How a romance author stopped writing stories of intrigue and started living one — as half of a husband-wife team of legal investigators
Once upon a time, I wrote romance novels.
I sold my first book, a romantic comedy titled Right Chest, Wrong Name, in 1996 to Harlequin’s Love & Laughter series. The following year, I sold them my second book, Right Chapel, Wrong Couple. Then the series closed.
But all was not lost. My editor informed me the Love & Laughter series was morphing into another series called Duets, which packaged two romantic comedy books into one. Cool! I wrote six books for the Duets series. Then the series closed.
I’ll spare you, dear reader, a lot of meshugas (craziness) about the writing life and the rollercoaster world of book publishing and sum up the next eight years with these words: the next two series I wrote for closed as well.
The day the fourth series closed was also the day my boyfriend learned that his company was downsizing and his job was cut.
Standing in the backyard, staring into each other’s eyes, I uttered the words that would shape our future: “Let’s start a private investigations business.”
Harlequin was, in a roundabout way, forcing me into a life of crime. Investigating crime, that is. But this idea wasn’t my acting out some unfulfilled Emma Peel in “The Avengers” fantasy. I actually had a logical, practical reason. For months I’d been telling my boyfriend — a legal researcher and former trial attorney who’d trained many private investigators — that he’d make a dynamite legal investigator. After all, he had the expertise and contacts, and now he had plenty of time on his hands, too.
On the other hand, I needed to learn the PI biz from the gumshoes up.
Over the following months, I immersed myself in learning about private investigations. I took a course taught by a well-respected PI. I read books on various aspects of investigations, from how to run background checks to conducting surveillance. The two of us attended private investigators’ conferences, where we networked with other PIs, tested investigative gear, and attended workshops. My boyfriend mentored me on the finer aspects of researching public records, interpreting civil and criminal court files, skip tracing, interviewing, due diligence and other background searches, and more.
Fortunately, we live in one of the few states that, at the time, did not require PIs to be licensed. So when the cases started rolling in, we started working them.
Just as I dug for information as a writer, I learned to dig for information as a private investigator … piecing together a person’s history, personality, and traits is similar to building a character from an idea to a three-dimensional entity.
Certain investigative tasks come more easily to me because of my writing career. For example, I find it easy to conduct long, stationary surveillances — a talent undoubtedly honed from sitting at the computer for hours, staring into nothingness as I imagine plots and characters. Also, lawyers and other clients often need to find lost/missing people, a task that requires pulling together threads of people’s lives through research, interviews, databases and logic. For me, piecing together a person’s history, personality, and traits is similar to building a character from an idea to a three-dimensional entity.
Just as I dug for information as a writer, I learned to dig for information as a private investigator. Sometimes this digging means getting down and dirty in people’s trash. I’ve dug through, picked apart, and photographed more debris from people’s lives than a Hollywood gossip columnist rummaging through celebrity dreck. If you want to learn about people, check out the refuse of their lives.
At the start of our PI business, writer pals would sometimes call with questions about their stories. Soon other writers began contacting us. This led to our teaching online classes and presenting workshops at writers’ conferences. Then we started a blog (Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes) geared to writers developing sleuth characters and stories. Eventually, we co-authored How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths.
Not long after that, my boyfriend and I eloped. Now we run a legal investigations agency together.
Just because the girl segued from romance writing to private investigating doesn’t mean she’s cut the romance out of her PI life. I suppose I have Harlequin to thank for that, too.
A version of this article first appeared on the blog of author Lori Wilde.
# # #
About the author:
Colleen Collins is a private investigator, award-winning author, and co-writer of the blog Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes. She owns North Denver Investigations in Denver, Colorado. She and her sleuth-husband’s nonfiction book, How to Write a Dick: a Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, is available here.