Real-Life Nicks & Noras: What It's Like to Be Married Sleuths

My article about being a real-world Nora Charles (the wife-sleuth in Nick & Nora) is live at mystery writer Marilyn Meredith's blog.

Below is an excerpt with a link to the full article at the end. At the end of the article, I offer additional resources about real-life married PI teams, as well as a link to Pursuit Magazine, a free online magazine for professional private investigators that is managed by a real-life husband-and-wife team—handy info for writers crafting sleuth tales and characters!

Nicks & Noras in the Real World: The Thin and the Thick of It

by Colleen Collins

Shaun and Colleen: Husband-and-Wife PI Team (image is copyrighted)

Most of you know about Nick and Nora Charles, the husband and wife private detective team in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. William Powell and Myrna Loy played Nick and Nora in the 1934 movie of the same name, the first in the popular six-film series. While wise-cracking, canoodling, and imbibing martinis, they also managed to solve a murder or two.

1934 The Thin Man poster (in public domain)

1934 The Thin Man poster (in public domain)

Before my husband returned to being a criminal lawyer, we worked together for over a decade as a real-life private eye team. Even today we sometimes still work cases together for his law practice.

As much as I like to think we held our own in the Nick-and-Nora wise-cracking department, only one of us drank martinis, and we never solved a murder, although we investigated and solved a few attempted murder cases. However, just as Nick and Nora had their terrier Asta, we worked cases with our Rottweiler Aretha, who has sat on innumerable surveillances, helped serve legal papers, and once climbed part way up a mountain where we investigated the scene of a “ski” crime.

HOLLYWOOD VS. REAL-LIFE: GLITZ VS. GRUNGE

Hollywood movies often show the sparkling highlights of a case, whereas the day-to-day digging for evidence can be a grind, sometimes with no viable clues surfacing for weeks at a time. And the film version of surveillances is fiction at its finest—it’s rare that a sleuth-mobile can follow a subject’s vehicle for hours on end. Yours truly has been a PI since 2003, and only once did I successfully follow a subject’s vehicle for hours...and I credit that singular success to the subject not being the brightest mental-bulb on the planet.

Pros and Cons of Being a Married PI Team

For the most part, both my husband and I found sleuthing together to be fun. We had our tense moments, but we enjoy each other’s company and like to make each other laugh, plus there’s nothing like the thrill of cracking a case.

DIFFERING WORK STYLES: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE ARE YOU CRAZY?

My husband and I fit the “opposites who attract” category. He’s a big-picture person, I focus on the details. He can wing it on little data, I like to be overly prepared. Our strengths can work amazingly well together; other times, we can drive each other more than a little nuts.

Here’s one example of how our traits mesh well...

Click here to read entire article

 

This article is copyrighted by Colleen Collins—if you wish to re-post or use elsewhere, please contact the author. Also, do not copy, distribute, or otherwise use any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Images in the public domain are free to use.


Book Cover  How Do Private Eyes Do That?  by Colleen Collins (image is copyrighted)

Book Cover How Do Private Eyes Do That? by Colleen Collins (image is copyrighted)

June 2016 release: How Do Private Eyes Do That? (2nd edition)

"If you're looking for the lowdown on private investigations, this is it."

~Bill Crider, author of the Truman Smith mystery series


How to Attach a GPS Device Underneath a Car

In my new release (The Next Right Thing), the opening scene shows my protagonist, a female private investigator, attaching a GPS device underneath a subject's vehicle.  Being a private investigator, I've done this myself multiple times, so I know the drill.  I figured others writers depicting similar scenes might appreciate some tips on how this is done, as well as the legal issues.

Therefore in today's post, I'll provide some article links on GPS devices, and wrap it up with an excerpt (the opening scene) in The Next Right Thing that shows the protagonist, Las Vegas PI Cammie Copello, crawling under a pick-up truck to plant such a device.  

Articles on Locating GPS Devices on Vehicles

Some of these articles  explain where to look for a GPS device--these are the best areas to place such devices, of course.  Legal issues are critical for any real-life or fictional PI to know as well.  Even if you're writing an amateur sleuth, it's good to understand the legalities that could put your character in jail.

To read an article, click the link.

