When I decided, about 14 years ago, that I wanted to write mystery novels, author Donna Andrews recommended that I take training to become registered as a private investigator. (“Registered” is the proper term in Virginia.) She’d done it, and learned a ton in the process. This sounded fascinating, and really valuable. So, fueled in part by a raging midlife crisis, I leapt at the chance to go to the same highly-regarded school she’d attended (sadly, no longer in operation).
What followed was nothing like what I’d expected. It was true that I learned a lot that I could use in fiction, but I also discovered a field that I felt a deep interest in—and soon, it seemed like something I might actually do for a living. Finding work is usually the hard part, but within just a few weeks (immediately after I graduated), I was working full-time in the field. In the years since then, I gradually shifted over to teaching full time at Virginia Commonwealth University, but I still do PI work on the side. Each case brings me a whole new set of experiences to draw from, and those experiences have been invaluable to me as a writer, as well as helping me to understand the criminal justice system better.
Among the most valuable things I’ve learned in the field are that “no” or “I don’t want to talk to you” is the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it, that assumptions will bite you in the butt, that lawyers will ask you to break the law, that absolutely everyone will lie if they think it’s in their best interests, that people really want to talk to you—unless they’ve had prior experience with the criminal justice system, and that the quality of police work runs the gamut from outstanding to “how do you tie your own shoe laces?” What this has meant is that a postal worker has cheerfully told me key details to help me locate a suspect, for example, and that my photos of a crime scene—far better and more detailed than those the police took—made the difference in a criminal case. It’s also taught me a lot about motivations and trust.
Of course, there are also down sides to knowing a field well. Any time authors and the various branches of the media try to interpret specialized fields, they get a lot wrong, and it drives me a bit batty. And the PI industry is small enough, and far enough outside the experience of most people, that there are a lot of misconceptions. For example, many people think it’s really all about catching cheating spouses. I’m sure there’s a lot of work in that realm, but there’s a tremendous amount of work that PIs do that has nothing to do with infidelity—and it’s something I’ve never done.
A lot of people also think that computers provide all the answers, and that PIs never have to leave the office anymore, but that is so, so untrue. Computers do provide a wealth of information, but looking at a crime scene in person, talking to people face-to-face, making calls, doing surveillance, and examining documents are also critical, among other things. Most important for PIs are the things that help people excel in almost any field: persistence, reliability, hard work, good ethics, and careful analysis.
As a writer, the greatest value of my PI work has come from meeting a ton of people that I would not normally have encountered, experiencing hours-long surveillance, listening to 911 calls, evaluating whole cases, and testifying in court. Some of these experience can’t be replicated any other way, but you can certainly find ways to meet and get to know people well outside your experiences, and you can find ways to mimic surveillance (though I don’t recommend following random strangers! Stay safe.). It’s also possible to find 911 recordings and other case information online, in some cases—and it’s well worth the experience of sitting in on some trials in your local court system. Members of the public aren’t allowed into family courts, but you can usually sit in on criminal and civil trials in the United States. I can almost guarantee it will be boring, but there should be a lot that’s interesting, as well. The bottom line for writers is that a wide variety of experiences will enrich your writing—and it will enrich your life as well. It has certainly done that for me!
Meriah Lysistrata Crawford teaches research and writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, and is a private investigator, a writer, and an editor. She has published short stories in several genres, essays, a variety of scholarly work, a poem about semicolons, and co-edited the anthology Trust and Treachery: Tales of Power and Intrigue. Meriah’s hobbies include gardening; frolicking with her big, crazy bloodhound-mix pup; and playing frequent rounds of “is it fireworks or gunfire” in her neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. For more information, visit her website at: www.meriahcrawford.com.