Two Free Options for Storyboarding Books

I like to visually lay out my story plots. Then, as I'm writing, I can go back and look at the big picture for reminders on structure, plot points and character arcs (or I'll tweak the storyboard if the story/characters have changed). When I first looked for online storyboard options, I found some rather expensive ones that screenwriters use but eventually I found one that was much cheaper (StoryboardTHAT which used to be $4.95/month, with first month free). I used StoryboardTHAT for several books. Below is an example of how I used it to visually lay out the setup of a novel:

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Note: The story structure I use is from the book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, which applies screenwriting techniques to the craft of writing a novel. I've read the entire book, and use these high-level structural elements from the book to create my storyboard: Setup, First Plot Point, Response, Midpoint, Pinch Point, Attack, Second Plot Point, Resolution. If you're curious about using these elements in your storyboard, I suggest buying Story Engineering and reading it all the way through first so you understand the reasons behind the structures and how they build on each other. I have found this book to be invaluable.

But after StoryboardTHAT increased its price to $9.95/month, I decided to end my subscription as I didn't use it often enough to justify paying more each month.

That's when I started looking around for other storyboarding options, hoping to find something inexpensive...good news is that I discovered two free options!

Free Storyboard Option #1: MS Word

(This assumes, of course, that you already have Word on your computer)

I was reading a screenwriters forum on storyboard apps and online products to see what products they recommended when I stumbled on a comment by a member who said they were all missing the boat -- that the best storyboard tool was MS Word which they probably already had on their computers. That was my writer aha moment -- I've used Word for years, and he's right. It has some handy tools for creating visual images that can easily be used for storyboarding. For example, check out Word's "Insert SmartArt Graphic options" (Click on SmartArt in the toolbar):

Free Storyboard Option #1: Pinterest

Check out the below article by writer Sharon Arthur Moore on how she uses Pinterest for book promotion and storyboarding. When I storyboard my next novel, I'm going to give Pinterest a try.

Pinterest: Another Way top Develop and Promote Your Novel

Happy writing! Colleen

Female Private Eyes in Literature


A few months back, the editor of the online magazine Festivale asked if I'd like to write an article about female private investigators in fiction, going back to such early women detectives as Miss Felicity Lemon, the efficient secretary for Mr. Parker Pyne in Agatha Christie's set of short stories Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). This kind of article is "my thing." Besides being a female PI, I've written female private detectives in novels and three nonfiction books on private investigations, as well as judged novels and short stories for the Private Eye Writers of America.

Below is an excerpt with a link to the full article. Enjoy!

Female Private Eyes in Fiction:

From Lady Detectives to Hard-Boiled Dames

© 2014 Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved

“I thought it was time for a tough, smart, likeable female private investigator, and that’s how V.I. came to life.” ~ Author Sara Paretsky about her PI character V.I. Warshawski

Ask people to name one of the first fictional female private eyes, and they might mention Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, both of whom hit the fiction scene in the early 1980s. Actually, the first female private detective appeared in a story over a hundred years earlier.

Before we step back in time, let’s first define a private eye, AKA private investigator (PI) or private detective.

Private Versus Public Detectives

The private eye genre features a private investigator, or PI, protagonist who is a citizen paid to investigate a crime (however, there are times in stories where private eyes work a case for free—for example, the PI feels compelled to solve a good friend’s murder).  Private investigators are not government employees who work in the public sector, such as police detectives, coroner’s office investigators and federal special agents. However, it is not uncommon, in both real life and stories, that retired government investigators start second careers as PIs.

A few examples of private investigators: Those who work in solo practices or as employees for a PI agency, reporters, insurance company investigators, and even lawyers in private practice. 

Amateur sleuths, however, are not classified as private eye genre as they are not paid for their professional investigative services.

This article categorizes female private detectives into different stylistic eras: Victorian, the Golden Age of Detectives, Hard-Boiled and Contemporary. 

Victorian Era Lady Detectives

Possible drawing of the first real-life female PI, Kate Warne, whose history is similar to the fictional Miss Loveday Brooke

Possible drawing of the first real-life female PI, Kate Warne, whose history is similar to the fictional Miss Loveday Brooke

The Victorians loved crime fiction, which typically reflected their world of dynamic men in society and passive women who stayed at home. However, a few authors challenged those roles in detective fiction.