How to Tell If You Have a GPS Magnet on Your Car by Colleen Collins, eHow

Real-Time GPS Device

Real-Time GPS Device

Private Snoops Find GPS Trail Legal to Follow by Erik Eckholm, New York Times

Where to Look for a GPS Bug on Your Car If You Think You're Being Tracked by Adam Dachis, lifehacker

How to Attach a Tracking Device by Palmer Owyowng, eHow

Book Excerpt: A Fictional PI Attaches a GPS Device

In this scene, PI Cammie Copello attaches a GPS device underneath a pick-up truck.  Note that she's attuned to the make and year of the vehicle (older trucks often have steel parts that make attaching magnets so easy).  My husband-PI-partner and I used to study the type of vehicle we'd be attaching a device to, which entailed such research as visiting used car lots, speaking with auto body shops about parts attached to cars after they are repaired, and of course looking up information on the Internet.

The Next Right Thing: Opening Scene

surveillance female hanging out of car with camera.jpg

Cammie eased her 2006 silver Monte Carlo, named Phil after the fictional private eye Philip Marlowe, next to the dirt-crusted red pick-up she’d been following for the last hour. The subject--Ray “Rebel” Nathan--had strolled his six-two, cowboy-booted self into the burger dive a few minutes ago. If he was picking up to-go food, he’d be out in ten minutes, maybe less.

Cammie had to move fast.

Earlier, she’d slipped the GPS device and its battery pack inside the pocket of her jean jacket. She double-checked the bulky parts with a quick feel, then slipped out the driver’s side. Standing between Phil and the pick-up, she blinked against the surging winds while quickly scanning the area. Across the parking lot, several teenagers squealed and laughed while chasing a plastic bag the wind had wrested from their hold.  A late-model Dodge Charger droned by.  Its driver, an older dude with a skinny gray ponytail, puffed on a cigar.  Trails of blue smoke and the 70s Bee Gees hit “More than a Woman” wafted through the half-open driver’s window.

More than a woman.  Being a female in the private eye business often felt like that, plus some.  A woman had to be more resilient, sharper and often tougher to last in this male-dominated profession.

Dude turned right onto Boulder Highway, the Bee Gees’ trilling vibratos merging with the drone of noon-day traffic.

Cammie quickly moved to the front of the pick-up and plunked her butt down on the asphalt.

The device clattered out of her jacket pocket.

Cursing under her breath, she snatched the metal GPS unit and its egg-shaped antennae.  After quickly verifying their connecting wire was intact, she shoved them back into her jacket.  Leaning back, she grabbed the grill with both hands and pulled herself underneath the pick-up.  Her legs stuck outside the front of the vehicle, but they were only visible from the Boulder Highway, a mash of speeding cars, honking horns and exhaust.  It’d take someone with a sharp eye to see her limbs--and if they did, who’s to say they didn’t belong to the owner of this truck?

Carefully, she inched the device from her pocket.

She’d always figured life for most people was a rush of events and faces, racing by like the Boulder Highway traffic outside. But whenever she was battling high emotions, time had a nasty habit of snagging her, pinning her like a fly.  Caught, she’d grow aware of every movement, sound, subtlety.

Like right now.  Battling her anxiousness, time had slowed to a crawl.  The stench of twenty different fluids from the engine stifled her breath.  The heat from the asphalt seeped up like steam through her clothes.  And that relentless Las Vegas wind swirled around her like a ghost, its chilly breath caressing and prodding her with things she didn’t want to think about…it’d happened so long ago, it no longer mattered…go away, go away…

A blustery gust of wind rattled past, chasing away the ghost. Particles of dirt spit at her face, stung her hands.

Time sped up, snapped to the present.

She pressed the GPS unit against the bumper, reassured by the clank of magnet against steel.  Gotta love these older trucks and their metal parts.  She lightly tugged the electrical wire connecting the unit and antennae until the wire was taut – didn’t want it to drag, catch on anything in the road while the truck was moving.  She positioned the antennae to the back of the grill, moving it back and forth until she hit a sweet spot where it’d easily pick up satellite signals.

Done!

She smiled, her body tingling with that familiar rush of relief and satisfaction after successfully fastening one of these babies.  Maybe her uncle thought she should’ve stayed in law school, but what he didn’t get was that she dug the thrill of investigations.  What lawyer got to crawl under cars, track missing people, find someone’s long-lost sibling or high school sweetheart?  A PI’s work was the most exciting game in town.  Better than any eight-to-five.

After scooching from underneath the truck and carefully rising to her feet, she nonchalantly looked around as though absolutely nothing unusual had just happened.  She eyed a few parked cars, a woman in a blue jogging suit scurrying into a store, her cell phone glued to her ear.  A burst of the teenagers’ shrieks and laughter momentarily crested the wind, although they were no longer in sight.

