Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Writing PIs in Novels

Ever wish you had a Private Detective at your disposal? As a mystery writer, I do, and often. Today, The Five Scribes welcome Author Colleen Collins and her gumshoe Partner Shaun Kaufman, owners of Highlands Investigations www.highlandsinvestigations.com. They'd also like to introduce their blog, Guns, Gams and Gumshoes: http://writingpis.wordpress.com/ Say hello to Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman.

D.B.: You've both had successful careers--in publishing and in the law. What about each drove you to take up full-time investigative work? And then let's turn that question. What about private investigating makes you want to go back to full-time novel writing and the practice of law?

C.C.: Approximately 5-1/2 years ago, one of the lines I was writing for Harlequin closed down, which left me wondering what steps to next take. At the same time, the law firm where Shaun was contracting as a legal researcher downsized that position. I'd always told Shaun he'd make a fantastic legal investigator, so I said, "Now's the time to open that legal investigations business," and within six months we were off and running. What makes me want to go back to full-time novel writing? Easy answer: I love writing. But even if I had the opportunity to write full time, I'd still keep a toe in investigations because I enjoy the work.

S.K.: What drove me to full-time investigative work is what Colleen said, plus my desire to go to the source of evidence after having worked with evidence in a legal and abstract manner for many years. What has made me want to go back to the practice of law? I'd rather be a lawyer than work for one.

D.B.: Talk about a typical day, a typical assignment. How do you divvy up your workload when you take on a case?

C.C.: We currently run two investigative businesses (Highlands Investigations, which specializes in legal investigations and other types of investigations, and Cheater Finders, www.cheaterfinders.com which specializes in infidelity investigations). In the next month, we'll be opening a third investigative business that specializes in background checks. I'll let Shaun discuss our breakdown of work.

S.K.: In our legal investigative work with Highlands Investigations, I tend to be the field and front man with both clients and live interviews. With Cheater Finders, we're both "front men" depending on which of us first intakes the case. Our legal investigative work typically emphasizes evening work because that's when people are available to talk to us. With Cheater Finders, the work day can be any time over a 24/7 period.

D.B.: Who is your average client?

C.C.: With Cheater Finders, our average client is an individual who wants evidence that a significant other (typically a spouse) is being unfaithful. Funny but a true story: Our very first client at Cheater Finders was a rock star who wanted us to serve a restraining order on an old girlfriend.

S.K.: At Highlands Investigations, our average client is an attorney or a law firm.

D.B.: What is the most unusual job you've ever taken on?

C.C./S.K.: This whole business is unusual. But since you asked, one of the more unusual cases [is] when a wife called and asked if we could discover why her husband of many years was suddenly acting differently. After tracking his activities, we learned he was moonlighting as a male "call girl." Another unusual job was a dad who kidnapped his own daughter--the little girl was unharmed, but by the time we located her, she was 2,000 miles from home.

D.B.: Say I'm hiring you, can I pick up the phone and call, or would I come to your office? Would I pay you a retainer, and given that I'm a poor struggling writer, would you offer me a sliding scale;) ?

C.C./S.K.: We intake clients via the telephone, or sometimes initial business conversations are conducted via e-mail. We rarely have people come straight to our office, and only then if we personally know them. Yes, we require a retainer, and, yes, we work on a sliding scale with civilians. With attorneys, we have set fees, but even then we'll work a sliding scale, if necessary.

D.B.: Are your primary clients, individuals, corporations or law enforcement? Do you ever assist law enforcement in solving crimes?

C.C./S.K.: Our primary clients are 50/50 individuals and attorneys at this point. When we open our background check business, we expect more corporations. We've never assisted law enforcement, although there are cities where law enforcement is starting to work closely with PIs (there was a recent case in New York where a team of police and PIs, working together, solved a major crime in the garment district).

D.B.: Do you carry weapons? Why or why not?

C.C. : We have a stun gun (350,000 volts) that we used to carry under the driver's seat of our car, but we don't carry it anymore. Probably because we never used it, and after a while we started thinking, "Will this escalate a situation to unnecessary violence?" Saying that, I know a female PI in another state who always carries a gun, even to answer the front door of her own home. But then, she specializes in executive protection, so she's accustomed to resorting to flashing a gun in critical situations.

S.K.: Rarely, and why not is because we're more likely to hurt ourselves than to hurt anyone else. Also, one doesn't need a weapon if one is smart enough to avoid situations where a self-defense device is needed.

