A case in point: A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr
A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr









Jonathan Harr’s, A CIVIL  ACTION, is quite simply the best non-fiction book about lawyering I have read.

Since its publication in 1996, the book has become a modern classic and rightly so. It is the true story of a high stakes civil case about the effects of environmental pollution.

Since my weekly series of blogs sometimes focuses on writing realistic courtroom scenes in works of fiction, A CIVIL  ACTION, is a natural fit, even though it is a work of non-fiction. I believe it is Harr’s methodology that accounts for the greatness of the book. He obtained permission from the attorneys on both sides of the case to sit in on their strategy sessions  while the case was in process. In other words, he became a fly on the wall. This unique perspective allowed him to view the action while the game was on and before anyone knew which way it would end.

That is exactly what happens when an author sets out to create a legal case from whole cloth in a legal thriller. Suspense in writing is crucial, and in my view, the best way to maintain it, to not give the conclusion away too soon, is for the writer to be in a process of discovery as he goes along.

If a detective uncovers a fact, she immediately makes several educated guesses about what it means in the context of a particular case. These guesses may be spot on, or they may be way off the mark. Fiction writing should mirror this real life situation. The writer’s characters don’t have crystal balls any more than real world police do. They need to make mistakes, to not see something coming, to re-interpret the collected facts when a new bit of evidence comes to light.

I recently read an interview of James Lee Burke in Writer’s Digest. Burke said he begins each day of writing with two scenes, and only two scenes, in mind.  He writes those scenes, and when he comes back the next day to continue writing, he has the next two scenes in mind. This process continues throughout the book.  In the interview, Burke says that Hemingway thought if he knew how his story was going to end, so would his readers. This is the heart of the matter.

In my conversations about writing methodology with other authors, I have learned that most authors fall into one of three categories: 1. Those who map out the entire story before they begin, 2. Those who write the first and last chapters and then fill in the rest of the story and 3. Those who approach each day not knowing where the story will take them. I’m a cat 3 writer, but I don’t quibble with those in cats 1 and 2.  However, whichever category best fits the author, he must do what he must to retain the element of suspense for the reader and to see that the reader discovers  the story from the playing field while time is clicking down on the clock.

Oh, and I have to say that my favorite line from the movie version of A CIVIL ACTION was defense attorney Robert Duvall’s question to a mother who had lost her child as a result of the child’s exposure to chemicals in drinking water.

“Do you eat peanut butter?” he asked her.


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