Many view Mrs. Paschal as the first female private detective in literature. In 1864, Paschal appeared in The Revelations of a Lady Detective, written by W. S. Hayward, a British male writer. Although Mrs. Paschal occasionally worked with the police force, she also conducted private investigations for payment.

In 1894, private detective Miss Loveday Brooke appeared in a collection of stories by Catherine Louisa Pirkis, The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective. The thirtyish Brooke worked for Ebenezer Dyer, head of a private detective agency in London, after being “thrown upon the world penniless and all but friendless.” Cut off from the world she once knew, she is a competent investigator who conducts convincing impersonations, traits that are reminiscent of the first real-life woman PI in the US, Kate Warne, who talked her way into being hired as a private detective by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in1856.

Golden Age of Detectives: Snobbery with Violence

The Golden Age of Detectives is generally acknowledged as spanning the years 1920 to 1939, although some contain it to the 1920s only. Stories from this era emphasized plot, English settings, and detectives who displayed ingenuity in solving the crimes.

During the early1920s, Hulbert Footner wrote a series of detective stories featuring Madame Rosika Storey, Private Investigator, whose tales were published in the US, United Kingdom and other countries.

In 1928, writer Patricia Wentworth introduced Miss Maud Silver as a minor character in Grey Mask. In 1937, Silver starred as a professional private detective, although she preferred to be called a private enquiry agent, in The Case Is Closed. Mystery novelist D. L. Browne, AKA Diana Killian, calls Miss Silver “a professional investigator and a stand-up woman, a true forerunner of all future female private eyes.”

Private detective Miss Felicity Lemon made her entrance in 1934 as the efficient secretary for Mr. Parker Pyne in Parker Pyne Investigates, a set of short stories by Agatha Christie. Later, Agatha Christie’s iconic private detective Hercule Poirot hires Miss Lemon to be his secretary.

Trixie Meehan, created by Thomas Theodore Flynn, worked at the Blaine Private Detective Agency with her partner Mike Harris in stories published in Detective Fiction Weekly: “The Deadly Orchid” (1933) and The Letters and the Law (1936).

If crime fiction were compared to eggs, this golden era of detectives would be soft-boiled, differentiating it from the hard-boiled private eyes that were starting to emerge in American literature.

Hard-Boiled Lady Dicks

The hard-boiled genre and its detective - AKA shamus, private dick, snoop, gumshoe - took its first steps in the 1920s and hit its stride in the 1930s up through the 1950s. These hard-drinking, wisecracking private eyes walked the mean streets in an urban jungle filled with violence and bloodshed.

Alongside iconic hardboiled private eyes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were their female counterparts in pulp fiction (named for the cheap "pulp" paper on which these stories were printed). A subset of these female private eyes appeared in the "screwball comedy" genre, which included elements of farce, romance and humor. Below is a sampling of these detective dames, their authors and example works:

To read the full article, click here.

Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye: On Sale for 99 Cents!

Now through Dec 22, my part-memoir, part reference book Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye will be on sale for 99 cents (a $3.24 savings). Topics include the history of the first US female private eye, investigative tips, real-life case stories, links to other PI/cold-case/private-eye-genre blogs and sites, an overview of several popular female private eyes on TV and more.

Audiences: Fans of the private eye genre, writers, armchair detectives, and those simply curious about the real-world of PIs.

To Order: Click here or on book cover image to the left.

As an experienced private detective and a skilled storyteller, Colleen Collins is the perfect person to offer a glimpse into the lives of real female P.I.s
— Kim Green, managing editor of Pursuit Magazine: The Magazine of Professional Investigators
The stories were interesting and I’ve always wanted to read a book like this. This is also very helpful for creating a PI character and coming up with ideas for scenes, plot twists, and small side cases. It’s well written and enjoyable.
— M. Morris, Amazon reviewer



Mike Nichols on Writing

vintage typewriter on sepia.jpg

Like many of you, I was saddened today to learn that Mike Nichols had died. He directed so many wonderful films, including The Graduate...Silkwood...Working Girl...Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf...Heartburn. And he directed plays, from the recent Betrayal (which sold out for all performances before the play even opened!), to years ago directing a young unknown named Whoopi Goldberg in her one-act play that took her from obscurity to being a star.

He Grew Up a Loner...

