juror

When a veteran cop tries to arrest baseball's home run king, one of them ends up on trial and the other ends up dead.

Midwest Book Review: "A tightly-wound story of suspense and intrigue that will keep even seasoned mystery and legal thriller readers guessing to the end"  Diane Donovan, eBook Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

Lance Smith, "The Guy Who Reviews Sports Books" Blog:
Hallways in the Night rates 5 out of 5 Stars. 
"An outstanding story that should be read by all fans of legal thrillers."

Thanks to the juror that fell asleep and thanks to RC Oleary
for sharing what became his writing process with us today.
I downloaded the first 5 chapters and thoroughly enjoyed them
but now I can't wait to get my hands on the rest of the book!

I wasn’t very far into writing Hallways in the Night when I realized that I wanted the confrontation between my protagonist, Dave Mackno, and baseball’s home run king—a character I describe as being “half-drunk and near the end of an eight week steroid cycle”—to eventually lead to a courtroom showdown in which a jury would have to decide whether or not the fatal shooting was a case of self-defense or manslaughter.

The actual process of getting into court, the part of the story in which witnesses, lawyers and the District Attorney of Atlanta all have to determine what is going to be their “version” of the truth, takes up about half of the story.  

Because of that the story was able to have what I consider to be a very straightforward four act structure:

1.)   Confrontation and the opening set-up
2.)   The city-wide fall-out and reaction to the confrontation, including an indictment being rendered
3.)   The Trial section, in which I could move the plot towards resolution, while at the same time using witnesses, as well as characters’ reaction to witnesses, to fill in some backstory
4.)   Resolution and denouement along with a surprise twist at the end which I hoped would be an “a-ha” moment for the reader.

It was very helpful in the revision and re-writing process to have the story broken down into these four sections. It allowed for clarity and also gave me smaller pieces that I could finalize versus having to think about the book as being one big 300 page project. As a result, the completion of the book felt a lot less overwhelming.

Once I had the structure in place, I had to figure out not only the characters and story, but I also needed to figure out how I was going to treat the legal aspects of the case and how much I was going to utilize the legal knowledge I gained from my three years of education at Duke law school.

The reason I had to make that decision is because I knew, from firsthand experience, that the legal process is usually a very mundane, often boring, experience. That was a lesson I really learned during my second year of law school when I took a year-long “trial practice” seminar.

I remember how excited I was when I signed up for the class. I had visions of courtroom confrontations, intense cross-examinations, and closing statements that would bring the mock jurors to their feet.

Sadly, reality was nothing like my dreams. As a matter of fact, when the big day finally arrived, and we presented our case to a jury of local citizens recruited from the Durham area, one of the jurors was actually dismissed because he kept falling asleep during the trial. It was a truly humbling experience to try and address a box full of jurors who were distracted by another juror’s snoring.

But, in the long-run, that juror ended up having what I believe was a very positive influence on Hallways in the Night. I never forgot the fact that some jury trials can be so boring that it could literally put a juror to sleep. And, as a result, I vowed not to let that happen during the trial section of my book.

I was determined to try and make the trial as exciting as possible, even if it meant I had to bend some of the rules of Criminal Procedure.

And that’s what I did.

Despite the voice in my head which told me “that kind of a statement by an attorney might lead to a mistrial” or “a judge would never give an attorney that much latitude on their cross-examination,” I decided to forget many of the procedural rules of the courtroom and instead give my characters the chance to freelance and engage in some colorful behavior. After all, I reminded myself, there’s a good reason no legal transcript has ever cracked the bestseller list.

For me, it always came back to two of the most important rules of fiction writing: 1) create tension between characters and 2) never be boring.

So I made the choice to bend a few courtroom rules. Probably the biggest transgression I made was to allow my attorneys to ask leading questions on “direct” examination.

In a real world situation, when an attorney is asking questions of their own witnesses (the “direct”), they aren’t allowed to ask a question such as, “Isn’t it true that the Defendant’s actions constituted a complete and reckless disregard for the law?”  Instead, they would need to phrase the question along the lines of “Can you please describe for the jury your opinion of the defendant’s actions on the night in question?”

In other words, you’re not able to put forth a statement within the guise of question during a direct examination.  Attorneys are supposed to keep their questions neutral and let the witness provide the answers.

It’s a very logical constraint the rules impose, but it sure as heck does not make for an exciting read. Especially when you’re trying your best to maintain a fast-pace and increase the tension near the end of a book.

I also let my attorneys mix it up a bit more with each other and the judge then they could in a real life, assuming they did not want to be held in contempt of court.

That was especially true on the final cross between the District Attorney, Maurice Bass, and the Defendant, Dave Mackno. That particular scene is one of my favorites in the book because it gives these two major characters  their first chance to really go after each other directly. It’s a confrontation the book has been building up to since the beginning of Act 2.

Bass really goes after Dave hard, to the point where the reader can get a sense of the kind of anger and hate Dave feels towards Bass for what he has done to his life since the indictment.

It’s a scene that I don’t think would have been anywhere near as effective if I had followed the rules of courtroom procedure to the letter because just about any real-life Judge would prevent the interaction from becoming so personal in nature. But within the context of a novel, I think that type of confrontation is just the kind of payoff that readers like (and deserve) at the end of the book.

So that was the approach I decided to take when writing the trial section of Hallways in the Night. I followed the law and rules of criminal procedure as much as I could (I had to ensure the trial felt completely realistic), but I also, as the author, gave myself permission to take some liberties to try and make the trial as dramatic and engaging as I could for the readers.

Hopefully, I succeeded. If I did, I owe at least part of the credit to the juror who fell asleep on me during my mock trial in law school. 
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