D.B.: Have you ever been asked to work undercover?

C.C./S.K.: We were hired to work undercover for a major retail chain who wanted us to investigate if one of their managers was misappropriating corporate property. Also, we often work undercover in infidelity investigations.

D.B.: In novels, investigative work is glamorized. What part of the job would you consider glamorous; what part is mundane?

C.C.: The part that 's "glamorous" to me is cracking the case. It's a rush to find that piece of evidence that solves a case. As far as what's mundane, I think surveillance. Sitting for hours, staring at a location, can be mind-numbing. One PI I know said she'd rather poke a stick in her eye than do surveillance--LOL!

S.K.: What's glamorous? If we define glamorous as intellectually compelling and physically taxing, I'd call infidelity investigations glamorous. At times, we also work in glamorous places (ski resorts, fine restaurants), and we get to use interesting equipment (covert cameras). Mundane work: record retrieval from courthouses and public offices.

D.B.: Would you tell us about what a writer can expect when taking your online workshops through Writing PIs in Novels?

C.C.: Beginning in June 2009, we're starting up classes again after not teaching for almost two years. This time, we're offering smaller, more topic-focused classes for writers wanting to learn about an investigative specialty, such as surveillance or finding missing persons or homicide investigations. We're calling the classes, "Quick Studies on the Shady Side: Tips and Techniques for Writers Developing Sleuths and Villains." For more info, go to: www.writingprivateinvestigators.com

Also, Shaun and I decided to publish a nonfiction book of our course material, which we're titling GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOES. Our goal is to have it ready in spring/early summer 2010. Along these lines, we kicked off a blog GUNS, GAMS AND GUMSHOES that caters to mystery writers wanting to learn about investigative trends, read articles about writing sleuths, and ask questions about sleuths and investigative techniques/tools. That blog is up and we'd love your readers to drop by and comment.

GUNS, GAMS AND GUMSHOES BLOG: www.writingpis.wordpress.com/

D.B.: I'm looking forward to it. Besides online courses, I also know you do in-person workshops. I attended one a few years ago, which was put on by Pikes Peak Writers, www.pikespeakwriters.com. Shaun did a fabulous job talking about defense attorneys. If anyone has a chance to see Shaun or Colleen speak, I recommend them highly.

Recently, you helped my friend Christina Herndon at the 3-day Coroner's Conference, where you presented "The Top 10 Reasons Why Coroners Make Killer Heroes/Heroines." Will you tell us how that presentation went?

C.C.: To be honest, we were worried our "Top 10..." (a la Letterman) list might be a bust (would coroners appreciate our dark humor?). I warned Chris that our presentation veered toward "squirrely" and she assured me squirrely was perfect for that audience. And I'm glad to say, it went over very well. So much so, one of the coroners wants to make a bumper sticker of one of our reasons. I've also heard the presentation might be posted on the Colorado Coroner's Association website.

D.B.: Oh, I hope they post it, and I'm so glad it went well. Chris and I wrote a skit together for Sisters in Crime, and it was about as squirrley as it could get, so I suspect your act on the road worked great. Back to doing in-person workshops, are you open to doing more? If so, how do people contact you, and how much notice would you need?

C.C.: We love doing workshops. People can contact us at writingpis@earthlink.net. If someone wants one of our already prepared workshops (check www.writingprivateinvestigators.com for a listing) we can do those with a few days notice. If someone is wishing for a customized talk/workshop, a few weeks notice is appreciated.

D.B.: (Question for Colleen). Are you writing fiction these days? What is your current project and release?

C.C.: I have two proposals ready to submit--one's a paranormal PI series, the other's what I call "Nick and Nora in the 21st Century" contemporary PI series proposal. They're in the submission phase, so no release dates.

D.B.: (Question for Shaun). Are you interested in fiction writing?

S.K.: Absolutely. (Note from C.C.:) Shaun's currently studying for the bar exam, studying 5-8 hours a day, so he actually laughed when I read him this question. Currently, his focus is on surviving the bar exam, which is why more of these questions were answered by me).

D.B.: Good luck, Shaun!! Finally, Five Scribe readers, many might not know this, but not only are Colleen and Shaun professional partners, they recently entered into a matrimonial relationship. How is that transition working so far?

C.C.: We've been together almost seven years, but making it official carries significance. We eloped, so we still haven't bought wedding rings, although we found a $24.95 gold-sprayed plastic band for Shaun right before we got married :) We laugh about it, but Shaun swears he'll keep it always.

