Notes from MisCon 27, Part 4

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Private Eyes in Fiction and Real Life
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, John Goff, Peter Wacks
Panel description: How do you put a little mystery in your fantasy and science fiction? In addition to discussing the fictional side of private eyes, John Goff, a private detective for 12 years, will bring some realism to the table.

JB: What’s the difference between fictional and real PIs? In real life, it’s mind-numbingly boring. You’re sitting in a car for fourteen hours.

PW: I worked as a PI for one year and it was boring. I spent thirty hours a week calling people at bars. It was the most exciting when I worked undercover at a car dealership to catch a thief.

JG: I started as a PI sitting in the car watching people for worker’s injury comp. Then I started my own agency and we were busy mostly with civil investigations like car accidents. You can do other stuff if your agency specializes.

JB: I started research on PIs when I was already two books into my series. Before, I only did research with fictional PIs. Reading about PIs, you pick up certain characteristics: the fictional PI has no respect for anyone, he crosses anyone he needs to, he’s independent and defiant.

PW: My PI character doesn’t kill. His ideals go beyond independence.

CB: I grew up reading detective fiction. It’s how they look at the world through logic and solving puzzles. I write fantasy investigators where they have to be careful with what magic they have. A librarian was brought into my story because the character had a background in magic. I have to be careful with magical forensics.

JG: A fictional PI is resourceful, overconfident, and has a smart mouth. He does what you wish you could do.

JB: What kind of situations come up with investigators and what are the challenges?

PW: Politics is important. For example, in urban fantasy there are immortals and you have to deal with the related crimes.

JG: In the game book I wrote, I looked for real world investigations that could converge into the magical. If I’m stumped, I step back and ask what would I do? Or what would Batman do? Think outside the box.

CB: In fantasy, you have to invent forensic limits. But there are things that all PIs do. They all know who they need to interview.

PW: I never got cases that had the same solution.

JB: I read about something that I wanted to write about.

JG: I’ve worked over a thousand cases and I can’t think of an instance where the cases from two clients converged. I’ve got some cases where they came from the same client but they were domestic. I’ve investigated one thing that brought to light other things.

CB: I’m lucky to invent cases where there’s no one for hire but characters are brought on to investigate one track. But investigating one victim led them to look at other victims of the same type.

JB: PIs come out of pulp where there are deadlines. So who is your favorite detective? My favorite is Spencer because he’s irreverent. I read Robert Parker’s entire series before I start on a new Dresden Files book.

PW: The movie The Last Boy Scout.

CB: Sidney or any Dick Francis hero because they are amateurs.

JG: Batman and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. Nicholas Cage’s character in 8mm.

Q: How do you become a detective in the real world?

PW: It depends on the state. In some places, you need a mentor, an agency, and certification.

JG: It depends entirely on the state. In Virginia, you need to register with a test and work for a licensed agency. You need experience (same in Washington). Idaho has no requirements. It varies. You can take the test and run with it. In North Carolina, there’s an old boy’s network which requires a certain number of hours at an agency.

Q: How closely do PIs work with the police?

JG: PIs have a bad rap with the police because the defense uses PIs to build a case against them. On the other hand, the police also take credit for what the PIs have done.

Q: What kind of research is done with actual investigators?

JB: I knew someone who became a PI because he wanted to find missing kids but he ended up on cases with cheating spouses. Technical manuals are valuable although maybe they’re out of date now. Human nature doesn’t change.

Q: If a character reports a murder and starts asking questions–how willing is the character to get involved and how does the character get past it?

JW: They get past it because it’s the character’s job.

JB: The easiest way is to have a character whose basic nature is to ask questions and get involved.

CB: Make it an intellectual puzzle like Sherlock Holmes.

JG: If the character is a PI, it’s what they want to do anyway. If you like German chocolate cake, then you can’t keep away from it. No one makes you take the case. You choose the client.

Q: Who gets the money?

JG: Hopefully you’re not getting repeat business. It’s billed on an hourly rate. There’s a minimum where you get money up front. Or you have an established relationship like with an insurance company. But be careful with law firms, you get paid depending on whether they win the case.