As I mentioned last week, I’ve amassed a huge collection of tips on writing a heist. Now, I’m throwing open the vault and letting all my research secrets out. I hope these tips can help my fellow crime writers craft the caper of their dreams.
Today it’s all about: The Loot!
The prize in a heist story is often woven through the whole plot. Never pick the loot item without careful consideration. This item will influences the crime planning. It will impact the size of the heist team. It changes what skills the characters need to finish the job. Picking the wrong item can lead to unexpected repercussions or complications for the plot. While picking the right loot helps generate excitement and expectation with the reader.
Here are my five tips for choosing the right loot for any story.
1. Make use of recognizable items:
Using real treasures creates reader recognition, and minimizes the amount of narrative the writer needs to include. A gold bar, or a briefcase full of paper money looks pretty much the same in every situation, and even if the reader hasn’t seen one in person they’ve seen enough on TV to create a clear mental image. The work of every major painter has been reproduced enough to trigger a recognition response in most readers. Hunt museum catalogs or subscribe to Christie’s auction house to have loot inspiration sent right to your inbox.
Remember, if you pick a real item, don’t pick something too well-known, like the Mona Lisa. This makes it harder for the reader to buy into your story.
2. Steal back what was illegally acquired:
War spoils, gangster stockpiles and plundered Inca gold all find their way into heist books for a reason, they don’t require much research time. Any one can dig up the basic history of a famous stolen treasure in under an hour. Plus if the reader Googles the item, they get the benefit of feeling part of a real mystery. The Monument’s Men maintains a lost art database, you might want to look there for some inspiration.
Another benefit of using a lost historical treasure is they routinely show up in the most unlikely places, basements of libraries, the walls of demolished buildings and even flea markets. This near constant reappearance of headline grabbing finds helps build creditability. After the fall of the Romanoff Dynasty about 52 Faberge eggs disappeared. Yet one showed up just last year, mistaken as a piece of scrap metal. It’s since been valued at 25 million US dollars.
3. Portability, the kryptonite of many a good heist:
Always consider the size of the loot. Bulky items need larger teams, more complicated transportation, and create specific types of story problems. Transporting a Ming vase or an old painting is not easy. You can’t just throw it into a box filled with foam peanuts. Cutting an old masterwork from the frame and rolling it up will greatly diminish the painting’s value. Just removing a painting from the climate controls of a gallery can damage it permanently. Packing a rare painting for shipment is a huge multi-step process.
Consider weight in your logistics. You can’t board planes, or cross international boarders easily with an overnight bag full of Krugerands. For one thing gold is heavy. According to the US mint, a standard 7 inch gold bar weights in at a hefty 27.5 pounds or 12.5 kilograms.
Granted you don’t need much gold to generate a major prize. A ten oz Credit Suisse bar was selling for $12,745.00 US dollars when I checked.
4. The allotment can get sticky:
Once the team finishes the job, they divide the spoils. Taking a single painting means the team must stay together while arranging for the sale of the item. Great if you want to include lots of scenes featuring group dynamics, the fighting, the scheming and the backstabbing. Bad if your heist takes place at the end of the novel and you want to wrap things up quickly. If you plan on using a large team of thieves, several smaller items, like a bag of flawless diamonds will made the split easier. Learn more about the four Cs of diamonds.
5. The drawbacks of unconventional loot:
At one time information was a heist mainstay, but not so much anymore. Information systems change in the blink of an eye. No one loads files on disks or takes photos on microfilm any more. With digital images, wireless internet and more making information highly portable, arranging a heist to recover data is tricky at best. Also chasing information doesn’t cause that much heart pounding excitement. Turn up the heat in unique ways, like by encrypting the data.
I think it’s important to figure out the nature of the loot early in the heist planning. I asked myself all sorts of questions about logistic and group size, before selecting my item.
Next Wednesday I’ll show you how to build a heist crew. This will include tips on how to make your team sympathetic, if not downright loveable, characters.
5 thoughts on “Writing a Heist: 5 Tips for Picking the Perfect Loot”
Looking forward to THE CREW (not that I didn’t enjoy THE LOOT), but I have one of those in 2 of my books and I’m always looking for tips to improve their dynamic. 🙂
Yes! I love crews. I write about groups a lot! That might be because I have ten main characters in the book I’m writing now. The heist book had nine. Clearly I’m not improving my numbers. 🙂
I’ll have a bunch of links on group dynamics in the next post. I think you’ll like.
I tend to stick with historical fiction too, but when I finished a hard project, I wanted to try my hand at something different. I foolishly thought writing a heist would be easier. Silly me!
I will probably never write a heist book, but I loved this article. The considerations about loot alone make for some serious thinking.
In my case, the research is historical, but it’s amazing what small things can trip up a narrative –a word that doesn’t fit the period, for example. Or prices: A prime rib dinner au Jus went for $1.35 in 1942. A 10-minute long-distance call halfway across the nation, cost $13.10 in the daytime, $11 at night.