How Being a PI Affects My Writing

Pamela Beason has now retired from investigation work to dedicate all her time to writing, which is much more fun than being a PI. She’s also a hiker, kayaker, and a scuba diver, so those experiences make their way into her Sam Westin mysteries. Her investigation experience as well as her appreciation for animal intelligence shows in her Neema mysteries. And the Run for Your Life trilogy? Well, that’s just about how everything in life can go so wrong…

The Summer “Sam” Westin Wilderness Mysteries
The Neema the Signing Gorilla Mysteries
The Run for Your Life Suspense Trilogy
and more…

For most of the last ten years, I’ve been a part-time private investigator as well as an author. When I tell listeners that, the most common response I get is, “That must be fun!”

Well, no. It’s not usually fun. The real world is not like television. Investigation work can be interesting. It can be dangerous. And it is often depressing: nobody hires a PI when everything’s going well. We are always dealing with people in trouble. And you’d have to be a psychopath to enjoy surveillance. Things always go wrong when you’re on a stakeout. Ever tried to be inconspicuous while staying poised to snap that vital photo? There are way too many nosy senior citizens and block watch groups ready to call the police on that mysterious gal sitting down the street in a dark car. And don’t get me started on trying to follow someone in a vehicle.

One of the scariest aspects of being a PI is that we work with attorneys. Both sides watch PIs to make sure we obey all the laws, ready to sue if we cross the line.

I cannot write about any real cases I’ve worked on, but my mysteries often include character types and situations from my work, and my investigation experience definitely affects my writing. Here are a few things I always keep in mind in both my real and fictional worlds:

There’s More Than One Side to Any Story – As a matter of fact, there are as many “sides” as there are people involved. Take a bar brawl, for example. Each combatant will have his or her own story, and everyone in the bar will have one, too. And the cops arriving on the scene might have a completely different idea about what is going on, because they’ve been told by the dispatcher, who was told by whoever called 911, what to expect when they arrive. Each person’s life experience colors his or her opinions. None of us is completely objective. In real life, it’s fascinating to interview all the different parties and try to separate perception from reality. I worked on one case where each person’s story diverged wildly from the others, and the guy who was arrested in the wee hours of the morning turned out to have an identical twin to boot, so they weren’t even sure they got the right guy. I finally cornered the arresting officer and asked point blank if he understood who had done what. “Not a clue,” he said.

In my novels, this sort of investigation experience helps me concentrate on characterization and point of view. If you are a writer or just want to have fun as a reader, pretend to interview each character in a scene, and you’ll be amazed with what you discover.

Criminals Are Individuals, Too – Like most people, I’d love to be able to identify a criminal on sight. In a few cases, we can, usually because those criminals are severely mentally ill. The scary fact is that many criminals are charismatic individuals whose company we would enjoy most of the time. I’ve interviewed their victims, whose stories tend to start out like this: “I liked WhatsHisFace a lot, right up until he robbed me/stole my car/stabbed me with a kitchen knife.” And when I talk to these criminals (usually in jail, thank goodness), I often find them charming, too, although they have screwy logic. One fellow with a beautiful smile told me he shouldn’t be charged with illegal possession of a weapon (he was a felon on parole) because he really, really needed his guns to protect himself from the bad guys who wanted to steal the drugs he was selling. And, he added, he’d turned his life over to Jesus (again), so everyone really, really could trust him now.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking to these folks.

Criminals can be loyal to their families and friends, love their dogs, be fine musicians or artists or accountants, whatever–they are individuals. So whenever I create a villain for a book, I try to make him or her as “human” as possible, with some sympathetic qualities.

Law Enforcement Officers Are People, Too – Police/FBI/Border Patrol, etc–all LE personnel are just as individual as you and I. They can be good or bad at their jobs, well educated or not educated at all (that varies tremendously across organizations and locations), prejudiced against groups of people or political affiliations, hot-headed or sweet-natured. So I try to make my law enforcement characters real, too, by giving them flaws and families and individual belief systems.

In my Neema series, I tried my best to make Detective Matt Finn a real person, with a failed marriage and a tough work situation as the new “big city guy” stuck in a gossipy small town where all eyes are on him.

People are often fascinated by the idea of being a private investigator, and they usually want to know what the requirements are and what the job is really like. So I finally wrote that all down in a little ebook that explains the skills you need and describes all the things that PIs do: So You Want to Be a PI? 

If you’ve ever toyed with the idea of becoming a PI, or if you’re writing or reading a book with a PI character, it might help you understand the realities of the investigation business.

All the best,

Pamela Beason