Writing Ideas from Petty Crime
Want to understand crime to improve your writing? Your local newspaper is a stellar resource for crime research, especially if they provide a handy-dandy Police Blotter, a list of recent arrests, or a Crime section. You can learn crucial, plot-important lessons by knowing the crimes happening in your town.
Here are a few lessons for mystery writers that I’ve learned so far:
Nothing is too small, gross, lame, or ridiculous for a criminal to steal.
A quick perusal of the newspaper’s weekly police blotter proves thieves will steal ANYTHING.
Here’s a short list of stolen items from the last few months: loose change, Invisalign braces, a toilet, a bucket, a laundry wash tub, a porcelain dragon head, a parking sign, pill bottles, a floating dock, a water bottle, potato salad, a Jeep Patriot owner’s manual, a pedicab, and (my favorite) 3 Rhode Island Red Hens.
Thieves enjoy unlocked cars, Wal-Mart, and long walks through construction sites.
Reading crime news regularly, you begin to see patterns. Based on my local police blotter (only a partial representation of the crime in this area), 33 crimes were thefts from cars (this does not include stealing the cars themselves). Often, whole neighborhoods are targeted in one night.
Wal-Mart’s another popular target – and not just in frequency but quantity. In March, a single offender shoplifted Tide detergent pods, 10 towels, paper towels, toilet paper, and a comforter from Walmart. Long shoplifting lists like this are common as if thieves fill up carts and simply walk out with them. I don’t know – maybe they do.
Tools and equipment are also big-ticket criminal items. Just because something’s big and heavy doesn’t mean it won’t get pinched – water heaters, AC units, and appliances are all up for grabs. In crime, anything goes!
Thieves like to take their chances.
A common and easy way to steal is straight from people's doorsteps, where deliveries are left daily. According to this New York Post article, over 64% of Americans have been victims of porch piracy in the year before, over 210 million packages.
Some organized criminals will follow UPS and FED EX trucks to grab and flee. But it's a crapshoot for the criminal--they have no clue if their risk will pay off. A good score might be electronics or video games. But they could just as easily end up with vegan dog food or fish tank filters. Is it worth it?
The quick answer is yes. Consumer.com reports that in their survey, only 9% of consumers filed a police report for stolen packages. And according to security.org, it's a crime of opportunity that rarely ends in arrest.
So, perhaps the biggest risk for this type of thief is an awkward encounter with the homeowner or his picture splashed on social media.
Story idea: what if the thief ends up with something that puts her in danger?
Sometimes we law-abiding citizens make a bad situation worse.
Check out this story of over 70 reported auto burglaries in Wilmington. While thieves are consistently nabbing computers, phones, money, etc. from cars, they’re also stocking up on guns. In this rash of thievery, 31 guns were stolen, many from unlocked cars left in their driveways. If you're going to own a gun, care for it responsibly.
Gotta love the dumb ones.
Crime is often committed out of desperation, forcing us to question the larger problems in our society. And victims are forever impacted by the trauma.
But sometimes, on a lighter note, criminals make it impossible not to laugh. Like the guy who evaded the police by running into the ocean only to be chased back to shore by a shark. In this particularly fun apprehension in Surf City, the police used a drone to keep track of the guy.
Petty crime creates awesome writing prompts.
A couple stole $600 of Red Bull from two different stores (Wal-Mart was one of them). Why so much Red Bull? Why? Could they really like Red Bull that much? Or are there other possibilities? Sudafed is used to make drugs. Could Red Bull be used in that capacity too? Could the Red Bull be used for a caffeine-fueled time machine? Or (as my sweet daughter suggested) could this couple think that enough Red Bull would actually give them wings like the commercial says? Maybe.
What’s certain is that there are many story ideas that can come from one crime. Shoplifted from a Food Lion: a can opener, a green hand light, 2 Cokes, steel wool, pliers, a toothbrush, a set of wooden skewers, cat food, and cat treats. What kind of crazy shopping list is this? Makes me wonder about the safety of those cats. Is this criminal a survivalist gone outlaw? Campers who forgot some essentials? Something worse? Again, ideas are sparking.
Bank robberies, art thefts, and, murders make for exciting stories, but how everyday criminals think (or don’t think) could prove just as useful. For every crime, there’s a story. Inspiration waits around every corner, so if you’re looking for new ideas for your fiction, check out your local paper, and of course, hang out with me on my blog. So glad you're here!
What have you learned about crime in your town that you can use in your fiction? Share your ideas below!
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