Rebecca K. Jones made her fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in September/October 2009 with a story cowritten with her father, frequent EQMM contributor and translator Josh Pachter. This month, her first novel, Steadying the Ark, was published. In the intervening years, she sold several more short stories and worked as a sex-crimes prosecutor in Arizona. In this post she answers a question most fiction writers get asked at some point—How much of your work is based on real incidents and real people? The question, as she illustrates, often has special significance for those employed by the government or in possession of confidential information. —Janet Hutchings
The most common question I get about my writing is “How much of it is real?” I imagine this is true for most writers who write fiction set within the world of their day job—from veterinarians to cops—and since I almost always write about a youngish female prosecutor in Arizona and I am a youngish female prosecutor in Arizona, I understand the impulse to ask. My answer, much to people’s surprise, is “None of it . . . almost.”
I was raised by parents who were voracious readers in homes that were filled with books, and both of them inspired in me an early love of good stories. My dad is also a writer whose name will be familiar to readers of EQMM: Josh Pachter. His stories and translations have been appearing in EQMM, AHMM, and many other magazines and anthologies since the 1960s, and I was aware even as a child that my father and many of his friends were published authors. As a result, becoming a published author myself never seemed that out of reach. My first short story, “History on the Bedroom Wall,” was co-written with my dad and appeared in EQMM in 2009. That story was set at Middlebury College, where I did my undergraduate work, but the people populating my version of Middlebury, and the story itself, were entirely fictional.
Since that first story, I’ve written several more and done two French to English translations of stories by Thomas Narcejac, all of which have appeared in various magazines and anthologies. The short stories, and my debut novel, have all featured Mackenzie Wilson, a gay prosecutor in Arizona who rises through the ranks at the Tucson District Attorney’s Office and has adventures in all of her assignments.
Many people enroll in law school not knowing what kind of law they want to practice, but I knew before my first day of classes that my goal was to be a sex-crimes prosecutor. In fact, I knew at sixteen that that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. When I joined the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in 2012, my dream was to make it to the sex-crimes unit, an elite group of senior prosecutors, in five years. But at that time the office was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, and I wound up in sex crimes only fourteen months after beginning my career as a prosecutor.
In 2015, I’d already written the first short story featuring Mack Wilson (although it didn’t find a home for several years), and I had really enjoyed writing about her. Mack’s life as a prosecutor is almost entirely dissimilar to my own, but who wants to read a book about someone who sits behind a desk all day and goes home at five? So it was with Mack in mind that I set out to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and I decided to write about what I knew, just a more interesting version.
I wanted to write a courtroom drama, a thriller in the style of the authors I most often read: Marcia Clark, Linda Fairstein, John Lescroart, and Michael Connelly. I was focused on two things: writing a compelling story in which my protagonist would face realistic challenges—both professional and personal—and writing fiction.
It was the fiction part that was the challenge. My workload at the time averaged around seventy-five cases on any given day, and I was handling somewhere around two hundred separate cases a year. By the time I began my NaNoWriMo project, I had accumulated approximately six hundred real-life fact patterns just from my own cases—not to mention the hundreds of my colleagues’ cases we’d discussed and the many cases I’d heard about during my training—and to avoid any potential ethical issues I had to avoid borrowing from any of them. Although it is theoretically possible to fictionalize real cases without crossing ethical lines, I’ve never wanted to even come close to a gray area. Although there is an advantage to fictionalizing real cases, that I don’t have to use time inventing a plot, there is also the possibility of a serious disadvantage—I could get in trouble with my employer or the bar association. The worst-case scenario is that a defendant I prosecuted could conceivably have grounds for an appeal or a post-conviction relief action. Weighing all those factors, it has never seemed worth it to me to take the risk. I would think that this is a concern for any author who has a day job where they’re dealing with confidential (or even just personal) information, and it should be especially true for government employees who work as arbiters of justice.
