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The Trials of Trials

Everyone loves a good courtroom drama. In my next book, I take realism to the next level.

We're all used to the way that police procedure and courtroom flow exists in fiction. We may also have experience with the way things work (and often don't) in the real world. While fudging the details often makes for better dramatic storytelling, is there a way to include more of the real world without losing momentum?


Some of the major differences in the way the real world differs from fiction involve time scale, in other words, how long it takes the various stages of a criminal investigation or trial take to unfold. Just as any issue or problem can be dealt with in the half hour span of a sitcom, courtroom dramas and novels compress time to an extent that is insanely unrealistic to anyone who's experienced a trial firsthand.


Keep it moving; make it fun


The common wisdom in approaching any actual process and making it work on screen or on the page says to find ways to shorthand anything that could be tedious, and exaggerate anything that could make the stakes higher or the payoffs more entertaining. A great example of this is the "Matlock Moment," where there's a sudden revelation (usually teased or beaten out of a witness by the brilliant lawyer/star) within the courtroom itself and during the sitting of the court. Any real lawyer will tell you that this never happens. You've probably heard the old saw that a lawyer should never ask a question without knowing the answer in advance, and you won't find many who deviate from that.


Another trope is the "surprise witness," where someone entirely unexpected takes the stand and instantly changes the outcome of a trial, something that is actually prohibited in most courts and again which hardly ever could happen much less does.


The bigger adjustment made for the sake of fictional trials is the time it takes for any matter to be resolved. There are any number of steps required to get someone to trial, and they don't happen fast. Investigations take time. Warrants take time. And above all, scheduling a trial date takes time.


Add to that that most matters before the court happen in steps (preliminary hearing, grand jury, motions, adjournments...) and some of those can take years to pass through.


Taking a stab at a little grounded realism


There's a murder in the new "Blood & Magic" novel Heaven & Hell. I don't want to tell you more than that, except to say that if you've followed the breadcrumbs in the first two books, it might seem inevitable in hindsight.


One of the things I discovered that I didn't know before is the difference between jail... and prison... Jeez, I've been using those interchangeably and often incorrectly for years!

Instead of shorthanding the legal process, I decided to double down on the actual time it takes for a crime to be discovered, for a suspect to be identified and arrested, and for that suspect to end up in custody waiting for trial. Because the books are set (mostly) in Canada, the details are pertinent to the Canadian - and more specifically Ontario - judiciary. One of the things I discovered that I didn't know before is the difference between jail (a place where someone is put while waiting to be tried or to serve a short sentence, in Ontario called a remand or detention centre) and prison (usually a federally-run institution designed for longer sentences being served for more serious crimes). Jeez, I've been using those interchangeably and often incorrectly for years!


I also didn't want to fictionalize the astonishingly slow grinding of the gears of the justice system, or downplay the particular challenges that causes, like the way even an innocent person can be separated from family and friends for years before even getting to trial, or the different degrees of access depending on your relationship to the accused, or even the banality of incarceration and the way visiting someone in jail can become just a part of daily life.


It was also a challenge to myself to find ways to make this slow process interesting and even exciting. Did I succeed? Watch for Heaven & Hell and tell me yourself!



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