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 PIstore.com. 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.

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

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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

FBI Website: A Writer's Toolbox

FBI New Agent Training (courtesy of FBI)

FBI New Agent Training (courtesy of FBI)

Writing a mystery or thriller and want to do a quick study on the latest techniques for analyzing fingerprints?  Maybe you want to write a character who commits fraud, and you'd like details on a specific type of scheme.  Or perhaps you're writing a CSI-like story and want to learn more about crime scene surveys, forensic facial imaging, or  pick up a few key details about how an FBI special agent in training learns about identifying and excavating human remains.

You can study these things and much more at the FBI website.

For example, on their page "Scams & Safety," there's a listing of several dozen topics broken into categories such as "About Dangerous Criminals," "About Frauds," and "On the Internet." That first one, "About Dangerous Criminals," has an article "How to Spot and Report Espionage," that discusses how spies haven't gone the way of the Cold War, in fact, they're more prolific than ever.  Juicy stuff for stories--and you're researching your data from the source.

Want details about the FBI swat team? There's a page for that, too, that includes a breakdown of the tools of the trade, from helmet and goggles to weapons.  Additional pages describe the work and tools of FBI divers and FBI bomb technicians.

The FBI also provides downloads of photos, such as the ones on today's post, for free, no permission required.  Cool stuff for blogs, presentations, and of course that never-ending task for writers--research.

Happy writing!  Colleen

FBI Agent 1939 (courtesy of FBI)

FBI Agent 1939 (courtesy of FBI)

FBI Dive Team Boat (courtesy of FBI)

FBI Dive Team Boat (courtesy of FBI)

New York FBI SWAT Team member (courtesy of FBI)

New York FBI SWAT Team member (courtesy of FBI)

FBI Bomb Technician Vehicle (courtesy of FBI)

FBI Bomb Technician Vehicle (courtesy of FBI)