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.

Five Tips for Writing Rural Surveillances

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.

Historical Research: Download Maps, Charts and Atlases for Free

In this digital age, we're accustomed to snapping pictures with our smartphones and sending them instantly to others, but not so long ago in the history of the world, people had to draw diagrams, pictures and maps to share information. 

English colonies, 1754   Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

English colonies, 1754 Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Free Downloads of Historical Drawings and Maps

Boston Public Library offers free downloads of historical maps, drawings, charts and more from its Norman B. Levanthal Map Center for non-commercial purposes under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. A great resource for researching a story set during one of the eras within the collection, such as the American Revolutionary War.

If you download any of the images, the Boston Public Library asks that you provide one of the following attribution lines:

(From the Leventhal Map Center's collections:)
"Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library"

(From a separate collection (example: Richard H. Brown Revolutionary War Era Maps:)
"Map reproduction from the [NAME OF COLLECTION] collection of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library"

Sample Maps and Diagrams from the American Revolutionary War

Below are a few of maps and drawings from the American Revolutionary War, including several drawings by Paul Revere, a southwest view depiction of New York city in 1763, and a drawing for the encampment plan for British forces in 1780. 

SW view of New York city, 1763 -  Map reproduction courtesy of the  Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

SW view of New York city, 1763 - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library


Planned Boston massacre, 1770 (diagram by Paul Revere) -  Map reproduction courtesy of the  Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Planned Boston massacre, 1770 (diagram by Paul Revere) - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Drawing of plan for encampment of British forces, 1780 -  Map reproduction courtesy of the  Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Drawing of plan for encampment of British forces, 1780 - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ships of war, Boston 1768 (drawing by Paul Revere) -   Map reproduction courtesy of the  Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ships of war, Boston 1768 (drawing by Paul Revere) - Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library


Crime Scene Investigations: Diagrams and Articles for Writers and Researchers

crime scene tape.jpg

While working on my current romantic-suspense novel proposal, I went trolling on the Internet to find some examples of arson investigations (the story involves a federal arson investigator), when I stumbled across a site called SmartDraw, a software product that helps people capture their thoughts/information as pictures. It contains numerous examples of mind maps, report templates and flow charts for different kinds of crime scenes -- handy for writers needing to understand the different types of investigations and their processes.  

Examples of Crime Scene Charts

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 12.15.29 PM.png

Below are some examples from SmartDraw of crime scene charts and diagrams. 

You can also download a diagram for free, then use that image as a brainstorming tool for such things as a character's motivation or story crime scene. For researchers and investigators, these images provide a basic starting point for customization.

Order of Crime Scene Investigation Example

Crime Scene Investigation Models of Motive Example

Establishing the Role of First Responders - Preserve the Fire Scene

Mind Map of Threats of Evidence at a Fire Scene

Crime Scene - Drug Possession in Automobile Example

Examples of Crime Scene Reports

Below are some report examples from SmartDraw.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 12.24.20 PM.png

Crime Scene Investigation Report

Autopsy Report for Crime Scene Investigation Example

Gunshot Forensic Pathology Report for Crime Scene Investigation Example

Autopsy Report for Crime Scene Investigation Example

Other Crime Scene Resources

The Crime Zone: Software to create crime scene diagrams. You can use the product free ten times with no restrictions.  

Crime Scene Diagrams/Presentation: A PowerPoint presentation via

Crime Scene Sketch Activity: This document was a homework assignment for teams creating crime sketches. Information includes types of sketches, scaling, equipment, labeling and more. Crime scene forms, classroom activities and forensic/evidence publications.

Book Sale March 1-7, 2015: A Lawyer's Primer for Writers

Put together with the user in mind, this intelligently organized handbook for practicing writers will make you sound like a practicing lawyer. Use it to transform your courtroom characters from stereotypes into engaging people
— Warwick Downing, former DA in Colorado and author of The Widow of Dartmoor, a sequel to Hound of the Baskervilles

A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms will be on sale March 1-7, 2015 - The earlier you buy it that week, the more you save!

