Six Research Tips for Writing a Private Detective Character

Online resources, books & conferences can aid a writer's understanding of real-life P.I.s

Online resources, books & conferences can aid a writer's understanding of real-life P.I.s

In my recent private-eye romance novel, Hearts in Vegas (July 2014), the hero is a P.I. Because I am also a private investigator in real life, I didn’t have to research his career all that much. But even if I weren't a P.I. there are ways I could have learned some basic techniques and tools of the trade to help me write a private eye or sleuth character. In this article, I’ll offer six such tips.

Six Research Tips

Tip #1: Read books on investigations. There are hundreds of books on topics, from background investigations to identity theft to personal injury investigations. One resource for investigative books is  My husband and I, when we ran a private investigations agency for a decade, also wrote a nonfiction book for writers, How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, which includes presentations we gave at writers' conferences, Q&As with writers, a gumshoe glossary and much more.

Tip #2: Review online magazines. There are free, online magazines that outline investigative techniques, resources and tools, such as Pursuit Magazine (my personal favorite)Fraud Magazine and Evidence Technology Magazine.

Tip #3: Research investigation websites and blogs. Numerous private detectives write about investigative practices and case studies on their websites and blogs. For example, my private investigator-attorney husband and I co-author Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes, which has articles geared to writers as well as researchers and investigators. Other PI blogs include PI BuzzPrivate Eye ConfidentialPI Stories and Diligentia Group.  Also, check out The Art of Manliness site interview with a P.I. as part of its ongoing series "So You Want My Job" -- read it here: "So You Want My Job: Private Investigator"

Tip #4: Attend a PI conference. Some professional PI organizations sponsor conferences that are open to the public. Here you can network with other PIs, attend seminars, visit vendor booths that sell surveillance and other types of investigative equipment as well as manuals (I still use a telephone-book-thick manual on investigating personal injury cases that cost me $125.00 and is worth every penny -- other manuals are typically much less). PI Magazine lists upcoming conferences on its online site.

Tip #5: Register for a PI course. There are numerous online classes and local workshops geared to those interested in becoming private investigators. These classes are typically open to the public and cover such topics as basic investigative tools and techniques, how to research public records, and the legalities of the profession. For example, Colorado private investigator Rick Johnson teaches a classroom course at The Private Investigators Academy of the Rockies. Topics include interview techniques, process services, as well as field exercises in surveillance. Veteran private investigator L. Scott Harrell, founder of CompassPoint Investigations in Florida, offers online courses for new private investigators at Contact your state professional private investigator association for additional recommendations to courses that offer training in private investigations (PI Magazine lists all organizations by state.)

Tip #6: Take a PI to Lunch. Many private investigators would be happy to answer a few questions about your private eye character or story over the phone, but if you’d like a longer question-and-answer session, consider inviting a P.I. to lunch. In the past, I've sometimes invited an expert, such as a fire fighter or a bailbonds person, to lunch to pick his/her brain on a specialization I needed for a story. It’s a pleasant way to conduct an interview, it gives you an hour or more to ask questions, plus who doesn’t like a free lunch? If you need a referral to a local PI, contact your local state professional private investigator association.

September 15-16: 24 Hour Movie Marathon Tribute to Lauren Bacall

TCM's movie tribute to Lauren Bacall includes the 4 films she made with Humphrey Bogart

TCM's movie tribute to Lauren Bacall includes the 4 films she made with Humphrey Bogart

I plan to have my book proposal into my editor by next Monday, September 15, because I want to settle in after that to watch the inimitable Lauren Bacall in a back-to-back showing of her movies on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It starts at 8 p.m. with an interview with Bacall, followed by 12 of her films, including the 4 she made with Bogie.

Below is the movie schedule, following by a link to TCM's bio of Lauren Bacall.

