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John Hoda on Being a Real-Life Private Eye

John Hoda is the author of the Marcia O’Shea police/FBI procedural series, and the new Gwendolyn Strong cozy mystery series. You can find out more about him on his website at, or by clicking here, and see his books here. This is his debut post.

I’ve been an investigator for over forty-six years. I still have two open files on my desk, even though my son and a part-timer do all the heavy lifting for Hoda Investigations, LLC these days. This year marks my twenty-fifth anniversary owning my own PI business.

Cover of Clearwater Blues, by John A. Hoda

During all this time and in college, I always have a good crime novel on my coffee table or nightstand. I cannot separate how my experience and my reading influences my writing.

You might be surprised that the muse first called me to write a sports novel. That little voice in my head kept urging me to write the story of an average Joe getting a one in a million shot to play in the Major Leagues. I found that I loved the writing process so much I decided to make writing my second career. I took a few characters from that debut novel and started asking what if questions and the idea of my first police procedural with a badass FBI agent trying to get her mojo back came to me.

Clearwater Blues is the second novel in the series. Marsha O’Shea is on administrative leave from the bureau and meets her old supervisor from her gunslinging days in Miami. His second career is as a solo private detective in Clearwater, FL and he needs some help on a missing persons case. She gets to play private detective and it is the first time I really dove into my fieldcraft while writing fiction. I gave myself permission to write what I know.

When I read private detective novels, I do critique them for authenticity while trying not to suspend too much disbelief. If I could start a movement in the fictional PI genre, the first thing I would do away with is the black art of lock picking. I think it’s lazy and a writer can come up with better ways to write about learning secrets. In real life, a PI will lose their license, get arrested and it will end their livelihood if they get caught. Not worth it. Period. That is not the PI I would hire, and I hire a ton around the country to help me with my assignments.

The next thing I would rail against is the one-punch knockout. Sure, it can happen, just look at YouTube for examples, but in reality, combatants flail about until one or both hit the deck. I’ve been shoved a few times, my son was sitting on a surveillance in the middle of a drive-by shooting once and had a gun pointed at him, but usually, violence is very rare. Can you raise the stakes in your story without your hero punching people out five times before the midpoint?

Ask yourself, do you want your protagonist to be a felon and an hombre that would rather use his fists than his wits? What about your female investigators? I can’t argue with knowing self-defense, but does she have to have Jack Reacher skills as well?

Looking back to the days of Hammett and Chandler in America and the pulp fiction that followed, I understand how the solitary fighter for justice with his or her own moral code was popular and very adaptable to the big screen and then the little screen, but maybe it’s time to retire some of those tired tropes and think of better ways for your protagonist to carry the day.

As a real-life PI, I have not hung precariously from a helicopter, unloaded my guns in a high-speed chase through crowded city streets (I don’t carry, the cost of errors and omission/ general liability insurance triples when you possess a gun in this profession). You won’t see me doing a Tokyo drift in my hybrid anytime soon.

Does that make my work boring? Not at all. I can describe for you firsthand what it feels like to hear a not guilty verdict as you stand next to your innocent client in the courtroom. I’ve been there four different times. Finding a homeless person under a bridge embankment and changing their life when you tell them they are an heir to a fortune never gets old. Digging out the truth when powerful entities like governments or powerful corporations would rather you not and they do everything (including illegal acts) to stop you.

Cover of Gwendolyn Strong series Book One, Milford Elementary, by John A. Hoda

That is what I try to bring to my writing. I didn’t need to pick locks or knock people out with one punch to progress my investigations. So why would I do that in my plotlines?

I have interviewed many investigators for my podcast My Favorite Detective Stories and what I resonate most with them is not on the macho bravado, but with how we love to chase the leads. It is taking the purported facts and then finding the truth that gets most investigators jazzed.

After six books with my FBI agent, I had the idea of writing a first-person present POV amateur sleuth. Take away the badge and all the support a law enforcement organization can supply. I made her thrive on her wits alone. I really wanted to see if I could write a character who was obsessed about following the clues.