Below is a table of sale dates and prices - for example, buy it on March 1 for 99 cents, and you'll save 88 percent off the regular $7.95 price!

Tropes: To Use or Not to Use in Storytelling?

I used to think a trope was a bad thing, assigning it the taint of a cliche. Well, a trope can become a cliche if overused and bludgeoned senseless, but I wasn't bothering to think beyond that.

Took me a while to realize...

Tropes Are Not Bad

The key for genre writers is to balance well-known tropes with innovation

The key for genre writers is to balance well-known tropes with innovation

I have a writer friend who says that one reason she started hitting the New York Times best seller lists was she began applying tropes in her stories. I'm reading one of her books now, and I see exactly what she's talking about. The story is based on a "rescue romance" trope where Person A rescues Person B, causing Person B to fall in love with Person A. Think the knight in shining armor who saves the damsel in distress who the knight later weds. Except this writer did a fun, entertaining twist on this trope -- it's the woman in short-shorts who saves the guy in distress, and readers couldn't buy this book fast enough.

Tropes are not only a good thing, some believe their outright omission can negatively affect readers. In the article "Genre Tropes and the Transmissibility of Story," the authors state "When familiar tropes are missing or unfamiliar tropes present, this can lead readers to reject a story outright."

The Power of Tropes

Here's a quote from TV Tropes on "Tropes as Tools":

Stories such as  The Christmas Carol,  where a human is visited by the past in the form of a ghost, use the happily ever before trope.

Stories such as The Christmas Carol, where a human is visited by the past in the form of a ghost, use the happily ever before trope.

Tropes are just tools. Writers understand tropes and use them to control audience expectations either by using them straight or by subverting them, to convey things to the audience quickly without saying them.

Human beings are natural pattern seekers and story tellers. We use stories to convey truths, examine ideas, speculate on the future and discuss consequences. To do this, we must have a basis for our discussion, a new language to show us what we are looking at today. So our storytellers use tropes to let us know what things about reality we should put aside and what parts of fiction we should take's impossible to write something completely and utterly without tropes, anyway, so strop trying.

When Good Tropes Go Bad

On the other hand, using tropes doesn't mean go nuts with them. A trope can help a story, but it shouldn't be the story. Like my writer friend, she didn't pluck a tried-and-true trope off the shelf and make it her story; no, she took a tried-and-true trope and gave it an entertaining spin. 

Also, a trope isn't a "fix" for a story. If the writing's skillful, the characters complex and the plot is well-paced and interesting, a story can be thin on the trope side. Conversely, if a story is in bad shape, imposing a trope on it doesn't magically heal the story and make it better.

Time for me to get back to writing my new book proposal. In it, I've started with the popular trope opposite attract, which is basically a story where two very different people learn about the world through each others' eyes. This trope has worked for many stories, from Neil Simon's The Odd Couple to just about every buddy-cop story around. 

Tropes. Don't leave a story without 'em.

Four Tips for Minimizing Bad Reviews on Google

Bad reviews suck.  Whether it's  for a book, a new hair-style or the color you just painted your house, it can feel rotten for some stranger to diss it.

We've all gotten bad reviews at some time in our lives, but when you're writing books and they're out there on the Internet for anybody to comment about, that book, your baby, can be even more vulnerable to fly-by snarks.

Some people say to just ignore those nasty reviews, which is wise advice, but you can be even more proactive than that.  Below are four tips for minimizing beastly reviews on Google.

#1 Don't Press That Bad Review Link Again!

I know, you're tempted.  You just read it, and you feel as though you swallowed a tray of ice cubes.  You want to show that nasty, mean-spirited review to your mother, your best pal, a coworker who wants to commiserate...DON'T.

Don't click that bad review link again!

Don't click that bad review link again!

Every time you click that button and re-read that bad review, you're sending a signal (literally) to Google and other search engines that the review is interesting to people.  And when a search engine thinks people are finding some webpage interesting, that page gets boosted in rankings and more people see it.  Hey, you don't want that so resist the urge to read and re-read that bad review, and don't pass on the bad-review link to others, either.

