Tips and Techniques for Interviewing Witnesses by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman, Guest Bloggers
We’re private investigators who specialize in legal investigations, which means we conduct a lot of interviews with witnesses. Because many readers of Patricia's blog are mystery writers, we thought we’d offer some interview tips and techniques that writers might use in their stories.
First, let’s briefly discuss the difference between interrogating and interviewing.
Interrogating vs. Interviewing
In a nutshell, interrogation uses accusatory, closed-ended, leading questions to get a witness to agree with the interviewer. Interviewing relies on open-ended questions (who, what, when, where, why) with the goal of obtaining a maximum amount of information.
Generally speaking, police officers are seeking a desired answer when they interrogate witnesses. Conversely, private investigators are seeking lots of information, and will follow any conversational thread applicable to an investigation.
For the rest of this article, we’ll focus on interviews.
Three Tips for Conducting Interviews
• Get on it. It’s often critical for an investigator to quickly contact witnesses and schedule interviews because the closer the event, the better the person’s recall.
• Schedule the interview when the person will be the most relaxed and not have demands on his time. But if the person keeps postponing the interview or using other ploys to avoid being interviewed, a shrewd investigator might show up unannounced at the person’s home. This tactic pressures the witness into a quick answer, if for no other reason than to get the interviewer off the doorstep.
• Prepare. Sometimes in film and movies, the private eye seems to stumble into interviews and ask questions on the fly. In real life, an investigator crafts questions ahead of time based on the type of information she’s seeking (along with background research from police reports, newspaper articles, and so on).
It’s great when a witness is conversational – all an investigator needs to do is guide the conversation. But how might an interviewer handle anxious or reticent witnesses?
Handling the Anxious Witness
Recently, we handled a sensitive interview that involved a young man who had witnessed an assault on our client. The young man was a drug addict, so he was jumpy, nervous and uncomfortable.
We set the interview at a time close to the event and convenient for the witness. We came prepared with a video camera, still camera, recorder, paper and pens (so we’re ready to document the interview in a variety of ways). He did not want to be filmed, but agreed to his voice being recorded.
To put him at ease, we initiated the interview by talking about the young man’s interests before gradually introducing our questions. He’d made it clear he’d do anything to avoid being served with a subpoena, so we didn’t tell him about the one we had in our briefcase until after we’d completed the interview.
Interviewing the Reticent Witness
It can be difficult to interview reticent witnesses, who might be partisan, scared, sick or afraid of being dragged into something that they do not want to testify about. To ease the person’s concerns, the interviewer might start out by acknowledging that interviewee’s reticence or fear, and letting the person know that the interviewer empathizes with them. Finding a shared interest helps loosen tight-lipped witnesses.
These witnesses need to be led around a little, primarily by the use of leading questions. Also, it helps to let them see, or identify, with the interviewer’s difficulty and why the interviewer needs their help (“Daniel, we’re both nervous, but I need to get all the information I can to help keep Sam Smith out of prison for thirty years for a robbery that you and I know he did not commit. So tell me, he was at your house until the six o’clock news came on, right, the day he was arrested for the robbery?”).
For the tight-lipped witness, the interviewer is a salesman, a psychologist and a redeemer. Just as a lot rides on the outcome of our investigation agency’s interviews, your fictional character might also be passionate about the outcome.
Thank you, Patricia, for hosting us today. We’re giving away a Kindle copy of How to Write a Dick to one of today’s visitors (we’ll randomly pick a name at the end of the day). You don’t need a Kindle device as Amazon also offers free Kindle app downloads for PCs, Macs and other devices (instructions accompany the giveaway).
Colleen and Shaun, thank you so much for being here today. You're such a great help to mystery and thriller writers. We really appreciate it.
For those leaving comments in the hopes of winning the free copy of How to Write a Dick, please be sure to include your e-mail address in the comment or easily accessible through the profile linked to your name.
Colleen Collins is co-owner of Highlands Investigations in Denver, Colorado, where she specializes in witness locates and interviews, surveillances and infidelity investigations. Her articles on private investigations have appeared on various Internet sites as well as in PI Magazine, Romance Writers Report, Pursuit Magazine and other publications. She has written 20 novels for both Harlequin and Dorchester, several of which have placed in the finals for national competitions, including the prestigious Holt Medallion and RITA awards.
Shaun Kaufman, co-owner of Highlands Investigations, has worked in and around the criminal justice field for more than 30 years, as a former trial attorney and a current legal investigator. He has published articles in PI magazine, the Denver Law Review and other publications. In his former career, Shaun has hired and managed private investigators, training them on such issues as ethics, death penalty litigation, homicide and gang evidence, and search and seizure techniques.
You can learn more about the writing PIs at their blog, Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes.
Their book How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths is available on Kindle and Nook. More about How to Write a Dick:
The private eye genre has come a long way, baby, with new subgenres – from teenage PIs to vampire gumshoes to geriatric sleuths – attracting new readers every year. Although it can be safely said that all fictional sleuths, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, are thinking machines, depending on their powers of observation, analysis and curiosity, the 21st century has opened up a brave new world of investigative technology, tools and Internet resources that would have made Sherlock Holmes weep with joy.
Unfortunately, most writers are not aware of these state-of-the-art developments that shape today’s professional private dick, which sometimes leave writers floundering with impossible and antiquated devices, characters and methods in stories. Which is why we wrote How to Write a Dick: A Guide for Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths, which isn’t about how to write a novel, but what you need to know to write an authentic, compelling 21st-century sleuth character or story.
“Forget Google and Bing. When you need to research PI work, go to the experts, Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman: they live it, they teach it, they write it. How to Write a Dick is the best work of its kind I’ve ever come across because it covers the whole spectrum in an entertaining style that will appeal to layman and lawmen alike. This will be the industry standard for years to come.”
- Reed Farrel Coleman, three-time Shamus Award winner for Best PI Novel of the Year and author of Hurt Machine