#WriteTip Crafting Crime Fiction Stories: Motive, Opportunity & Means

(I originally wrote this article for mystery writer Beth Groundwater's blog, which I've updated here. Enjoy!)

Recently a writer friend of mine who’s written dozens of romance novels landed a book contract where the publisher asked for a “complex crime” at the core of the story. My friend contacted me, worried. “I’ve never written a crime!” she said, “can you give me any advice?” “Sure, think M-O-M,” I answered, “which stands for motive, opportunity and means.”

Besides being a writer, I co-owned a private investigations agency for a decade with my husband/PI partner, who has since returned to being a criminal defense attorney. I tell you this because our lives are full of M.O.M., from crafting stories to trying homicide cases.

M.O.M.: Three Sides of a Crime

In U.S. criminal law, M.O.M. encapsulates three sides of a crime necessary to convince a jury of guilt in a criminal proceeding. Did the defendant have a motive to commit the crime? Did the defendant have an opportunity, or chance, to accomplish the deed? Did the defendant also have the ability (means)?

Ways a Character Might Use M.O.M.

Below are four examples for how a private eye/sleuth character might employ motive, opportunity and/or means.

#1: Conduct Witness Interviews

An investigator might ask questions about a character, which could shed light on motive.

An investigator might ask questions about a character, which could shed light on motive.

There’s the direct questions a sleuth might ask, and which we often hear in movies, such as “Where were you at nine o’clock on the night of April 12, Miss Smith?” (opportunity). But also think about your sleuth asking questions that delve into a suspect’s character (motive), history of violence or peacefulness (means/motive or lack of means/motive), or knowledge about using a certain type of weapon (means). A sleuth might also interview other people who’ve seen that suspect use the same type of weapon or conduct certain violent acts.

 

#2: Examine the Murder Weapon

Let’s say your sleuth wants to prove the killer was someone other than the person charged with the crime. Your sleuth might looks for clues that show lack of means on the murder weapon (such as bloody hand imprints that are larger than the defendant’s or a strand of hair stuck in blood that's a different color than the defendant’s).

 

#3: Recreate the Homicide Event

A young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln once reconstructed a crime scene to prove a witness was lying

A young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln once reconstructed a crime scene to prove a witness was lying

Your sleuth might reconstruct the event at the scene of the crime to prove a person had access to a weapon (means) as well as opportunity. For example, the reconstruction might show how easily a suspect could have reached for the murder weapon. Or, conversely, that the suspect wasn’t tall enough to reach the weapon, strong enough to lift it, or maybe even literate enough to have read the instructions on how to use the weapon. As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln once reconstructed a crime scene to prove that a witness couldn’t possibly have seen what she claimed to have seen because there wasn’t ample lighting to clearly see at the time the incident occurred.

 

#4: Find an Alternate Suspect

Your sleuth might research other people who had motive, opportunity and means to commit a crime. For example, the sleuth might analyze someone’s character for motive (such as his/her history of outbursts toward the victim), look for clues tying another person to the murder weapon (for example, his/her knowledge of how to use that weapon), or establish someone had opportunity (by analyzing a person’s timeline).

Keep in Mind: A court cannot convict based solely on motive, opportunity and means. A lawyer must provide convincing proof of all three. Obtaining this proof is, of course, what your sleuth (a detective, private investigator, amateur sleuth) has been doggedly investigating, with the help of MOM, throughout the course of your story.

Setting Writing Goals for 2015

Here's my screen saver - keeps me on point :)

Here's my screen saver - keeps me on point :)

I'm currently on deadline, trying to finish a novel by February 1, 2015. At this point in writing the book, my only wisdom about accomplishing one's writing goal is short and sweet: "Plant your behind in a chair and write."  Period.  Forget waiting for the muse, or feeling more rested, or happier or being thinner or...doesn't matter, just write.

I've noticed, however, that other writers have written thoughtful, in-depth articles on how to set writing goals, so I'll list those links below. Good info from the pros.

Articles by Writers on Setting Writing Goals

Articles listed in no particular order. Click on title to go to article and, of course, forget years in titles--these tips are good for any time, any year.

How to Set Writing Goals for 2014

(by Leah McClellan)

She describes how to apply the acronym SMART to set goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

Setting Effective Writing Goals

(by Moira Allen)

In defining writing goals, she lists three criteria: Measurable, Meaningful and Attainable (similar to Measurable, Attainable and Relevant in the above article). The latter half of the article looks at short- and long-term goals, and measuring success.

How to Set Achievable Writing Goals for 2014

(by Charmaine Clancy)

She starts out with a simple, but important, task: Know your writing goals. Following this are tips for culling your goals, measuring your progress, reminding yourself to achieve, and eliminating excuses. Personally, reminding myself to achieve hits home. 

Stick With Plan A. Writing Goals for 2013

(by Cynthia Penn)

Using her own writing goals as examples, she offers tips on focusing, and how social media & professional speaking support her writing goals. 


Happy writing! Colleen



Christmas Day Fun for Homebodies, from Mel Brooks Movies to Decadent Desserts

What are you doing for Christmas? My husband and I plan to be homebodies and take it easy. Watch movies. Read. Eat Christmas Eve leftovers (that's our big holiday blow-out meal). I have a book due February 1, so I'll probably spend a few hours writing, too.

For any fellow homebodies, below are some fun things to watch/read/bake on Christmas Day

Mel Brooks Movie Marathon

TCM is throwing a Mel Brooks movie party on Christmas evening and will be showing five of his movies in a row, starting with High Anxiety (1977), which starred Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Check out the movies at the below link:

Mel Brooks movie schedule

Ever Wonder Who First Realized that No Two Snowflakes are Alike?

The GIF on the right side of this screen is comprised of hundreds of snowflakes that were photographed by a self-educated farmer named Wilson Bentley who combined his camera with a microscope to take the first picture of a snowflake in 1885.

Ever hear the comment that no two snowflakes are alike? That stems from a report by Bentley who noted that "Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost." Scientists of his time didn't take Bentley seriously, and his father thought his study of snowflakes was silly, but today he is recognized as breaking new ground in meteorology and microscopic photography.

Story link: The Snowflake Man of Vermont

Radio Detective Story Hour

This old-time radio show podcast is the Christmas-themed "Broadway Is My Beat."  Click here to download the podcast.

Pecan Pie Bread Pudding

Christmas is a time for festive meals...and decadent, delicious desserts. The creator of this dessert, Ashton, is the owner/author of Something Swanky Desserts and Designs, and swears that this recipe is phenomenal (italics are hers). Check it out here: Pecan Pie Bread Pudding.

Sarah Millican Hosts Twitter #joinin on Xmas Day

For the fourth year, writer/comedian Sarah Millican is hosting an all-day drop-in chat-a-thon on Christmas for those in need of company. She was tweeting and retweeting so many messages last year at her #joinin, that Twitter blocked her account (they thought it was some kind of spam, but this year they're aware that she's hosting a Christmas Twitter party,and are wholeheartedly supporting it). Click here to read an article about how she started #joinin.

Merry Christmas, everyone! Colleen



I love this GIF, which I call "Deadline Dog." Lillie Le Dorre, who hails from Wellington, New Zealand, created the GIF from a 1919 postcard. 

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:

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 2.41.42 PM.png

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

Introduction

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.