Novelist David Fulmer said the fiction-writing class he has taught in Decatur for the past four years
has drawn all types of people, but one group stands out: lawyers.
"I never went looking for lawyers, but I've had at least one attorney in almost every class," said
Fulmer, a mystery writer with eight books and a Shamus Award to his name. Real estate
developers, software engineers, carpenters, fraud investigators and travel agents have also signed
up, but Fulmer said he gets more lawyers than any other type of professional.
Some lawyers he's worked with have a whole list of stories they want to turn into novels —and
some are still germinating their ideas.
"Some people have a story and some don't. I have some students who've never written
anything longer than an e-mail and some who've published books," said Fulmer of the eight-week
evening seminar he conducts in a back room at Eagle Eye Book Shop in Decatur. "They're finding
out if it's something they can do."
"I think there's a little creativity in all of us, lawyers included," said John F. Sacha, a litigator at
Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers who took Fulmer's class three years ago. "I think every attorney
would like to write something."
After taking Fulmer's class last spring, civil litigator Cynthia L. Tolbert is expanding a short
story about a murder case she helped with as a law student years ago into a novel.
Tolbert, 58, is of counsel at Casey Gilson. She had put her creative interests on the back burner for
years when she saw a notice in the Georgia Bar Journal last winter announcing its annual fiction
She wrote the story, "Out from Silence," in a month and submitted it. The story is based on a
case she worked on as a law firm clerk while in law school at the University of Mississippi. Tolbert
said she talked her boss into defending a young deaf man accused of attempting to murder his
girlfriend. The man had never learned sign language and his limited ability to communicate kept him
in his "own little world in his head," she said. "I wondered how that affected his life and his view of
"It was a real situation that was interesting for reasons not entirely legal. I took that and turned
it into a new story," she said. She changed the setting from Oxford, Miss., to a fictional college
town in rural Georgia and turned the young man into a "far more sympathetic character."
Writing the story inspired her to join the Atlanta Writers Club, where she heard about Fulmer's class.
"If you have the creative gene—whatever it is, a germ perhaps—eventually you have to address
it. I saw the ad for the contest and that triggered it," she said. Tolbert said she wanted to write
fiction in her youth but was "surrounded by practical-minded people who did not see it as a viable
means of making money."
"I did get lost in the world of lawyering," said Tolbert, who started law school at 30 after a
marriage, children and a divorce. "If you allow it, it will take up all of your time."
"Out from Silence" won the Georgia Bar Journal's fiction contest and appeared in the June issue. It
is Tolbert's first published piece of fiction.
Tolbert said she learned from Fulmer's class that she didn't know how to write a novel. "Now
I'm going through it chapter by chapter and sentence by sentence. I know what the problems are,
and I'm trying to solve them," she said.
Fulmer said he's teaching his students the craft, not the art of writing. "There are different tools
that you have to learn how to use," he said. In each two-hour class meeting he addresses a separate
story component, such as setting, character, dialogue and narrative structure.
"I'm not going to turn you into a writer. But you will know the skills you need to master," Fulmer
"The foundation for me is setting and characters," he said. A Pennsylvania native, he has set
novels in New Orleans in the 1920s and Philadelphia in 1962 because he wanted to write about
His students write short homework pieces to practice each week's component. They start by
writing a back story for their main character, so they understand the person they will be describing.
"Most people want to get to the story and have people running around, fighting or screwing or
whatever, and it runs out of gas," Fulmer said. "They didn't take the time to work out the
Family and criminal defense lawyer Angela Brown Dillon took Fulmer's class earlier in the
summer, after attending a seminar on writing realistically about sex and violence that he taught at
last year's Decatur Book Festival.
Dillon, 40, said she's wanted to write a novel since high school. "I love writing," said Dillon, a
co-owner of Brown & Gill. "But my dad said you couldn't make any money as a writer, so I went
to Georgia Tech."
Dillon had already written a legal thriller when she started the class. "Like myself, the main
character is an African-American lawyer living in Atlanta," she said. Dillon grew up in Columbus
but her protagonist, Simone Madison, is from a wealthy Atlanta family. A former criminal
prosecutor, Madison did something unethical and has returned home after a long absence.
After a childhood friend is accused of poisoning a man eating at a local restaurant, he turns to
Madison for help. Dillon said the murderer uses anti-freeze, an idea she got from Lynn Turner, the
Atlanta woman convicted of murdering her boyfriend and husband this way who died last week in
One thing Dillon learned from Fulmer was to limit dialogue to exchanges that move things along
instead of wasting time having characters say "hello" to each other.
"I had a couple of scenes where mine did that," said Dillon, who is revising her novel now.
Dillon said Fulmer has also opened her eyes to narrative structure. "Pacing—keeping the story
moving so that there are no boring, slow spots—is something David talked about doing scene by
Any story has a three-act structure, said Fulmer, a beginning, middle and end. "Readers expect
that arc, whether they are aware of it or not," he said. That goes for each scene as well.
The first act sets up the main characters, setting, storyline and subplots, he said, and then
something happens at the end of the act that launches the rest of the book. For instance, a lawyer
or detective decides to pursue a particular case.
"Act two is the one people always get stuck on," Fulmer said. "People who actually have
talent and are willing to do the work get stuck and don't know how to get unstuck—and then the
book goes back in the drawer. I spend a lot of time helping them get unstuck."
Dillon would like to write more novels about Madison, and she's also got an idea for a romance.
She's submitted her novel to a few agents, received a few rejections and currently plans to self-
Dillon said she's not dissuaded by the rejections but is getting impatient. "I want to get it
published and see what happens."
Laura A. Janssen, a senior assistant district attorney for Fulton County, said she has no
interest in writing a legal thriller. "I took David's class to get away from my legal life," she said.
She said her biggest challenge was getting herself there. "I had no idea how consumed I was
by my job," said Janssen, 44, who ended up taking Fulmer's class twice after missing several
meetings because of her workload.
Janssen, an animal lover, is Fulton's dedicated animal cruelty prosecutor. She wanted to write
about animals when she started the class but now is thinking about children's books.
Her book ideas are still percolating, but Janssen said she got what she wanted from the class:
learning how writing an actual book works. "It was always a mystery to me, intriguing from afar. I
was glad to burst that bubble."
Sacha, the Swift Currie partner, took Fulmer's class three years ago with his daughter, both as
a fun way to spend time with her and because he had some writing ideas in the back of his head.
"David's class is a good place to germinate that interest," he said.
Sacha, 62, said he's had a screenplay in mind for several years, based on a book he read as a
child. He declined to divulge the title but said it's a classic set during World War II.
"I have a World War II fascination," he said.
For the writing exercises, Sacha created a character who played tennis and practiced law. "I
felt comfortable with that background," he said.
As his setting, he used Prague in the late 1930s, when Hitler started to take over
Czechoslovakia. The plot centered around a gothic university like Duke, said Sacha, a Duke
alumnus whose family comes from Czechoslovakia.
Sacha said he's saved his writing notebook from the class. "One of these days when I finally
decide I have the inclination, I'd like to do something with it," he said. "I got the feeling from David
that you've really got to be committed when you start the process."
He's also thinking about a nonfiction book on growing up and life lessons, which he mused
might be an easier point of departure than fiction.
Sacha said writing fiction was a big shift from legal writing, which is second-nature at this
point in his career. Exercising his creative muscles felt unfamiliar, even though lawyers write all the
time, he said. "I enjoyed it. Maybe I should have taken the class 10 years ago," he reflected.
"You start doing it when you're ready," he said.
Lawyer-writers explore their creative interests
By Meredith Hobbs, Staff Reporter