Throwing Open the Vault: Tips for Writing a Heist

Safe CC 2.0 Anonymous Account Most writers don’t naturally possess the best skills for a life of crime. We can’t crack a safe. We don’t have a clue how to forge documents. And we wouldn’t feel comfortable holding a gun, let alone pointing it at another human. That’s why research is often our best friend.

The moment I decided to write a heist novel, I realized how little advice was available from other writers. Most of the blogs I read featured long lists of crime shows to watch and not much else. Sure, I love spending an afternoon watching the Italian Job as much as the next gal, but it’s not a research-heavy experience. I tend to favor facts, and historical data over another writer’s interpretation of a great heist.

In the last year, I’ve amassed quite a collection of treasures on writing a heist. Today is the first day I’ll throw open the vault and start letting everyone inside.

Please remain orderly, there’s a lot to see and it might take a while to show you what’s inside all my safety deposit boxes.

This looks like a good place to start: Breaking and Entering

Museums, banks, and other repositories of cash and treasures are run by smart people. They have to be, or every thief would walk in and take whatever they wanted on a daily basis. The staff of these trusted institutions, if they want to keep their jobs, are not going to talk about what security measures they have in place and which ones they don’t. So if you don’t have the inside track (say, a few years of working in a museum or a bank) or the opportunity to study camera placements, staff rotation schedules, and silent alarms activation systems, you’ll need to hit the books and learn all you can.

Read about real heists:

Successful criminals are everywhere. Reading about actual crimes will help you pin down what type of heist you want to write about. There are some brilliant criminal minds are out there, so you should learn from the best.

Some successful crimes appear remarkably simply. This week a 12 year-old girl walked out of a store with a 4.6 million dollar necklace.

By far the most famous US art theft, the Gardner Museum heist, was also a simple plan. This is well-documented crime and you can find a number of books on it. This heist Newspaperremains unsolved to this day.

Remember, many major crimes aren’t very interesting, and they never make the global news. Some crimes are concealed at the victim’s request.

To find unique crimes you may have to dig a little. Start by following agencies that look for stolen art and antiquities. You can glean a lot of information from reading their databases.

I also recommend looking for lists of crimes by type. This will help you get a feel for the different approaches criminals have used in the past. Time magazine counted down the ten smartest thefts in recent history here.,28757,1865132,00.html

Here’s another list of the best bank robberies of all time.

Looking for something more sophisticated and less vigorous? Maybe you’re interested in writing about con men vs. a cat burglar. Con men get the goods by manipulating the most vulnerable point of any institution, the staff. Setting up a con is a complicated process and it take brains. I say go to the source when looking for information on the criminal element, try the FBI’s Most Wanted List, many con artists have graced their top ten list.


Include some high tech gadgets for your characters to elude:

Once you have the breaking and entering method picked out, you need to nail down the bricks and mortar of your fictional security. Since those smart museum and bank people refuse to tell anyone what they’ve installed as a reference point, you will need to imagine what your target location might have. One option is to track down the companies who sell museums, banks and collectors all that high-end surveillance equipment or design their security plans.–the-art-of-securing-pricelessness.html

If money is no object, consider joining a professional association. Many groups offer their members access to classes and libraries overflowing with information. Industry specific publications are also a great source. You can find advice on setting up good security practices or practical guidelines for handling emergency situations. Exploiting an emergency plan might be a great diversion tactic to use in your fictional heist. There are always classes being offered to professionals in museum security. A quick search this week found this online class.

If you plan to set your fictional heist in a smaller venue–say, a manor house–you may need less in the way of research. Of course this depends on the safe you plan to include in your story and the method of cracking it your characters are using. Here is an overview of basic safe cracking methods.

Never forget to research the basic tools. Every shady character should have something on hand for gaining spur-of-the-moment unlawful entry. Good old fashioned master keys and picks are useful, but electronic key cards are the new standard.

The idea that in a few years phones will come equipped with biometric security shocks me. However, in heist fiction, biometrics are just another piece of the game.

Basing your book on real world concepts and equipment will make the plot more believable. Some suspension of disbelief is fine, but you should have a bedrock of facts. Aim to make your heist implausible, not impossible.

Come back next Wednesday when I’ll throw open the vault again and take out a new box: The Stakes!
The stakes might be a chest of jewels, a cache of gold bars, or a numbered Swiss account with more zeros than anyone could spend in three lifetimes. Sometimes, it’s not the crime a reader remembers, and a writer loses sleep over, it’s the scope of the prize.


Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

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