Colleen Collins is an award-winning author who's written 20 novels and anthologies for Harlequin and Dorchester. Additionally, she's written two nonfiction books on private investigations (How to Write a Dick, co-authored with Shaun Kaufman, and How Do Private Eyes Do That?), and the PI novel The Zen Man. After graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara, Colleen worked as a film production assistant, improv comic, telecommunications manager at the RAND Corporation, technical writer/editor, speech writer, and private investigator. All these experiences play into her writing.
Gerald So: Describe each of your ebooks in your own words.
Colleen Collins: How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths: After fielding numerous writers’ questions about private investigations, we started teaching classes (both our own, and classes for regional and national writers' organizations/conferences) about private investigations. We used this material, as well as narrative on other investigative topics, for this book. Sampling of subjects: investigative specializations (yes, there really are pet detectives); techniques PIs use to find people, conduct trash hits, orchestrate stationary/mobile surveillances; when and why a PI might be retained to investigate a crime scene; how PIs work with private forensic labs, etc.
How Do Private Eyes Do That?: A compendium of articles about private investigations, culled from pieces I've written for Professional Investigator Magazine, Pursuit Magazine (online trade journal for private investigators), various writers’ publications/organizations, as well as my blog Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes. Articles are for a more general audience, although there are articles geared to writers, too.
The Zen Man: A medium-boiled PI-team novel I sometimes refer to as a "21st-century Nick and Nora" story. The book isn't only about witty banter and cocktails though, it offers love, death and lawyers gone bad.
Gerald: The introduction to How Do Private Eyes Do That? touches on how you unexpectedly went from being a fan of private eye TV shows/fiction to becoming a real private investigator. Tell me a little more about how that happened.
Colleen: Back in 2003, I was writing novels full time for Harlequin when several of those lines closed. My then-boyfriend's (now husband's) job was downsized that same week. Because he was a former trial attorney who'd trained numerous PIs, I said, "Let's start an investigations agency." And we did.
Gerald: Your books mention that the majority of today's PIs are specialists, not Jacks-of-All-Trades. What led to your specialties -- witness locates and interviews, surveillance, and infidelity investigations?
Colleen: At our agency, we specialize in legal investigations, which generally refers to investigative tasks that support litigation (such as witness locates and witness interviews). As to surveillance, early on I sub-contracted with an out-of-state insurance investigations agency and conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance on their behalf, during which I learned a tremendous amount about mobile and stationary surveillances (skills often useful in legal investigations). As to infidelity investigations, we took on this type of investigations at a time when work was slow – this work, too, can slide into legal investigations when the facts of infidelity are critical to a court case.
Gerald: Many writers say they can no longer enjoy reading fiction, that they can't help looking at writing critically. Since becoming a P.I. yourself, has it been it more difficult to enjoy reading P.I. fiction?
Colleen: Yes on both counts.
Gerald: What's the most common/annoying mistake fictional PIs make?
Colleen: Probably the most annoying (though not necessarily common) is when a fictional private eye does something that is legally incorrect (for example, stating a victim is still in physical jeopardy in a courtroom until the judge approves the final restraining order…actually, a temporary restraining order is in effect prior to the final hearing) or legally impossible (for example, a private investigator who gets facts from a sealed court file in a pending grand jury investigation -- these proceedings are by their nature, secret).
Gerald: In one section of How to Write a Dick, you answer several reader questions. How did you go about gathering these? Over how long a period of time?
Colleen: We began documenting writers’ questions around 2006 when we started teaching classes (both our own, and classes for regional and national writers’ organizations/conferences).
Gerald: Which of today's writers come closest to depicting your experience as a PI? In other words, who gets it mostly right?
Colleen: Tough question because a lot of writers get it mostly right. As to which writer comes closest to depicting my experience as a PI, I have to answer that compelling private eye fiction often involves events that don’t (or shouldn't) occur in real-life investigations: violence, physical risk-taking, breaking the law. Saying that, I see “slices” of investigations in stories that mirror my own, such as Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski's passing thought about writing reports (a big part of private investigations is writing reports – it'd be boring for a writer to write about it, but it's very real that a private investigator might think about the pile of reports that need to be written); how Barnes's Carlotta Carlyle's juggles her residence being both a home and an office; how Crais's Joe Pike strategizes a multi-investigator, multi-vehicle mobile surveillance; how sometimes the PI-police detective relationship can be one of camaraderie (not conflict) which actually a number of writers portray.
Gerald: Describe your own fiction-writing process.
Colleen: I'm a plotter. I work on the synopsis first, revising many (many) times until the story flow, conflicts, characters (etc.) feel right. I tend to write lengthy synopses, which I'll then share with the editor to see if it reflects the ideas we initially discussed. Even with The Zen Man (which I self-published), I worked on story ideas/synopsis with my former editor because she knows my writer's tricks :) After polishing the synopsis, I start writing. Wish I was one of those writers who blasts through a first draft, then revises beginning to end, but no can do. I write a chapter, go back and polish until it feels right; start chapter two, go back and polish; start next chapter...
Gerald: The Zen Man is set in Colorado, where your private investigations agency is based. What are some advantages and/or challenges the area presents for fiction?
Colleen: Colorado doesn't require licensure for private investigators, which can make it more of the "wild west" for private eyes. It's also a vacation-magnet, which opens the doors to private eyes being hired for cheating-spouse cases from out-of-state clients. There are various geographical regions (from the Rockies to the high plains), and a breadth of economic stations, from the glamorous jet-setters in Aspen to the seedy downtown Denver underbelly.
Gerald: You've been published in print, and have self-published ebooks. What are the main pros and cons of each type of publishing, in your opinion?
Colleen: Self-publishing doesn't have the distribution channels or branding of traditional publishing. On the plus side, I got to design the cover, manage the final product and its marketing. One of my past traditional-publishing-house book covers was nominated by multiple websites as "worst cover of the year" and rightfully so. When I saw that cover, my writing career flashed before my eyes. The protagonist looked like Seth Green on crack, and the scene the art department depicted had nothing to do with the story. I lost the "worst cover of the year" award to a cover whose protagonist had three arms.
Gerald: What's next for Rick and Laura?
Colleen: The synopsis for After the Zen Man is almost finished. The story takes place during the unbridled and unregulated 2011 Colorado "green rush" of medical marijuana growers and dispensaries when the Russian mafia tried to control the market.
Gerald: Looking forward to it. Thanks very much, Colleen.