• Jessica Sherry

Cars, Crime & Characterization

If you’re naturally a what-if thinker, you don’t have to look any further than your local headlines for mystery ideas. You can probably find criminal thought-nuggets in your own life, too.  


When I was 18 and living in an apartment, my Mazda RX-7 that cost me $1,200 and had chipped paint and a window that never went all the way up, was burglarized in the complex parking lot. I never locked my car. So, yes, it was my fault, but seriously I had my reasons.


  • First, I didn’t think there was anything in it worth stealing (who'd want to steal my Food Lion apron?).

  • Second, it’s not like now when locking a car requires one push on the key fob. We actually had to insert the key and turn it to lock the car! Yikes!

  • And third, since I couldn’t put the window all the way up anyway, what was the point?


Well, my junky, unlocked car got robbed. They ripped my radio out of the dashboard. And, while they were at it, they stole all my loose change. This taught me that there's always something to steal.


While car burglaries aren’t the worst that could happen, it’s no fun to walk out to your car in the morning, ready to go, to discover that it’s happened to you.


Did I start locking my car? No. Now, there REALLY wasn’t anything to steal. 


The key fob changed that. I do lock my car these days. But, even so, I don’t keep anything of value in there, if I can help it. My car blanket, a sweater, an umbrella, and yes, loose change. That’s about it.


But, my own history and car burglaries in my city has got me thinking about ideas for mystery writers. We should all ask: what’s in your car? 


As far as crimes go, breaking into cars is entry-level, next to shoplifting at Walmart. If you’re a thief, you’re going to steal from cars. And because so many people leave their cars unlocked, it’s kind of easy.


What's surprising is what people keep in their cars, and even more--what they keep in unlocked cars.


Here is a short list of items stolen out of cars in Wilmington according to the police blotter when I wrote this article:

  • $800

  • Invisalign braces

  • $400

  • a $3,600 calculator

  • a $3,000 laptop

  • ammunition

  • a Glock 9mm handgun

  • a Smith and Wesson 9mm handgun, $300

  • Martin Dingham loafers

  • Sperry shoes, wallets, phones, and purses.

Breaking into cars may be entry-level, but it pays BIG. 


In a rash of auto burglaries (70 reports over a few nights), 31 guns were taken! 31 guns! Left in cars! Left in unlocked cars! Overnight!


While I’m all for the right to bear arms, they shouldn’t be borne so carelessly. Carelessness is exactly what criminals count on. Instead of protecting themselves against criminals, these gun owners armed them!


But, I digress... Guns, computers, and cash--what's in your characters' cars?


You can learn a lot about someone by their cars and what they keep in them.


  • Does she prepare (sweater, blanket, tic-tacs) or is she more spontaneous?

  • Does she keep it clean (air fresheners, leather wipes, portable vacuum) or is she a slob (fast food trash, a backseat full of junk, melted chocolate on the carpet)?

  • What make/model car is it? And what does her car mean to her?

  • Does your character lock her car? Does she keep anything valuable in there?

  • What’s something unusual that a character could keep in her car? And what might happen because of it?

In mystery writing, the main crime--usually murder--is premeditated; the plan becomes part of the story. Or the crime is an act of passion or revenge--something in the heat of the moment. What leads to the act makes the story.


Consider crimes of opportunity. These are most common in real life, so why don’t they show up more often in fiction? Maybe because there's not much of a story there--criminal wants money so criminal steals. There's no sexy premeditation or juicy motive.


But what if...


  • A crime of opportunity--like stealing a laptop out of car--leads to the owner coming after the thief? Maybe the laptop contains trade secrets or information about a political scandal. What if the thief discovers he has more than he expected and graduates to blackmail?

  • What if something special is stolen? A family heirloom or some other keepsake. What might an MC do to get it back? Or what might someone she loves do to get it back for her?

Or deeper, darker…


  • What if the gun stolen out of a protagonist’s car ends up being the weapon used in multiple murders? A school shooting? An assassination? How would he or she deal with the guilt?

  • Maybe the car owner is a criminal, too and something in the car is the evidence against him. Now, the petty thief holds his future in his hands.


Oh, the possibilities!


Small crimes lead to BIG ideas.


What's in your MC's car? What does his car say about him? How might it move the plot?

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