Monday, Sept. 15

8 p.m. - Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall (2005) 
9 p.m. - To Have and Have Not (1944) 
11 p.m. - The Big Sleep (1946) 
1 a.m. - How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) 
2:45 a.m. - Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall (2005) 
3:45 a.m. - Harper (1966) 

Tuesday, Sept. 16
6 a.m. - Bright Leaf (1950) 
8 a.m. - Young Man with a Horn (1950) 
10 a.m. - Dark Passage (1947) 
Noon - Key Largo (1948) 
2 p.m. - Blood Alley (1955) 
4 p.m. - Sex and the Single Girl (1964) 
6 p.m. - Designing Woman (1953) 

Bacall Biography

TCM has also posted a wonderful bio of Bacall that covers her birth in New York on September 16, 1924, to her being discovered by director Howard Hawks's wife, Slim Keith, who suggested to her husband that he screen test the young, unknown model for his upcoming film To Have and To Have Not. The bio wraps up with a brief overview of the avant-garde movies Bacall made in her 80s.

Bio of Lauren Bacall on TCM (below movie schedule)



Win a Bundle of Romantic-Mystery Books!

This week I'm the "Author Spotlight" at Book Bench for Romance Lovers on Facebook. Drop by and comment or "Like" my post to be entered to win all 3 books in my private-eye romance series!

Click This Link: Book Bench for Romance Lovers

A winner will be randomly selected this Saturday, August 30, and can choose whether to receive the print or ebook versions of the following books:

The Next Right Thing 

"Colorful, skillful description and lively, fully fleshed-out characters contribute to this great read." ~RT Book Reviews

"I absolutely had to read THE NEXT RIGHT THING in one exciting page turner you don't want to miss!" ~Kay Quintin, Fresh Fiction

Sleepless in Las Vegas

"This book completely took me by surprise.  I went into it thinking oh easy romantic read. What I got was a freaking suspenseful heartfelt passionate thrill!" ~Nichole's Sizzling Page Reviews


Hearts in Vegas

"This book is very hard to put down with a fabulous setting and action by the bucket loads!" -Chicks That Read

"I fell in love with the P.I. world in The Next Right Thing & Sleepless in Las Vegas and Hearts in Vegas is the perfect book to end my current obsession!" By the Book Reviews


A LAWYER'S PRIMER FOR WRITERS: Types of Lawyers - Criminal Law

A LAWYER'S PRIMER FOR WRITERS: FROM CRIMES TO COURTROOMS - Written by a defense lawyer with 30 years experience in the criminal justice system and a bestselling author/P.I. Not only for writers, the book is also for fans of legal film/books, researchers & those curious about the world of legal eagles.

Put together with the user in mind, this intelligently organized handbook for practicing writers will make you sound like a practicing lawyer.
— Warwick Downing, former DA in Colorado and author of The Widow of Dartmoor, a sequel to Hound of the Baskervilles






Book Excerpts

Below are several excerpts from A Lawyer's Primer, the first is an overview of criminal defense attorneys from the chapter "Types of Lawyers." Below that are two additional book excerpt links, one on judges (including some real-life "quirky judge" stories; the other is a review (with an eye on what a writer can learn) from the legal film To Kill a Mockingbird - Enjoy!

"Types of Lawyers: Criminal Law"

Under the US Constitution, everyone accused of a crime has the right to a lawyer’s defense. A criminal defense lawyer (also referred to as criminal lawyer and defense lawyer) might work for a law firm or be in private practice.  A defense lawyer might also work for a public defenders’ office (to clarify, public defenders are always criminal defense lawyers). Generally speaking, they will make several attempts to settle a case outside of court, but if they can’t, they will represent their clients at trial. Defense lawyers typically work multiple cases concurrently, each at a different stage in the criminal justice system process. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers provides more information about defense attorneys.

Criminal defense lawyers often specialize in practice areas, such as white-collar crime and DUIs

Criminal defense lawyers often specialize in practice areas, such as white-collar crime and DUIs

Some defense attorneys specialize in particular areas of crimes, such as driving under the influence (DUI), domestic violence, sex assault and white-collar crime. We’ve included nearly two dozen articles in the latter half of this book, many about crimes. If you’re writing a defense lawyer character, check out these articles for story ideas.

