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Tips for Writers Writing Sleuths: Tracking Missing Persons

Posted by Writing PIs on January 2, 2012

How a Sleuth Might Track a Missing Person

by Colleen Collins, originally printed in Novelists Inc. January 2012 newsletter NINK

A large percentage of a real-life and fictional PIs’ work involves, to an extent, finding persons whose location is unknown to the PI. For example, a person might be actively avoiding being found, such as a debtor who does not want to be served with a lawsuit. This person might come and go at odd hours or start shimmying in and out a back window instead of using the front door of her residence.

Sometimes the missing person case is more complex, such as a parent who has abducted his child and fled the jurisdiction. In such scenarios, people are more deliberate in their efforts, typically travel farther and attempt to cover their tracks more thoroughly.

If you’re writing a story with a PI or sleuth, your character might be hired to locate someone. A few techniques for finding a person whose location is unknown include:

  • Searching databases that contain public records. There are numerous online public records that anyone can search, such as:
    • County assessors’ sites have lists of owners of real property. If the person was not the owner of the residence, you’ll find out who is.  That owner/landlord might have information about the person’s current whereabouts or know someone who does.
    • Privately owned cemeteries and mortuaries maintain burial permits, funeral service registers, funeral and memorial arrangements, obituaries, intermediate orders and perpetual care arrangements. For example, if the missing person recently attended a funeral, a PI can find names of friends and relatives through some of these records.
  • Interviewing past and current neighbors as well as relatives, past and current landlords, co-workers and known associates.
  • Searching the Internet using Google and other search engines for blogs, images, news and so forth. You’d be surprised what you can find by simply typing a telephone number into the Google browser, for example.
  • Looking up bride/groom’s names if there’s been a recent wedding, or one is in the works: Wedding Channel.  Often, photos and lists of guests are also posted.
  • Checking Internet communities and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. We once located a missing person who was on the run, but she still found time to log into her social media account and write about places she was visiting and restaurants she liked. One search engine that searches dozens of social networking sites with each lookup is Socialmention.
  • Conducting surveillances at locations where the subject has been known to hang out, from bars to exercise clubs to softball games.

There are entire books written on the subject of finding missing persons – if you’re writing a story with a missing-person plot, considering purchasing a recent book on the topic. PIstore.com offers a wide variety of books on different investigative specializations.

There are also organizations whose websites offer help with networking, services and resources to find people who are missing – below are several of these sites:

If your fictional sleuth specializes in missing persons, think about the following character traits:

  • How tenacious is your character? This kind of research can be time-consuming, detailed, frustrating, with lots of dead-ends before finding a clue.
  • Is your sleuth a people person? Because most likely he’ll be talking to a number of people and trying to, in the course of their conversations, pull the nuggets of information he needs.
  • What kind of tools does your sleuth use? Does she have access to a computer, proprietary databases, an adequate vehicle to conduct surveillance?  Is he knowledgeable conducting research in public libraries, courthouses and the like?
  • Does your sleuth incorporate all of the tools of the PI trade in her search, including trash hits at recently vacated residences for signs as to where the missing party might have been headed?
  • Does your sleuth like putting together jigsaw puzzles? Because that’s what locating missing persons is like — assembling varied pieces of information from disparate sources to get, finally, a clear picture.

Have a good week, Writing PIs

Like private eye mysteries with thrills, humor and romance? Check out The Zen Man, a 21-st Nick and Nora mystery, now available on Kindle.

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