No Rebel, either.  Still inside buying his greasy burger.

Oh so casually brushing dirt off her jeans, Cammie got back into Phil and drove off.

***

Across The Boulder Highway from the burger dive, she parked in the lot in front of the Firelight Lounge at Sam’s Town. From here, she had an unencumbered view of Rebel’s pick-up.  Time to relax, check the GPS tracking software on her smartphone, double-check everything was hooked up correctly and getting signals.

Plus she knew Rebel Boy would likely next be heading down the highway to his paramour’s apartment and Cammie was in a primo spot to slide into traffic and follow.  Her client, Rebel’s wife, didn’t know the girl’s name, or her address, but had plenty of reason for suspicion.  Lipstick on his tidy whities was the clincher.  Then a friend who worked at Sam’s Town had reported to the wife that Rebel’s truck had been seen tooling east down Boulder Highway almost every day around lunchtime. 

Cammie plucked the elastic rubber band that confined her curls in a thick knot. Ruffling her hair loose, she checked the time on her smartphone.  Twelve-twenty.  Must be eating his lunch before his noontime tryst.  Too cheap to buy girlfriend a burger, too?

Distant sirens wailed.  As their screams pulsed louder, she surveyed the highway for their approach. Two fire engines, horns blaring, careened down the highway.  Cars pulled over to let them pass.

More sirens joined the ruckus.

A police unit, lights sparkling, charged into the burger lot across the street.  Another bolted into the Firelight Lounge lot, bouncing over a speed bump.  Several white Crown Victorias--unmarked vehicles--trailed the police unit into the lot, all them bouncing over the same bump.

The first unit screeched to a halt.

Right.  Behind.  Her.

She froze, stared in her rear view mirror at the police vehicle with its blue, white and yellow lights swirling.

“This is a felony stop,” a male voice barked over a loud speaker.

“Keep your hands on the dashboard, continue facing forward, do not move. I repeat, do not move."

End of Excerpt

The Next Right Thing is available in both print and ebook formats.  To order your copy, click here.


To go to book's Amazon page, click on banner.

To go to book's Amazon page, click on banner.

Interview with Mystery Author Nancy Wood

Due Date
By Nancy W. Wood

I'm happy to introduce you to talented mystery writer, Nancy Wood, author of Due DateThe story features amateur sleuth Shelby McDougall, who is also a surrogate mother. In the below interview with Nancy, she explains what inspired the story, how it evolved into a mystery, her writing mentor and more.  Due Date is available in paperback and as an ebook.  To order your copy, click on the book cover to your right.

Meet Nancy Wood

Nancy lives in Santa Cruz, California, where she’s been lucky enough to make writing her career. For many years she made her living as a technical writer, working in software documentation. About six years ago, she was laid off from her job and decided to set up her own shop. Now, she’s a writing consultant for the high-tech industry and gets to spend every day grappling with words and sentences.

Nancy Wood

Nancy Wood

DUE DATE, published by Solstice Publishing, came out at the end of May. This is Nancy’s first published book. She started it about six years ago, and is now working on the second book in the Shelby McDougall series, which she really hopes won’t take quite so long.

Why did you decide to write a mystery/thriller?

I’ve been writing for a number of years and have a variety of unpublished novels under my belt, including one that explores the relationship between a birth mother and the adoptive family. I took this manuscript to a workshop, where the leader and participants suggested I turn it into a mystery. At first, the suggestion seemed so ludicrous, I almost laughed out loud: how could I possibly piece together a mystery or thriller that made sense? But by the time I left the conference, I had a 200 word pitch for DUE DATE that I pretty much stuck to the whole time I was writing it.

What genre does your book fall into - cozy, mystery/thriller, suspense, police procedural, etc?

When I first started writing DUE DATE, I thought of it as a died-in-the-wool mystery, a story with a dead body and crime to solve. But it’s not a typical mystery: there’s no dead body in the first chapter; let alone anywhere in the book! Now that I’ve learned more about the genre, I’d say it’s a thriller.

What prompted you to write this book or series?

I’ve always been intrigued by open adoptions, where the birth mother and adoptive parents maintain a relationship after the birth. Surrogacy, where the birth mother is carrying a baby for someone else, is even more intriguing. What would a relationship between the surrogate mom and the intended parents be like? Would the relationship continue after the birth?

 In the second book in the Shelby McDougall series, Shelby will be doing a lot of reading about genetic engineering, which will have a sinister component to it.

Do you consider your book character-driven or plot-driven?

