Soon after John Grisham finished law school in 1981, he started hanging out at the DeSoto County Courthouse on the town square in Hernando, Miss. He had tried writing a book or two at the University of Mississippi, but nothing came of it. Then one day he overheard the horrifying courtroom testimony of a 12-year-old girl who had been raped. What would happen, he asked himself, if the girl's father became so outraged that he killed the rapist?
Grisham couldn't get this story out of his head. Soon he was getting up at 5 a.m. with a notepad, writing chapter after chapter of his first courtroom drama. It took three years to finish the manuscript, and another year of rejections by dozens of companies, before Wynwood Press published 5,000 copies in 1988.
But there was more to this process than telling a story that was in his head and heart.
"While I was writing 'A Time to Kill,' I read everything that was on the New York Times list," said Grisham, at a Baylor University conference called "Art & Soul" in March, 2000. "Most of it, I said to myself, 'I can do better than this.' A lot of it, I said, 'I'll never be that good.' "
Grisham realized that he was not writing the first legal thriller. So he read the competition and he learned the rules -- the writing style of the marketplace in which he would have to compete. He created a likable hero and then he ensnared him in a dangerous conspiracy. Then he carefully plotted a way to get him out of that mess, with as many entertaining twists and turns along the way as possible to create tension.
"I didn't invent that," said Grisham.