Nancy Scott Hanway

Novel Research


Novel Research, The Criminal GeneNancy Scott Hanway1 Comment

“First thing you do,” I told him, “is make a mental list of all the security precautions.”  We were about to case Big-Name jewelry store in suburban Minneapolis, and it was my son’s job to memorize the locations of security cameras, the number of guards, and hunt down the alarm systems. Teenagers are great for that—their brains can hyper-focus—and when accompanied by a parent, they can look around aimlessly without anyone growing suspicious. While Griffin was checking out security, I was going to engage store clerks in conversation, and see what they did if I dropped a ring. This was my objective: I wanted to see whether I could replace a real diamond with a fake while the clerks weren’t looking.  

I approached the clerk with my story: “It’s our twentieth anniversary in a couple days, and my husband sent me over to pick out a present.”


This is not my husband’s style at all. He’s sweet and thoughtful as a gift-giver, taking his time, consulting friends. But for this occasion, I invented a crabby, mega bucks guy, who didn’t devote much time to me, but who was willing to shell out thousands on high-class rocks. And I had to pick them out myself.

“When do you get new diamonds?” I asked.

“We don’t have regular deliveries,” the clerk said politely. He was good. He wasn’t giving me specific information, but he did it well so as not to offend. This denotes training, which I admire.

“I’m not sure I like any of these,” I said, waving at the velvet-lined case in front of me.

I picked up the first band—platinum studded with diamonds and emeralds—sliding it onto my finger and turning to Griffin. “What do you think, Sweetie?”

Griffin shook his head. “It’s fine. Can we go?”

I appealed to the clerk. “Don’t you think he needs to learn about diamonds? You know, the three C’s?”

The clerk smiled, and launched into the speech about color, cut and clarity. Griffin actually listened as I pulled the ring off my finger, and the diamond dropped onto the floor. When I stood up with it, the clerk took it from me calmly and examined it through a loupe. He wasn’t being disrespectful or even suspicious. He was probably examining the setting for damage, but the loupe would also tell him whether I’d done a switch.

As I tried on more rings, Griffin ranged along the case, sucking on a Tootsie roll pop. When he finished, he poked his head around the back of the counter. “Excuse me!” a woman called to him. “You can’t go back there!”

“Sorry,” he said sullenly.  “Just wanted to throw away some garbage.”

When we left, Griffin gave me the run-down: three cameras, showing practically every angle of the store. Armed security guard, demonstrating interest in the customers. A sophisticated alarm system blinking behind the counter. The clerk never let the diamond out of his sight, and he’d given it that good long hard look through the loupe. Not a good place to do a switch. You could never replace a real diamond with a fake under his watchful gaze.

Several streets over, I tried on multiple rings, dropping a $10,000 solitaire onto the floor.  I dropped it a second time to be sure. The owner was so casual about it that I assumed the diamond was a fake, that they had synthetic stones in real settings, like some places do. Finally I looked at it through the loupe, seeing the little cuts and imperfections of a real stone. This rock was real. “Nice,” I said.

As Griffin and I left, I clucked over the lack of precautions. “I could have replaced that ring with a fake three times over,” I said. “And we could have had someone waiting for us at the exit, or we could have just handed it off to someone in the gang.”

“We don’t have a gang,” my son said. “Remember?”

“I’m just saying, is all.”

“You know, Mother,” he said.  “This is not exactly Parenting 101, what if I end up as a thief?”

The teenager’s delight: torturing parents with what-ifs about their future.

“I prefer to think of it as teaching you how to be observant,” I said. “What if you end up as a novelist?” As we sat in the car I wrote down all the details I remembered. The pained look on the first clerk’s face when I dropped the ring, and the second clerk’s lack of suspicion: chatting happily with me about the ring he bought his wife for their anniversary. Griffin added details about how the store owner took a call and actually turned his back to us.

“Maybe we were acting so much like people who weren’t going to steal,” Griffin said, “that he could tell.”

And this is how novels get written. Or at least, this is how my novel, The Criminal Gene, is getting written. It is a coming-of-age story about a girl who discovers, at the age of sixteen, that she comes from a family of female criminal masterminds: a bildüngsroman with intent.

In the novel, there’s a scene where my protagonist Nina cases jewelry stores with her grandmother’s best friend, Aggie. Aggie makes Nina take note of all the security precautions, just like I did with Griffin. To finish writing the scene, I needed to take notes on how I felt while this was going on, and on how an essentially honest person would feel while planning felony theft.

I find that I need to try out a lot of scenes beforehand; I need to know how my characters might be feeling, how people respond to them, the smells and sounds, the nervous sweat.  I have to inhabit their bodies, and feel the space around me, sense the weight of the air. And I do tons of research, losing myself in old newspaper articles, sometimes getting lost in stories that never make it into the novel.

Something you should know, by the way, is that switching out a real diamond for a fake is difficult. It’s almost never done, in part because most crooks prefer what’s called “smash and grabs,” which are easy, fast, and hard to protect against.

You should also know that I changed some details so that people who live here can’t recognize the stores.