Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Writing a Rural Surveillance

Today I'm welcoming a writing/private investigating duo, Colleen Collins & Shaun Kaufman, who are going to give us some handy hints about private investigators and surveillance. They're giving away a copy of their book, so be sure to read through and leave a comment. You have until Friday to leave a comment, but I won't get the winner posted until Monday because I'll be off the grid at RomCon.

When many people think of a private investigator, they think “surveillance.” Typical images that come to mind are the PI in his vehicle following a subject’s car through traffic or a PI parked somewhere, watching the subject’s residence or work. If a writer is crafting a city surveillance, she’ll take into consideration such things as the flow of traffic, how closely the PI follows the subject’s vehicle, and possible side streets the PI might take.

But what if your story is set in the country? Or your big-city investigator must travel to a rural area to conduct a surveillance? Here’s some tips from a couple of real-life PIs for writing a rural surveillance starring your fictional PI.

Know the area: In our part of the country, we have some impressive, wide-open stretches of country outside of “the big cities.” When we’re going into a rural area, we’ll first check online maps (for example, MapQuest and Google Earth). Have your fictional PI do the same. We’ve scheduled rural surveillances in areas that are so remote, they don’t even show up in online maps! In such cases, we contact the sheriff’s office for that region and request help with directions and maps.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for more conflict in your story, have your sleuth circling around and attracting unwanted attention in that small town!

Use an appropriate vehicle. Maybe your fictional PI scoots around town in a lime-green VW, but that dog won’t hunt in the country. In a small town, everybody knows everybody else, including what car they drive. A PI will drive a vehicle that blends in, is nondescript and can handle the terrain. Also, avoid using vehicles with identifiers such as decals, vanity plates and bumper stickers. Or maybe you want to write a humorous scene where the town folk all know the pick-up with the “Don't make me go medieval on you” bumper sticker is that city-slicker PI who’s playing undercover.

Why is the PI parked there? A PI can be parked on a country public road and document whatever he sees “in plain view” -- but he’d better have a good reason for being there if someone asks. Most PIs keeps props ready, such as binoculars and a bird guide (pretending she’s a bird watcher), car-repair tools (pretending he’s fixing his car) and so on.

Look the part: Just as a PI wears clothes appropriate to a city location, he’ll wear clothes that blend in to that part of the country/season. When we did a winter rural surveillance in Colorado, we wore jeans, t-shirts, boots and jackets.

Choose useful equipment: It’s always iffy if a cell phone will have adequate transmission in remote areas (which can add a twist to your story), but other equipment can be selected for rural surveillance (cameras with increased optical zoom, video equipment that is functional, portable and low profile). And you never know -- maybe a laptop with wireless connectivity can connect to some farmhouse’s wireless Internet service, which can give your fictional PI access to the Internet.

Thank you, Terry, for hosting us today at Terry’s Place. We’ll be checking in throughout the day, answering any questions readers might have about rural surveillances. On Friday, we’ll randomly pick a name for the visitors to win a Kindle version of How to Write a Dick (owning a Kindle device isn’t necessary because there are free, downloadable Kindle apps for PCs and Macs).

Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman are legal investigators who co-own Highlands Investigations & Legal Services, Inc. in Denver, Colorado. Their non-fiction ebook 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/


Unknown said...

Hi - that was a great post. I live in a rural area and, of course, can't see the woods for the trees. Some of those examples are so simple, but I wouldn't have thought of them, even living out here. Thanks again. - Mary Ellen

Allene said...

I, too, am a rural dweller. It would be next to impossible to stay invisible. I'd try to think of a good cover excuse - looking for where I used to live - searching for a relative (make sure someone by that name never lived in the area, in the country everyone is related to someone and you are bound to find a cousin that gets suspicious) Either of these could net a lot of conversation because country folk love to talk! BTW my wireless connection has a protective password so that suggestion of tapping in to the internet might not fly.

Gwen Mayo said...

I am with Allene on using someone's internet in the country. I would go for a satellite connection. It is worth the price for a month of connectivity to keep from getting busted by local law enforcement.

Kathy Otten said...

I live in the country too. :) It would even be hard to pretend to be broke down. You'd probably have ten people stopping to help you and around here everyone fixes their own cars.

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

As far as tapping into someone's wireless Internet, my step-daughter often manages to do it. Don't ask me how, but she's mentioned people often fail to password protect their accounts. Thanks for all the great information!

Tori Scott said...

Another rural person with an impossible to crack internet password. And when our internet was out, there wasn't a connection anywhere around to be found.

Definitely check in with the local sheriff's office and let them know what you're up to. First thing we do when we see unknown people hanging around is call the Sheriff's office. Bird watching wouldn't fly for an excuse around here. We'd suspect you were poaching.

What do you do in an area that's dense with trees? You'd have to get awfully close to be able to see anything, right?