I’d say both. I like characters with layers and lots of depth, and hope I created memorable characters who have solid motivations with personalities that are believable. But the plot also has to be intriguing and inventive enough that the reader has a reason to keep turning the pages. Another aspect that features into my writing is the setting. I’d say that DUE DATE is also setting-driven, as I love using the natural landscape to mirror a character’s internal life.

What makes your book unique?

My book features an amateur sleuth who is a surrogate mother. When much of the story takes place, she’s in her last trimester.

Do you plot ahead of time, or let the plot emerge as you write?

I plot ahead of time, but veer off track as I write. Sometimes the plot takes a turn for the better; sometimes I end up with plots that dead-end in dark corners!

How did you develop the names for your characters?

For some unknown reason, when I look at all the stories and books I’ve written over the last twenty years, all my favorite female characters’ names start with “S:” Sara, Sharon, Sally. I must like the sound of those “S” names. Plus, I don’t know anyone named “Shelby” or “McDougall” so that was a plus.

Do your characters swear? Why or why not?

Some of my characters swear. And some swear more than others. The expletives have to be authentic to the character, though. The early drafts of DUE DATE did not contain any swearing, and I was advised to put some in, especially for the villains. For those early readers, the fact there was no swearing did not seem realistic.

How did you decide on the setting?

DUE DATE is set in Santa Cruz county, where I love. I am lucky enough to live in a beautiful place that has a variety of landscapes: there’s the city of Santa Cruz, the university, the miles of coastline, the redwood forests, the oak-studded upland meadows. The second book in the series will also be set here, but will be centered more in south county, outside of Watsonville. Shelby will also travel to Big Sur.

Do you have a writing mentor?

Yes, I worked with Mary Carroll Moore, who’s the author of YOUR BOOK STARTS HERE. Mary helped me with the story arc, the characters’ inner and outer lives, the pacing and timing, the dialog. Pretty much everything! I sent her my completed manuscript and she did a full developmental review. Then, as I started my line-by-line edits, I’d email her a chapter every few weeks, and she’d return it, with insightful, helpful comments. I really think that without her help, my book would still be a manuscript and not an actual novel.

What's your writing schedule? Do you have a favorite place to write?

Every morning, before breakfast, and before other family members get up, I’m at the keyboard. I try to write for an hour first thing, every day. I sometimes sit on the sofa with my laptop, lately I’ve taken to writing in my office. The window looks out on the huge palm tree in our front yard (yes here in Santa Cruz in Central California, there are palms), and I can watch the day begin. On good writing days, I’m reluctant to switch computers (I have two – one for writing, one for work) and start on whatever technical documentation is at hand. On bad writing days, I’m so thankful I can get to something that’s structured and known and knowable!

What’s the first mystery you read?

Nancy Drew. Then Agatha Christie.

What’s next?

As mentioned above, I’m working on the next book in the series, where Shelby will be drawn back into the conspiracy she battled in DUE DATE.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks for hosting me Colleen! I loved THE ZEN MAN and can’t wait to get my hands on THE NEXT RIGHT THING. A legal thriller wrapped up in a romance? Sounds great!

Connect with Nancy here:

Website: Nancy Wood Books

Blog: Nancy Wood Books: Blog

Twitter: @NancyWoodAuthor

Facebook: www.facebook.com/NancyWoodAuthor

Dogs and Evidence: Sniffing Out the Truth?

Transient

There's been some stories lately in the media about people being falsely accused of crimes based on "dog sniff" evidence.  These stories are interesting for writers, too, as some of us might be crafting a story with police dogs or an instance where a dog's sense of smell seemingly points to evidence.

Using Drug-Sniffing Dogs in Legal Cases

Police dogs are trained to detect certain odors, such as scents from the human body or the odors emitted by illegal drugs. However, there is a high possibility of a false positive because in a drug case, for example, the presence of an odor does not necessarily mean contraband was located in a targeted area. 

From a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the SCOTUSblog recently quoted an analysis of three years of data from suburban Chicago police departments, which stated that only 44 percent of alerts by dogs to vehicles in roadside encounters produced drugs or paraphenalia.

Using Dogs to Sniff Out the Guilty in Line-Ups

There's also been a problem relying on dogs to sniff out guilty people in police line-ups.  In 2004, the FBI warned that dog scent work "should not be used as primary evidence" but only to corroborate other evidence.  The New York Times story "Picked from a Lineup, on a Whiff of Evidence" tells the story of two men who each served months in prison based on a police dog selecting them from lineups despite there being no other evidence that the men were guilty of the crimes.  In one case, Ronald Curtis was "sniffed" out to be guilty of burglary although surveillance video of the crime showed that Curtis didn't at all resemble the burglar.