Type of lawyer in this field: Lawyers practicing criminal defense are well-versed in constitutional rights, with some lawyers being as passionate about people’s rights as civil rights lawyers. Because a criminal lawyer often spends a lot of time gathering evidence, from police reports to witness testimonies, a defense lawyer often relies on other resources, from paralegals to private investigators, for assistance. According to a psychological evaluation report by OvationXL, who interviewed a hundred top law firms on their analysis of young lawyers’ traits, 59 percent believed criminal defense lawyers to be good communicators.

Defense lawyers are constantly juggling the demands and timetables of the criminal court system, which can be frustrating and tiring. When the authors of this book co-owned a private investigations agency that dealt primarily with criminal defense attorneys, we had defense lawyer-clients whose emotions ran the gamut from funny to exhausted to bitter. 

A criminal defense attorney could be a rich character study for your story.

Additional Excerpts

Click on one of the below links to read the excerpt:

Players in the Courtroom: Judges

Recommended Legal Films: To Kill a Mockingbird



Contest Ends August 3! Win All 3 Books in Series + $20 Amazon Gift Card

Last contest of the month for my new release HEARTS IN VEGAS, the third book in the private-eye romance series! Scroll down the page to the Rafflecopter form and enter to win all three autographed print copies (The Next Right Thing, Sleepless in Las Vegas and Hearts in Vegas) plus a $20 Amazon gift card.

This book completely took me by surprise. I went into it thinking oh easy romantic read. What I got was a freaking suspenseful heartfelt passionate thrill! From the first page it sucked me in and I just didn’t want to stop reading.
— Nichole's Sizzling Page Reviews on SLEEPLESS IN LAS VEGAS
I fell in love with the P.I. world in The Next Right Thing & Sleepless in Las Vegas and Hearts in Vegas is the perfect book to end my current obsession! I honestly wasn’t sure how Collins could do better than Sleepless in Las Vegas, but she did it!
— By the Book Reviews

Ends July 27! Bookgiveaway: HEARTS IN VEGAS, a private-eye romance

HEARTS IN VEGAS, the third book in my private-eye romance series for Harlequin is now available! I had so much fun writing this story about a reformed jewel thief turned insurance investigator (Frances Jefferies) who goes undercover to retrieve a 20-million dollar necklace. What stands in her way is Las Vegas private eye Braxton Morgan, who doesn't believe she's a reformed thief, but the real deal.

You can order Hearts in Vegas by clicking the Amazon book graphic to your right. Contest form and book excerpt are below.

A Reformed Jewel Thief

I named Frances after Grace Kelly's character in To Catch a Thief. Like Grace Kelly, Frances is a cool, calculating blonde, but her background is more like Cary Grant character's in the movie (he's a retired jewel thief who is trying to save his "retired" status by catching a cat burglar who everyone believes is really him).

Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF

Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF

A Las Vegas Private Eye

The hero in Hearts in Vegas is Las Vegas PI Braxton Morgan, who has his own questionable past to live down. He's rebuilding his life and reputation, working hard to prove to his family & peers that he's walking the line, which would be a lot easier if Frances, who he believes is still a jewel thief, hadn't stolen his heart.

Book Contest

What: Three winners each receive a copy of HEARTS IN VEGAS. Top winner also receives a $10 Amazon gift card!

(Winners choose a print or Kindle copy of the book -- For those who don't own a Kindle, Amazon provides free apps for reading the book on PCs and Macs, and a variety of mobile devices)

When: June 27 - July 27, 2014

How: Register via the Rafflecopter form below. Hint: The more points you earn, the more chances to win!













Book Excerpt: HEARTS IN VEGAS - Opening Scene

IF TWENTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Frances Jefferies had learned anything from her years as a pickpocket, it was the importance of blending in to one’s surroundings.

Today, February 5, her task was to steal a valuable brooch from Fortier’s, a high-end jewelry store in Las Vegas. To blend in with the Wednesday bling-shopping crowd, she’d put on a red-and-leopard-print top underneath a loose-fitting Yves Saint Laurent white silk pantsuit, and a pair of killer Dolce & Gabbana stilettos.

Time for one last practice run.

