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

I recently wrote a series of romantic-mysteries—The Next Right Thing, Sleepless in Las Vegas, and Hearts in Vegaswhich featured private eye heroes and heroines. Because I am also a private investigator in real life, I didn’t have to research their investigative careers 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 realistic private eye or sleuth character.

Six Research Tips For Learning about PIs
(New Resources & Links Added March 2017)

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. The newest addition to this list will be released in June 2017: Private Eye Confidential by California PI Mike Spencer. Check out Mike's blog to learn more about the book and buy links when it's available.

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 Magazineand 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 Confidential, 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. Contact your state professional private investigator association for additional recommendations to courses that offer training in private investigations (PI Magazine lists all U.S. 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 that 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.

All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Any use of the content requires specific, written authority. All images in this article are either licensed by the author, who does not have the authority to forward to others, or they are copyrighted by the author.

World Book Day: Humphrey Bogart, Movie Star & Avid Reader

Humphrey Bogart in the 1934 film trailer for Petrified Forest (image is in public domain)

Humphrey Bogart in the 1934 film trailer for Petrified Forest (image is in public domain)

Bogie And Books

Did you know Humphrey Bogart loved to read? Although he was a poor student, and was eventually expelled from the prestigious Phillips Academy, he had a lifelong love of reading, and could quote Plato, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Shakespeare.

Some of his best friends were screenwriters, such as Nunnally Johnson and John Huston. I've always admired Huston for his directing, even his acting, but did you know he also wrote over 20 screenplays, including the adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart in movie trailer for Casablanca (image is in the public domain)

Humphrey Bogart in movie trailer for Casablanca (image is in the public domain)

By the way, here's a wonderful write-up about John Huston and his writing and directing of the The Maltese Falcon (via Word&Film): John Huston and the Making of the Maltese Falcon.



"A must-have for any writer serious about crafting authentic private eyes. Collins knows her stuff."

~Lori Wilde, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author

Online Writers Class: Misdemeanors to Murder: Nothing but the Truth from a Criminal Lawyer & PI

For Crime Fiction Writers/Readers, Fans of Legal Thrillers, and Armchair Legal Eagles


February 1-28 “Misdemeanors to Murder: Nothing but the Truth from a Criminal Lawyer and Private Eye"

Course focuses on US criminal crimes—lowest misdemeanor to highest felony offenses--from a criminal lawyer’s and PI’s perspectives.

For more info/registration: Misdemeanors to Murder: Nothing but the Truth

Christmas Giveaway: Enter to Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card and a Romantic-Mystery eBook!

Click on the "21 Days of Christmas" image or the below link to enter my Christmas giveaway (a $25 Amazon Gift Card & an ecopy of Mistletoe and Murder in Las Vegas).

Contest is hosted by Hello Chick Lit, and closes December 23, 2016 (winner to be announced the week after Christmas). Happy holidays!

Colleen's Christmas Giveaway


What to Do When You Get a Bad Book Review

Today is National Author's Day, a good time to celebrate writers writing...and a good time to go over how to handle this particular nasty thorn of the writing life: bad reviews. Just like taxes and death, bad reviews are inevitable. Not that a book is necessarily bad, in fact it might be quite good, but judging a book is always a subjective experience. One reader might love stories with multiple points of view, while another gets crazy with all that "head hopping." Or a reader glosses over key points in the story, feels confused, and blames the author. Or maybe a reader has a personal agenda—he/she wrote a book that was rejected, so they become hyper-critical of other authors' success.

I recently got a not-so-nice review on a book that had consistently received good to excellent reviews, and had placed in the top five for its category in a national writing contest. The reader snarked about my letting a character (federal agent) go "MIA" (missing in action) for weeks. Missing in action? Obviously the reader had forgotten, or maybe skipped over, an earlier scene in the book where the character is preparing to leave for his 2-week paid vacation at Christmas time, and asks his supervisor if he can take an extra two days unpaid leave, which the supervisor approves.

I've belonged to a writers' group for 20 years. When I told them about this mean-spirited review, they reminded me that it's not worth it to read reviews...not if I wanted to be a happy writer. LOL! A lesson I learned after a Bad Review Experience many years ago...

