Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tips and Techniques for Interviewing Witnesses by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman, Guest Bloggers

Since I've never met a real life private investigator before, I'm very excited to have Colleen and Shaun guest post for us. This PI and writing team has conducted online classes, workshops at conferences, and blogged extensively about principles of investigation especially geared toward mystery writers. They are members of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.


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


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks so much for hosting Colleen and Shaun.

Colleen and Shaun - Thanks very much for sharing your expertise. One of the things that can make a good book great is authenticity. And many crime writers don't have expertise or experience working with witnesses, so it can be challenging to write about what P.I.'s do when they need to talk to a witness. This is absolutely fascinating!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've not interviewed or interrogated a character - yet!

Rini said...

Wow, this is great! I've never even considered writing mysteries because I am so unfamiliar with how the process works. I figued I would have to take criminal justice classes first ... Thanks for the info!

Elspeth Antonelli said...

This is fascinating! Thanks so much.

Dorte H said...

What a useful post!

Though I know a bit about balancing between interrogating and inteviewing - I am a teacher ;)

catwoods said...

Thanks so much for lining up this great interview, Patricia.

This book is on my future purchase list for a variety of reasons:

-I love the title. I mean, who wouldn't?
-I love the nitty-gritty this book promises.
-I love the breezy way these two convey info. If the book delivers the same, I'll be one happy writer!

Writing PIs said...

Hello everyone,

We're dropping by to say hello and thank everyone for dropping by and commenting on the post. Appreciate your positive feedback!

Dorte, LOL on your knowing about balancing interviewing & interrogating because you're a teacher!

catwoods, love that word breezy. Hopefully we pull it off in the book, too.

For those of you in the Denver area, check out next week's Westword newspaper -- we're their cover story. The reporter developed a fun structure -- she wrote parts as a writer writing a PI story (based on one of our cases), interspersed with an interview/story about us. It'll be out Wednesday, August 31.

We'll check back in later. Have a great day,

Colleen & Shaun

Marlena Cassidy said...

This is great advice for mystery writers, as sometimes I think people get carried away with CSI tactics and don't really know how a real interview works. Thank you, Patricia, for hosting Colleen and Shaun!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks to everyone who dropped by today (or will drop by later), and a special thanks to our writing PIs who continue to help mystery writers get the facts right. They'll be along a little later to pick the winner of the drawing.

Writing PIs said...

We just put everyone's name into a virtual hat, then blindfolded Shaun to pick a winner's name...

Margot Kinberg!

Margot, we just sent you via email a Kindle gift copy of "How to Write a Dick."

Thank you everyone for your warm welcome and comments. Good luck with your writing, and we hope our paths cross again soon.

And a special thank you to Pat for hosting us today.

If you're a Twitter-er, stay in touch by following us at @writingpis

Have a great weekend, Colleen & Shaun