5 Petty Crime Lessons for Mystery Writers (Ripped from my local headlines)

There's no better resource for learning about your town and for providing inspiration for your writing than your local newspaper. Ever since our big move to awesome and amazing Wilmington, NC, our local news outlets have been like new BFFs. As a mystery writer, it's the crime stories that catch my attention and spark my imagination. Here's a few things I've learned so far:

1.) Nothing is too small, gross, lame, or ridiculous for a criminal to steal.

A quick perusal of the newspaper’s weekly police blotter proves that thieves will steal ANYTHING. Here’s a short list of stolen items from the last few months that proves it: loose change, Invisalign braces, toilet, bucket, a laundry wash tub, a porcelain dragon head, a parking sign, pill bottles, a floating dock, water bottle, potato salad, a Jeep Patriot owner’s manual, a pedicab, and (my favorite) 3 Rhode Island Red Hens.

2.) Thieves enjoy unlocked cars, Wal-Mart, and long walks through construction sites.

Once you start to read crime news on a regular basis, you begin to see patterns. In September alone, just based on the 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 and the criminals end up with more than you’d think (see #3).

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 Wal-Mart and 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 – hot water heaters, AC units, and appliances are all just as likely to get taken.

3.) 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 always nabbing computers, phones, money, etc. from cars (What’s in your car?), they’re also stocking up on guns. In this rash of thievery, 31 guns were stolen. Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said, “I think we’ve all left our vehicles unlocked, sometimes inadvertently, and that’s understandable, but what’s not understandable to me is – you’re gonna leave your gun in your car overnight? It makes no sense.”

He also said, “Come on folks. Take your guns in your house with you at least. Give us a break out there. We are making the streets more dangerous by allowing these guns to circulate through the criminal element.”

4.) Gotta love the dumb ones.

While all crime is bad and nothing to make light of, sometimes the 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. Fun times!

Like the guy in Wrightsville Beach who got busted for throwing bottles at people from his third floor condo, got bond, and then got arrested again 12 hours later for a second DWI charge. Some people just don't learn!

And that’s just two examples of recent criminal masterminds near me. I’m sure your town has its own set of dumb offenders.

5.) Real crime makes for 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, of course, make for exciting stories, but it can be just as useful to consider how everyday criminals think (or don’t think). For every crime, there’s a story and something to learn.

What have you learned about crime in your town?