A Bad Review Twenty Years Ago

I got it at a very bad time: Right before I left to attend a national writers conference. My fiction novel, my baby, got a dastardly 1-star review. Worse, from a  reviewer for a magazine. I ate an entire bag of M&Ms. Not the small size bag, the drown-your-sorrows-and-flirt-with-hypoglycemia size.  

What, a 1-star review? (Image is licensed; please do not copy)

What, a 1-star review? (Image is licensed; please do not copy)

Then I called my editor. This was the editor who'd purchased my first novel in 1996, and had purchased and edited the next three novels as well. My first novel got splendid reviews, as did my second and third. The fourth got the 1-star review.

Wise Words From An Editor

She listened as I told her in a shaky voice that I had received a bad review. One star. Then she laughed. A kind laugh, I'll add, because she herself is also a multi-published author, as well as being an editor, so she well understood the writers' life.

She said, "Your readers love your books and they're buying them. That's all that matters."

This editor, by the way, now heads up a division at that publishing company. She's smart and savvy about the book biz.

Didn't mean I wasn't still angsting about that bad review.

I Spilled My Guts to an Auditorium of Strangers

I don't recommend this to anyone. Really, it's not my style to stand up in a crowded room and tell several hundred people, most of them strangers, how devastating it is to get a bad review.

I hadn't planned on doing this. In fact, I had kept a low profile the entire conference, that is until I attended a workshop where a nationally known writer, one of those New York Times bestselling types,  was talking about—guess what?—surviving bad reviews.

At one point in her talk, she asked if anyone in the audience had ever had a bad review and what did they do about it?

Some unseen force drew me to my feet. I stood there, my voice quaking, and told an entire auditorium full of people, many writers, how a bad review had gutted me. How it was in a magazine, so hundreds, maybe thousands, of people had or would read it. How I'd consumed so many M&Ms, I had been shaking for days.

I am Spartacus! (Film poster, 1960) is in the public domain)

I am Spartacus! (Film poster, 1960) is in the public domain)

What happened next was like that scene in the movie Spartacus. Not the recent series, the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas as Spartacus. Remember the scene where the Romans ask a throng of slaves, hundreds of them, which one is Spartacus, and Kirk Douglas stands. "I am Spartacus," he announces loudly. Then another slave stands, "No, I am Spartacus." Another stands and says the same thing, then another...until the entire crowd of slaves are all standing, each proclaiming loudly to be Spartacus.

It was kinda like that in the auditorium. After I poured my guts out, a writer in the front row stood up and said the same thing had happened to her. She's now a New York Times best-selling author, and a friend, and she recently told me that since her books have hit the NYT and other bestseller lists, even more negative reviews crop up on Amazon for her books! She's a professional, keeps a cool head, never responds to negative reviews.

Another well-known author stood. She announced loudly to the auditorium that she, too, had received her share of bad reviews, including several 1-star reviews, and by the way, would I please tell the auditorium the title of my book so people could buy it? That's right. She invited me to tell everyone the book title. I did. She then told everyone she was going out to buy it right after the workshop was over.

Other writers did the same thing. I got to see, first hand, that bad reviews happen, even to successful NYT best-selling authors. It's part of the package of being a writer and putting your work out there. 

My Two Cents on What to Do When You Get a Bad Review

1. Buy the small bag of M&Ms.

2. Commiserate with other writers, friends, family. You're allowed to wallow in it for 48 hours. After that, put on your big-boy or big-girl pants and get back to writing.

3. Don't respond to the bad review.

Let's chat a bit about not responding to negative comments and other less-than-complimentary write-ups. I wrote an article about that ("Four Tips for Minimizing Bad Reviews on Google"). In it, I explain how replying to bad reviews on the Internet, or even clicking them to re-read (or forwarding the link to others to click on and read), sends signals to Google and other Internet browsers to bump up that review's ranking...which means it's easier to find on the Internet. You don't want that.

As Tony Soprano might say, it's best to fuggitaboutit.

Now get back to writing!

Paranormal Investigators, Ghost Tour, and Haunted Tales at The Brown Palace

A ghoulish delight at the Haunted Happy Hour.

A ghoulish delight at the Haunted Happy Hour.

