The Saturday Writing Quote — Margaret Maron on character

“Unless you’re writing flat-out thrillers that move so fast your reader has no time to think about logic or consistency, characters will trump plots every time.”

Margaret Maron, American mystery novelist, Mystery Writers of America Grand Master (2013), past president of Sisters in Crime, and creator of Judge Deborah Knott, one of my very favorite characters

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Death with Dignity or Assisted Suicide — even the terms hold story potential

Continuing my roundup of stories in the news with potential for subplots, backstory, characters, and more, I’m focusing this week on two recent stories about the right to die. Even the terms — right to die, death with dignity, assisted suicide — are freighted with tension, as we might expect from this most personal, and most difficult, subject.

In the early 1990s, I was a member of the King County (Seattle), Washington bar rules committee when Oregon voters were debating the Death with Dignity law, later passed in 1994, and listened to much debate on the subject. (Washington voters approved a similar law in  2008.) Here in Montana, our Supreme Court ruled in Baxter v. Montana (2009) that a physician may not be convicted of a crime for assisting in a suicide if he or she proves it was done with the patient’s consent. NPR reports on the much-publicized case of Brittany Maynard, a young woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to take advantage of its laws. The story potential is enormous. Tension, tension, tension. Take the POV of the patient, her husband, her father who disagrees with her mother, her doctor, her best friend, the nurse next door.

And while we’re on that subject, CBS’s 60 Minutes reported on the case of Barbara Mancini, prosecuted in Pennsylvania for assisting her terminally ill father in taking a deadly dose of morphine — a charge she denied.

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The Saturday Writing Quote — Humpty Dumpty on words

IMGP2512“They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs, they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them!”

– boasts Humpty-Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s 1872 classic, Through the Looking Glass

The figurines are from my childhood — the larger one is a piggy bank. 

(Thanks to PJ Coldren for reminding me of this quote.)

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Terminology — lawyer or attorney?

More from usage guru Bryan Garner:

Garner“Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

lawyer; attorney; counsel; counselor.

The two most common among these, “lawyer” and “attorney,” are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession — except perhaps that “lawyer” is often viewed as having negative connotations. Thus one frequently hears about “lawyer-bashing,” but only the tone-deaf write “attorney-bashing” — e.g.: “Attorney-bashing [read 'Lawyer-bashing'] always will be a popular pastime.” Christopher Smith, “Injury Lawyer May Be Utah’s Best — Bar None,” Salt Lake Trib., 7 Feb. 1994, at A1.

Technically, “lawyer” is the more general term, referring to one who practices law. “Attorney” literally means “one who is designated to transact business for another.” An attorney — archaically apart from the phrases “power of attorney” and, less commonly, “attorney-in-fact” — may or may not be a lawyer. Thus Samuel Johnson’s statement that “attorney” “was anciently used for those who did any business for another; now only in law.” A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

From the fact that an attorney is really an agent, Bernstein deduces that “a lawyer is an attorney only when he has a client. It may be that the desire of lawyers to appear to be making a go of their profession has accounted for their leaning toward the designation attorney.” Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer 60 (1965). Yet this distinction between lawyer and attorney is rarely, if ever, observed in practice.

In American English, “counsel” and “counselor” are both, in one sense, general terms meaning “one who gives (legal) advice,” the latter being the more formal term. “Counsel” may refer to but one lawyer {opposing counsel says} or, as a plural, to more than one lawyer {opposing counsel say}.”

Me, I prefer lawyer because it sounds more practical, less Latinate than attorney. Your characters may disagree — Garner does!

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Terminology

From the esteemed Bryan Garner:

Garner“Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

lawsuit.

Journalists often misuse “lawsuit” (one word) for “complaint” (= the paper that is filed to start a lawsuit) — e.g.:

o “In its 18-page lawsuit [read 'complaint'], Viacom-owned CBS alleged: ‘”Celebrity” was consciously designed to mimic “Survivor” and unfairly trade on its success.’” Meg James, “CBS Sues to Block New ABC Program,” L.A. Times, 7 Nov. 2002, Bus. section, pt. 3, at 3.

o “The allegations in his 144-page lawsuit [read 'complaint'] read like a Robin Cook novel.” Lynne Tuohy, “Pfizer Trials Called Cruel, Immoral,” Hartford Courant, 6 Dec. 2002, at A1.

The “lawsuit” is the whole process; the document (however many pages long) is only an instrumental part of it.”

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December News

“Criminy,” as my Erin Murphy would say. “Holy marjaroly,” Pepper Reece would add.