Gwendolyn Strong is my small-town retired kindergarten teacher who learned everything about solving mysteries in kindergarten. With a little bit of Zen, throw in some Sherlockian observational skills and Miss Marple’s understanding of human nature and you have my modern-day sleuth who the reader can sort out the clues with.

Milford Elementary is coming out today wide in print and Amazon and KU. Talk about timing!

If I were to sum up my half century of work with my newfound love for writing, it boils down to finding fun and exciting ways to chase the clues. That is the way I am wired. I want that to come across in my writing. When I read, that is what keeps me turning the next page. What about you? Do you love finding the truth before your sleuth?

What are some of your pet-peeves when it comes to the fictional gumshoe?

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ben K Clements

    Great read, John! Thank you for your contribution! I agree with you 1,000%.

  2. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Thanks, John, for offering the alternative and helping destroy the tropes. I look forward to reading Milford Elementary!

    1. Avatar
      John Hoda

      I enjoy the thinkin’ PI not the stinkin’ PI

  3. Avatar
    John Hoda

    Thank you Margaret. I can be your one stop shopping for all things private investigative and can usually point you in the right direction on police procedurals

  4. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I wish I’d known you a lot longer ago when I started writing Rage Issues (please don’t read it, although Daria doesn’t do any of the things you mentioned). She and her friend/boss do carry guns, but Berto is former LAPD, and Daria was working some skanky places, so Berto taught her how to shoot to protect herself.
    What a terrific post, though.

  5. Avatar
    John A Hoda

    You never know when you might need the services of a friendly PI who writes fiction

  6. Christine DeSmet
    Christine DeSmet

    Nice post! I come from a small town where our K-12 total count was something like 250 kids. Small towns are special. And I write cozies, too. I look forward to seeing what your kindergarten teacher does to solve crimes.

    1. Avatar
      John A Hoda

      My wife came from a two-stoplight town and her ex-sister-in-law taught in the elementary school there and was the model for Gwendolyn Strong. Everything she learned about solving mysteries, she learned in kindergarten. 🙂 Gwen, that is.

  7. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    I agree with you completely about making it real. One of my big pet peeves is when writers go for the “CSI effect,” in which their protagonist does pretty much everything that the crime scene techs normally do. Unless the book is intended as satire, poetic license goes only so far. That’s not to say that we can’t take *some* license, but in my not-so-humble opinion, what we publish should not make people who really do the job cringe.

  8. Avatar
    John A Hoda

    You are so right. I laugh at the CSI people that solve crimes by interviewing suspects or doing scene canvassing

  9. Avatar

    I can relate to this post! The mystery I set in an urban high school required the least research and came closest to being straight from my own experience of any of my novels. Best of luck to you with your new release. I’ll look forward to meeting Gwendolyn.

  10. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Great debut post, John! I’m a retired elementary school teacher turned cozy mystery author and modeled my teen detectives after my students. So, no guns, gore, or CSI effects for them–not appropriate in kids’ cozies, anyway! My four Botanic Hill sleuths use their heads, hearts, and innocence to track down the clues as you suggest. The closest they get to “official” help is from one of the detectives’ fathers who’s a police sergeant. But the kids do the heavy lifting and emerge the heroes. I look forward to reading Milford Elementary! Congratulations on its launch. And welcome to Blackbird Writers!

  11. Avatar
    John A Hoda

    Thank you. I am excited about writing fair play whodunnits from my protagonists first person present POV

  12. Avatar
    John A. Hoda

    You’re welcome. Still working cases and they inform my writing.

  13. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    John — Your kind of books are right up my alley. I look forward to diving in!

  14. joyribar

    Great post about real-life PI vs. fiction and some good guidelines to consider. Looking forward to reading your brand of cozy. I’m a cozy author, too, and glad there’s room for so many kinds of protagonists and scenarios. Best of luck with your new release!

  15. Avatar
    John A. Hoda

    I hope you like the way Gwen figures things out.

  16. Avatar
    Donna Rewolinski

    Great. I’m married to a retired police detective. He always talks about patience and tenacity of following the leads and thinking things through like a puzzle.

  17. Avatar

    Your new character sounds great. And it’s interesting to hear from someone who does the job. I’ll have to give your podcast a listen.

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