Posted On October 25, 2017 by Print This Post

Free to Fudge the Facts by Ken Isaacson

I got to know Ken Isaacson back when I was moderating the Barnes & Noble Mystery Forum at BN.com. I had the opportunity to meet him in person at Bouchercon when it came to Indianapolis in 2009. I was a big fan of Ken’s first book, SILENT COUNSEL and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his second book. When DEATH BENEFIT was released a few months ago, I read it from start-to-finish the day it came out. I couldn’t put it down until I reached “The End.” And, even though I’ve read hundreds, maybe thousands of mysteries, I’ve never come across this method of murder before. To say I was intrigued is an understatement, and I invited Ken to share parts of his writing process here at RU.

As a lawyer, I’m constrained by facts. A client comes to me with a problem—a deal to put together, a lawsuit to commence or defend—and the first thing I must do is learn the facts. From then on, all the advice I give and the actions I take are dictated by the immutable facts of the case.

Because I’m a litigator, this is often confounding. I have a meritorious case and a deserving client. If only the facts weren’t so…so factual. Why’d the client have to write that particular email? Why’d he have to say that in front of all those witnesses? It’s such a great case, and I’m still in the right, but the client went and did something stupid. And now, as Desi used to tell Lucy all the time: “You’ve got a lot of ‘splaining to do.” If the facts were just a little malleable, I could avoid a bit of unnecessary tap dancing.

Lawyers write for a living. And there are cynics who’d even say that lawyers write fiction for a living. We’ve all heard the complaint that litigation isn’t about finding the truth, it’s about finding whose version of the truth will prevail. While there may be something to that view, I can honestly say I’ve never fabricated facts, or intentionally hidden them, to gain the upper hand in a legal matter. But what if I weren’t bound to the reality that the facts imposed upon me? What if, in the middle of my big case, when I realized that the facts weren’t playing out just as I’d hoped they would, I could go back and change things? Un-write the ill-advised email, or un-say the indiscreet remark? I could make things come out just the way I want them to.

That’s the great thing about writing legal thrillers. I get to make stuff up. And if I don’t like how it turns out, I get to go back and make changes. I’m free to explore “what ifs” and “how abouts” to my heart’s content. I can be perpetrator, victim, witness, prosecutor, defense counsel, judge and jury. In short, I get to make up my own facts, and there’s nothing unethical about it!

When I sat down to begin writing my first novel, Silent Counsel, I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. I decided to approach the task as I did a legal case, and I remembered an instructor in one of my continuing legal education classes advising of the importance of developing a theme for your case. “A case without a theme is just a bunch of testimony. A car crash doesn’t happen in a vacuum—it’s a tragedy that involves real people and real consequences.” Cloaking your case with a theme gives jurors a reason to stay interested and alert: “This case is not just about young Will being injured when the buckling mechanism on his infant seat came loose. It’s about the kind of corporate greed that places the cost of recalling a defective product and the benefit of saving a child’s life on opposite ends of a scale—and tips that scale against the child.” Now, with that theme in the jury’s mind, otherwise dry testimony about how this strap connects to that latch may be, if not interesting, at least a little more bearable. There’s a reason to care.

In the context of a legal case, we start—necessarily—with the facts as they’re presented to us. We search for a theme that relates well to those facts and exerts the right amount of emotional pull to grab hold of the jury. Writing fiction allows the reverse.

When I start writing a novel, the page is quite literally blank. There are no facts, only an idea. In Silent Counsel, the idea was: What if your child were killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the one person who knew the driver’s identity—his lawyer­­—couldn’t tell you or the authorities his client’s name because the court held it was privileged information?

From this germ of an idea, a theme emerged: What happens when two concepts we like to think are one and the same—law and justice—diverge? As a mother, how would you deal with your unspeakable rage at a legal system that places a legal technicality above the search for your son’s killer? And as a lawyer, how would you deal with your ethical obligation to remain silent, when you know in your heart that the right thing to do is to help the mother find justice?

I knew little more about my novel than this when I began writing. I’ve since heard the writing process compared to driving from New Jersey to California in the dark, being able to see only as far as your headlights illuminate. You know where you are, you know where you ultimately want to be, and you have a vague idea of how you’re going to get there. But all you know for sure right now is the ground you’ll be covering within the range of your headlights—and something just outside your view may change your plans. You discover that the bridge you planned to take across the river is washed out, and instead of going directly from Point A to Point B, you find yourself driving miles along the river until you come upon the next way across. You planned on driving west, but unforeseen weather conditions force you to take the southern route instead. This is how writing was for me: I’d start a chapter knowing generally where I was heading, with some specific short-range ideas of what route to take, and find out quickly that the characters had something else in mind. I’d watch, almost a spectator, as dialog unfolded, and I’d discover things about my characters and the story that I hadn’t known before.