Can you believe it’s already December?

Butter_Off_DeadMe, neither.  If you’re in the Mission Valley or the Flathead, I hope you’ll take a break this Wednesday and join me for a book talk and reading at 4 p.m. at the North Lake County Library in Polson. Quiz me about the writing life, ask about my characters, or pump me for mystery reading suggestions. I’ve also got a few books to give away, treasures scored at Bouchercon, the giant, amazing, awesome mystery fan convention I attended a month ago in Long Beach. (Remember that week it was 4 below in western Montana? Yep, that week!) Afterwards, I’ll be signing books. (They’re serving snacks, and while I don’t know what’s on the menu, I can tell you that at every book event I’ve gone to since DEATH AL DENTE was published in August 2013, there have been tasty treats from the recipe sections in the back of the books. Every. Single. Time.)

Assault and PepperAlso thrilled to share the cover of BUTTER OFF DEAD (July 2015), the third book in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries. It’s winter in the village and Erin and her friends are cooking up plans for a food lovers’ film festival. But their plans are sent reeling when a dangerous killer dims the lights on a local mover and shaker. Both BUTTER and ASSAULT AND PEPPER, first in my Seattle Spice Shop Mysteries (March 3, 2015) are available for pre-order now – and pre-orders make a huge difference to writers, especially as I wait for my publisher to decide whether to extend my contract for the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries to books Four and Five.

I don’t talk much about my fiction here, except during a book launch, but if you’d like to hear more, please join my electronic mailing list for seasonal updates and word on new releases. Sign up on my website.

And I hope to see you soon—in person, on line, or on the page!

Food Lovers' Village Mysteries, The Writing Life

The Saturday Writing Quote — Ayn Rand on confidence

“When you write, be as conceited as you can be — ‘conceit’ is not the right word, but I want to overstate the point. You must have total self-esteem. Leave your self-doubts behind when you sit down to write — and pick them up again, if you wish, during the process of editing. Sometimes your writing will give you reason to feel some self-doubt afterward . . . . But while you are writing, . . . [r]egard yourself as an absolute, sovereign consciousness. Forget that man is fallible and that you might make mistakes. That is true, but it is for the next day, when you edit.”

Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction 59-60 (1969; Robert Mayhew ed., 2001) (quoted in the blog Garner’s Daily Usage, by Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage)

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More legal threads with story potential

I’m continuing my roundup of a few recent stories with tremendous story potential.

NPR reports on the election results approving recreational pot use in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, DC — joining Colorado and Washington. How will legal plot use affect your characters? Careful in DC, though — Congress must approve all new laws passed there.

My first jury trial was defending — successfully — a commercial fisherman charged with fishing in a closed area. Our defense was that he’d been fishing in a legal area, emptied his net and discovered a rip, then drifted into a closed area while repairing his net. It’s not illegal to be in a closed area if you’re not actively fishing. But he didn’t try to dump the fish he’d caught. NPR reports on arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on the case of a fisherman who dumped his fish to avoid a federal conviction — and who now argues that the law being used to convict applies to the destruction of documents, not fish. It’s a question of statutory interpretation, coupled with evidence of bad intent, but it’s also a good illustration of legal arguments — and how destruction of evidence cases are treated.

I’ve written before about arbitrators, mediators, and administrative law judges. Can you use one in your story? Here’s an example: Former NFL running back Ray Rice filed a grievance over his ban from the league for beating his girlfriend unconscious in an elevator and dragging her body out. NPR profiles Barbara Jones, the independent arbiter presiding over the case. Update: Jones concluded that the NFL had already punished Rice once and could not punish him a second time without evidence of more wrong-doing. The law is procedural, as well as substantive.

Stories are all around us. So are characters, bits of backstory, complications, and speedbumps. Use ‘em.

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The Saturday Writing Quote — on courage

“The journey towards clarity is speckled with all of the psychic junk we try to discard—the chunks of self we reject, the fears we try to conquer…Our backs bowed with this weight, we often find ourselves led not by the call of Love but by the high-pitched whine of our inner critic.

Oh, it takes courage to really look closely at what blocks the flow. This is a thorny place—impossible to explore deeply without getting poked and scraped. But all we have to do is to clear a small way and surrender.”

-Roderick MacIver, American painter, in Art as a Way of Life 

(Thanks to Nancy Rose for the quote.)

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The Saturday Writing Quote — becoming a writer

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“You become a writer by writing. It is a yoga.”

– R.K. Narayan, novelist (1906-2001)

(hat tip to PJ Coldren)

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