How Studying the Common Law Helps Fill in the Gaps in a Cold War Thriller’s Plot

Winter on the Wannsee
The small marina at the US Army’s recreation center on the Wannsee

One role of a common law judge is to fill in the interstices left by elected representatives and statutory law, or so I was taught while studying the law. The idea is that it is impossible to think of every factual and legal circumstance prior to their happening and as a result gaps naturally occur in our codified law. When those gaps are exposed in a case, it is the job of the judge hearing that case, or the judges reviewing that case, to fill in the gaps, the interstices, left by the legislature.

The same concept comes into play when I’m writing and have yet to figure out each point in the story’s arc. At times I have the entire story in mind and it’s merely a matter of fleshing it out as I commit it to a manuscript. Lately, however, it has been the case that I have a broad concept and a number of plot points well defined, but the space between those points needs filling to create a cohesive story. A device I use to fill in those spaces is to take characters I’ve already developed and place them into scenes requiring some action on their part consistent with the overall story I’m trying to tell but entirely new in focus. The results are interesting. These are the moments when I need to create a new character to move the action along; these are the moments when the new scene moves the plot, or a subplot, in a direction I hadn’t anticipated; these are the moments when a new story line will emerge that generates a significant chunk of my final manuscript.

Recognizing the interstices for what they are – opportunities for a richer story – is far better than lamenting their existence as a hole that can’t be closed. I’m not certain I would have been able to approach their existence in my writing in the above-described manner had I not been introduced to the role of common law judges and their relationship to statutory law about 35 years ago. You just never know where this stuff might come from.