Writing What I Know and What I Don’t from a Legal Perspective

Hi Y’all:

I’m still in NYC writing Music Notes and getting in the holiday spirit before traveling back to Austin next week! Today we have as our guest best selling author, Judge Debra H. Goldstein!

Debra is the author of the legal mystery, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery (Five Star – 2016), and the 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue, a mystery set on the University of Michigan’s campus. She also writes short stories and non-fiction.

Find out more about Debra and her books at

When I began writing fiction, I was advised to write “what you know.” Theoretically, that seemed simple. There were lots of things I could incorporate: a happy childhood, attending the University of Michigan and Emory University, being a Jeopardy contestant, working as a corporate attorney before joining the Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor, winning a higher education equal pay case of first impression before I was thirty, serving as a U.S. Administrative Law Judge, and being a wife, mother, step-mother, Girl Scout leader, and community volunteer. The possibilities, like a run-on sentence, were endless. My problem was “writing what you know” didn’t work for me.

debra-headshotBecause I was sitting on the bench, I felt ethically precluded from writing anything that might be inferred as being from cases I heard. I similarly feared inclusion of certain characters, like colorful criminals or lawyers, would immediately make people think I was stealing from my years as a litigator. Steering away from these characters and scenes, which I knew and understood, resulted in new ideas, but boring writing. Slowly, I realized that part of who I am as a writer required including a little of “what I know” and a lot of imagination.

For example, I had a happy childhood, but what if I didn’t? My first legal job was in a big corporation where I was assigned to a tax group and was treated well, but what if I’d been caught in the midst of a cover-up? Once these questions crossed my mind, I found myself with endless story possibilities. Consequently, I began writing a hybrid of “what I know” and “what I don’t know.”

The result of modifying “write what you know” to “write what you don’t know” goldstein-bookbecame my new book, Should Have Played Poker: a Carrie Martin and the Mah Jongg Players Mystery. In Poker, Carrie’s mother returns to her life twenty-six years after abandoning her family. Within hours of appearing in Carrie’s office and leaving Carrie with a sealed envelope and the knowledge she once considered killing Carrie’s father, Carrie’s mother is murdered. Compelled to find out why her mother is dead and to unravel why she abandoned her, while balancing pressures at work, Carrie soon learns that what she was taught to believe and the truth may very well be two different things.


Blending “what I know” and “what I don’t” raised the stakes for Poker’s plotline. From when Carrie’s mother tells her, “The first time I thought about killing him, the two of us were having chicken sandwiches at that fast-food place with the oversized rubber bird anchored to its roof. … It didn’t seem like the right thing to kill him in a place they close on Sundays. Besides, Carrie, being a lawyer, you can understand I didn’t want to do prison time. I decided it would be better to divorce your father,” the juxtaposition of my professionally gained legal knowledge and my imagination collided. Gripping each other tightly, the reader and I embarked on a ride together.

The same holds true in many of my short stories, including Legal Magic, Hot and Cold, Power Play, and Who Dat? Dat the Indian Chief!. My knowledge of the law and its language brings reality to my work, but my willingness to reach beyond own experiences is what entices readers. In my mind, it would be a crime to write in any other manner.

What about you? Do you stick to reading or writing only what you know?

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“Manning Wolfe is a modern-day author not to be missed. Her page-turners keep me up all night!”

An award-winning author and attorney, writes cinematic-style, smart, fast-paced thrillers and crime fiction. 

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