Crime novelist builds on Henrico experiences

A fondness for writing crime stories has led Mary Burton to interview investigators, attend workshops on autopsies and criminal behavior and alter her personal safety habits.

What's more, it has inspired countless baking sessions in her Henrico County kitchen.

A graduate of Henrico County Citizens Police Academy and Richmond FBI Citizens Academy, Burton goes to great lengths to research her plots, flesh out her characters and ensure authenticity in her novels. Among the educational conferences she has attended are the Writers Police Academy, the Mad Anthony Writers Conference, and the Sisters in Crime Forensics University, where she has learned from the experts on such topics as undercover work, how to hunt a serial killer, and theories about what drives people to murder.

But when Burton hits a wrinkle in her writing, she emerges from the dark world of homicide and intrigue and turns to a sunnier pastime to help her unravel the intricacies of plot and dialogue.

She bakes.

Not only does playing around with ingredients lower her stress level; it also gets the creative juices flowing.

As she once told an interviewer, "You can tell how the writing’s going by the number of cupcakes on the counter."

Plot devices
Born and raised in Richmond, Burton grew up in Bon Air and and graduated from Hollins University in Roanoke. After four years in Northern Virginia she moved to Henrico County, where she and her husband have raised their two children.
Mary Burton

It was while working for the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce that Burton began feeling the need to write down the stories that kept building up inside her.

Her first novel, a historical romance set in 1876 Colorado, was published in 2000. After selling that first book, she went on to write 16 novels and novellas for Harlequin and Silhouette.

"I was always injecting suspense into my historical novels," she recalls, while noting that such novels focus on relationships, with crime and violence relegated to plot devices. "Unfortunately, I often had to cut most of the suspense because it didn’t work well in that particular genre."

After trying her hand at short romantic suspense novels, she eventually gravitated toward crime writing.

"I enjoyed writing [romances] . . . but I really wanted to inject even more suspense into my stories. I discovered that I really enjoy creating a puzzle for the readers and myself.

"My stories still have a relationship thread," Burton adds, "but the suspense element is much stronger."

Lessons of the firing range
Another impetus for Burton's shift into crime novels was her fear of -- and perpetual fascination with -- the violence in her own back yard. Growing up in Richmond, she followed stories of the Southside Strangler and Hampton Roads serial killer; years later, the D.C. sniper piqued her growing interest in the workings of murderers' minds.

Attending the Henrico and FBI citizens academies, Burton found both an eye-opening, hands-on look at law enforcement behind the scenes.

"I met some great officers when at the Henrico County Citizens Police Academy, and many were able to offer bits and pieces that really helped me flesh out my story," she says. Although she was raised around guns and hunting, for instance, her experiences on the firing range gave her a better understanding of the way her characters might use various firearms.

Her citizens academy experiences were eye-openers in other ways as well, as Burton gained a deeper appreciation for those who work to preserve the public safety.

"I am truly amazed at what [law enforcement officers] have to handle on a day-to-day basis," she says. "And I really do recommend the citizens academies to all the county’s citizens."

Familiar locations
Today, Burton is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, with new back-to-back novels "Senseless" and "Merciless" to her credit.

When she's not stirring up creations in the kitchen or on the printed page, she enjoys her miniature dachshunds Buddy and Bella, and volunteers as a kitchen assistant at the University of Richmond Culinary Arts Center in Gayton Crossing. In addition, she is a member of Virginia Romance Writers, a group which meets regularly in Henrico; soon, she expects to join the newly forming Central Virginia chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Between attending her writing groups and the various conferences, Burton isn't likely to run out of materials or ideas any time soon. Meanwhile, the popularity of crime fiction – from books to movies and TV shows – indicates she will find no shortage of readers, either.

A reader of mysteries herself, Burton speculates that one reason people gravitate to crime stories is the intellectual appeal of police procedures, forensics, and the untangling of the riddle.

"But I think it is also a way to confront frightening situations and emotions," she adds.

"With fiction, readers are in control. They can put down the story at any time. They can appreciate and try to understand the characters' motives and emotions, experience the commitment of those in pursuit, and touch as much or as little of the fear as they want."

And for Henrico readers, there's the added pleasure of picking out local landmarks as they read Burton's three romantic suspense novels,

Although her two most recent novels are set in Alexandria, Burton says she did not desert her Henrico roots entirely. "I used one of my Henrico characters from 'I’m Watching You' and moved him two hours north."

As for her first three suspense novels ("I'm Watching You," Dying Scream, and Dead Ringer"), they are set right in her back yard.

Burton recalls that she plotted much of "I'm Watching You" without settling on a location, and was reading books about Boston, New York and Seattle for ideas. "I had the main characters," she says. "I had the conflict and the resolution. But I just couldn’t seem to figure out where to set the book."

Then she heard a mystery reader say how important it is to "know your jurisdiction" – and after searching across the country for her location, she realized the setting should be in Henrico.

"Scenes that had felt a little flat suddenly started to take shape," she recalls, "when I could place it in a location that was familiar to me.

"Folks from this area will recognize a lot of familiar locations."

Mary Burton will hold a book signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 5 at Barnes and Noble Short Pump. For details, visit maryburton.com.
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