Anonymous said...

Great post and topic. There are a lot of good suggestions here. I travel and hunt in very rural locations and one thing that always disarms people I met is when I tell them I'm an author (aspiring one anyway) doing research. I'm not lying to them,but as a character PI it could be a great way to provide a cover. Some rural folks just want to be left alone but if you find one willing to talk they'll tell you everything going on in town, especially if you're thinking of making their small town part of the story!

Peg Brantley said...

A great post, Colleen and Shaun. Thanks, Terry, for hosting them!

With all of the previous comments, the next time I'm in a rural area, I will definitely feel the eyes on me!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks to everyone for stopping by -- Colleen & Shaun will be checking in over the course of the day to respond.

And Tom (f4f), I agree. Telling people I'm a writer has always been a great conversation starter.

I live up in the boonies, and we do notice cars--they're always getting lost because the GPS maps to this area are wrong.

Valerie Hansen said...

As a current resident of the Ozarks who lives on a dirt road, I agree that it's hard to blend in. Another tip-off is a clean vehicle. Anything that shines is definitely "not from around here" as the locals say.


Maryannwrites said...

Helpful post and interesting comments. I, too, am out in the country, and we pay attention to new vehicles and people. One thing that wouldn't raise any alarms with most of us is someone who looks like they are doing a land survey. Not sure how hard it would be to get the equipment to set up, but that cover would work here.

Tori Scott said...

Ohh, good one, Maryann! Or an internet company vehicle. They could even stop and talk to farmers about using their grain silo for an antennae base, and gain other info in the process. Everyone in the country is looking for better internet access. :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting! I always get cool ideas when I read Colleen and Shaun's posts. :) I'm really going to have to incorporate them in a book!

P.I. Barrington said...

I love Colleen & Shaun's posts too! Besides giving me cool ideas they've also saved my writing butt a few times too!

Kay said...

Fascinating! My talents lie more in finding people online who don't want to be found. As an example, my mother was terminally ill & she wanted to be in contact with a family member who hadn't been heard of since the late 80's. Time was a factor & every agency I spoke with was unable or unwilling to assist us. My daughter (who lives 6 hours away) and I got on the phone one evening & both got online. In 2 hours I was speaking with this person. Think is a matter of being willing to dig & think outside the box. I have a brand new Kindle that I won & would absolutely love to have a copy of your book to read!

Colleen-Shaun said...

Hello everyone, we've been working a case this morning or we would have checked in earlier.

Especially love hearing from those who live in rural areas as to what might seem suspicious and what works. We had a former FBI agent (who now works as a private investigator) tell us that the "I'm bird watching" pretext doesn't work (although he didn't give a reason). Thank you to Tori Scott for shedding some light on this (it's because locals might think the person was poaching). We know PIs who swear by this technique, but personally we've never used it, and never will. Big reason is we don't know birds! :)

Which would be a funny scene if you're writing a humorous story.

Colleen-Shaun said...

Hi Allene,

Good suggestions re: saying you're looking for where you used to live or for someone (and not someone locals might know).

One reason we've used both in rural and urban areas: We're waiting for someone to meet us (we might say we're lost & called our friend who's on his way...). Once we had a gentleman who stayed a while with us (as we were "waiting for our friend") and he chatted and chatted about the area, the people...and guess what? One of the people he chatted about was the exact person we needed to know about.

Colleen-Shaun said...

Hi Cindy,

Re your comment >>people often fail to password protect their accounts<< yes, it's true.

Gwen, good comment re using a satellite connection!

Colleen-Shaun said...

Hi Tori, regarding your question >>What do you do in an area that's dense with trees? You'd have to get awfully close to be able to see anything, right?<<

It depends on the terrain and what possible surveillance spots are nearby. Sometimes remote surveillance cameras are used. We know a PI who once did surveillance stationed in a tree!

Colleen-Shaun said...

Maryann, love your comment about land surveys. We've never done that, but we know PIs who have successfully used that technique.

Valerie, good tip about a PI looking obvious in a clean vehicle!

Kay, kudos on your investigations!

Thanks, everyone, for visiting and commenting today at Terry's Place. We'll check back later, answer any other investigation questions.

Tori Scott said...

The bird watching might work here sometimes, but only during certain months and in certain places. Get outside of the state park or lake region, we're going to figure you're up to no good.

Rural people have to be on alert because drug dealers like the isolation as a base for cooking meth. And being isolated, the bad guys know you can't get help at the push of a button--unless that button happens to be on a taser or clicking off the gun safety.:)

Things we don't pay much attention to: Utility trucks, 4 wheelers, people on bicycles who wave as they go by, guys selling steaks out of the back of their truck (I won't open the door for them, but I'm used to seeing them), people on horseback. These are fairly common sight that don't send up big red flags. Curiosity, maybe, but not running for the cell phone to call the Sheriff. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Great tips! There are lots of great ways for the PI to be tripped up in a small place :)

Colleen-Shaun said...

