Many of us write bad guys, or gals, in our stories. If we’re writing a mystery or suspense story, it’s the villain. In a mainstream, maybe there’s a loathsome character who adds sinister twists to the story. Even in a sweet romance, there might be a vile person who darkens a few plot points.
Sometimes these villains and other ignoble characters slip away, and your protagonist must track the culprit to solve a crime or resolve a problem. As a writer, I love to write these scenes where my protagonist must use her wits, skills and sometimes a few whiz-bang tools to trace a scoundrel. As I’m also a private investigator, I have some real-life experiences and tips to share along these lines that you can also use in your stories.
Tip #1: Interview Neighbors
What if your protagonist has no data about the bad guy except, say, the color of his hair? Even on that little information, my investigations partner and I were able to track someone by interviewing neighbors.
A few months ago, my agency was contacted by a distraught granddaughter whose elderly grandfather had recently died. The family was stunned to learn that a mysterious, and much younger, blonde had been the recipient of numerous financial gifts – to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars -- from the elderly man in the months before his death. Although they were impressed with his taste in women, they were also concerned about foul play.
The family first learned about the blonde and the gifts from a distant cousin (the grandfather had confided he had a new, sexy blonde friend to this cousin). As the cousin had forgotten the woman’s name, all we had to go on was the color of her hair. Therefore, we decided to interview the elderly man’s neighbors and ask what they’d observed. One neighbor claimed he’d seen a tall blonde visit the old man several times a week and that she drove a vintage sports car. Another neighbor saw the blonde show up the day after the old man died. She’d entered the man’s house with a key and exited with several boxes of items.
We wondered if this mysterious blonde and the elderly man might have frequented bars and restaurants in the neighborhood, so we started visiting them one by one…and eventually hit gold. A bartender clearly remembered the woman and the old man. He knew her full name, which we ran in various court and criminal databases. We learned she had a criminal record for – guess what? – embezzlement.
We forwarded this information to the elderly man’s family, with the suggestion they contact a probate attorney ASAP.
Tip #2: Get That License Plate Number
You’ve probably read scenes in books where the sleuth memorizes the license plate number on a car driven by the bad guy. That’s certainly plausible, just make sure it’s also plausible that the license plate number can actually be read! This past year I read a mystery where the private eye protagonist was miraculously able to read a license plate number on a dark street as the car skidded around a corner. Really? If you’re writing a quick-read-that-license-plate scene, make sure there’s adequate lighting and that a license plate can actually be read from that angle.
Next, what does your character do with that license plate number? Although it’s popular for characters to have “friends” inside the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) who secretly look up and forward license plate registrations to their pals, let’s get real. Not only is that ploy cliché, it’s stretching believability. In the real world, if a DMV employee is caught illegally selling people’s personal driving information, that employee could lose his/her job. A character might more realistically, and inventively, learn to whom a license plate is registered by:
Conducting a reverse number check. You never know where that license plate might be listed in public records. By running a reverse search on the license plate number in Google, for example, that number might display in forms, ads or other online documents. Could be your character discovers that license plate has been reported for a stolen vehicle.
Running a reverse image search. Maybe your character obtains a photo that also shows that license plate – a handy, free search to detect other online instances of that photo, even modified versions of it, is TinEye (http://www.tineye.com/), a reverse image search engine. Results display other websites that contain that image…one of which might lead to the owner’s name.
Posting an ad in Craigslist or other community forum. Your character might post an ad that describes the car, the driver and the license plate, and requests to be contacted by anyone having additional information to the person’s identity.
Interview neighbors. We’re back to the value of interviewing neighbors. If the vehicle has been spotted in a neighborhood, your character might conduct interviews in that area. Ask people if they’re familiar with the vehicle, describe any identifying marks (dents, peeling paint) or logos (bumper stickers, stickers), share any known digits in the license plate. Most people want to help someone, even a stranger, who has a compelling reason to find information.
Hopefully one or two of these tips help you, and your characters, track those bad guys!
About the Author
Colleen Collins’s (www.colleencollins.net) current novel, The Zen Man, is a mystery featuring a private eye man-and-woman team, which she calls a “21st-century Nick and Nora” story. When Colleen isn’t writing or investigating, she enjoys cooking, gardening, and trying to train a willful Rottweiler named Jack Nicholson.
Buy The Zen Man at:
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-zen-man-colleen-collins/1108178917
Just as washed-up criminal defense attorney, life-long Deadhead and current PI Rick Levine decides to get relicensed as a lawyer, he’s charged with killing one and ends up in the slammer with a half-mil bail. Released on bond, Rick and his girlfriend Laura have 30 days to find the real killer. Dodging bullets, a kidnapping and the FBI, they eventually learn that true redemption begins at home.
"Move over Sam Spade, Nick and Nora; make room for a Denver who-dun-it, Colleen Collins’s The Zen Man. Brilliant and fast-paced writing. I couldn’t put it down." ~ Donnell Ann Bell, Award-Winning Author of The Past Came Hunting
THE ZEN MAN excerpt link: http://thezenman.com/book-excerpt/