14 April 2019

How My Experience as a Private Investigator Affects My Writing

I had to go to Left Coast Crime in Vancouver to run into Pamela Beason, who lives in my town.  We hadn't chatted in at least a decade.  Go figure.

Pam  was born in Kansas but, like any sensible person, headed to the Pacific Northwest at the first opportunity.  She is an outdoors enthusiast - as her list of novels will make clear - and her list of jobs is amazing, ranging from work in a geological research lab,  to managing a multimedia group at Microsoft, to the work described below.  You can read more about her writing at  http://pamelabeason.com.

I asked her to write us a guest piece and she provided this gem.  - Robert Lopresti

How My Experience as a Private Investigator Affects My Writing 

by Pamela Beason

Although I am now retired from the job, I worked as a private investigator for more than ten years, and that experience definitely impacts how I write my mysteries. Here are a few of the most important points I’ve learned from being a PI and a bit about how they affect my writing:

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, but 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 whomever called 911, what to expect when they arrive. Each person’s life experiences color his or her opinion of who might be at fault; none of us is completely objective. It’s fascinating to interview all the different parties and try to separate perception from reality. This really helps me concentrate on characterization and point of view in my novels. If you are a writer, you can do this, too–just pretend you’re interviewing each character in a scene, and you may be amazed at what you discover.

Criminals Are People, Too.  Like most upstanding citizens, I’d love to be able to identify a criminal on sight. In a few cases, we can, but that’s often because those individuals are severely mentally ill as well as being criminals. The scary fact is that many criminals are charming individuals whose company we would enjoy until they do something unethical. I’ve interviewed their victims, whose stories inevitably start out like this: “I liked WhatsHisFace right off the bat, and I liked him 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 find them charming, too, although they have really screwy logic. One such fellow told me he shouldn’t be charged with illegal possession of a weapon (he was already a felon) because he really, really, really needed all 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 could trust him now. Really.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep a straight face when talking to these folks. But my point is that criminals can be loyal to their families and friends, love their dogs, be fine musicians or artists or accountants, whatever–they are people. So whenever I create a villain for my book, I try to make him or her as “human” as possible, too, because this is actually much more frightening than making them seem evil at first glance.

I have sympathy for former criminals who have just gotten out of prison. Most of us don’t want them living next to us or working for us, but how are they supposed to become responsible, productive citizens if nobody will give them a chance? So, in my stories, I have sometimes made parolees the victims of as-yet-unidentified criminals, because who is likely to believe that a parolee is being framed for a crime he or she did not commit?

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 the country), prejudiced against groups of people or political or religious affiliations. So I always try to make my law enforcement characters real, too, by giving them flaws and families and individual belief systems.

The U.S. Legal System Is Unequal. As a matter of fact, it’s so unfair that it was shocking to me when I first became an investigator. Why is it so hard to be a defendant in our system? First of all, if you are ever accused of a crime, no matter how frivolous the accusation, most people will automatically believe you are guilty. Then, the prosecution has a legal team that generally has adequate funding, established offices, modern equipment, and so forth, while the defense team, depending on the situation and locale, could be anyone. I’ve worked with dedicated but exhausted public defenders and investigators who received virtually no pay, had no offices, and had to bring their own pens and paper to the job. How could that possibly be a fair fight?

I’ve heard many average citizens say that they’d never need a public defender. Have you looked at the average hourly rate of attorneys recently? It’s $150-$300/hour, and they charge for every minute. Believe me, if we were charged with a felony, most of us would need a public defender. These people and their investigators are saints. Exhausted, often poverty-stricken saints.

So, in summary, when I write a mystery novel, all these elements come into play in developing my characters and building my plots. These bullet points are branded into my brain. And now I hope they’re romping around your brain, too.


  1. A good piece and a very welcome guest.

  2. Pamela, thanks for your article. As a retired federal agent, I agree with your view points. Get Rob to bring you back another time for another article.

  3. Fascinating piece, Pamela. It all rings true from the screwy criminal logic to the good and bad in everyone.

    Here in Florida, one in 14-thousand-some citizens of Duval County find themselves on death row, the highest ratio in the nation. Duval reportedly experiences a high rate of prosecutorial misconduct. And yet, there are those who believe public defenders coddle the guilty and have pledged to shut down the department.

    Attorney Matt Shirk ran for (and overwhelmingly won) re-election as Duval's public defender. One of his first acts in office was to fire attorneys who’d exposed public corruption.

    Here are the three planks in his campaign platforms:
    (a) pledging not to take a confrontational stance with law enforcement. (If a defense attorney isn’t supposed to challenge authorities, who is?)
    (b) cutting public funding for the defender’s office in a district in a state with one of the highest number of capital cases.
    (c) billing acquitted defendants for legal services. (In other words, the state prosecutes an innocent person and then sends that person a bill if they’re found not guilty.)

    Loved the article, Pam. Thank you.

  4. Pamela, sorry I'm late with the comments, but I spent the weekend doing a workshop in the penitentiary. I love this post. You are so right - (1) the system is unfair, and everyone knows it whether or not they admit it, and the proof of that is (2) no one [white, middle class] believes that they'll even ever get arrested, much less need a court-appointed attorney, and it's always a real shock to them when they do. And when they actually end up in prison. I wish I had a snapshot of the face of one of the guys in the workshop, who'd "never even gotten in a fight" in his life, and was a golfer - surely it couldn't happen to him. But it did.
    Come back again!

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! I'm sorry to chime in so late, and I do hope I'll be invited back to do another post.

    Pam Beason


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