When many people think of a private investigator, they think surveillance. Typical images that come to mind are the PI in his vehicle following a subject’s car through traffic or a PI parked somewhere, watching the subject’s residence or work. If a writer is crafting a city surveillance, she’ll take into consideration such things as the flow of traffic, how closely the PI follows the subject’s vehicle, and possible side streets the PI might take.
But what if your story is set in the country? Or your big-city investigator must travel to a rural area to conduct a surveillance? Here are five tips for crafting a rural surveillance scene:
Tip #1: Know the area: In our part of the country, we have some impressive, wide-open stretches of country outside of “the big cities.” Whenever we were going into a rural area, we would first check online maps (for example, MapQuest and Google Earth). Have your fictional PI do the same. We’ve scheduled rural surveillances in areas that are so remote, they don’t even show up in online maps. In such cases, we have contacted the sheriff’s office for that region and requested help with directions and maps.
Also, it's smart for the PI to give local law enforcement a heads up about the surveillance so the sheriff/LEO (law enforcement officer) can watch out for the investigator's safety. What if a PI had vehicle trouble and was stuck in the middle of nowhere...and not a soul knows his/her whereabout. Not saying the PI needs to spill everything about the surveillance to the sheriff/LEO, or even who the PI is surveilling, just the area the PI plans to be in/near.
I once conducted a surveillance in the middle of a national forest. I know, how crazy is that? But my client paid me well to check if his wife was camping out with her paramour. Before I commenced the surveillance, I dropped by the sheriff's office and discussed the area I was surveilling and my planned route. The sheriff clued me in on some areas to avoid, and informed me that my cell phone transmission would be iffy to non-existent at times. We agreed I'd check in periodically when I had cell-phone connectivity, as well as check in with his office at the end of the day on my way out of the national forest.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to crank up the tension in your story, have your PI get stuck in desolate region with no Internet accessibility!
Tip #2: Use an appropriate vehicle. Maybe your fictional PI scoots around the city in a lime-green VW, but that dog won’t hunt in the country. In a small town, everybody knows everybody else, including what vehicle they drive. A PI will drive a vehicle that blends in, is nondescript and can handle the terrain. Also, avoid using vehicles with identifiers such as decals, vanity plates and bumper stickers.
Or maybe you want to write a humorous scene where the town folk all know the shiny van with the “Don't make me go medieval on you” bumper sticker is that city-slicker PI who’s working undercover.
Tip #3: Why is the PI parked there? A PI can be parked on a country public road and document whatever he sees “in plain view” -- but he’d better have a good reason for being there if someone asks. Most PIs keeps props ready, such as binoculars and a bird guide (so she/he can't pretend they're a bird watcher), car-repair tools (pretending he/she's fixing their car) and so on. An acquaintance of mine, whose husband is an FBI special agent, said the bird-watching story is cliche and most country folks would find the story laughable.
Maybe your private eye uses the bird watcher cover story and blows his cover, which could be an entertaining scene. Or perhaps your sleuth is an accomplished bird watcher and can pull off that pretext without a problem.
Tip #4: Look the part: Just as a PI wears clothes appropriate to a city location, he/she will wear clothes that blend in to that part of the country and season. Whenever we did a winter rural surveillance in Colorado, we wore jeans, t-shirts, boots and jackets.
Tip #5: Choose useful equipment: As I mentioned in Tip #1, your PI might encounter a situation where he/she has no WiFi service or satellite signals. That could create a dicey situation for your character. However, maybe he/she has an add-on communication device to a smartphone that uses long-range radio waves to connect by text with others. One such device is goTenna.
Other equipment for rural surveillances includes cameras with increased optical zoom, and video equipment that is functional, portable and low profile. These might be apps on your sleuth's smartphone, fyi.