That’s when it becomes really useful to be able to control the facts. Remember, I lamented a lawyer’s inability to un-write the ill-advised email, or un-say the indiscreet remark? In the middle of writing fiction, when the story takes an unexpected left turn, and the sun-shiny day mentioned a few chapters ago no longer suits your purpose, you can simply go back and create a thunderstorm. Believe it or not, it actually takes some getting used to. I remember the first time during the writing process when an action one of my characters was about to take just wasn’t consistent with the facts up to that point. I was stumped. How could he possibly do that in view of what had come before? Then it dawned on me—what I had already written was not etched in granite. I could go back and rewrite history. A little thought and a couple of keystrokes, and a new path opened for my character. That was heady stuff for a lawyer.

Telling a good story requires a specific skill set, among which are imagination, creativity, organization, and the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively. Successful lawyers use those skills to win over juries and convince them that the facts and circumstances of a case compel them to reach only one result—to find in favor of the lawyer’s client. Successful novelists use them to conjure up stories that take hold of readers and transport them to a world of their making.

I still practice law, so I still have to worry about pesky facts. Except when I sit down at the computer to work on my novels. Then I’m free to fudge the facts.

***

Have you ever found yourself deep into writing and found that you had to go back and change a fundamental fact to make your story work? By tweaking that fact, did it create a ripple effect that required even more changes, or did it “miraculously” make everything else just fall into place?

***

Bio:

Ken Isaacson is general counsel to Allstates WorldCargo, Inc., a freight forwarding company headquartered in Bayville, New Jersey and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers. He is also a founding member and a director of Nasty Woman Press. A native of New Jersey, and a recent transplant to Florida, he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975 and received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1979. Shortly after the 2007 publication of SILENT COUNSEL, it spent an entire month on Amazon’s list of Bestselling Legal Thrillers with only two titles ahead of it—John Grisham’s THE APPEAL and Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

His latest, DEATH BENEFIT: An Elliot Lerner novel, was released in September 2017.

 

You can learn more at www.KenIsaacson.com and can follow him on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/AuthorKenIsaacson. On Twitter, find him @KenIsaacson.

 

 

DEATH BENEFIT:

 

Suppose it were legal to gamble on the time someone else is going to die. It is, if you invest in a life insurance product called a viatical.

When the sister of a law firm client dies in her sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning because of an apparently malfunctioning hot water heater, third year law student Elliot Lerner is asked to determine whether anyone could be held responsible in a wrongful death lawsuit. As he looks into the circumstances surrounding the death, he learns about viatical settlements—investment products designed to provide terminally ill patients with immediate cash in exchange for the right to their life insurance payouts when they die. The amount investors are willing to pay for a patient’s death benefit depends on how much longer the patient is expected to live, because the investor must take over payment of the insurance premiums.

If it looks like the investor’s gamble is not going to pay off as planned because the patient is living too long, and the cost of premium payments has exceeded expectations, there’s only one way to eliminate that expense.

 

Lee Child, the NY Times best-selling author of the Jack Reacher series, calls it “A terrific legal thriller, right up there with the best in the genre—immediately appealing, always intriguing, and very satisfying in the end.”

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7 Responses to “Free to Fudge the Facts by Ken Isaacson”

  1. Ken – Thanks so much for joining us at RU today. Reading this book made me think of the mystery author Mary Kay Andrews. She told me about the time she was doing research on yacht thefts for one of her stories and suddenly wondered if the people she was interviewing might have been a little dubious about her motives.

    When you were researching this story, were you uncomfortable asking questions about the method and the ways to disguise it? (Without spoilers, if possible.)

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 25, 2017, 12:30 am
    • Becke,

      Thanks so much for inviting me to share in the RU experience, and for the kind words.

      Indeed, many thoughts went through me head when I was researching a particular way to kill someone (and how to disguise it)!

      As a lawyer, I often made use of expert witnesses, and it’s possible to find an expert in virtually any subject matter. So it occurred to me that the must be an expert how could guide me in my particular quest. I consulted an online directory of expert witnesses and composed an email explaining what I was seeking. I made sure to include information about my previous writing, to help convince the recipients that I wasn’t a kook. (Or at least not a kook with regard to this particular inquiry!)

      Of course, when I hit the sent button, I wondered whether there’d be a knock on the door in the coming days. The knock didn’t come, but a responsive email did, along with a treasure trove of information. In the weeks to come, schematic diagrams followed. My experience has been that people enjoy sharing their knowledge and enjoy being part of the creative process.

      Must of my remaining research was accomplished through Google searches. I realize that I naively thought that such searches afforded me anonymity, but I think it’s clear now that “they” can, for the most part, see what you’re doing. Oh well…we do what we must!

      Posted by Ken Isaacson | October 25, 2017, 9:06 am
  2. Oooh, those Google searches. I bet anyone looking at the search history of any writer – but particularly mystery writers – could find some VERY interesting material there! ‘-)

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 25, 2017, 12:35 pm
  3. Ken, DEATH BENEFIT is simply brilliant!! The whole viatical industry is something I wager most people–like myself–knew nothing about.

    Can’t wait to see what you come up with next! 🙂

    Posted by Kelli Stanley | October 25, 2017, 2:37 pm
  4. Kelli – Great to hear from you! Like you, I knew nothing about the viatical industry. Pretty scary!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 25, 2017, 3:06 pm
  5. Thanks so much for joining us today, Ken!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 26, 2017, 12:01 am

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