S.K.: After you've sat outside a home at 4 a.m. holding a cup of cold coffee and wondering if some unfaithful person is going to come out of the building you're watching, it's easy to share everyday life with someone special.

D.B.: Congratulations and our best to you. Thank you for being with us to day to talk about your exciting new ventures.

C.C./S.K.: Thank you, Donnell! We'd like to offer several giveaways to your readers. For everyone who posts a comment or question, we'll toss their name into a virtual hat. Next week, we'll pick three names: two for a class of their choice from www.writingprivateinvestigators.com and one for Writing PIs in Novels T-shirt.

We're looking forward to readers comments and questions!

32 comments:

Margay said...

Colleen and Shaun, in fiction and/or television and film, what would you say is the best example of a private investigator? (which one gets it right?) And on the flip side, which is the worst?

Margay

Edie Ramer said...

Great blog! A lot of terrific info. Best wishes on your marriage, and to Shaun on his bar exam.

Colleen, I'd love to read a modern-day Nick & Nora book. I hope that sells.

Writing Private said...

Thanks, Edie, for your good wishes! Colleen/Shaun

Writing Private said...

Response to Margay:

Question: ...in fiction and/or television and film, what would you say is the best example of a private investigator? (which one gets it right?)

Colleen: Off the top of my head, author Sean Chercover's PI Ray Durgeon. But then, Sean Chercover was also a PI (executive protection) before turning to writing. I just started reading Lisa Lutz's book The Spellman Files, in which the protagonist explains how she got her start learning investigations from her PI parents, and so much of what she explained was spot on. Author has a fun, entertaining voice--she's up for an Edgar this year.

Shaun: I'm kinda fond of George Pelecanos's PI Derek Strange, although when the PI crosses over into excessive violence toward the end of the book, that's when the character crosses over into fiction. Also, Reed Farrel Coleman's PI Moe Prager gets it right.



And on the flip side, which is the worst?

Colleen: First thing that comes to mind is Colombo (back in the 70s TV series) who kept returning over and over to the same witness to ask follow-up questions. Can't do that in real life.

Shaun: At the risk of being heretical, Sam Spade. He breaks all of the rules for modern PIs, excessive violence is constant, and he's always sleeping with his clients. It's highly entertaining, but it's more science fiction than mystery. And I say all this loving the guy.

Donnell said...

Hi, Colleen and Shaun, I think everyone slept in ;) I have a question to follow up on our interview. The little girl who's father kidnapped her and you located her 2000 miles away; did you have to travel to locate her, and if you didn't, how did you track her? Thanks very much! (Disqualified from any drawings)

shannon said...

Wow, intriguing life you two live!
So, I have two questions: First, how much can you do to gather evidence? For example, can you get a search warrant like the police do? Are there any perks like that which come with a detective's license?

The second question: How are you treated by law enforcement? Do they show you respect and share information?

Thanks! I'll probably be frequenting your blog, too. And best wishes in your new partnership.

Writing Private said...

Hi Donnell!

Regarding your question: The little girl who's father kidnapped her and you located her 2000 miles away; did you have to travel to locate her, and if you didn't, how did you track her?

Our response: No, we didn't travel. Although we'd contacted the police to prosecute, they declined to become involved because the parties did not have final custody orders in court (in other words, there was no court order to violate).

That evening (within the first hours after the little girl disappeared) we began tracking information associated with a return address we found on a box in the trash behind the apartment where the little girl had been visiting. Through that address, we built a network of people (family, friends, associates, others) who might know of the father's whereabouts. Eventually we found a relative back east who pointed us in the right direction.

Writing Private said...

Hi Shannon,

To answer your questions:

QUESTION: First, how much can you do to gather evidence? For example, can you get a search warrant like the police do? Are there any perks like that which come with a detective's license?

ANSWER: We just taught an online class where we delved into obtaining evidence (proof) to solve a case (Skips, Lies, and Videotape). To sum that up in a sentence, we can't violate anyone's home or privacy, but it is fair game to gather or photograph what a subject puts in public.

Regarding search warrants, we just posted a writer's Q (and our answer) on our blog about this--see our June 9 post at http://writingpis.wordpress.com/

Re: perks via a detective's license. From Colleen: The only one "perk" I've had in 5 years is showing it to a court clerk to prove I was really a PI requesting records (otherwise, no one's ever asked to see it). But then keep in mind we are in an unlicensed state for PIs.

