Interview: January 8, 2010
January 8, 2010
Mary Burton is the author of over a dozen thrillers and historical romances, including I'M WATCHING YOU, WISE MOVES and HEART OF THE STORM. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Donna Volkenannt, Burton describes how her latest novel, DYING SCREAM, was partially inspired by research for a previous work, DEAD RINGER, and discusses how most of her characters are composites of real people, research and past experiences. She also explains why she left her career in marketing to become a full-time writer and how she handled the transition, and shares the best piece of advice she has ever received.
Bookreporter.com: DYING SCREAM, your most recent suspense thriller, takes place on a once-grand estate in rural Virginia. The story features murder, jealousy, expensive art work, unmarked graves, and secrets --- lots of family secrets. These elements combine to make an intriguing story. What inspired you to write DYING SCREAM?
Mary Burton: The first inspiration or spark for DYING SCREAM came when I was finishing up DEAD RINGER, the book before DYING SCREAM. Toward the end of DEAD RINGER, I introduced Adrianna Barrington, the heroine of DYING SCREAM. We only see her in a few scenes but I found myself wondering about her story. What in her life had made her so cautious and careful? Who was the mysterious Craig she mentions?
As I dug deeper into Adrianna’s history, I stared to “collect” elements that seemed to fit with her story. A chance wrong turn in the country landed me in the middle of nowhere by an old family graveyard. The spot fascinated me and I just had to park and take a moment to study the gravestones. A forensics seminar in bones was another piece of the DYING SCREAM puzzle. And then I heard an FBI agent speak at a Sisters in Crime meeting about the Bureau’s stolen art unit. Suddenly all the “what ifs” started to buzz and before I realized it, the story was off and running.
BRC: In DYING SCREAM, detective Gage Hudson is a former football star determined to bring closure to families whose daughters have disappeared. His investigation turns personal after remains of a missing woman are found in an unmarked grave located on the Thornton estate. The property is being sold by Adrianna Barrington, a woman Gage once was romantically involved with, but who is now Craig Thornton’s widow. Gage and Adrianna, as well as other characters in your novel, are vivid and realistic. Do you base these characters on people you have met, or are your characters totally fictional creations?
MB: My characters are always a composite of people, experiences and research I’ve done. But I do put a good bit of thought into their back stories. It’s important for me to understand how and why they arrived at this moment in their lives.
BRC: Forensics evidence and scientific investigation techniques play prominent roles in identifying remains found in unmarked graves on the Thornton estate. I found the details about decomposition of the bodies oddly fascinating and very specific, yet easy to visualize and understand. How do you perform your research, and what resources do you use?
MB: For DYING SCREAM, I not only read a couple dozen books on bones and forensics but I also attended the Sisters in Crime’s Forensic University in St. Louis. At the time, I was writing DEAD RINGER and my main focus at the conference was the forensics in DEAD RINGER. However, there were a few sessions on bone identification that just fascinated me. Immediately, I was enthralled by the lectures and I just knew my next book would involve bones.
BRC: In DYING SCREAM, the chemistry between Dr. Alex Butler and Tess hints at romance. Do you have plans to feature them or other recurring characters in future novels?
MB: I would love to write another story with Alex and Tess. They were great characters. Both are strong individuals who seem to clash so easily. There never seems to be a dull moment when these two are together.
BRC: After a decade of working in marketing and sales, you left corporate America and the marketing profession to become a novelist. That was a courageous move, and it appears to have been a rewarding one for you. How difficult was that transition, and how did your experience in marketing and sales prepare you as an author?
MB: In marketing I learned not only how to handle deadlines, but I got a taste of public speaking and I did a good bit of networking at conferences and trade shows. All these skills have been invaluable since I started writing.
The trickiest part of the transition from a “real” office to a home office was establishing a routine. I still rise about 5:30 a.m., make time to practice yoga or hike and I continue to maintain set office hours. During office hours, I work. Period. I’ve stuck to that rule and I think it’s worked pretty well for me.
BRC: Your blog contains interesting and helpful information, not only about your books and personal life, but also about other topics. In one post you comment on your support for writers joining writer’s groups. Which organizations do you belong to, and what are some advantages of belonging to these groups?
MB: I’m a member of Virginia Romance Writers, Washington Romance Writers, Kiss of Death, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Thriller Writers and Novelists Inc. I still remember my first Virginia Romance Writer’s conference. It was in the early 1990s and writing was still a dream. At that conference, I learned so much about writing the books I love to read. And meeting the published authors was a real inspiration. I knew I’d landed in the right place.
There is no substitute for mixing and mingling with like-minded folks. Often non-writing friends and family just don’t get what I do. But I can talk to a writer about character development, dialogue or pacing and not watch their eyes glaze over. And writers get what it means when I say I’m “on deadline.”
And in terms of the craft of writing and technical research, the writing groups have been invaluable. Though I have a B.A. in English, I feel like I earned my “masters degree” in writing at all conferences and online classes.
BRC: You’ve written a dozen historical romances and several suspense thrillers. How are these two genres similar or different? Which do you prefer writing?
MB: I’ve enjoyed writing every one of my books. Each came with their own set of challenges and rewards that I wouldn’t trade one for anything. I do think my historical, romantic suspense and suspense thrillers have a “core” emotional element that is very similar. But hands down, I love writing the suspense. There’s nothing like creating a mystery and solving it.
BRC: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
MB: Write every day. You can take unlimited classes, read all kinds of books on writing and talk to hundreds of writers, but writing daily is a must. I took a baking class recently and one of the students asked the chef for the secret to baking great bread. The chef didn’t hesitate. “Bake every day.” The student hesitated as if waiting for the “real” secret. But the chef held firm. Bakers bake. Writers write.
BRC: According to your website, you live in Virginia, where you practice yoga and spend time cooking, hiking and participating in an occasional triathlon. That’s impressive! I’m curious: In what ways do your non-writing-related activities complement your writing?
MB: Over the years I’ve learned that when the words aren't flowing to push away from the desk and either take a yoga class or head to the kitchen and bake something. For reasons I can’t explain, yoga and baking just unlock a story that feels closed to me. And those other odd endeavors like scuba diving and triathlons are not only challenging but they end up as great material for my books.
BRC: Personal author websites and book-related websites such as Bookreporter.com have transformed the way readers become aware of books and connect with authors they might not otherwise have discovered. How has technology or an Internet presence impacted or changed the way you reach your readers?
MB: Thanks to the Internet I've reached readers I never could have otherwise. Sites like Bookreporter.com create a community for readers where they can not only check out upcoming releases, but also can track favorite authors and discuss the books they love.
The Internet also makes it possible for readers to connect with me. I've received notes from as far away as Japan. Its very humbling to know one of my books touched someone so much that it prompted them to write me a note.
BRC: Book tours can be a fun part of writing. Care to share some favorite experiences from your book tours? Where will you be touring with DYING SCREAM?
MB: With the release of DYING SCREAM I just visited a couple of dozen bookstores in Virginia and Maryland. It was great fun talking to booksellers and fans who are as crazy about books as I am.
BRC: What are you working on now?
MB: I'm working on a new romantic suspense for Kensington. It’s set in Alexandria, Virginia and features homicide detectives Deacon Garrison and Malcolm Kier. Garrison is a new character for me, but I'M WATCHING YOU readers will remember Malcolm.
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