#2 Okay, You Clicked It Again.  Now Fix It.

If you just couldn't resist pressing that bad-review link, click the back button on your browser and go visit one of your gushing-positive reviews.  One of those 5-star babies that made your day.  Good.  Now close your browser.  This sends a signal to Google and other search engines that this second interview, that effusive, darn-near lyrical one, has more impact that the previous one.

#3 Don't Search for That Bad Review Again, Ever

That rotten review might bug you -- did he/she (couldn't tell if it was a man or woman from their IEATCLOCKS Amazon ID) really say that your free book wasn't even worth that price???  As Tony Soprano would've said, fugghitabout.  Re-read numbers #1 through #3, above.   Don't even look for a keyword in that snarky review because guess what?  You'll again be signaling Google and other search engines that those vile keywords are significant when it comes to your book.

#4 Don't Post a Rebuttal

Some people think it's a good idea to post a rebuttal, but I think otherwise. For starters, you're...yeah, you know the answer.  By adding a comment to the bad review, you're adding relevant content to that review, which signals search engines that the review and its nasty keywords are significant.  

Okay, so you're staying away from that bad review.  Good!  Here's a few more things you can do to proactively boost positive reviews of your book:

  • Write content about your book.  Write about some facet of your story, research, etc., and post it in your blog, your Twitter account, your Facebook page, and any other web presence you have.
  • Sign up for interviews.  There's all kinds of book bloggers and fellow writers out there who actively seek interviews with writers.  Or, research the different book review blogs at or Book Blogger Directory to see if there are any book blogs that fit  your genre--then query those blogs for interviews.  
  • Hang a sign to encourage you to write, not mull over bad reviews.  I have several writer-pals who do this.  One has hung up a sign next to her computer that says "Be Your Best!"  Whenever she has a moment of self-doubt, or has the urge to check out a lousy review, she looks at that sign and gets the boost to keep working at her craft.  This writer is a New York Times best-selling author, by the way.
  • Ask book fans and others to post positive reviews.  

Carole Lombard Wore Her Bad Reviews!

Carole Lombard in the 1936 screwball comedy  My Man Godfrey  (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Carole Lombard in the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

This Hollywood star had a great, and bawdy, sense of humor.  She once wore a gown covered with her own bad reviews to a formal party!  

But first the backstory.  Seems when Lombard's husband Clark Gable got some hideous reviews for his acting in a film, she decided that laughing at himself was the best medicine, so she posted some of the bad reviews around the MGM lot so he would come face to face with them wherever he went.

The below excerpt, from the site  Dear Mr. Gable tells how Gable got back at her...but she had the last laugh at her own expense:

To get her back, for a one year anniversary present, (Gable) gave her a custom made gown designed by Adrian, with newspaper headlines plastered all over it: “Parsons Pans Lombard!” “Lombard Flops Again!” “Lombard Limited–And How!” “Critics Cauterize Carole!” Carole, head held high, defiantly wore the gown to the next formal party they attended, despite Clark’s protests.

Maybe having a sense of humor about life's bumps (and bad reviews) is the best advice of all!

Too Serious? Five Writing Tips From the Masters

Time for a laugh break!

Time for a laugh break!

I'm plugging away on a new book.  It's the first few chapters, the set-up of the story, which is the toughest part of a book for me to write.  During this part of the writing: I'm uber-serious, worried, self-critical, at times bereft. This is not the time to diet.

So I thought it time to bring a smile to those who are toiling away on the keyboard. Below are five quasi-serious to tongue-in-cheek rules of writing from some of the best in the biz.

Elmore Leonard.  Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue that follows an introduction that comes after a foreword.  But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, and it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about.  He says, "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy's that talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

Roddy Doyle.  Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Anne Enright.  The first 12 years are the worst.

Neil Gaiman.  Remember: When people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

David Hare: Never go to a TV personality festival masquerading as a literary festival.

Richard Ford: Don't have children.

Now, get back to writing!