by Colleen Collins & Shaun Kaufman
Authors of How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths
As private investigators, we both live the investigative life and love to read stories about it, too. The problem with being PIs is that we’re predisposed to catching investigative bloopers in stories, from the blatantly illegal to the curiously illogical. We thought it’d be helpful to shed light on a few of these gaffes.
Below are five mistakes we’ve recently read in crime stories. We’ve also offered ideas for fixes, too.
Mistake #1: Successfully following a vehicle for hours, or an entire day, especially in a car the subject has seen and suspects might be following him. Mobile or rolling surveillances (surveillances conducted in vehicles) are difficult – not only does the investigator not know the subject’s destination, there are diverse traffic conditions, missed stop lights, unexpected turns, varying driving speeds and other factors. How to fix?
Here’s a few ideas:
Have plausible reasons the sleuth successfully tracks a vehicle for long periods. (Maybe the sleuth has an idea of the subject’s routine or hangouts?)
The surveillance is conducted over a reasonable amount of time, not hours and hours.
Maybe the investigator asks a pal to help out – the success rate for a mobile surveillance increases significantly when there are two investigators, two vehicles. Even an extra person in one vehicle is helpful – the second person can check online maps and directions, be watching traffic and other activities, operate cameras, even jump out of the vehicle and conduct foot surveillance if necessary.
Our book How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths has sections on both stationary and mobile surveillances with techniques for conducting both. PIstore.com also has books on a wide variety of investigative topics, including surveillances.
Mistake #2: If a character states a legality, make sure it’s really a legality. One of us just read a story where a lead character claimed a restraining order didn’t take effect until after the petitioner and respondent left the courtroom. Actually, a temporary retraining order is already in effect when the parties enter the courtroom for the final restraining order hearing.
A writer can check a legality by asking a lawyer, paralegal or a reference librarian at a public or law library.
Mistake #3: Impossible investigative feat. In a recent story, a critical clue was provided by a man using a walker who was forced to jump out of the way of a speeding car (which was making a turn) on a dark street in the middle of the night. While jumping and dealing with the walker, he also managed to memorize the license plate number of the speeding car making the turn. It didn’t feel real, it felt convenient.
We’ve used binoculars in the middle of the night on surveillance and still not been able to document license plate numbers, especially from a speeding car making a turn. How to fix? It’d be helpful for a writer to re-enact a scenario, see the inherent difficulties in a situation and develop plausible actions.
Mistake #4: Caller IDs can lie. These days, “faking” a caller ID (also called “spoofing”) is a service offered by numerous Internet sites – for example, Spoofcard.com, Telespoof.com and SpoofTel.com. In a recent story we read, a seasoned private investigator received a threatening call from a stranger. The PI read the number on his caller ID, recognized it as being a close friend’s number, and wondered how the caller had obtained his friend’s cell phone. Considering how prevalent spoofing is, it surprised us this experienced PI didn’t immediately guess the number had been spoofed – and that maybe the caller had spoofed the PI’s friend’s number to encourage the PI to answer the phone. Which, after reading further, was exactly what had happened.
The only “fix” for this is for writers to better understand the world of spoofing. It doesn’t cost much to sign up for a spoofing service – a writer can experiment with it, see how it works and apply the technique in the story.
Mistake #5: Trash is ripe with clues. Sometimes we wonder why we don’t read about more fictional sleuths rummaging in trash for clues – and then sometimes we wonder why a savvy sleuth has so blithely ignored a significant whiff of the truth.
For example, in a recent story a PI, hot on the trail of a crime, noticed a small bag of garbage lying on her front porch and wondered if that was accidental or if it meant something. Hello? A gift of garbage and she wonders if it’s significant? The PI carried the trash around for several hours until someone else (a non-PI) said, “Hey, there might be a clue in that trash!” Guess what? There was!
No fix here except to recommend a writer understand that most PIs understand the value of trash hits. We discuss trash hits in detail in our book. Also, here’s a link to an article Colleen recently wrote about conducting trash hits: http://bit.ly/ige9ne
Thank you to Sandra Parshall and Poe’s Deadly Daughters for hosting us today. Feel free to post a comment or ask a question – at the end of the day, we’ll pick a name at random from the comments and forward that person a Kindle version of How to Write a Dick. If you don’t have a Kindle device, there are free, easily downloadable Kindle apps for PCs and Macs.
Colleen Collins co-owns Highlands Investigations in Denver, Colorado. Her articles on private investigations have appeared in PI Magazine, Pursuit Magazine, PInow.com and other publications. She's written 20 novels for Harlequin and Dorchester and has spoken at regional and national conferences about writing private eyes in fiction.
Shaun Kaufman co-owns Highlands Investigations, and has worked in and around the criminal justice field for over 30 years as a former trial attorney and a current investigator. He's published articles in PI Magazine, the Denver Law Review and other publications, and has presented workshops on a wide variety of investigative topics, including crime scenes, how PIs effectively testify in trials and gang evidence.
How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths is available on:
Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00595K1UK/ (shortened url: http://amzn.to/pEhaP6 )
Nook:http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-to-write-a-dick-colleen-collins/1104170465?ean=2940012841513&itm=1&usri=how%2Bto%2Bwrite%2Ba%2Bdick/ (shortened url: http://bit.ly/pT3bf8)