To see some wonderful pictures of police dogs (from the blog CrimLaw), click here.

The Bloodhound Nose

Transient

Several years ago, I took a workshop from a private investigator who specialized in bloodhound searches.  Here's a few facts about bloodhounds and their smelling abilities:

  • A bloodhound can smell a 6-week-old human fingerprint.
  • A bloodhound holds all records for trailing (a 17-day-old trail and 138 miles)
  • Their drools and slobber help humidify and steam the scent, thus enhancing it.  Their nose membranes stay moist so scent molecules can reach olfactory receptor sites easily.
  • Their long ears scoop up scent.
  • Their loose skin helps get through underbrush and holds scent near the head.
  • Their deep chest allows processing of lots of air by the nose.

Have a great weekend, Colleen

A Private Eye Tool: The Smartphone

In the Not-So-Long-Ago Days...

I used to lug around all kinds of equipment for my investigations, such as digital and video cameras, cell phone, notebooks, pens, digital recorders, flashlight, magnifying glass, measuring tape and more. However, my smartphone now contains a lot of these tools as apps. Yes, even the measuring tape! I also have apps to do language translations, capture video if motion is detected, capture public data about homes, and much more.

Keeping Devices Charged

Back when I lugged around a bag or two of equipment, I had to always ensure some devices had been charged sufficiently so they'd have enough "juice" when I was out in the field. Just my luck if I hadn't taken the time to charge my cell phone or the video camera or any other item!

Winging It

When a digital camera, for example, ran out of power, I'd have to wing it. If I had a video camera with me, I'd use its photo feature to take still shots. But I avoided using the camera on my cell phone because the quality was so shoddy, and I didn't want to insert amateurish, cheap-looking photos into an investigative report. Good news is that today's smartphones take clear, usable photos and video.

These days I need to always keep the smartphone charged. Fortunately, we have battery chargers in both of our vehicles to help with this.

Smartphone Apps for Investigators

To read more about smartphone apps for PIs, click on the below article links. Some I wrote for my "sister" site Guns, Gams and Gumshoes; others are written by other P.I.s on their sites (in no particular order):

12 Essential Smartphone Apps Worth Investigating (Pursuit Magazine)

Must-Have iPhone Apps for the Private Investigator #3 (P.I. Advice)

Must-Have iPhone Apps for the Private Investigator part 2 (P.I. Advice)

Must-Have iPhone Apps for the Private Investigator part 1 (P.I. Advice)

iPhone Apps for Private Investigators (Guns, Gams and Gumshoes)

More iPhone Apps for Private Investigators (Guns, Gams and Gumshoes)

 

I still carry a pen and pad for taking notes, but I also take notes by typing them into my smartphone, which I can then email to myself/client.

I still carry a pen and pad for taking notes, but I also take notes by typing them into my smartphone, which I can then email to myself/client.

Welcome to My New Blog

Transient

Welcome to my blog, where I'll write about writing, books, maybe occasionally take a detour and discuss some aspect of private investigations (besides being a writer, I'm also a PI).  

If you click on the Index link, a gallery of pictures displays --these are a mix of book covers, upcoming books, other blogs, and an exhibition of photos of our beloved Rottweilers, Jack Nicholson and Aretha Franklin.  Dog owners/lovers, I know you understand.

Before signing off, I'm going to plug a nonfiction book on writing that I'm currently reading: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, a writing instructor and best-selling author of six psychological thrillers.  I've written 22 novels myself, but there's always more to learn about the craft of writing, and this book has been a wonderful resource.  I'm using its guidelines as I brainstorm the roadmap of my current story-in-progress.  Highly recommended!

For those interested in how I created this blog

After creating several WordPress blogs, I read about squarespace and decided if it was as easy to use as people claimed, I'd go with it.  In my two-week free trial period, I discovered squarespace was intuitive to use and has many helpful features (such as making it ridiculously easy to insert Amazon widgets, a great tool for writers).  Another cool feature: You get almost immediate responses from their  24/7 support, even during the trial period.

If you're like me (a minimalist techno type), and you'd like to create a blog/site without paying a hefty sum to a webmaster (who you continue to pay for updates), or if you're not up to spending days and days wrestling with WordPress to create a site, I highly recommend squarespace.