Later in life he said that growing up a loner gifted him with the ability to know what people were thinking. I think he likely meant that he could easily, and often corectly, interpret people's emotions and motivations, which makes me think of "truth wizards." This is a term coined by research psychologists about people who have an uncanny way of detecting liars, as well as other emotions/motivations within a person. Truth wizards have typically grown up in difficult environments where, as children, they learned to carefully observe people as a means of survival, really.  I know about truth wizards from researching them years ago for an article, and I'm currently writing a story with a character who's a truth wizard.

From Loner to Famous Comic

After Mike Nichols started college, he said he was a loner no more. His first success as an artist was as part of the two-person comedy team with Elaine May. After that came directing plays, then film. He won every award as a director: the Emmy, Oscar, Tony...I think I've missed one in that line-up.

What I like about reading his quotes on directing film and plays is that his words apply to writing, too.

A Few Favorite Nichols' Quotes

Here's a few of my favorite Mike Nichols' quotes. As I mentioned above, he was talking about film-making, but his thoughts on technique and process apply to crafting stories and characters as well.

"There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation." 

"A movie is like a person. You either trust it or you don't."

"I've always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing a third. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That's what interests me the most." 

"I think the audience asks the question, 'Why are you telling me this?'...there must be a specific answer."

Shooting the Messenger: When Process Services Go Bad

Recently in Colorado, a man pulled a gun on a process server. Fortunately, the process server kept his cool and quietly left (btw, he had already left the papers with the man's wife). The process server called the sheriff's office afterward and described the incident, but did not press charges.

Process Server Attacked By Doctor

Another process server, a personal friend of ours, started a process service business after he retired from the police force. This man had been awarded medals for bravery during his long career as a law enforcement officer, but after needing to use pepper spray to fend off a physician who violently attacked him after being served legal papers, the man sold his process service business. "No job is worth dying for," he said.

Which happened to a Colorado process server a few years back. He served divorce papers to a husband, who then attacked his wife (the one seeking the divorce). The process server, a man in his forties, jumped in to protect the woman and the husband killed him. The wife survived, fortunately. 

Chased by a Woman Wielding a Frying Pan

Sometimes people take out their anger on a server, who's simply a messenger serving papers

Sometimes people take out their anger on a server, who's simply a messenger serving papers

In the 10 years my husband and I ran a private investigations business, I never liked serving legal or business papers. I didn't like not knowing if things might so south quickly, which happened more than a few times. Never had a gun pulled on me, but I did have a woman, high on cocaine and booze, chase me with a frying pan while screaming colorful things she planned to do with it on me. I kept walking, fast, toward my car, where my husband sat in the driver's seat, staring at me wide-eyed through the window.  I yelled, "Start the car," praying he'd hadn't locked the doors as I needed to get inside that car fast.

I had done that process service as a favor to my husband, who had returned to being a criminal defense lawyer. He couldn't serve the divorce papers to the woman because he was representing the husband in the divorce, so his live-in PI (yours truly) served the papers.

As we drove off, the woman screaming and running after the car, my husband said to me, "You're amazing." I thanked him for the compliment, but said that was the last time I was ever serving legal papers. I still conduct investigations for his law practice, which I enjoy, but he uses someone different for process services these days.

Tips for Writers: Pineapple Express

When we were the cover story about being PIs, we took the reporter along to see a real process service

When we were the cover story about being PIs, we took the reporter along to see a real process service

Remember the movie Pineapple Express and the stoned process servers? I loved that movie, but only if a writer is crafting a funny, farcical story could he/she depict a stoner dude running a successful process service business because it is imperative that a server be focused and clear-headed for several reasons:

  • People sometimes are actively avoiding service, so a process server needs to be able to quickly interpret signals. For example, a person avoiding a process service might answer the door and lie that they are not that person, or even that the person no longer lives there. A sharp process server has done his/her homework and will know, among other details, the physical description of the person they are serving. I once served papers to a man who denied he was the person I was asking for. I knew I had the right guy because I had seen a photo of him, but at that moment his little girl said, "Daddy, that lady got your name right! That's you!" 
  • Sometimes a business, even a government agency, tries to pull a fast one on a process server. At a state government agency, I served legal papers to one of the office managers who claimed it was illegal for me to serve her, and that I needed to "make an appointment" to serve one of their attorneys. Sorry, no. It was legal for me to serve the office manager, which I did. One of the stoner servers from Pineapple Express would likely have found this scenario to be very un-groovy and confusing. But then, if a writer is crafting a humorous story, that could be a funny scene.

