Sue Ann Jaffarian – Don’t Damn the Day Job

Sue Ann Jaffarian

What do you get when you cross a cranky, post-menopausal paralegal with enough lawyers to fill the Rose Bowl? Answer: A license to kill. At least on paper.

I have been working in the legal field for 35 years. Count ‘em – 35. Currently, I’m employed full-time as a paralegal at a healthcare-related law firm in Los Angeles. My Odelia Grey mystery series features a middle-aged, plus size, corporate paralegal. When I was advised long ago to write what I know, I embraced that advice with both chubby hands and didn’t let go, because, frankly, I am a middle-aged, plus size, corporate paralegal. Deciding to write about one seemed a no-brainer.

During my very first newspaper interview, a young journalist looked me up and down and asked: “So, what inspired you to write a mystery about a middle-aged, overweight paralegal.” My first urge was to asked her if she was writing the article for the Braille Institute. But instead, I told her I received my inspiration from my day-to-day life as a tall, thin, young blond, who worked as an extra on Bay Watch.

What the young, clueless journalist should have asked was: “How does your career as a paralegal influence your career as a writer?” And while she did not ask that question, Lee Lofland did, and asked me to talk about it on The Graveyard Shift. (Thanks, Lee!)

Besides the obvious, that my legal career enables me to write with accuracy life inside a busy law firm and to infuse my main character and many of the people around her with realism, my long years in the legal field serve me very well in my career as a writer. As a paralegal I have been trained in communication – both written and verbal, research, and organization. Other skills learned over the years are flexibility, time management, and the ability to problem-solve. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a fiction writer, doesn’t it? Especially a mystery author.

Anyone who works in law, whether as a paralegal, attorney, or in some other capacity, will tell you that law is a field fraught with deadlines, those imposed internally by bosses and those imposed by outside sources. Anyone with poor time management skills or unable to work under pressure will find themselves stressed to the gills and buckling in no time. Writing, too, is a mine field of deadlines, mostly set by the publisher. How can I manage to write two books a year and still maintain a paralegal career? By knowing how to prioritize. By utilizing time management and organization to stay on track as I aim for those deadlines. And by not being too fussy about the cleanliness of my home.

Knowing how to research and how to organize and distill what I learn into usable information is another legal skill that translates beautifully into writing. Research does not scare me, nor does picking up the phone and calling experts to ask if I can pick their brains. While the other side of a legal matter might not be friendly and/or forthcoming with information, authorities and experts love to talk to writers. Do not get your research information second or third-hand. Go directly to the source. Due diligence is just as important in writing as it is in law. It’s the housework of both fields.

The key point here is not that a good writer should have good legal skills, but that we all have skills we use in other areas of our lives that should be utilized more in our careers as writers. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, I guarantee you have great skills you have not put to use in your writing. Stop a moment and take a good look at all the talents you possess, especially those you use everyday outside of your writing. Make a list of them. Study them and determine how best to use them in your writing. Put them to work full-time.

In a nutshell, don’t leave your best skills at the office. They don’t keep banker’s hours and love working nights and weekends.

Booby Trap, the fourth book in Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Odelia Grey mystery series is due for release February 2009, with The Ghost of Granny Apples, the first book in her new Granny Apples mystery series, scheduled for release September 2009. Visit Sue Ann on the web at and read her blog at

5 replies
  1. Sue Ann Jaffarian
    Sue Ann Jaffarian says:

    Elena – my doc once gave me something that could make me a “little irritable.” Turns out it made me a raving, slobbering lunatic. I even got in the face of one of our senior partners. Fortunately, he understood I was on drugs and only laughed. Wonder what my excuse can be now? Hmmmm….

    Jeff – I know you have more talents than that empty list. I’ve read your work. 🙂

    Vivian – Thanks for the comment. I know a lot of teachers. I’m surprised we don’t hear of them going postal after what they put up with. Go ahead and write that story. Might exorcise a few demons.

    Lee – Thanks for the opportunity to shanghai your blog today. Loved it!

  2. Vivian
    Vivian says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this blog entry, Sue Ann. I haven’t read any of your books, yet, but after reading this I want to. As a rather plus sized former teacher of writing, I keep wanting to write a thriller/mystery/suspense novel about a teacher who goes berserk under the load of red tape and administration, uh, difficulties.

    Guess I’m still too close to my experiences as a teacher to be able to write that one — yet.

    So, I wrote about something I had to research.

    Vivian Zabel

  3. jeffsherratt
    jeffsherratt says:

    Excellent blog, Sue Ann, loaded with useful advice for busy writers. I did as you suggested and made a list at all my talents. See below:
    1) . . .

    I’ll get back to you on that.

    Jeff Sherratt

  4. Elena
    Elena says:

    Sue Ann,
    You give me hope – after a month on a new med my doc casually mentioned that it might make me a “little irritable”. This after I expanded my weekly weight training to include boxing!

    “Little irritable” my chubby post-menopausal foot!!!!!!!

    And, now I know why I enjoy your books so much 🙂

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