Posted On May 25, 2018 by

How to Write a Realistic Private Detective

I “met” John Hoda online when I was reading a post he wrote on another blogger’s site. His job as a private investigator fascinated me, particularly given I write a lot of romantic suspense. I know many of you do, too, and I thought his frank and funny take on his career would help us all write PIs more realistically.

Through talking with him, I also learned we have Western Pennsylvania in common. (You can learn about his connection to my beloved state in his bio below.)

I hope you’ll help me give him a warm welcome.

Oops! There They Go Again.

Real-life private eye exposes mistakes writers make when writing a PI character.

by John A. Hoda, CFE, CLI

I’d like to think I can throw a knock-out punch. Boom! I drop “Tiny” the enraged 300-pound Biker/Bouncer without leaving a mark on my dynamite left hook.  In reality, I shake hands with “Tiny” and give him a man hug, hoping that none of his piercings snag me. You see, I handled a case for Tiny’s sister a couple years earlier and he feels that he is forever indebted to me. How about writing this character where they use their brains and not their brawn?

Gunplay? Really? I have a better chance of having my gun turned around on me than having to use it to defend myself or someone else. By the way, I don’t carry. Most gumshoes don’t, either. The cost of carrying a concealed weapon would quadruple my Errors & Omission and General Liability Coverage.

The door is locked and the shameless shamus needs to get in the building.  He, it’s usually a he, takes out his trusty pick set and before you know it, he’s inside and using a penlight to go to exactly where the proof is. Cut! End of scene. That wouldn’t be me and my peers. Not by a long shot. I am licensed by the State of Connecticut as a Private Detective. Have been for 21 years. Most states require licensing. I had to go through a background check and had to supply affidavits from my neighbors and business associates. I even had a letter from the rector of my church where I sat on the board. Do you really think I am going to commit a felony and jeopardize my livelihood? Can you make that scene work without using this cheap trope?

Too many big name authors portray our profession as being infested by seedy or shady thugs that can give a guy a good trimming. In reality, we come from the law enforcement ranks and are looking to extend our careers beyond the boundaries of our old jurisdictions. We are joined by returning Vets and Criminal Justice majors and people from many walks of life who became interested in investigations. We attend conferences, network, and join associations. We play by the rules. There are times when a prospective client, who has watched too many movies, thinks that I can “bend” the law without getting caught. I try to educate them as to how I can get what they want legally. That is where the magic comes in. Can you write that scene? Yes. It takes more work, but flexing your imagination with a creative and legal solution can be more satisfying to the reader. Certainly more realistic.

Yes, our income is derived from paying clients, but that doesn’t make us whores. No, the customer is not always right when they ask us to step over the line.

I will also let you in on another truth. Most PIs will turn down jobs where the money is good but the client is clearly not thinking straight. This happens mostly in Matrimonial cases. Emotionally-distraught spouses are willing to empty their checking accounts to get the goods on their significant others. An hour for beers after the softball game now turns into four. A second cell phone is found in the car. Gradually, the other starts dressing nicer and chunks of time that used to be spent at home are spent away from the house. I listen to the litany of complaints and the mounting evidence of infidelity. I have to be part counselor, part confidant, and part skeptical friend, but in the end, I have to think about what they need for court. There are some investigators who will be glad to spend their client’s money until it runs out. Yes, they argue they are providing the client with the courage needed to take the next step toward divorce or modifying custody agreements. In reality, when they supply their reports and DVDs capturing the errant spouse’s behavior in public, they are giving the client a couple of very expensive drink coasters. Over two decades, I have turned down most of these requests, after thoughtfully listening for the free consultative hour, with this phrase: “Save your money for your lawyer. It walks like a duck and it squawks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Where most writers get it wrong on surveillance jobs falls into a couple areas. First, we are trained in surveillance both mobile and on foot; I’ve even followed a person onto an airplane*. But we are not superhuman. Law Enforcement will use multiple chase cars, plain-vanilla vans, darkened SUVs, and even helicopters. A single PI or two have to obey most of the traffic laws. (Don’t dare pass on School Bus with its flashing reds on.)

Try to make a left turn in a busy shopping area across four lanes of traffic? Ain’t happening. It’s not hard for a subject to make a PI’s tail, if they think they are being followed. Tip: Have your character drive the speed limit on the highway and see which car never passes them.  We lose the people we are following for a variety of reasons, mostly because we don’t want to get made by the subject, which puts them on high alert.

We don’t give the client blow-by-blow descriptions about where the subject is or what the subject is doing. There is a chilling video taken by the surveillance company found on the Internet of a wife who was told what hotel the hubby was shacking up in. It shows her Mercedes repeatedly driving over his body after she knocked him down.

After-the-fact reports can detail that the horizontal mambo is most likely going on behind closed doors, but there is an expectation of privacy, and no pin-hole camera or other listening device is allowed. No reputable firm is going to bring on that heat. Suffice it to say that if you see your character’s beloved going into a hotel with someone else for a period of time, they are not playing Yahtzee.

Don’t write to stereotype, give your Private Detective a brain and a sense of humor, plan the scene with imagination, or ask WWJD—the J stands for John, your favorite real-life Private Eye.

Full Disclaimer. I read mostly Crime Thrillers and Police Procedurals from long-time authors who usually get it right. Why? Because it’s their stock and trade and they seek advice from Cops and Private Detectives who they credit in the acknowledgments.

Have any questions for John? Ask away; he’s happy to answer them.


John hosts My Favorite Detective Stories podcast every Monday—a short-form interview with investigators past and present about how they got started, what makes for a good investigation, and of course, they tell their favorite stories. (Sign up at  Its FREE.)

John graduated in 1975 with a B.S. in Criminology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is a former Police Officer, Insurance Fraud Investigator and for the past 20 years has run a successful Private Investigations business. Many of his cases made the headlines of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Haven Register.

He has written numerous articles for PI Magazine and other publications and has created the DVD: The Ultimate Guide to Taking Statements. He is a frequent guest blogger and webinar presenter on Investigative Interviewing.

John has sat on the boards of the both the National Association of Legal Investigators and the CT Assoc. of Licensed Private Investigators. He is a Certified Legal Investigator and a Certified Fraud Examiner.

He answered the writing muse in 2013 with his debut novel, Phantasy Baseball, which can be found in e-Book form on most platforms and in soft cover through CreateSpace on Amazon. It is a story of an average Joe who, though luck and circumstance, gets a one in a million chance to play in the Major Leagues. (purchase link)

Through the years, he told his stories about his latest cases over coffee, at parties, or at dinner engagements. Was told repeatedly to write them down. He finally did with
Mugshots: My Favorite Detective Stories which can be found in e-Book (purchase link) and on most platforms and in print through CreateSpace and IngramSpark. A free copy is yours for downloading at

Odessa on the Delaware is slated for a Fall 2018 release and introduces FBI Agent Marsha O’Shea. Sign up for announcements at his website

John is a lifetime athlete, playing club soccer and semi-professional football, running marathons, and bicycling long distance. His creative activities also include writing, producing, and acting in amateur theater.

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