Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Writing on Wednesday - Guest Debra H. Goldstein on Writers as Liars

It's a pleasure to welcome Debra H. Goldstein to Writing on Wednesday. Read Debra's bio below to appreciate her versatility, and then see why she says it's a good thing that novelists lie! ~ Sheila

Writers are liars.  They are masters of taking facts and embellishing them beyond a point of recognition.  This practice would seem to be a contradiction to the suggested “write what you know,” but it is the combination of lies and what one knows that produces credible works. 

For example, Linda Fairstein, served as Chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit of the office of the New York County District Attorney for twenty-six years.  Because she personally handled and supervised the investigation and trial of cases involving domestic violence and other related sexual crimes, her books accurately reflect her knowledge of these crimes as well as the thought processes and actions of attorneys, detectives, criminals, and victims.  My background as a lawyer and judge makes me appreciate the credible elements of reality she incorporates from what she knows, but as a Fairstein fan, I turn the pages because of the fictional drama she adds.  If her books only depicted the hours of paper pushing, waiting for docket calls, and other boring details necessary to be a successful prosecutor, I would not eagerly await each book she writes. 

I feel the same way about the works of forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs and lawyers Richard North Patterson, Scott Turow, and John Grisham.  Each uses personal knowledge as the basis for correct courtroom or forensic lab settings and procedures, but it is the fictional detail added to plot, characterization, setting or dialogue that creates a compelling story.   

The key is what details a writer uses to enhance the truth beyond what the writer knows.  In my short story, “Legal Magic,” a young lawyer is making his case to what seems to be an empty judicial bench.  The judge, who is scheduled for back surgery, is there, but hearing his cases lying on a cot hidden by the bench because he doesn’t want to reschedule the hearings set on his docket.  This instance actually happened to me early in my career so I technically wrote what I knew of the scene and the emotions being felt by the young lawyer, but the rest of the story never happened.  Ironically, a reader would probably think the “lies” are the truth of the story.  Similarly, in my 2012 IPPY Award winning book, Maze in Blue, a murder mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus in the 1970’s, I used real locations, sororities, and events but then embellished them.   

By giving readers accurate core concepts, the experience of reading the book or story isn’t disrupted to question basic errors.  The use of imagination coupled with “writing what you know” gives the end product enough credibility that the reader is willing to accept the entire work at face value.     Would Hogwarts be the same if J.K. Rowling hadn’t added a few details to what she knew of boarding schools and train platforms?   


Judge, author, litigator, wife, step-mom, mother of twins, civic volunteer, University of Michigan grad, and transplanted Yankee are all words used to describe Debra H. Goldstein.  Her writings are equally diverse.  Her debut novel, Maze in Blue, a murder mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus in the 1970’s received a 2012 Independent Book Publisher (IPPY) Award.  Even though Maze in Blue is a murder mystery, it is a safe bet that when it comes to her writing, “It’s Not Always a Mystery.”  For more info please click:  or



  1. Really interesting post. You've hit, I think, on a notable difference between modern readers and those of, say, the early-to-mid 20th century. If we're to judge by the kinds of mysteries that get written, modern readers are interested not just in reading a good story, but in learning something. We want the feel of the courtroom or the forensics lab or the racetrack or the theater or the quilting group to be right because we want to know what it's like to be in that environment: how do needleworkers think about their projects? how does an attorney adjust to having precisely the judge everyone wants to avoid? what's it like to compete in obedience (or for that matter just to have a really well-trained dog)?

    Thank you for an excellent post. (Also, Go Blue!)

    Linda C.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I do believe readers always, even if it is subconsciously, want to learn something, but they want the story to flow. If there is something incorrect it stops the flow and sometimes means the book or story will not be read to its final conclusion.