Thursday, October 7, 2010

Interview: Mystery Novelist Robin Burcell

Novel: The Bone Chamber 
By Mark Young
Author Robin Burcell’s main character, FBI forensic artist Sydney Fitzpatrick, returns in The Bone Chamber trying to hide from psychological wounds inflicted in the past. However, Sydney is dragged from her hiding place—an FBI academy classroom on the Quantico marine base where she teaches—to help in another baffling case filled with secrets, lies, and murder.

Readers: If you think Robin was tough on you in Face Of A Killer, wait until Sydney starts eluding the bad guys in this novel.

And readers better pack a bag. This time Sydney travels to exotic locations in Italy to find clues that only The Bone Chamber might reveal. The story begins with a skull, resting on a table in a closely-guarded room at an FBI facility at Quantico, where Sydney reluctantly performs her artistic magic. Her painstaking recreation only makes the case more dangerous as she unlocks facts that everyone fears.

Mysterious Special Agent Zachary Griffin manipulates Sydney’s life—thwarting her Thanksgiving holidays with family in San Francisco, for example— to get at the truth of this murder. Sydney soon realizes even Griffin—if that’s his real name—may want to uncover the murder, but everything else about his life is a lie. Who can she trust?

You’ll have to read The Bone Chamber to find out.

Robin joins us today to talk about this latest mystery novel and her writing career.

MARK: This second Sydney Fitzpatrick novel is packed with thrills, intrigue and conspiracies. Robin, I’ve tried to tell our readers a little about The Bone ChamberT without giving away too much. What did I miss that you think they need to know about this mystery?

ROBIN:  I think you’ve about covered it. Heck, you made me want to pick it up and read it! 

MARK: This international thriller starts at the FBI academy in Virginia and the nation’s capitol, finally traveling from San Francisco to Italy and back again. The story raises all kinds of conspiratorial theories that might even date back to biblical times. This must have been an interesting research project. Where did you travel for background and what sources of information did you glean for this story? Tell us a little about this journey.

ROBIN:  Originally I did most of my research at the library and on the internet. Especially concerning the historical aspects of the books.  But in order to bring that sense of actually being there, I came to the realization that someone was going to need to go to these locales and make sure my depictions were accurate. (And why not me?) Actually, it was my mother who pointed out that the book would be far better if I personally visited the places in the book. She’d lived there for several years, researching the ancient columbaria, and so I had depended on her to vet some of the scenes to get the flavor right and make sure they were accurate. But it seemed time and again, I’d have a scene written, and she’d tell me it couldn’t happen that way, because my vision (from internet tours) and the reality of the actual place were … very different. She suggested I travel there, and said she’d play tour guide (since she speaks Italian.)  It was a great setup. We traveled to each of the locations set in the book, and I was able to see where some scenes needed to be changed for accuracy, and how I could ramp up other scenes to make them better.  It was amazing how much it added to the tension in the story.

MARK: What was the best part of your research?

ROBIN:  Besides traveling to a foreign country in the name of research? The food!  It was fantastic! One restaurant, Hostaria Antica Roma, which was right up the street from one of the key scenes, was so memorable, that I rewrote my restaurant scene to include the meal and setting. The owner and I still correspond via e-mail and Facebook.  I’m telling you right now, if you go to Rome, visit that restaurant. You won’t be disappointed! 

MARK: At end of The Bone Chamber, you wrote a fascinating article titled “Fact or Fiction” regarding the Freemason's possible ties to the Templar Knights, and a politically-explosive conspiracy in Italy that piqued the public’s interest. What did you find most interesting about all this? And …. how much do you believe this is true?  

ROBIN:  By far, the most fascinating aspect is the history and scandal of the Italian Freemason lodge, Propaganda Due (also known as P-2). Granted this lodge was just one of many, many lodges throughout the world at the time, and by no means representative of what the Freemasons are or were about, but its history in the 1980s of how the men involved with this lodge nearly toppled the Italian government and banking system, even infiltrated the Vatican, due to such widespread corruption (with ripples felt around the world), well it was the perfect example of conspiracy theory.  It’s something that most people would say could never happen in today’s world.  And yet it did happen just a few decades ago.  It’s also a lesson learned that we hope won’t be repeated. My book continues on with the assumption that today a few key players from P-2 are still attempting to manipulate both the Italian government and the U.S. government. 

