Shaun Kaufman and Colleen Collins, husband-and-wife private detectives and Westword cover subjects, don't just serve lawsuits to biker dudes named Billy and find bullets buried on 800-acre ranches. They also write books, and their first, How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real Life Sleuths, was recently released as an e-book. Flip the page for excerpts.
From Chapter 1, "What is a PI?":
Let's be honest, this field attracts more cowboys and cowgirls than most. You know the definition of cowboy, right? No, not the one in Webster's dictionary. The slang term. A cowboy is a hot professional, a rugged individual who does their own thing, loves freedom, is quick to right perceived wrongs and upholds traditional values. Frankly, some of the "cowboy-ish-ness" in the PI business filters down from habits developed during their former careers by those retired from law enforcement. In a sense, the fictional PI is often like the cowboy-hero. But instead of taming the wild west, the PI is taming the urban or rural jungle.
From Chapter 2, "The 21st-Century PI":
Real-life PIs don't all drink like Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade, and if they were to be slipped a mickey or hit with a sap, they'd be ashamed of their lack of planning. Most real-life PIs wouldn't chance dulling their senses as this could be used to denigrate them should they have to testify in court about their observations.
This is a good place to also note things a real-life PI would never do. If a writer chooses to have her fictional PI do any of these acts, she's setting up the PI character to be in some deep you-know-what (although, this might also be what you, as the writer, want for your PI -- better to know than to write something that's manifestly illegal and not know, right?).
A PI who wants to keep his job/license/career/reputation would never:
- Knowingly assist a criminal in a criminal act
- Get involved with jury/witness tampering (threaten a witness/juror so as to change testimony or a verdict)
- Wiretap (place a listening device on a telephone)
- Place a surveillance camera or microphone in a private place without the target's knowledge
- Commit a burglary
- Slap a GPS device on a vehicle not registered to the client
- Eavesdrop in a private place
- Use violence or the threat of violence to get information
- Pretend they have evidence that they don't
- Impersonate a peace officer
From Chapter 4, "Locates, Interviews, Trash Hits and Surveillance":
We've used trash hits, aka trash covers and dumpster diving, successfully many times in investigations. Probably the most notable time was when a trash hit verified that a child had been abducted. We had travelled to a location to check whether a child had recently been seen in the building. No one was on site to answer our questions, and we couldn't see anything through the windows that indicated a child had recently been staying there. Shaun crawled into the dumpster in the alley behind the apartment building and found boxes of children's food -- when we contacted the grandmother, she tearfully confirmed that one of the foods was her granddaughter's favorite.
It is amazing what kind of incriminating stuff people throw away.
From Chapter 6, "Guns, Lies and Numbers":
It's interesting how many people assume PIs carry guns. We don't (our stun guns are sufficient), and we know many other PIs who don't carry as well. Yet it seems the majority of PIs in movies, books, TV shows them wearing or using guns. There's a best-selling PI novel starring a junior PI (she's just started work in her relative's PI agency) and she carries a Glock in her glove compartment. Wow. The premise of the story is that her relative can't trust her to take on any serious investigative jobs, so she's relegated to hunting down an occasional cheating spouse or running a background check -- and for those jobs, she carries a Glock? For us, that seriously stretched the story's believability.