To this day when I start writing a new book, I focus on my characters first. All (even the secondary characters) have full back-stories, quirks, talents, strengths and weakness. Though you may not ever see it in the book, I know where they went to school, favorite foods, Myers-Briggs personality test scores, and even their zodiac signs. Only when I’ve gotten to know my characters do I start thinking about the plot, which I design to play to the characters’ strengths and weakness.
My latest book DEAD RINGER was one of those rare books that just kinda came together. This wasn’t just blind luck (well, there might be a touch of that) rather it was because I knew my hero and heroine so well. By the time I sat down to plot the book, I could tell you so much about Jacob and Kendall. The plot played on and used their fierce independence and different backgrounds to create constant tension and conflict.
Want to hear a confession? When a story isn’t going well and feels flat, it’s because I haven’t done my homework on my characters. Even after fifteen novels and four novellas, I still read books on characterization and attend workshops about character development.
So when you sit down to work on your latest book, ask yourself if you really know your characters. I can guarantee when you get acquainted with your hero you’ll find that your story really starts to pop.
Mary Burton confesses to a baking addiction and a fascination with the people who hunt serial killers. The former is genetic. The latter began during the twenty years that the Southside Strangler, D.C. Sniper and the Hampton Roads killers stalked her home state of Virginia. These killers terrorized residents and claimed twenty-six victims before their capture
Why did they kill? What demons drove them? How did they choose their victims? Burton’s questions led to inspiration and the USA Today best selling author began developing the characters whose horrific assaults would drive the plots of her romantic suspense novels I’M WATCHING YOU and DEAD RINGER.
Her commitment to realism in her writing has led to eye-opening interviews with local law enforcement, forensic seminars and the firing range. She is a graduate from the Henrico County Citizens Police Academy and attended Sisters in Crime’s three day Forensic University program.
A Virginia native whose family’s Richmond roots run as deep as the nation’s, Burton graduated from Virginia’s Hollins University and began a career in marketing. After a decade she decided to do something about the myriad stories buzzing around her brain, which seemed to dare her to try to write them down. She took up the gauntlet, left her job and began her first novel. That very first manuscript, a historical romance, was published in 2000.
The world of serial killers seems like a far cry from that book, a western set in the Colorado of 1876, and it is. Yet Mary notes that “the dark side of life is always just beneath the surface for all of us,” including in fiction and, in that first book, the protagonist flees a rapist and escapes to a new life. “For that story the crime was merely a plot device.” Now, crime and the destruction it creates are integral to her stories. “I’m exploring the power of premeditated violence and how it changes my characters’ lives.”
Placing a romantic relationship side by side with the story of a serial murderer may seem daunting, but as Mary says “life goes on despite us and—especially in the face of horror and loss of control—it’s important to me to show the resilience of human beings, who somehow, someway eventually find hope even under drastic circumstances, who continue to believe that good can conquer evil, and who still can’t help falling in love.”
As a reader and writer of suspense novels, Burton sees a link between intense, unforgettable real-life emotions and the allure of fiction dealing with crime and relationships.
“I think it’s beyond the appeal of police procedures and forensics and the untangling of a mystery. People have long used fiction in all forms to safely face real life horrors. With fiction, they are in control. They can stop the story at any time. They can appreciate and try to understand the characters’ motives and emotions, experience the commitment of those trying to stop the killing, touch as much or as little of the fear as they want, and be comfortable knowing the atrocities aren’t real. They can even afford to have some empathy for the killer. Through it all, they’re confident that justice—so often elusive—will be served.”
After selling her first novel, Burton wrote eleven more books for Harlequin and four contemporary romantic suspense novels for Silhouette before entering the dark world of multiple murderers and their motives. Once there, she wrote her romantic suspense novels I’M WATCHING YOU and this November’s DEAD RINGER, both published by Zebra Books. Her novella Christmas Past appears in the 2008 holiday anthology SILVER BELLS along with stories by New York Times best selling authors Fern Michaels and Joann Ross, and award-winning novelist Judy Duarte. Previously her story Snow Maiden was featured in the USA Today best selling anthology A Hero’s Kiss.
Born and raised in Richmond, Mary Burton is an avid cook as well as baker, and even volunteered as a kitchen assistant at a local culinary school to hone her skills. When not writing and researching she can be found hiking, doing yoga and playing with her miniature dachshund puppies, Buddy and Bella. Currently, she is working on her next novel.
You can visit her website at www.maryburton.com.