Last night we attended a "Haunted Happy Hour" at the 124-year-old Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Colorado. The evening kicked off with a buffet (with such ghoulish items as Bat Wings and Grim Reapers Rib), presentation by two paranormal investigators, and ended with a ghost tour.

Paranormal Investigators

The photo gallery below begins with a picture of the former men's club room (now a meeting room) on the 4th floor of the Brown Palace where customers and employees have witnessed ghostly goings-on for decades, such as a well-dressed man (style from the 1920s) shaking a martini, then fading into the wall. The first picture shows the two paranormal investigators, who discussed their ghost-hunting equipment and told stories of their investigations at the Brown Palace, including the hauntings of the ladies restroom on the 4th floor. According to these guys, ladies restrooms in old hotels are haunted more often than the men's restrooms. Huh. I'm still pondering that one.

Haunting Photos

Photos in sequential order, starting with:

  • The paranormal investigators and their equipment.
  • A medium speaking as Louise Crawford Hill in the room where Louise died in 1955. The medium sat in a corner of the living room area, where Louise has purportedly been seen by employees and guests. 
  • The door of the Ladies restroom on the 4th floor, where ghosts have been seen by guests and employees.
  • Room 904: The former apartment of Mrs. Crawford Hill.
  • "Enter If You Dare" Welcome sign to the Haunted Happy Hour.
  • A medium in room 846, where a young couple, dressed in 1920s style, have been seen by guests, employees, and the medium herself. The young ghostly wife apparently isn't happy with uninvited guests, as people's suitcases will suddenly dump onto the floor or their cell phones will fly through the air (and smash into a wall). Numerous guests have checked in...and quickly called the front desk that they want another room NOW.
  • The Brown Palace historian, who provided additional historical details about the hotel and its former guests throughout the ghost tour.
  • A phone from the 1930s in the ninth floor hallway. They keep it in working condition to go with the deco decor of the floor, immaculately maintained since the 1930s.
  • Photograph of Louise Crawford Hill's residence in the 1930s before she moved into the Brown Palace Hotel. Portraits of her husband and her lover are on opposite walls (!).
  • Several images of the buffet room & its ghoulish dishes.
  • Bedroom of room 846, where the young wife ghost from the 1920s has been seen by guests, employees, and the medium. In fact, the medium swears the young wife-ghost once tried to lock the medium into the room (!).
  • Double doors in the living room area of room 846. These doors currently open into an event room, which years ago was a ballroom. Overnight guests in room 846 have heard sounds of music and laughter in the middle of the night. One couple ventured down the hallway to the "party" with the intention to ask the partiers to "please keep it down"—but when they found the hallway door open to the event room, it was dark and empty.
  • A darker, shadowy image of the medium who spoke as Louise Crawford Hill (the lights were low in the room as she spoke; the area behind the medium is where Louise's ghost is often seen). 

Click on an image to go to the next picture.

FREE Oct 23: MISTLETOE and MURDER in LAS VEGAS #romanticmystery

Mistletoe & Murder in Las Vegas is free on Sunday, October 23! Click on book cover to go to Amazon page. 

Book Blurb

All 31-year-old, Las Vegas criminal lawyer Joanne Galvin wants for Christmas is a client—or three—so she can make ends meet. Instead she’s roped into defending the notorious Timepiece Arsonist; tracked by a hunky special agent and his arson dog; and chased by a serial killer. Just when her life is starting to feel like the Nightmare Before Christmas, she receives an unexpected gift that offers hope that this holiday season could be the most wonderful time of the year...

Praise for Mistletoe & Murder in Las Vegas

Mistletoe and Murder in Las Vegas” is Colleen Collins at her best. It’s got the charm and humor of the best romantic comedies combined with a genuinely good mystery—an unbeatable combination. I couldn’t put the book down once I started it.
— Nancy Warren, USA Today Bestselling Author
A fun mystery that incorporates a little suspense, romance, and the magical meaning of Christmas.
— Pretty Little Books
The twists and turns are full of interesting story lines. The unique characters make this an interesting read. Really enjoyed this book!
— Cindy O'Brien
A long time murder mystery book lover, this book exceeds all my expectations. Colleen Collins knows the legal milieu well, and shows us the legal pitfalls and potential successful conclusions we can learn from. Kudos to this writer!
— Barbara Graham