When an attorney handles a large number of cases with similar subject matter, patterns emerge. This was true for me during my years in sex crimes (and, later, in four years of handling drug-trafficking cases), and I know from colleagues that it’s true in a wide variety of other kinds of cases, too. My familiarity with these patterns allowed me to paint, in very broad strokes, the outlines of two main cases for Mack Wilson to face: a complex child-molest case involving multiple victims and a straightforward voyeurism trial. There were also some additional elements I wanted to explore in the book—arcane LDS theology, common defense strategies in cases that seem heavily weighted in the state’s favor, and what happens when politics get in the way of a dedicated line prosecutor in her pursuit of justice.
In my first drafts, regardless of the length of the piece, I always try just to tell the story, and I don’t worry too much about elements of real cases sneaking in. Mack has never retried any of the actual cases I’ve handled, and I always let my invented plots dictate the specifics of the situations she faces. My knowledge of the system informs my first drafts much more than the facts of any of my real-world cases. I write stories that are accurate in terms of the way a case proceeds through the system and in how prosecutors cope with the darkness they face every day.
As I revise those first drafts, though, I constantly test elements of Mack’s cases. Where did this idea come from? Did I have a case that included this fact? Did I hear about a case where something similar to this really happened?
Part of my revision process for the book involved having friends I’d made in the sex-crimes unit read drafts. Their input made the book stronger in many ways, but my primary question was always Do you recognize any of this? Revision was a lengthy process, but by the end I was satisfied that no elements of Mack’s cases were taken from my own or my colleagues’ cases.
Similarly, I always need to be sure that none of the people in Mack’s world are based on real people. Mack works with cops, defense attorneys, judges, and a wide variety of child-abuse professionals. I worked with all of those categories of people when I had Mack’s job, and I still work with cops, defense attorneys, and judges today. It is important to me—both in theory and because I write fiction, not memoir—that none of the people in Mack’s world should be based on real people. I wanted to avoid any chance that people I know might read my work and find themselves speculating about the “real” identities of my fictional characters. Instead, I again think about the patterns I’ve noticed and let the plot dictate the specifics. As a result, there are no real people in my fiction . . . well, with one exception.
There is in fact one real person in Mack’s fictional world—an attorney I met when we were both new sex-crimes prosecutors and who has become one of my very best friends. I didn’t set out to include her in Steadying the Ark, but Mack needed a mentor and a friend, and I couldn’t invent one that was better than the one I knew in real life. In my first draft, I let what I knew about my friend Elizabeth shape the character of Jess Lafayette, with the intention of ultimately editing Jess into fiction. When I began to revise, though, I couldn’t bring myself to divorce Jess from my friend. I eventually asked Elizabeth if it would be okay to include a character closely based on her in my otherwise fictional world. “As long as I don’t turn out to be the killer,” she said, and that seemed like a reasonable request.
Regardless of whether Mack is appearing in a short story or a novel, my process for ensuring the separation between her world and mine is the same. Bella Books, which published Steadying the Ark this March, has asked me to turn Mack Wilson into a series character, which means I will continue to repeat this process.
As I very slowly start working on the sequel, I find myself stepping outside my comfort zone. In this second book, Mack will be handling homicides—which are a kind of case I’ve never dealt with myself. For my outline and first draft, I’ve been following the same method I always use: just telling the story. When it comes time to revise, I will have to rely heavily on homicide trainings I’ve attended and the experiences of my friends and colleagues. I’ll ask the same kinds of questions, and change details accordingly if anything from reality has snuck into my fiction.
My hope is that people who read my books will walk away not merely entertained but with a sense of how the justice system works—at least in Arizona, at least from a prosecutor’s perspective. Although the stories are invented, and so are (almost) all of the people, the emotions, the high-stakes atmosphere, and the passion are very real. Those qualities, I think, are what make for a compelling story. I hope I’ve done them all justice!
Great piece by a very promising debut author! (Biased? Moi? Mais non!)