Since we opened our doors nearly 15 years ago, we have been invited numerous times to give workshops at writers’ conferences about crafting plausible PI characters in stories. Occasionally, we have also taught our own online classes. Below is a question that several writers have asked over the years, and it’s a good one.
We have known PIs who got into trouble after being caught illegally using listening devices, but such problems are good in fiction as tension and conflict bump up the stakes.
Writer’s Question: Do you ever use listening devices in your investigations? I’d like to have my fictional sleuth use a listening device while she’s driving around — is that plausible?
Answer: No, we don’t use listening devices because they intrude on others’ expectations of privacy. Also, such devices are frequently electronic in nature, and any electronically supplemented listening device meets the definition of the crime of eavesdropping. We once had an attorney ask us to use an electronic listening device in a motel room to try to listen in on a “cheating spouse” in the next room. We refused, explaining that would be eavesdropping. Last we heard, the attorney found another PI who was willing to do it.
As to your character using a listening device in her car, yes, it’s plausible, but keep in mind that your character is technically breaking the law. But think of this…unless your character repeats conversations verbatim or admits to using a listening device, who will know?
Now let’s look at it another way — your character is caught with the device — that’s great. Throws more conflict into your story. Or a third party says there’s no way the PI-character could possibly have known about a private conversation unless the PI had been illegally using a listening device. Again, more story tension. What does the PI do? Toss the listening device? Yes, probably…in a dumpster far, far away from her premises. We’re talking fiction, so having a character do things that he/she knows are illegal are great for adding conflict. What’s key is for the writer to know certain actions and uses of certain devices are illegal to begin with (then the character must wrestle with the whys and hows of what he/she’s doing…and be prepared to pay the consequences).
Have a great week, Writing PIs
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