MARK: For our readers who’ve not had the pleasure of reading Face Of A Killer, give us a little back story on Sydney. What is she trying to recover from in the past? What is it that drives her to hide in an FBI classroom as an instructor?

ROBIN:  The story opens on the 20th anniversary of her father’s murder, with the killer about to be executed (finally) in ten days time.  Sydney, now a seasoned FBI agent, was 13 at the time, and the case always haunted her. It was, in fact, why she went into law enforcement. She decides to interview the killer before his execution, if nothing else to hear why he murdered her father. Even though her mother and everyone else is against this idea, it’s her way of getting on with her life. What she doesn’t expect is to leave that interview suddenly doubting the guilt of the man accused of murdering her father and setting the fire to cover up the crime—even though they have incontrovertible evidence.  His execution is in 10 days. That’s 10 days to prove his innocence or guilt. After all, if he did it, so be it. If he didn’t, the killer is out there still.  But the investigation takes a sudden twist when the government comes after Sydney trying to stop her from digging into something they’d hoped was dead and buried. 

It’s another case of conspiracy theory, based on some real pieces of history involving our government, this time in the U.S.

MARK: Is there a little bit of Sydney in you, Robin?

ROBIN:  Well, we’re both artists, and in law enforcement, and we have the same strong morals, so I’d have to say yes in that respect. But Sydney’s a lot more kick-ass than I ever was!  And, where Sydney doesn’t mind hopping on a plane, putting her job at risk, I like sitting in my nice safe living room over dealing with black op government agents (or anyone else) who are hell bent on trying to kill me. 

MARK: I understand that you may have inherited a desire to write from your grandfather. How did your writing career evolve? How did you manage this writing career while still holding down a very active law enforcement job?

ROBIN:  My grandfather was a very well-respected sports writer in his day, and so that gene of loving to write must have trickled its way down. I actually started off wanting to be a journalist, but never quite made it down that track. But the love of writing never left me, and I was forever penning stories on pads of paper (most not very good), a habit that didn’t leave even after I started in law enforcement.  In fact, driving around on patrol on those dark and lonely nights, sometimes I’d see or hear things that would set my mind spinning in interesting directions. This person would make a great character, or that story is too great not to write down. Imagine if this happened instead of that.  Finally I decided that I needed to stop thinking about writing, and get very serious about doing it. I bought a computer and started transcribing all those pads of paper.  Unfortunately, they were pretty bad attempts. So I began the process of learning the craft, joining writers organizations, networking, reading books on writing… and giving up TV. 

MARK: Beyond perfecting your writing craft, how did you break down the publishing barrier to get your first novel on the book shelves?

ROBIN:  At the time I was on a romance kick. I was in love with reading them, and decided I was going to write one—with the mistaken notion that a romance would be easier than other genres.  I joined Romance Writers of America, and entered the first couple books in a contest they had called the Golden Heart. The finalists of said contest landed on the desks of five editors of major publishing houses for the final judging.  This was a way to avoid the dreaded slush pile of hundreds of other manuscripts submitted.  An editor at HarperCollins was one those judges, and she asked if she could see the entire manuscript. She bought it as a result.  I’ve been with HarperCollins ever since, writing under their various imprints.

MARK: Is that first published novel still fresh in your mind? Did you have any time to celebrate or did you immediately focus on getting the next novel ready?

ROBIN:  I remember it well. I told my husband that I now had my foot in the door of the publishing world, and we could try for that second child. I ended up pregnant with twins, which sort of put a damper on writing anything, much less romance!  It was two years before I wrote again, and this time I decided that murder and mayhem was a better fit. My next book, which came out four years later, was a mystery.  I’ve been writing mysteries and thrillers ever since.

MARK: Your police background must provide a wealth of material to draw upon, including a variety of people you encountered on the job.  Did any people you worked with in the past emerge as models for your characters? Can you share your most memorable model from law enforcement or should we leave this well enough alone?

ROBIN:  (Cue in the evil laugh…)  Yeah, we’ll just say that sometimes I’ve thrown in a character or two who needed to be dealt with—and doing it fictionally seemed the wiser course of action.  But I have written friends in cameo roles, used their names when I’ve needed officers to populate scenes. Sometimes I’ll use the whole name, sometimes partial. It’s been fun.

