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Crime novelist builds on Henrico experiences

Citizen academies, kitchen inspire best-selling author
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.


Community

Varina Ruritans honor students

The Varina Ruritan Club hosted the winners of its 2014 Environmental Essay contest at its monthly meeting March 11 in Varina.

The contest, in its eighth year, was for the first time open to students in grades 3-5 at Varina Elementary School. (It previously was open to Sandston Elementary School students.)

The meeting included the winners, parents of the winners, Varina Elementary principal Mark Tyler and several teachers who were in charge of the contest at the school. > Read more.

Baseball game to benefit Glen Allen Buddy Ball


For the fifth consecutive year, St. Christopher’s and Benedictine will play a varsity baseball game at Glen Allen's RF&P Park as part of a fundraising effort for the River City Buddy Ball program.

The game will take place Saturday, April 12, at 7 p.m., and the teams hope to raise $3,000 through donations, raffles and other efforts. Admission to the game is free, but fans who attend are asked to donate funds for the Glen Allen Youth Athletic Association's Buddy Ball program, which enables disabled children and teens to play baseball. > Read more.

Highland Springs field to be dedicated in honor of longtime coach Spears

The Henrico Division of Recreation and Parks will dedicate the Highland Springs Little League Majors Field in memory and honor of Rev. Robert “Bob” L. Spears, Jr., on April 12 with a ceremony at the field at 8 a.m.

Spears served the league as a coach and volunteer for 30 years and was praised as a pioneer for equality. His “Finish strong” motto embodied ethical perseverance on the field and in life. > Read more.

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Entertainment

A fun, fuzzy ride

‘Muppets Most Wanted’ worthy of its franchise

Do Muppets sleep? It’s hard to say.

They don’t really eat (or breathe, as far as anyone can tell). And only occasionally do they have visible, functioning legs.

As far as anyone knows, sleeping might be off the table. And that makes it very hard to accuse the Muppets of sleepwalking through their latest feature, Muppets Most Wanted – even if that’s exactly what’s going on.

Jim Henson’s beloved creations were back in a big way after 2011’s The Muppets, with fame and fortune and even an Oscar, a first for the group (“Rainbow Connection” was nominated, yet somehow failed to collect at the ’79 ceremony). > Read more.

Weekend Top 10


There’s no excuse for kids and families to not get out of the house this weekend! The Armour House and Gardens has an “Egg-celent Egg-venture” planned and Reynolds Community College will host the Reynolds Family Palooza. If you’re looking to give back to your community, Dorey Park will host Walk Like MADD and coordinators2inc will present the annual Kids Walk for Kids. And a special event for children with special needs will be on Sunday – the Caring Bunny will be at Virginia Center Commons. For all our top picks this weekend, click here! > Read more.

A new meaning for fried chicken

Is it heresy to say – in this bastion-of-tradition capital of the Old South – that it's time for Southern fried chicken to take a step back and make way for a new fried chicken king?

Count me among the new believers bowing to Bonchon Chicken's delectable double-fried bliss. Hand-brushed with signature garlic soy or hot sauce, flash-fried once and then again, the decadent drums and wings take "crisp" to a new level. If you're eating with a crowd and everyone bites in at once, be warned: you might need ear plugs to handle the din. > Read more.

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The Easter Bunny arrives today in the JCPenney Court at Virginia Center Commons. The Easter Bunny will be available for photos daily through April 19. Photo packages start at $24.99.… Full text

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