Thanksgiving Recipes: 7 Potato Dishes, from Mashed to Hasselback

potato HiRes.jpg

Before we launch into the world of potatoes, I had a lovely surprise today on Facebook when I read the below post by Book Reviews, Blogs and Amazon Links:

This is one lady who is multi talented and does some pretty interesting blog posts and newsletter. I seriously am excited when my email beeps and it is Colleen's newsletter. Not to mention she's such a great person. She's one of a few who are actual Facebook Friends that I enjoy being in contact with.

Colleen Collins

Thank you, Book Reviews, Blogs and Amazon Links! If I had known you were going to surprise me with such a laudatory post, I would have written about something other than potatoes :)

But since I did, below is the post...enjoy!

Years ago, I used to love spending several hours preparing special meals. These days I like my time in the kitchen to be fun, short and easy. Which is probably why I started cooking potatoes more often. Dinner with hubby is sometimes baked potatoes with butter or sour cream with a side of chopped tomatoes.

For Thanksgiving, though, I'll break out of my mold and test-drive a few recipes ahead of time. Below is a sampling of 7 potato recipes, all of them easy to make, starting with mashed potatoes with goat cheese to 6 Hasselback potato recipes (also called accordion potatoes). Hasselback potatoes are especially nice for special meals because they look so darn impressive!

Now, onto the recipes...

Mashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese

If you want to try an alternative to loading up mashed potatoes with butter, try loading them up with goat cheese instead. 


2 pounds potatoes  (I like to keep the skins on, but peel if you prefer) and cut into chunks

1 clove chopped garlic

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup goat cheese

salt & pepper to taste

Cooking Instructions

  1. Boil potato chunks: Place in a pot with enough water to cover potatoes, add salt, bring to a boil.
  2. Cook for approximately 15 minutes (I stick a sharp knife or fork into potatoes -- if the knife/fork easily slides in, they're done cooking)
  3. Drain water, return potatoes to pot and mash lightly with a potato masher. (Don't overdo mashing -- leave some "chunk" in the potatoes.)
  4. Mix in milk, goat cheese, salt and pepper and serve (again, don't overdo it or the mashed potatoes will go "flat").

    (You can also mix in some washed & chopped kale or steamed broccoli -- approximately 1/2 cup -- along with the milk and goat cheese)

Hasselback Potato Recipes

Hasselback potatoes are the Swedish version of our baked potatoes, named after the Hasselbacken Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. Basically, a Hasselback potato is a white potato (such as Yukon Gold, Russet, or red potato) with the skin left on, with a series of cuts made into the potato (like an accordion). You can simply drizzle with olive oil and salt, then roast in the oven for an hour (same amount of time that you bake a potato). Or you can fill each "slash" with something tasty, such as bay leaves or crumbled parmesan cheese before roasting in the oven.

As the potato cooks, the slices fan open, creating a striking presentation. Hasselback potatoes should be served immediately to keep their crispiness.

Hasselback Potato Recipes

Bacon Hasselback Potatoes (Food Network)

Bacon Cheddar Hasselback Potatoes (The Slow Roasted Italian)

Rosemary Hasselback Potatoes (The Novice Chef)

Hasselback Potatoes with Spinach Cashew Pesto (Joy the Baker)

Scalloped Hasselback Potatoes (Look Who's Cookin' Now)

Garlicky Hasselback Potatoes (Around the Table. Loving Food in RI and Beyond)





Real-Life Private Detective Story: Finding 4 Bullet Slugs in the Middle of Nowhere

This rancher lived out in the country on 800 acres of land

Every year as we approach the holidays, I remember one of the more difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding cases my husband and I once worked. We helped a man who was facing a possible 48-year prison sentence if he were to be found guilty of attempted murder. A man who had never even had a speeding ticket in his entire life. On Thanksgiving, when my husband visited him in jail where he'd been sitting since October, the man wept as he'd never been away from his family on a holiday. 

Below is the story, which I also wrote about in How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths. We worked hard to solve this case, which for days I doubted we could ever solve. 

We Got the Call one Freezing Winter Morning...