QUESTION: How are you treated by law enforcement? Do they show you respect and share information?

ANSWER: From Shaun: We are treated strictly as private citizens, and we rarely share information with them and they rarely share information with us. They have a much better relationship with retired law enforcement who become PIs.

Raynene said...

Colleen & Shaun, thanks so much for participating in this blog! I can't wait to take some of your classes, since I recently decided to try my hand at romantic suspense. Congrats on your marriage and good luck to Shaun with the bar exam! I'd love to win anything from you guys, so my email is raynene@sc.rr.com.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Thanks for such a fascinating post Colleen and Shaun! I used to skip trace over 30 years ago for a collection agency and found that all of my work was on the phone. I'm not up on the more modern methods of locating people, so I was wondering if you guys had a favorite resource for doing this?

Oh, and I'll definitely be by the blog. I write the romantic suspense genre.

SandraK said...

Shaun,
With your legal background I was wondering if you could give me some info on one of my WIPs. My hero works for an investigation company that has corporate type clients. He is a corporate attorney w/accounting background. He usually goes uc for long periods of time, working at the company to ferret out various problems. Any ideas on exactly what kind of problems he would be looking for, and/or is this position even feasible?
If this pops up twice, I'm sorry, the first time I wasn't sure it went through.
Thanks,
SandraK

KELLY FITZPATRICK said...

How exciting! I found your interview so interesting. Thanks for the information and fun stories.

Ana Aragón said...

Colleen & Shaun, congrats on the wedding! Sounds like something that's bound to last for a long, long time. I've decided to take my writing toward romantic suspense and will definitely check out your blog and mini-conferences!

Ana Aragon

Writing Private said...

Hi Debbie,

In response to your question: >>I used to skip trace over 30 years ago for a collection agency and found that all of my work was on the phone. I'm not up on the more modern methods of locating people, so I was wondering if you guys had a favorite resource for doing this?<<

ANSWER: How interesting that you skiptraced 30 years ago! What do we use? We'll start with Internet searches, followed by proprietary databases. Then we'll follow-up with phone calls. Sometimes we'll ask a fellow PI who's a specialist in a certain field to help with certain info. If the skip is local, and we're having difficulty tracing him/her, we'll jump in the car and check out an address, maybe interview neighbors, others.

Those are some general areas of research.

Look forward to your dropping by the blog, best C/S

Writing Private said...

Hi SandraK,

Shaun's at his bar study class right now, so he'll respond to your question tomorrow a.m., okay?

Best, c.

Writing Private said...

Kelly and Ana,

Thanks for your good wishes, best, C/S

Writing Private said...

Everyone,

we'll be picking the 3 winners Friday evening (June 19) so until then, feel free to comment/question!

C/S

Marilyn Baron said...

Congratulations on your marriage and I wish you both success in all your endeavors. Your work sounds so interesting.

I enjoyed this post and will definitely stop by your blog since I write romantic suspense.

Marilyn Baron

Nancy said...

Colleen and Shaun, congratulations on your partnership at ALL levels! I loved getting to know a bit about you and your work, and will be taking at least some of your courses.

I don't have a specific question right now, but I'm with Edie on that updated Nick & Norma novel. All the best selling it, Colleen!

Light,
NancyHaddock
nancy@nancyhaddock.com

Maggie Bishop said...

Thank you for the behind the scenes information. Love this blog.

Susan said...

Hi, Colleen and Shaun,

thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm looking forward to taking a class, though maybe not until Sept/Oct.
a couple of questions:
Why would a PI be involved in a homicide investigation? Working for the defense atty?

So, if you get no cooperation from police, how do you ever find out what they know?

Susan said...

CC and Shaun,

Your marriage sounds like mine. My rent was going up in 2 weeks, so we said, "Let's get married." What a snakepit that proved. It took my husband a week and three court orders to get a license from Vital Records. But we made it (30 years ago).

The mundane stuff you mentioned. Do you ever do work for a real estate lawyer when he's getting ready to go a closing? checking true ownership (?) pending liens if any, that sort of thing. Can it be done on the internet, or would he have to go into a county records office? I figure this is just a lot of legwork. ??

Thanks.
Susan

Writing Private said...