She retrieved two similar-size brooches from a dresser drawer. One, a rhinestone flower-petaled pin, was an exact replica of the diamond-encrusted Lady Melbourne brooch stolen ten years ago from a museum in Amsterdam. Its whereabouts had been unknown until it suddenly, and mysteriously, surfaced at Fortier’s a few days ago. She slipped the replica into an inside pocket of her jacket and set the other pin on her dresser.

Watching her reflection in the dresser mirror, she practiced the sleight-of-hand trick, deftly plucking the brooch from the pocket and swiftly replacing it with the other pin, three times in succession. Each switch went smoothly.

Now for the finishing touch. She selected a pair of antique garnet earrings from her jewelry box and put them on.

Leaning closer to the mirror, she swept a strand of her ash-blond hair off her face, tucking it lightly into her chignon. Her gaze slipped to her lower cheek. This close, she could see the faint outline of silicon gel underneath her meticulously applied makeup. For anyone else to see it, they would have to be inches away, and she never let anyone get that close.

A few moments later, she walked into the living room, where her dad sat in his favorite chair, shuffling a deck of cards. A basketball game was on TV, the crowd yelling as a player dunked the ball.

“Still working on The Trick That Fooled Houdini?” she asked.

He grinned and set the cards on a side table. “Like Houdini, I can’t figure out how Vernon did it, either.”

Dai Vernon, Houdini’s contemporary, had devised a card routine where a spectator’s chosen card always appeared at the top of the deck. Houdini, who bragged that he could figure out any magician’s trick, never solved this one.

Her dad, who’d worked as a magician his entire life, had never solved it, either. Sometimes he jokingly referred to it as The Trick That Fooled Houdini and Jonathan Jefferies.

“Going to work?” he asked.

His thinning dark hair was neatly parted on the side, and a pair of reading glasses hung on a chain around his neck. He had a slight paunch, but otherwise stayed in shape from daily walks and a fairly healthy diet, if one overlooked his love of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

She looked at his faded Hawaiian-print shorts and Miami Heat T-shirt with its ripped sleeve, wishing he’d let her buy him some new clothes. But he liked to stick with what was “tried-and-true,” from his haircut to clothes.

“Yes, off to work. If I leave in a few minutes, I should be there by three. The owner got back from a late lunch an hour ago. He and the security guard will be the only employees in the jewelry store the rest of the afternoon.”

“Good girl, you did your homework.” He paused, noticing her earrings. “Oh,” he said, his eyes going soft, “you’re wearing your mother’s jewelry.”

Frances’s mother, Sarah, had been her father’s tried-and-true soul mate. When she eloped at nineteen with a little-known Vegas magician, her wealthy family disinherited her. If my upbringing had been happy, she’d told her daughter, disowning me might have mattered. Instead, it released me to a better life.

The only items Sarah Jefferies had of her family’s were a small jewelry collection, gifted to her by her late grandmother.

“Mom’s earrings will be my calling card today,” Frances said, touching one of them. She loved antique jewelry, especially early-nineteenth-century Georgian, the era of these earrings and the Lady Melbourne brooch.

“She’s happy to know she’s helping. We’re proud of you, Francie.”

He often spoke of his wife in the present tense, which used to bother Frances, but she accepted it more these days. Sometimes she even envied her dad’s sense of immediacy about his late wife. Frances was painfully aware it had been four years this past summer—July 15, 1:28 in the afternoon—when they’d lost her, and shamefully aware of the pain she’d brought her parents in the months leading up to her mother’s death.

Nearly five years ago, Frances had been arrested on a jewelry theft. It had been humiliating to be caught, but agonizing to see the hurt on her parents’ faces. Especially after she admitted to them the theft hadn’t been a onetime deal. After learning sleight-of-hand tricks from her dad as a kid, she’d segued into picking pockets in her teens, then small jewelry thefts by the time she was twenty. At the time, she selfishly viewed her thefts as once-a-year indulgences, but it didn’t matter if she’d stolen once or dozens of times—what’d she done had been wrong.

Jonathan Jefferies blamed himself for his daughter’s criminal activities, believing she had resorted to theft because he’d been unable to adequately support his family as a magician. When Frances was growing up, the family had sometimes relied on friends for food, or went without electricity, or suffered through eviction because there hadn’t been enough money to pay the rent.

