NCRA member Andrea J. Johnson is a court reporter turned freelance entertainment writer for the women’s lifestyle website Popsugar. This love for insider gossip has inspired her to take real-life headlines and turn them into mind-bending mysteries. The Victoria Justice Series is a perfect example of this dynamic as it uses Johnson’s legal background to explore what would happen if a trial stenographer took the law into her own hands. The JCR Weekly recently reached out to her to find out how her court reporting career has helped inspire her stories.
JCR | Where are you from originally?
AJ | I’m originally from the Chesapeake Bay area, specifically the Maryland portion of the Delmarva Peninsula. The area’s coastal setting is quite idyllic, so I’ve set my mystery in that region as well — but on the Delaware side of things since that’s where I spent the most time working as a court reporter.
JCR | How did you make the switch from court reporter to author?
AJ | Becoming an author is something I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 years old, but I’d put it off for decades because writing for a living didn’t seem practical. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I originally became a court reporter: I thought I’d get all the joys of working with syntax and editing without the stress of creating original content. But when my mom was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, she urged me not to play life safe, so I decided to get my graduate degree in creative writing and pursue the career that had eluded me all those years.
JCR | Have you always enjoyed writing?
AJ | Yes, I’ve always enjoyed the idea of writing but not necessarily the practice of writing. My first memory of wanting to be a writer goes back to the third grade. I would finish a book and want to extend the life of the characters so that I could continue to live in that world. Sometimes I’d even start writing a new chapter to the story — a form of old school fan fiction, I suppose — but I’d quickly get discouraged by the discipline it took to shape my ideas. It wasn’t until I grew up and sought guidance on the nuances of story structure that I began to have long-lasting fun with writing.
JCR | What motivated you to develop the Victoria Justice series?
AJ | The character of Victoria Justice has lived in my brain since 2006 although back then I didn’t know what to do with her. She was my reaction to a call for action stars for the reality series Who Wants to Be a Superhero? presented by Stan Lee. The premise of the show was for contestants to create characters who could become comic book heroes. In my mind, what better hero could there be than a court stenographer who seeks to undo bad verdicts through vigilante justice? But at that time, I hadn’t discovered my literary passion, so I couldn’t take advantage of the epiphany. Cut to several years later. I’ve just left my job as a stenographer to pursue writing, and I am searching for a novel idea. So I tweak Victoria to make her more human than hero and match her up with highly fictionalized snippets of real-life court cases. And, voila, the Victoria Justice Court Reporting Mystery series was born.
JCR | What influence did your experience as a court reporter have on your developing the character Victoria Justice?
AJ | Just about everything I’ve experienced as a reporter has been crammed into this series — from the use of long vowels in briefs to the secret joys of AudioSync — but the thing that’s had the most influence on Victoria’s characterization is the outward perception of the profession by those unfamiliar with what we do. She’s often ridiculed for being the one person in the courtroom whose job it is to be seen, not heard. People wag their fingers at her, call her an overpaid notetaker, and assume she’s not very smart. I played into that a bit with the physicality as well by making her short and meek but inside she has a big heart and tons of snark. And while the thrust of the series is about solving murders, an equally large portion of it is about Victoria finding her voice and learning to stand up for herself. In a way, she becomes the town’s last bastion for morality by using the profession’s tenants of accuracy, honesty, and neutrality in the face of the law to claim her space in the world.
JCR | Is the main character based on anyone in particular?
AJ | Crime author Ross Macdonald, known as Kenneth Millar in real life, wrote a popular essay called “The Writer as Detective Hero,” theorizing that mystery writers tend to create sleuths that are a reflection of their personalities whether conscious of this or not. While I hate to go against tradition, I can honestly say Victoria isn’t a reflection of me or anyone I know. However, she does carry my passion for the profession.
JCR | Poetic Justice is your first in the series; correct? What inspired this storyline?
AJ | Yes, Poetic Justice is the first in the series. The inspiration for the storyline comes from a single moment of trial as reported upon by a Delaware newspaper. While testifying on the stand, a police officer opens his drug evidence envelope only to find that the illegal substances have been replaced with over-the-counter medications. I used that imagery as the launching point of the story, but what happens thereafter is a product of my imagination. After all, I want the official court reporter, not the lawyers or the attorneys, to act as the focus and sole narrator of the tale.
JCR | How many novels do you plan for the series?
AJ | I think the concept behind this series is open-ended enough that it could go on forever, but I have always conceived of it as 12 books — like 12 jurors. That’s a nice round number with a large enough arc that Victoria can mature over time and hit professional or personal milestones like starting her own deposition company or falling in love.
JCR | What advice would you give others considering a career down the writing path?
AJ | Do your homework. You don’t have to spend tons of money on graduate school like I did, but you should read as much as you can about the types of books you’d like to write. Join membership organizations that match your writing interest like Mystery Writers of America or Romance Writers of America. Take a class through one of those organizations (you can even do so without being a member). Ask a published author to be your mentor. Never stop searching for knowledge and researching the field. Just like the court reporting profession, you have to study, practice, and keep your skills sharp. Writers might not have CEUs but they have CNEIs — a commitment to constant never-ending improvement.
JCR | How long did you work as a court reporter?
AJ | I was lucky enough to complete school and gain my state certification in two and a half years. I worked in the field for seven.
JCR | Did you work as an official, freelancer, captioner?
AJ | I worked as a deposition reporter in the state of California for two years and as an official reporter in Delaware for five years.
JCR | How did you learn about the court reporting profession?
AJ | The first time I heard about court reporting was in high school since it’s a profession that always shows up on those “Ten Lucrative Careers You Didn’t Know About” lists. However, I didn’t consider becoming one until decades later when I was searching for a career where I didn’t have to adhere to the typical nine-to-five work week.
JCR | Where did you go to court reporting school?
AJ | I attended Bryan College School of Court Reporting, in Los Angeles, Calif. — this was back before they moved that program online — but I only stayed with them through my 180-level proficiency tests. After that, I transferred to Downey Adult School, in Downey, Calif., to finish my speed training in preparation for the California certification exam. While I wouldn’t recommend switching schools at such a crucial point in the program, I felt comfortable doing so because I already had my bachelor’s degree. Like many people, I came to court reporting as a second career, so gaining speed was the toughest part for me. Luckily, the gamble paid off, and I passed my licensing exam on the first attempt.
Johnson has also written several articles on the craft of writing for websites, such as LitReactor, Submittable, Funds for Writers, and DIY MFA. When she isn’t developing her stories, Johnson enjoys cuddling up with a piping hot mug of ginger tea and poring over the latest supermarket tabloids. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read an excerpt from Poetic Justice here.