“Write what you know,” they say, and so I did. I was a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. for twelve years, specializing in sex crimes, domestic violence and crimes against children. When I started writing my first novel, my protagonist Anna Curtis was—surprise!—a D.C. sex crimes prosecutor.
Since then, Anna has starred in five books published by the Touchstone imprint at Simon & Schuster, and I’ve learned a bit about how to write a thriller based on your day job.
I was lucky that my profession was fascinating. But I think anyone’s workplace can provide the setting for a good thriller.
First, consider your greatest work-related fear. What about your job worries you? What keeps you up at night? The nagging thought that keeps you up at night might just be the seed for your next story.
For me, it was the fear that I would lose a domestic violence case, and the assailant would go back and kill his lover. That is an emotion that really propels Anna in my first book, “Law of Attraction.”
Second, consider which details you want to include. What parts of your job are funny, horrible or surprising? A novel set in a grocery store might be fascinating if you let us in on what the butcher is putting in the sausages.
In my books, I want to highlight the most fascinating details, while leaving out the boring. As a prosecutor, I spent hours poring over paperwork or researching the law. Snooze! Any scene involving paperwork or filing cabinets is a candidate for deletion. In my second novel, “Discretion,” I compressed hours of toiling away at a search warrant into a few sentences, then moved on to the juicy part where Anna searches the cheating congressman’s hideaway—his secret office hidden in the bowels of the Capitol.
Third, tell us how the details of this particular workplace shape your character. We are all the products of our life experiences, and your career is one of the most significant adult experiences we have. How does dealing with corpses affect an undertaker’s view of how to live? How does giving pedicures shape the pedicurist’s feelings toward the women whose feet she’s buffing?
My heroine, Anna, sees a dark side of human nature, the worst things humans can do to one another. At the same time, she’s a young single woman trying to find love and romance in the city. What she sees in her docket certainly colors her view of romantic partners and her complicated love life.
Finally, find a way to convey your professional expertise in a way that is compelling and organic to the story. Don’t just do a data dump.
My latest book, “The Last Good Girl,” is about campus sex assaults. There are so many shocking statistics about college rapes. Did you know that 5% of the boys commit 90% of the rapes on campus? They’re serial predators, committing the same crime over and over. Boys who join frats are 300% more likely to rape than boys who don’t. And rape is the most under-reported crime in America, with less than 80% ever reported to any authority.
Crazy numbers, I think, but not a great story. The challenge was finding a way to incorporate these statistics into a compelling narrative that would hook the reader and not make her think she’s just reading about math. So I started with a frat boy trying to pick up a young woman in a bar. It’s a situation we’ve all been in, and one we can relate to. “The Last Good Girl” starts:
The guy had beautiful white teeth and a dimple that appeared when she made him laugh, but all Emily could think was, College is where romance goes to die.
They stood on prime real estate, belly-up to the bar at Lucky’s, pressed together by the swell of bodies around them. The air was thick with sweated perfume, cheap beer, and the recycled breath of hundreds of young adults in their sexual prime. The boy drained his Bud, set the bottle on the bar, and issued a mating call.
“Wanna do shots?”
Translation: Wanna get wasted, get laid, get out of my bed, and never talk to me again? There were no boyfriends in college. There were only hookups.
Emily smiled at the boy, tilting her head cutely to the side. To the world, she probably looked like any other carefree girl basking in a Friday night. It made her wonder how many of these girls were just like her. Pretending. Maybe all of them, in one way or another.
“Sure,” she said.
My opening focuses on people, both of whom have an agenda, whom I hope are sympathetic, and who might be hiding something that draws you in. I’ll get to my stats and details—eventually—but I’ll do it by making you care about my characters. Every good book, wherever it’s set, comes down to that.
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For twelve years, Allison Leotta was a federal prosecutor specializing in sex crimes and domestic violence in Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Michigan State University. She lives with her husband, Michael Leotta, and their two sons just outside of D.C.
Allison also blogs about what TV crime dramas get right and wrong, from her perspective as a former prosecutor. The ABA has named her blog, The Prime-Time Crime Review, one of the best legal blogs in America for the last three years. Her weekly recaps of Law & Order: SVU are carried by The Huffington Post.