Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Write a Dick

Today, we have a guest blogger. Welcome writer and private investigator, Colleen Collins. If you have any PI specifc questions, throw them Colleen's way. I'll be drawing a name from the commentors to win an ebook copy of How to Write a Dick.

From Romance to Surveillance or How Harlequin Made Me Into a Private Eye

By Colleen Collins, co-author of How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths 

Kindle: Nook:

Once upon a time, I wrote romance novels.

I sold my first book, a romantic comedy titled Right Chest, Wrong Name, in 1996 to Harlequin’s Love & Laughter series. The following year, I sold them my second book, Right Chapel, Wrong Couple. Then the series closed.

But all was not lost. My editor informed me the Love & Laughter series was morphing into another series called Duets, which packaged two romantic comedy books into one. Cool! I wrote six books for the Duets series. Then the series closed.

I’ll spare you, dear reader, a lot of meshugas (craziness) about the writing life and the rollercoaster world of book publishing and sum up the next eight years with these words: the next two series I wrote for closed as well.

The day the fourth series closed was also the day my boyfriend learned that due to his company downsizing, his job was cut.

Standing in the backyard, staring into each other’s eyes, I uttered the words that would shape our future.“Let’s start a private investigations business.”

Harlequin was, in a roundabout way, forcing me into a life of crime. Investigating crime, that is. But this idea wasn’t my acting out some unfulfilled Emma Peel in The Avengers fantasy. I actually had a logical, practical reason. For months I’d been telling my boyfriend -- a legal researcher and former trial attorney who’d trained many private investigators -- that he’d make a dynamite legal investigator. After all, he had the expertise and contacts, and now he had plenty of time on his hands, too.

On the other hand, I needed to learn the PI biz from the gumshoes up.

Over the following months, I immersed myself learning about private investigations. I took a course taught by a well-respected PI. I read books on various aspects of investigations, from how to conduct background checks to conducting surveillances. The two of us attended private investigators’ conferences where we networked with other PIs, tested investigative equipment and attended workshops. My boyfriend mentored me on the finer aspects of conducting interviews, researching public records, interpreting civil and criminal court files, skip tracing, due diligence and other background searches and more.

Fortunately, we live in one of the five states that do not require PIs to be licensed, so when the cases started rolling in, we started working them.

Certain investigative tasks come more easily to me because of my writing career. For example, I find it easy to conduct long, stationary surveillances – a talent undoubtedly honed from sitting at the computer for hours, staring into nothingness as I imagine plots and characters. Lawyers and others associated with the justice system often need to find lost/missing people, a task that requires pulling together threads of people’s lives through research, interviews, databases and logic.

For me, piecing together a person’s history, personality and traits is similar to building a character from an idea to a three-dimensional entity.

Just as I dug for information as a writer, I learned to dig for information as a private investigator. Sometimes this digging means getting down and dirty in people’s trash. I’ve dug through, picked apart and photographed more debris from people’s lives than a Hollywood gossip columnist rummaging through celebrity dreck. If you want to learn about people, check out the refuse of their lives!

At the start of our PI business, writer pals would sometimes call with questions about their stories. Soon other writers began contacting us. This led to our teaching online classes and presenting workshops at writers’ conferences. Then we started a blog (Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes) geared to writers developing sleuth characters and stories. Eventually, we co-authored How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths.

A few years ago, my boyfriend and I eloped. Just because the girl segued from romance writing to private investigating doesn’t mean she’s cut the romance out of her PI life.I suppose I have Harlequin to thank for that, too.

Colleen Collins co-owns Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. She and her sleuth-husband’s non-fiction book How to Write a Dick: a Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths is available on:

Kindle: Nook:

Got any questions for Colleen about PIs? She's got some doozy stories about the life of a PI. Comment here and you'll be in the drawing to win a copy of How to Write a Dick.


  1. Hi, Colleen! I have a question for you. What's the #1 misconception writers writing romance fiction PIs make in your opinion? What's the most important trait for a PI? And who is your favorite fiction book PI? Why?



  2. Hi Julie,

    >>What's the #1 misconception writers writing romance fiction PIs make in your opinion?<<

    The same misconception I've read in other genres: that all private investigators chase cheating spouses. Actually, there are dozens of investigative specializations (for example, accident reconstruction, legal investigations, background checks, computer forensics, skip tracing...)

    >>What's the most important trait for a PI?<<

    May I pick two? Thinking out of the box and perseverance.