From an attorney-client who specializes in high-profile criminal cases. A rancher was in jail on first-degree attempted murder charges. Two people claimed he'd shot at them, tried to kill them. He claimed the reverse -- they were threatening him, he thought his life was in danger, he fired warning shots -- four of 'em -- to scare them off his 800+-acre ranch.

No witnesses, except the two people who claimed they were victims. Oh, and a dog named Gus.

Could we, asked the attorney, find those four bullet slugs? The sheriff's office had done a cursory check for the slugs, didn't find them, had closed the case. The rancher, who'd never had so much as a speeding ticket, was now facing two counts of attempted first-degree murder (a mandatory/minimum sentence of 24 years each) and a $300,000 bail.

Could We Find 4 Bullet Slugs on 800 Acres of Ranch Land?

With metal detectors, possibly. Especially after we learned the sheriff's office hadn't attempted to use metal detectors -- in fact, they didn't even own one. We rented several metal detectors, did a quick study with a former crime scene analyst who educated us on how to use and calibrate the instruments (we wanted to check for slugs that were probably slightly below the surface, not buried deep into the earth).

Next, we visited a gun expert and discussed the type of gun the rancher had used, the bullets, and their calculated trajectory. With his help, we figured the bullets had traveled approximately a half-mile, and that the slugs were probably a half-inch to an inch below the sandy, dense soil of that region.

Then we headed to the ranch...that had buffalo...did I mention that I'm a city girl?

Setting Up the Crime Scene

The last thing we wanted to do was to inadvertently search the same area the other had already searched -- the work was going to be tedious and meticulous, and we need to handle the task as efficiently as possible. Therefore, after selecting a likely area (based on where the rancher had said he'd pointed his gun), a half-mile away from where the incident took place, we set up grids wherein each of us would be carefully working the ground with his/her metal detector. Then, hunched over, carefully moving our detectors over the surface of the earth, we inched our way through our respective areas.

Our metal detectors kept pinging! At first we were thrilled, excitedly yelling to each other, pointing at the spot the detector indicated! Then we'd search for the slug -- and find a rusted time, a rusted bed time, an antiquated hammer. Heading back home that first day, the rancher's mother (who was taking care of the household while he was in jail) informed us that part of the ranch had been, decades back, a junkyard dump.

Wonderful. We were going to get a lot of false positives before this search was over.

Did I Mention One of Us Is Afraid of Dogs?

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

Gus, a 135-pound Rottweiler, took a liking to the one afraid of dogs, yours truly

That first day had another built-in challenge for one of us (me): a monster of a dog named Gus. The rancher's mother said she thought he was 135 pounds, give or take. I'd say give. Lots of give. He was the biggest, baddest-looking muscled hunk of Rottweiler I'd ever seen in my life. And of course, since I'm the one in this PI team who's afraid of dogs, Gus decided he liked me.

But after seeing that Gus's best pal out there on that vast, seemingly endless ranch, was a little barn cat...I realized his big and bad was dog-skin deep. Gus had the heart of Thumper the Rabbit. He also was the only witness to the incident...and he seemed intent on helping us -- staying nearby, sniffing the ground -- as we searched and searched, hour after hour, day after day.

Did I Ever Want to Give Up? Yes.

I'd be lying if I said no. There were times out there on the high plains with the brittle-cold winter winds pummeling us, burs working their way up through the soles of our shoes, our bodies aching from hours of being bent over...that I'd look out at hundreds of acres of barren land and think, "No way we're going to find those slugs. It'd be easier to find a needle in the barn haystack."

Then I'd think about that rancher sitting alone in the jail on Thanksgiving, the first time he'd been without his family on a holiday, for a crime I didn't believe he'd committed. Had to keep searching...

We Found the First Slug

The moment we found that first slug -- I'll never forget it. There it was, a half-inch below the soil, in the region we'd expected to find it. We whooped and hollered like a couple of down-on-their-luck miners who'd just struck gold! Which, when you think of it, we kinda were.

                                                                                                 First slug

                                                                                                 First slug

Then we found the second slug...

                                                                                               Second slug

                                                                                               Second slug

And then we found the third...and the fourth. Their placement proved the rancher had fired in self-defense.

On Christmas Eve, the D.A. reduced the charges, and the rancher was released on a reduced bail. He might have missed Thanksgiving with his family, but he was home for Christmas.

Gus was very happy about that.