Dear SandraK:

In response to your question: >>With your legal background I was wondering if you could give me some info on one of my WIPs. My hero works for an investigation company that has corporate type clients. He is a corporate attorney w/accounting background. He usually goes uc for long periods of time, working at the company to ferret out various problems. Any ideas on exactly what kind of problems he would be looking for, and/or is this position even feasible?<<

ANSWER FROM SHAUN: Your question is unclear as to the role of the undercover investigator. If he goes undercover as an attorney working for corporation X, then his role as an undercover agent likely violates the duty that a lawyer has to their client. However, if he poses as a manager with a legal/accounting background, his undercover work would not violate ethical standards. The character could well be looking for irregularities in the accounting, securities disclosure, and/or currency reporting requirements.

Writing Private said...

Good morning Susan!

In response to your question: >>Why would a PI be involved in a homicide investigation? Working for the defense atty? So, if you get no cooperation from police, how do you ever find out what they know?<<

ANSWER: We answered a similar question on our blog (see the June 9 Q&A http://writingpis.wordpress.com/).

In our own experience, we've been hired by defense attorneys and individuals to investigate attempted homicides/homicides (a PI might also be hired by potential suspects, an insurance company to determine whether a case was a homicide or suicide, or even hired by an investigative news agency).

Although a homicide occurred in the past, we'll re-visit the crime scene to gather evidence (tire marks, bullet casings, fingerprints, DNA, etc.). Once we found bullet casings on an 800-acre field (on a ranch) that law enforcement had missed--the location proved our client had intentionally shot in warning (not at an intended victim) and the D.A. dropped the charges. It wasn't that law enforcement had been lax in not finding the casings, it's that law enforcement is often overworked/understaffed to pursue a lengthy investigation (which is one reason a PI who specializes in homicide investigations might be hired).

In our blog we discuss the information a PI can have access from the police (police reports/evidence). We often obtain substantial leads from names and addresses in police reports.

In October, we'll be teaching Crime Scenes, Homicides, & DNA, where we go into more detail.

Writing Private said...

Hi Susan2,

Your question: >>Do you ever do work for a real estate lawyer when he's getting ready to go a closing? checking true ownership (?) pending liens if any, that sort of thing. Can it be done on the internet, or would he have to go into a county records office? I figure this is just a lot of legwork. ??<<

ANSWER: We don't do title searches. This work requires an insurance policy that can extend into multiple millions of dollars.

The only prudent and diligent way to research property is at the county clerk and recorder's office, or even on-site.

AliasMo said...

Hi. I'm new to Five Scribes and what a debut visit! I'll be dropping by GG&G soon.

Here's a question: Do yu ever/often have Cheater clients whose target is not (as far as can tell) cheating? Any interesting stories along those lines?

Thanks and good luck with the bar, the blog and the book--and (to keep the alliteration going)the wedded bliss!

Mo

Writing Private said...

Hi Mo,

Your alliteration (the bar, the blog and the book)--sounds like our autobiography :)

As to cheating cases where we think we've been retained to find a cheater, but the client has a "secret other goal"--no, hasn't happened to us, yet anyway. Love that set-up in books, though.

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Colleen, I'm looking forward to more of your books. Shaun, great fun to get an idea of what you do.

SandraK said...

Shaun,
Thanks for the input. I can easily set the character up undercover as a manager or consultant type. It will clear up a lot of issues that were running around in my head.

Colleen,
I remember you from CRW. I'd been wondering what you've been up to lately. Guess I know now:)

SandraK

Writing Private said...

Hi again Mo,

We re-read your question ("Do yu ever/often have Cheater clients whose target is not (as far as can tell) cheating?") and realized we didn't really answer it the first time, so here's our answer #2:

Yes, we've documented that targets we're surveilling don't appear to be cheating. In such cases, our clients have been relieved to receive our reports, so we like to think of these cases as happy endings.

Writing Private said...

Hello everyone,

We put everyone's names into a virtual hat and blindfolded Shaun, who picked the following:

Free Class: Nancy Haddock
Free Class: SandraK

Nancy and Sandra, please go to www.writingprivateinvestigators.com and fill out a registration form (instructions are on the site for where to send the form, etc.). Just note on the form: FIVE SCRIBES FREE REGISTRATION.

T-shirts: Raynene, AliasMo

Raynene and Mo, please forward us your sizes (we have L T-shirts, and 1 M) as well as your mailing addresses to:

writingprivateinvestigators2 [AT] gmail.com

Thank you everyone for being part of the blog, and thank you Donnell for the invitation.

Best wishes, Colleen/Shaun

Donnell said...

Colleen and Shaun, thank you for being with Five Scribes and talking to us about your agencies! Here's to great success personally and professionally!