    >>And who is your favorite fiction book PI? Why?<<

    I was one of the judges this year for the Private Eye Writers of America and read approximately 70 private eye novels! I honestly can't pick a favorite PI genre author or book because there are some immensely talented writers out there, but I'll tell you a few favorites: Lori Armstrong who writes a kick-a PI heroine ("No Mercy"); Reed Farrel Coleman whose PI series character Moe Prager is a journey into the heart of the hero as much the story; Dennis Lehane whose PI team in "Moonlight Mile" are real, fearless and flawed, and Lehane writes a crackling page turner; Michael Wiley who writes a dark, funny, knock-your-socks off story in "The Bad Kitty Lounge." I've left out a ton of writers & books, but that's a sampling.

    Thanks for dropping by! I need to work a case for a few hours, but I'll check in when I get back and answer any other questions.


  3. Who's the most realistic fictional p.i. you're acquainted with?

  4. Bill Crider is posting on my blog! Squeee! I'm such a fan girl, Bill.

  5. Colleen,
    Thoroughly enjoyed your post. What an interesting way to turn those lemons into lemonade.

    I'd like to know:
    - Which type of PI work is the most difficult to carry out and why?

    - Which tends to be the most fascinating?

    - And which tends to be the most rewarding?

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    Lori Roets

  6. I have found that most private eyes get involved with the client, something a little different would be nice...just saying...LOL

  7. Hello Bill, thanks for dropping by!

    To answer your question >>Who's the most realistic fictional p.i. you're acquainted with?<<

    For starters, Sean Chercover's fictional PI Ray Dudgeon. Chercover previously worked as a private investigator, I believe specializing in executive protection.

    When I read the last Joe Pike novel (by Robert Crais) I was taken with the realism of Pike's investigations (those that I'm familiar with in my work). When Pike and several of his compadres conducted a multi-car mobile surveillance, their "leapfrog" techniques were right on. I actually called out to my husband while reading that passage, "Finally! A writer's portraying a real-to-life mobile surveillance!"

    Those are two. A PI-novelist I've been meaning to read is Pam Beason. I've read some wonderful book reviews.


  8. Hi Lori,

    To answer your questions:

    >>Which type of PI work is the most difficult to carry out and why?<<

    I think this is a matter of my getting a bit, ahem, older, but I'm finding lengthy surveillances more difficult to carry out. As our Lori Wilde knows, I had an episode with heat exhaustion summer before last (my fault...I should have taken better precautions like drinking more water, taking breaks inside where it's air-conditioned, etc.). My husband and I just completed a 3-day surveillance a few weeks ago, and it took me several days to get back to 100%. Why? The continual focus; the being ready to move at a moment's notice (stressful); the lack of rest, proper diet, exercise.

    >>Which tends to be the most fascinating?<<

    I love finding people. I once had a difficult time finding a woman -- it seemed as though her life ended in the 70s in Virginia, but I was certain she was alive. I kept tackling the problem from different angles before finally locating her. She was very cool. She said, "Good job. I was with the CIA." I don't know if I could pull that off again -- it took a tremendous amount of work. Virginia = Pentagon.

    >>And which tends to be the most rewarding?<<

    When you've helped someone truly in need. Finding an abducted child. Finding evidence that proves someone didn't commit the crime for which they were charged.

    Great questions, thanks, Colleen

  9. Hi Phyllis,

    Regarding your comment >>I have found that most private eyes get involved with the client, something a little different would be nice...just saying...LOL<<

    I hear you. Seems it's always a part of the plot. Because another writer recently posed this same question, I wrote a blog about it at Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes ("Is It Illegal for a PI to Be Romantically Involved with a Client?"). I'll try to put that link in my url for this response.


  10. Sounds like a fun and interesting job...I bet it never really gets too boring! Colleen, what is the most exciting job you have done as a PI? What is the oddest job you've done as a PI?

    books4me67 at

  11. Hi Wendy,

    To answer your question >>Colleen, what is the most exciting job you have done as a PI? What is the oddest job you've done as a PI?<<

    Most exciting: Tracking a young man to a cult. All we had to go on at the beginning of the case were two words, not even a real name.

    Oddest: Finding a stolen Ferrari. The odd part was our client wanted us to put "some muscle" on the guy who'd stolen it. Sorry, we find things and people. We don't do muscle.

    Yes, it's always something new! Thanks for dropping by, Colleen

  12. You love finding people, but sometimes a person must hide from a person who would want to hurt them. Say, a stalker boyfriend. Do you ever give away the secrets of how to hide?

  13. Hi Penny,

    I've discussed with people (and written articles on) how to safeguard personal information. At our agency, we might also counsel the person on such proactive actions as:

    - A safe place to go should they need to get away
    - Security measures at work
    - How to obtain a restraining order
    - Recommendations for attorneys for means of protecting assets/children

    In one case, we suggested the woman obtain the services of a bodyguard.

    There's a gentleman who has written a book on how to disappear (and he used to give online courses, too). His name is Frank Ahearn and here's a link to his site:

    Hope this helps, Colleen