02/25/2013 09:01 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Psychologist Meets Notorious Con Woman

What happens when a psychologist decides to take up creative writing? And what if she stumbles on the true story of a woman who conned her way through the Gilded Age? Well, that story was too much for this particular psychologist-turned-writer to resist.

My notorious character was May Dugas, born in 1869 to a poor family in a small midwestern town. By the time she'd grown into a beautiful young lady, her ambitions were set: She would see the world, meet wealthy men, and live the high life. Where did such strivings originate? Perhaps she envied the fashion of the well-to-do women for whom her mother designed gowns. Her first beau most certainly flaunted his influential family's nicely appointed home. But possessing the knowledge of a rich and cultured life and finding a way to live it are two different things. How, I wondered, did she manage to find her way into high society?

According to the 1880 Census, May's father was a saloonkeeper, and managing a backwoods saloon then was not a lucrative undertaking. But considering that Eugene Dugas and his wife were poor French-Canadian immigrants, it was no small accomplishment. That and the curious circumstances surrounding his death at a young age led me to suspect May's father lived on the fringes of the law. Perhaps he taught May how to charm and con. Yes, that made sense. Fathers often have a soft spot for their daughters, especially only daughters. And given that May's two brothers never took much initiative to better themselves, Eugene Dugas may well have doted over May; she in turn likely emulated his ways.

But what of May's own "psychology"? Did she set out to wrest tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy men, or did desperate circumstances force her on the road to blackmail? I considered many possible motives for May. Some evidence suggests she wished to support her poor family: Once she was flush with cash she bought a new home for her mother, funded one brother's education, and financed another's automobile business. But this could not have been her sole, or even primary, motive, for she personally indulged in all manner of luxuries: expensive hotel rooms, exquisite jewelry, and trips to exotic locales. No, she herself had a taste for the finer things in life. And these things required a steady supply of money. Clearly, money -- and lots of it -- motivated her to invent all manner of ploys. Apparently this poor girl clawed her way out of poverty by means of beguiling beauty, risk-taking bravado, irresistible charm and quick wits.

Still, I wondered if May was completely devoid of conscience. Did she believe that those whom she relieved of portions of their fortune had plenty to spare? There was only one way for me to explore this -- to write May's story in first person and make her tell the story and explain her motives. That way, the reader and I could enjoy the journey as we explored her inner world. Her story did reveal that we can all find ways to justify our actions. As for what I learned: Seeing the world through the eyes of another is truly one of the most seductive aspects of writing -- and reading -- fiction.