10/18/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Series on Series: Book One, Primary Justice

1986 seems like a long time ago. But that was when I started writing my first novel -- Ben Kincaid's debut. I spent about two years writing it, in the odd moments when I wasn't busy as a junior associate in the litigation department at a big Tulsa law firm. Then I spent two more years looking for agents and publishers. Then the book was scheduled for early 1991, but pushed back to Christmas based upon promising feedback. And then, in December of 1991, I was posing at Waldenbooks in front of a book dump filled with my first book, holding three-month old Harry, my other new arrival...

All I ever wanted to do was write. I held other jobs to pay bills, some of them better than others, but not a day went by that I didn't think about writing. I had published some short pieces, but it wasn't until I got out of college that I started thinking about writing something as overwhelming and complex as a novel. After a few abortive efforts at science fiction, I settled on a contemporary novel with a legal background, figuring I would simply use what I saw every day as fictional fodder. Reports of how I transplanted real-life people or events into the book are grossly exaggerated. For the most part, I had to make everything about three hundred times larger and more interesting before it would work in a novel. But I was able to absorb enough of the legal milieu to create a believable setting.

The first few drafts were not mysterious at all. Fresh out of college and steeped in books like Winesberg, Ohio and The Dubliners, I was much more interested in character than plot. The one aspect I thought I could bring to the character portraits that other books did not was a sense of humor or irony (that at times I fear came off more as cynicism, my least favorite kind of writing). But the book was thin on plot and I soon realized its likelihood of being published was slight. How could I make this book more exciting? In my spare time in college I read some of the Golden Age mystery writers -- Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie and, my favorite, Dorothy Sayers. Could I bring elements of crime fiction into this book?

I did, and the central crime, involving a brain-damaged little girl and her murdered guardian, energized the story. I still think it's primarily about the characters, and the plot doesn't permeate the book nearly as well as it probably should, but now the characters had something dramatic to talk about. Some who have read my later books, then turned back to this one, find it rather quiet by comparison; and they're right. My final stroke, the smartest thing I ever did in my entire career, was adding the first two pages -- the last pages I wrote. I realized that the opening introduction of Ben and the law firm environment might seem slow to readers wanting a corpse in chapter one, so I added a bizarre and mysterious prologue. I think that's what sold the book. That prologue has been excepted in books on writing as a example of how to grab readers' attention. Check it out and see if it doesn't make you want to read more.

The most important aspect of this book is the introduction for the two lead characters, Ben Kincaid and Christina McCall. Murders would come and go, but these two would remain the center of all eighteen books (so far) in this series. In 1986, the best-known fictional lawyer was Perry Mason, so I tried to make Ben everything that Perry was not. Perry was perfect -- he always had all the answers, he was brilliant in the courtroom, he had no discernible flaws (or personal life) and he always won. Ben, by contrast, rarely knew the answers (at least at first), could be withdrawn, shy (if not neurotic), had many personal and family issues, was terrible in the courtroom (at first) and, sometimes, did not prevail -- but he never quit. Moreover, he genuinely cared about his clients and tried to help them, the aspect of his character that I think more than any other has caused readers to take him into their hearts. Did I inject any of myself into this character? What do you think? Ben/Bill -- only a few keystrokes apart.

Legal assistants didn't figure in fiction at all until Christina hit the scene. (What exactly was Della Street, anyway?) Christina showed the world how important and indispensable they could be. And her odd but endearing relationship with Ben, often taking charge to compensate for his deficits, made them a unique and formidable team. When this became a series, I made sure that relationship was never static. It grew and evolved throughout the series, so readers could look forward to seeing what happened next.

I had no idea how well this paperback original might do. The initial print run was quite modest. I was just excited to be in print. Only when I heard that the book had entered its eighth printing did I begin to suspect that something amazing was happening...