I’m a lawyer who writes fiction, but that doesn’t mean I write legal fiction. I’ve got nothing against it, but I’ve got a special place in my heart for lawyers who become writers and don’t fall into that genre (think Felix Gilman or Stephan Pastis). That being said, “the law” does tend to rear its head in my stories more often than not.
Obviously, when it comes to The Water Road Trilogy, there’s a lot of lawlessness involved. Insurrection, war, and the like tends to upset the regular business of things, after all. But that doesn’t mean that the law, criminal law in particular disappears.
As we saw last week, one of the new characters for The Endless Hills, Martoh, is, in fact, a criminal. We meet him in prison, fighting for his life. He gets the opportunity to wipe his legal slate clean by volunteering to go fight the Neldathi. That’s not a new idea – for generations people have been given the chance to improve their social status by serving in the military (it’s a path to citizen ship for immigrants in the United States, if I’m not mistaken). And it’s got antecedents in speculative fiction. I wanted to use it to have a low-level soldier’s point of view, a soldier who chose to be there, but didn’t really have much of a choice.
We spent relatively little time in prison with Martoh, however. In the third book, The Bay of Sins, one of the plot threads involves a trial in Innisport for one of the viewpoint characters (a new one, essentially, although she makes a brief appearance in The Endless Hills). For most of the book she’s incarcerated in a prison of fairly recent vintage built on the edge of Innisport. Putting a character in a cell for a whole book meant I had to have a good idea of what the place looked and felt like.
One of the cool things about writing fantasy is that you get to make up whatever you want. Still, it’s interesting to use the real world as a jumping off point sometimes. Several years ago my wife and I were in Philadelphia. On our way out we stopped at the Eastern State Penitentiary. The place was ahead of its time. As I wrote on my old blog:
It was called a penitentiary because the core of its approach was to force prisoners to be penitent, or humble and regretful, about their sins . . . er, crimes, rather. To accomplish that task, prisoners were kept in isolation from one another at were required to remain silent at all times.
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The system employed at Eastern State didn’t catch on in the United States very much (a similar system that emphasized work over penitence won out in Gilded Age America), but it was popular overseas. That being said, the general look and vibe of the place is similar to a lot of American prisons built not too long after, including the old West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville.
It was also technically innovative:
It had a system of steam heat and running water (sort of – guards flushed the toilets twice a week, IIRC) long before most of the young United States did. The design itself, with its central control hub and cellblocks spiraling out from there. It allowed for maximum visibility with the fewest number of watchers.
Now it’s a semi-ruin and creepy as hell:
It’s also great fodder for the imagination. So when it came time to imagine where this character might be doing her time, a modified version of Eastern State leapt to mind. It was fun to run with it, tweak it as need it, and see how the characters in my world dealt with it.
World building is the foundation of writing fantasy and science fiction. Law (or its explicit absence) is as important to any world as any other part of society, even if it doesn’t drive your story. You don’t have to be a lawyer/writer to realize that.
Remember, The Water Road is now available at Amazon as well as in the real world at Empire Books & News.