Last month, I wrote about the tools of the trade that I use to create my fiction. That got me thinking. What tools do my fictional characters use?
When I was writing Kindred Crimes, the first in my series featuring Oakland private eye Jeri Howard, I wasn’t using a cell phone, and neither was Jeri. I was using a computer, a clunky dual disk drive model, and I thought it was a major step up from the electric typewriter.
Jeri and I have made our way into the 21st century. She uses her cell phone for everything from directions to looking up information, and for talking with people, of course. As for computers, like many real-life private investigators, she uses them for research. In addition to news archives, there are many paid databases that one can access by purchasing a subscription. Jeri also uses government records that are available online.
For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Things We Keep, Jeri goes onto the California Department of Justice website to check the missing persons database. I did this myself, so I could describe it accurately. And it certainly gives flavor to the narrative.
But it isn’t all Jeri at the keyboard, looking at the screen, or Jeri on the phone, interviewing someone. That would be boring for the reader and the writer. At one point in Water Signs, Jeri says:
I could just as easily interview Rachel Leverson over the phone, but whenever possible, I prefer to do so in person. That allows me to gauge reactions, facial expressions and body language. It also gets me out of the office.
Interviewing people face-to-face gives Jeri more information than pixels on a screen. In the world of my fictional private eye, there’s no substitute for shoe leather. But it really does help that Jeri can make a call without looking for a phone booth.
Kay Dexter is the protagonist of my novel The Sacrificial Daughter. She is a geriatric care manager and has access to all the tools that software and the Internet can provide. Her clients are mostly elderly people and their families.
Once again, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. A client might be minimizing problems or feelings and Kay might not pick up on that over the phone, but she can usually read people when she’s with them. As for those online tools, there’s a scene in the book when Kay is doing research in the library at the local historical museum. She’s looking at files and photocopies, because not all the information the museum has is digitized. Those online records frequently go back only so far.
Kay uses her powers of observation as well. Some valuable items have gone missing from a client’s home. While doing an errand for another client, she visits a local antique mall:
I turned and glanced at the glass display case on the booth’s back wall. What was that? I moved closer to the case. On the top shelf, I saw a sterling silver sugar and creamer. They looked exactly like the ones I’d seen in the china cabinet at Betty’s house, right down to the floral detail on the handles.
I also write a series of historical mysteries set in the early 1950s, featuring Zephyrette Jill McLeod. Computers? Not happening there. For Jill to solve mysteries onboard the train, and off, it’s strictly person-to-person sleuthing. Jill’s job, when she’s aboard the California Zephyr, is to observe the passengers and help with their needs. Jill notices things and she files them away in her mind, ready to access the information. Along with her ability to talk with people and tease out information, these are her biggest assets as a detective.
And that’s gumshoeing, on the ever-changing streets of the Bay Area where Jeri sleuths, to the fictional mountain town where Kay oversees clients, to Jill’s shiny train as it streaks across the west.