One Plotter’s Approach – How a Mystery Novel is Born - B.T. Polcari

One Plotter’s Approach – How a Mystery Novel is Born

There is no right or wrong way to write a novel, but when two authors meet and chat for the first time, invariably the question is asked: Are you a pantser or a plotter?

A pantser is an author who writes stories “by the seat of their pants.” Minimal time is spent laying out the story structure, so the writer is unsure of what lies ahead for the story and its characters. Pantsers swear by this method as they believe it opens up their creativity by not having outlines restrict them. While this method certainly works for people, one drawback with this method is that writers can get lost and end up painting themselves into a corner, forcing them to back up in the story and make rewrites to get things back on track.


When I started out writing my award-winning debut novel in the Mauzzy & Me Mystery Series, Against My Better Judgment, I was pantsing it without realizing it. After writing myself into several frustrating corners, it was clear something needed to change in my approach, so I stepped back and plotted out the rest of the story. And when I got back to writing the story, everything felt right and the words flowed.

A plotter was born.

When I sat down to write the second book in the Mauzzy & Me Mystery Series, Fire & Ice, I wanted to write something with a twist that centered on the possibility of both a heist and a hidden treasure, since everybody loves a good heist or treasure hunt story. I emphasized the word “possibility” because invariably in life we see what we want to see, regardless of the evidence or lack thereof. Especially with my protagonist, Sara Donovan.


Finding the Who

With this very basic premise in mind for Fire & Ice, I initially focused on researching high-dollar heists, both solved and unsolved. I needed to understand how professional thieves went about their business and was fascinated by the number of high-dollar heists out there, several of which were absolutely ingenious. These included:


  • The Pink Panthers, an infamous gang of brazen international jewel thieves responsible for close to $1B dollars of stolen loot over the last 20 years.
  • The Antwerp Diamond Center Heist in 2003, referred to by many as “the heist of the century,” in which over $100M in diamonds and jewelry were stolen from what was thought to be an impenetrable vault. Four of the five-member crew were caught. This was an incredible story.
  • The Band of Surfer Dudes, the biggest jewel heist in New York history in which a bunch of “surfer dudes” stole over twenty precious gems from the American Museum of Natural History, including the 563-carat Star of India sapphire, the Eagle Diamond, and the DeLong Star Ruby. This took place in 1964 when “Murph the Surf” and his crew exposed the museum’s abysmal security system, entering the museum’s Hall of Gems through an open fourth-floor window. No alarms were tripped because they either weren’t working (on the display cases) or were non-existent.


Photos c/o: Nostalgia Central, Metacritic, Amazon


  • The Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Burglary in 2015, in which an underground safe deposit vault was drilled and valuables stolen with a value today upwards of $300M. A number of films were made about the burglary, including the excellent King of Thieves with Michael Caine.
  • The Baker Street Robbery in 1971, where a vault was penetrated through the floor from a neighboring shop and over 250 safe deposit boxes were robbed, with the total take valued today at over $55M. The movie, Bank Job, starring Jason Statham, was based on this robbery.
  • The Burrowing Burglars, a crew of unknown size who dug tunnels in Los Angeles (Hollywood and Beverly Hills) to beneath two different banks in 1986 and 1987. After drilling the banks’ vaults, they made off with over $250K in cash and valuables exceeding $2.5M. They escaped on 4WD ATVs through the sewer system. Another tunnel was later discovered under a third bank that authorities believed was going to be robbed at the same time as the second in 1987, but they were interrupted during the second robbery, stealing only $90K, and they never made it to the third. Had the crew been successful in robbing both banks that day in 1987, their take would have been between $10M and $25M. They were never caught and it is believed they quit after their close call with the second bank.


Photo c/o Vault Structures, Inc. via


Researching the How

After reading many articles on the above heists and others not named, the next step was researching large commercial vaults and high-value museum display cases, their security features and locking mechanisms, and how to defeat them.

This included:

  • Determining the optimal tools, equipment, and method for drilling through a three-foot-thick reinforced concrete wall to create an opening large enough for a man to crawl through;
  • Learning how power is distributed to and throughout large buildings and the various methods to cut power to a building by hacking the building itself, the power grid, a substation, or a power meter, and identifying groups who could pull off such a feat, such as the world-renowned Dragonfly group;
  • Understanding the differences between electric strike locks and magnetic locks used on doors and display cases, and figuring out how to defeat each;
  • Identifying all the various vault security features such as a heat sensor on the door to detect a blow torch or cutting device, vibration and sound sensors to detect any banging or drilling to the vault’s six sides, motion sensors and cameras, and the use of a steel-copper alloy “sandwich” in doors and walls to prevent acetylene cutting torches from breaching them; and
  • Studying the alarm systems, object protection systems, and access control systems that museums employ to protect their facilities and collections.


Photo c/o

A. The modular panels of the vault; B. The finished vault with safe deposit boxes


Once I felt confident in my knowledge of heists, vaults, and security systems, I studied a map of Washington, D.C. to identify the ideal location to site the fictitious Carlton Museum, around which Fire & Ice revolves.


After having found the perfect spot for the museum, I moved on to the next step in my plotting process: planning the perfect heist.


Picking the Place

I meticulously “built” the Carlton, its vaults, and all the associated security systems, then set about figuring out how to secretly rob the valuables vault without being detected. If I couldn’t figure out how to legitimately do this, then the whole plot would need to be tossed because Sara Donovan had to believe it was possible, even if the vault was never actually robbed. Fortunately, the plan I came up with could definitely work, and that was all I needed in order to get Sara’s overactive imagination running wild.


Next Up: Planning a Perfect Heist

Next up in the plotting process for Fire & Ice: how to actually plan out the perfect heist. But that's for next time 😉


Hope you enjoyed the read! But not so much as to "try this at home". Let's keep the museum heists to the realm of fiction writing, shall we?