Thanks for the ideas, Tori. As to isolated areas, I know a PI in a neighboring state who always carries a gun when she needs to go into rural areas because of the prevalence of meth labs/dealers.

On a lighter note, in this month's PI Magazine, there's an entertaining article about conducting a surveillance written by a seasoned female PI who learns too late that she's accidentally overlapped her surveillance with the FBI's. Fun fodder for stories and characters. fyi, you can order one issue of PI Magazine (versus a subscription).

PI Magazine: http://www.pimagazine.com/

Terry Odell said...

Just chiming in here -- our county Sheriff came to a community homeowner's association meeting. Someone asked him about the prevalence/danger of meth labs and dealers.

He said, it's hardly a problem anymore. Pretty much dried up when they legalized medical marijuana.


You folks always give such great advice!

Colleen-Shaun said...

Hi Terry,

Interesting comment by your county sheriff. In our city-fied investigations, we've noticed less instances of meth use/labs in cases, likely due to the difficulty (restrictions) for dealers/cooks to purchase significant quantities of over-the-counter drugs (specifically, certain cold medications).

Hi Linda! Thanks for dropping by.

Peg Brantley said...

Colleen-Shaun, that's pretty much the information we received at the Citizen's Police Academy in Aurora. And I believe, there had been a decline in meth labs prior to medical marijuana being legalized.

Tori Scott said...

Colleen-Shaun, have you ever been unwittingly hired by a bad guy to help find his intended victim? What safeguards do you have in place to be sure that doesn't happen?

Why kinds of cases do y'all handle most often, especially in rural areas?

Colleen-Shaun said...

Hi Tori,

In answer to your question >>have you ever been unwittingly hired by a bad guy to help find his intended victim? What safeguards do you have in place to be sure that doesn't happen?<<

We've sometimes realized someone's intentions aren't good and have turned down those cases. Sometimes this realization is from a simple conversation or from the results of a background check (which we do on all non-attorney clients). Such background checks are safeguards.

>>Why kinds of cases do y'all handle most often, especially in rural areas?<<

We primarily practice legal investigations, which includes trial preparation, witness locates & interviews, process service, witness coordination. We also handle personal injury cases, asset searches (again, working with attorneys), some white-collar crime & infidelity investigations.

We never know when a case might involve investigations in rural areas. A few years ago, we spent significant time in several rural areas trying to find a young man who'd become involved with a cult. We eventually found him, and fortunately the young man is now back home. This past year, this particular cult was the subject of a Dr. Phil show.

Thank you to Terry for hosting us today, and to everyone who commented/visited today's blog. We'll be picking a name from comments at end of day Friday, August 5, to win a Kindle version of "How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths." Terry will post the winner's name on her blog this weekend.

Have a great week, everyone.

Tori Scott said...

Thanks for being here. Gave me some new ideas for the book I'm working on now.

Karen Emanuelson said...

I live in town (Colorado Springs) but have been boarding horses out in the country for over 20 years, so I know my way around all over eastern El Paso County. Yes, folks out there would stop and ask questions if they saw a parked car/truck. Folks on horseback don't get much attention. There were all kinds of meth labs out there, but that seems to have cooled off some. One guy out next to where I was boarding some years back was stealing horses AND cooking meth. But the bottom dropped out of the horse market & they finally busted him for the meth.

Anyhow, thanks for the info.

Kathleen Mix said...

Great post with lots of good ideas for conflicts. Maybe someone should write a comedy where a city slicker PI does everything wrong.
Thanks for the info.

site angel said...

A PI in a tree. Now there's a story line I love!
Thanks for the reference on the magazine.
Like so many above, I live out in the paw-paw patch. Rural electric trucks are fairly common, as are land surveyors. These wouldn't attract attention IMHO.
Any strangers just hanging around are asking for a visit from the Sheriff.
Nice post.

Robert said...

Excellent post. Don't know how well this approach would work, but rather than trying to blend in, go in in some way that makes you stand out.

Here is one scenario- set yourself up as a picker/antique collector/junk collector. Rent a van have some magnetic signs made and buy some collectables to put in the van. Business cards, a list of the things you might be interested in along with possibly a website of your collectables. Even if the surveillance subject has no junk collection establishing a connection with a nearby junk collector could yield a lot of information.
Lots of possibilities with a little illusionist/magician misdirection.

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

Collee & Shaun,

Thank you so much for the copy of your book! I can hardly wait to read it. I don't have a Kindle, (I have a Nook) but I was able to download a free app for my netbook.

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

Coleen & Shaun... sorry for misspelled name!

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

Okay, sorry I can't type at all!