MARK: What advice can you give aspiring novelists who struggle to write about crime fighting with some semblance of reality? Where should they go for research? Short of becoming a cop, how can they get this kind of exposure?

ROBIN:  Watch CSI.  Then make sure you don’t do anything they’re doing. There are actually a couple good and easy resources.  One, contact your local police department and ask if they have ride-along programs (though many have cut back because of budget issues). The FBI usually has a local citizen’s academy in which one can attend several classroom sessions to learn about what they do.  There are a number of good books out there, such as police officer Lee Lofland’s Police Procedure and Investigation, A Guide For Writers, and he has a blog in which he interviews experts (or discusses police work himself).  And there is also Yahoo Group’s Crimescenewriter, in which one can ask questions of the experts on the list, former CSI, cops, FBI, fire, ambulance and medical types. 

MARK: What does your writing schedule look like? Early writer, late writer, somewhere in between? And how much coffee do you require?

ROBIN:  While I was working fulltime, I would come home, turn on the computer and write for an hour or two each day, until I was so tired (breaking for dinner, etc.) that I was falling asleep at the desk. I also kept paper in my car to write during any down time. (Waiting in doctor’s offices, waiting to pick up kids at school, that sort of thing.)

Now that I’m writing fulltime, I drop the kids off at school, come home, write at least a page or two, then check e-mail. Then go back to writing. Pick up the kids, deal with after-school stuff, write until dinner, maybe watch TV unless I’m on deadline and then write some more.  I actually have a little TV at my desk, so I will often do e-mail and watch an evening show at the same time.  If I don’t get my work done, no TV for me, though!

One important note that has really changed my production schedule. I am now writing first before reading e-mail, or going on Facebook, or anything else. I have found that my most productive time is that first hour or two, which I used to spend answering e-mail. Now that I spend it writing, when I do break for e-mail and then go back, I have doubled my page count per day. (The same can be said for computer games. I pulled those off my computer years ago. I found that the I’ll-just-play-one-game-of solitaire really cut into my writing time). When you have only a good solid hour of writing time per day, even 15 minutes doing e-mail or games is a big, big time suck. 

MARK: Some writers believe you should write every day to perfect the craft. Do you find this to be true, or are there parts of the year you must put writing aside and focus on other matters—marketing, promotion, family?

ROBIN:  It’s definitely true. I sit down at the computer nearly every day.  If I’m not home, I have a notebook in my purse, or paper in my car. I pull it out and write by hand. (Sometimes when I’m stuck on a scene, changing how/where I write, really helps. So writing by hand, while slower, seems to free up my mind.)  While I was on book tour this year, I took a laptop, thinking I’d write on that. I found that I worked better writing by hand.  I wrote in the airport waiting for flights, on the plane, and if I wasn’t too beat, in the hotel at night.  What I’ve found is that writing is like running.  If you don’t do it all the time, you get out of shape, and it is much, much harder to keep a good pace—especially writing a novel with a complex story line. You end up having to go back and review the story so often that you lose too much forward momentum if you put it down for anything longer than a day or two.

MARK: I understand you are putting the finishing touches on another novel. What can you tell us about this new book to piqué our readers’ interest? When will it be released?

ROBIN: I’ve just finished the third FBI thriller in the series. It is, as of now, untitled. I’m hoping it will be out next year, but haven’t heard yet …

MARK: Lastly, what is the most important writing advice you ever received?

ROBIN: A page a day is all it takes, and you have a book done in (about) a year!  This is probably the best advice I ever received, because one of the most daunting things a new writer faces is the blank page. And how can one fill 85,000 words while working full time? A page a day…

Robin Burcell is the author of the Anthony Award winning SFPD Homicide Inspector Kate Gillespie novels and the Sydney Fitzpatrick novels, an FBI agent who uses her forensic artist skills to unravel the most difficult murder scenes. You can find out more about Robin Burcell and her writing career at this author’s web site.


  1. Great interview and excellent advice. Looking forward to an exciting new read!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Molly! Hope you enjoy the book, if you get a chance to pick it up.

  3. Thanks for the great interview again! I have really enjoyed the book the Bone Chamber and now am looking forward to the third. See you soon!