The judge, moved by Frances’s difficult upbringing and her mother’s failing health, had offered her a second chance. Instead of giving her a ten-year prison sentence, he’d suspended her sentence as long as she met certain conditions, a common solution for people with a high potential for rehabilitation.

For Frances, her conditions were threefold. One, either attend college or obtain full-time legitimate employment, including any position where she applied her skills for a positive end. Two, pay restitution to the victim. Three, do not break any local, state or federal laws. As if she had a yen to ever break a law again.

As far as college or a job, her probation officer matched her “skills” to Vanderbilt Insurance, a company that was looking for an investigator to track stolen jewels and antiquities.

Sometimes these investigations, such as the one today, required her pickpocket skills. She would be taking back the Lady Melbourne brooch, which was the legal property of Vanderbilt Insurance, since they had already paid the fifty-thousand-dollar insurance claim from the museum.


End of Excerpt - Hearts in Vegas

Haunted Hotels and Ghost Hunting

This past week has been a lively one with the launch of Love Is a Mystery: Six Novels of Love, Laughter and Lawbreaking, only 99 cents for the next 90 days! Mid-week the authors hosted a crazy-fun FB party for the box-set release, where we gave out prizes and talked about everything from who's the better Sherlock -- Cumberbatch or Downey Jr. (Downey won) -- to why women are excellent crime plotters (!). As part of our box-set launch, two of my articles were posted at Digital Book Today, a very cool site founded by book-industry veteran Anthony Wessel, where book lovers and authors meet.

Today I'm posting an excerpt from one of those articles about haunted hotels and ghost hunters...

Do Paranormal Investigators Really Find Ghosts?

by Colleen Collins for Digital Book Today

For a decade, my husband and I co-owned a private detective agency in Denver, Colorado. During that time we had a few people call who said they thought a ghost was haunting their house and could we investigate it? We always declined, explaining that we were not paranormal investigators. Which is a good place to start this discussion – who are these people who specialize in hunting ghosts?

What Is a Paranormal Investigator?

ghost hunter.jpg

Most paranormal investigators are people who are certified in parapsychology or who have studied paranormal investigations. Their goal is to help people in need, and often paranormal investigators do not accept money for their services (although they may accept donations for travel, lodging and expenses). Some paranormal investigators make money through writing books, conducting “ghost tours,” giving workshops, or even starring in TV reality shows about ghost hunters.

Whenever we got a call from someone wanting to hire a ghost hunter, we’d offer them some tips for locating one. Not that we believe in phantoms – we just didn’t want people to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous types who prey on people’s worries and fears.

Tips for Hiring a Paranormal Investigator

Look up an established paranormal investigations organization in the area. For example, the National and International ParaHaunt Paranormal Family Network gives referrals to paranormal investigators throughout the U.S. and the world.

Check the background of the paranormal organization or investigator before you retain their services. Contact the Better Business Bureau, research the organization/person on the Internet for news stories and client referrals, review their website and contact any former clients for recommendations, or hire a private investigator to double-check the paranormal investigator’s background (especially if you’re inviting this person into your home).

We didn’t conduct paranormal investigations at our agency for the simple reason that we didn’t believe in ghosts. On the other hand, I would be a believer if I had captured evidence of one. Which I tried to do a few years back…

My Informal Investigations at Three Haunted Hotels

Several years ago, I visited the Stanley Hotel here in my state of Colorado and took its Ghost Tour. The “Stanley” is known for its Room #217, where Stephen King first began writing his book The Shining, later made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson.

My Digital Photos Caught “Orbs”

I took photos during this ghost tour with my digital camera, and others in the group (including the tour guide) said I had captured orbs, which supposedly indicated the presence of spirits.  The Paranormal Encyclopedia says that “both skeptics, and many ghost hunters, agree that photographic orbs are most often, if not always, caused by natural elements such as dust, pollen, or water vapor.”  I don’t know what caused the orbs, but if I’d seen, oh, a spectral figure hovering in the photo…well, then I’d believe I’d captured evidence of a ghost.

Claims of Ghosts, But When I Visited…

To read the full article, click here.