Saturday, February 24, 2007

Interview with Robin Burcell--author and police officer

What led you to a writing career? Who influenced you?

I was a reader first. I loved to read, to lose myself in a story.
Wanting to write a story was a natural next step. I just got lost on
the way, took an odd career path into law enforcement before I
remembered my dream about wanting to write. As far as who influenced
me? I'd have to say that every great author who penned a story that
captured my imagination influenced me. L. Frank Baum. J.R.R.
Tolkien. M.M. Kaye. I could go on and on. I never wanted the good
stories to end, and when they did, I would go to sleep that night and
try to dream myself back into the story, imagining what took place after
"The End."

Being a police officer is a career apart, how do you step into the
role of writer ?

I've always wanted to be a writer. It was stepping into the role of
police officer that was more difficult. At least at first. I was
always the girl staring out the window, spinning stories while the
teacher went on about some subject in school. Either something said on
the subject sparked my interest and led me down that mental path, or the
subject being studied was so boring my mind raced off in a much more
interesting direction. Becoming a police officer was not my first
career choice. Being a writer was. Only problem? I didn't know how to
go about it. Writers were, in my young mind, unattainable, up on
pedestals, and how could I ever hope to obtain such a lofty goal?
Perhaps if I'd ever met a real writer, discovered they were actually
(for the most part) normal people, I might have not been so scared of
going after that dream. Far easier to chase bad guys who were much
bigger and badder, than to put forth my work and have someone say it
wasn't good enough!
The truth, though, was that it was a dream, one I kept putting off
because I had no idea how to go about it, and so I kept talking about
it. As long as I talked and never actually started to write, it
remained a dream. But on patrol, I found myself meeting such
interesting people, good guys and bad guys, and imagining them as
characters in a story that had yet to be written. One little girl, the
daughter of a domestic violence victim, was so strikingly beautiful, and
very young and vulnerable (probably about 4) that I was never able to
put her from my mind. I found myself spinning a tale of her growing up
in another time, another place, and meeting a hero to save her from all
the harshness in her world. Some of the suspects I'd arrested had such
interesting personalities, were actually very nice people, but they just
couldn't stay off the drugs or the booze and keep their lives straight.
They wanted to, but the deck was stacked against them. And then, like
it or not, there were men and women who had no redeeming qualities
whatsoever. It was hard not to think about them all, the good and the
bad, at the end of the day. In fact some days it was hard to relax.
Writing became very cathartic to me. I ended up being the one in
control, no matter what happened that day at work. I'd come home, turn
on my computer and weave my tale, and I could go to work the next day
and face whatever came at me.

I felt the dialogue and interaction between the characters was very
realistic and authentic, frankly a first for me as an occasional
reader of police procedurals. Is this easy to write or do find it
tricky to get it simple enough for civilians?

Getting the dialogue to ring true, sound like you're listening in on a
conversation between a couple cops is a balancing act. You want the
realistic sound, but you can't have it be too realistic or (unless you
work in that environment) it makes it very difficult to understand.
Cops talk in code and slang, both of which vary by department, city and
state. For instance, the word "perp" versus "suspect" varies by region,
east coast versus west coast. And then there's the "ten" code versus
the "nine" code, (the code used to talk via radio) as well as
alpha-numeric speak, which also varies by department and region. Add
the Penal Code to that mix and you have a jumble of strange words,
numbers and abbreviations that sound like a foreign language if you
happen to be monitoring the radio. The trick was to bring that flavor
to the book, that realistic this-is-how-it-is feel, without overwhelming
the reader or leaving them in the dark. I wanted my cops to sound like
they do in real life do to give the reader that glimpse of what it is
like, which meant that I'd have to find a way to explain it without
boring the reader with each interpretation. Additionally, I wanted to
make sure that if any cops were to pick up the books and read them, they
wouldn't be bored to tears every time I had to explain the terms for the
reader. It was a balancing act. I've received fan mail from cops as
well as "civilians" so I think I hit the right combo.

Kate Gillespie is a homicide detective who is very confident about her
abilities as an officer but she faces obstacles as a woman in the

In 1983 I was hired as the first female officer for my department. When
I was hired, honestly (and this shows you how little I knew at the time)
I had no idea they didn't have any females working as officers. When
they told me I would be the first, I acted very nonchalant. (I didn't
want them to know I didn't know!) At the same time I was amazed. This
was the late twentieth century! How could they not have female
officers! And then, when I started writing, I was doing some research
about San Francisco PD, a department I had always considered
progressive, and discovered that they had never had a woman working the
homicide detail. Again I was amazed, dismayed even. And I thought I
would create their first. I felt that, because of my own experiences
facing the prejudices and hardships of being the first female in my
department, that I could relate with what Kate Gillespie must be facing
when she was promoted to homicide. In my situation, (I was told this
later) that though I'd passed all the tests, they had considered passing
me over. One lieutenant pointed out that they might want to consider
hiring a woman who had passed the tests before they were forced to hire
women who had simply applied, then sued the department for
discrimination (as was happening in other agencies at the time), so they
hired me. I went home nearly every night wanting to quit, but my
grandmother, who raised me, had taught me that quitting wasn't an
option. I persevered. That was a big deal for the department and for
me. I wanted to bring some of that to Kate, show the struggles that she
would have faced in what, at the time, was a male dominated and very
elite unit. The men didn't want me at the department, and they didn't
want Kate. Years later, I had officers come up to me, apologize for
their behavior, and tell me that I had proved them wrong, for which they
were glad. That was something else I wanted to bring to Kate's
experiences. For her to prove them wrong, prove she could do the job.

You've also written a romance called When Midnight Comes, was mystery
the direction you really wanted to go? (But of course, a police
officer is the heroine!)

I was into romances at the time. I'd loved mysteries, but at that time
in my life, couldn't handle the violence, and picked up a romance on a
whim. After a while, reading all my favorite romance authors, and
learning that the authors weren't writing fast enough, I thought I
should write the story I wanted to read. The idea came to me while
watching Star Trek of all things. (I'm a big Trekkie from way back!)
It was writing this book I discovered that San Francisco had no women
working Homicide. The editor made me change the department to Florida
for purposes of the plot, but I always remembered that little fact, that
deficiency of San Francisco PD's lack of women in that area. As far as
the cops in the book, perhaps it was the "write what you know" that made
me put in police. When I kept adding mystery to my plot, and killing
off all these characters, I realized that romance wasn't where I should
be. Writing the police procedural made so much more sense. Then again,
it might have had something to do with the fact that after I wrote that
first romance, I told my husband now that I had my foot in the
publishing world door, we should try for that second child. I ended up
being pregnant with twins. Needless to say, romance wasn't a big part
of our life after that, and murder and mayhem seemed a much easier
subject to write about...

Paolini is an interesting character, in Cold Case, he is given a
bigger role. Kate is ambivalent about him which I found
refreshing. Are the criminals based on some real people or your own

A combination of both. I base my stories on things I read about in the
papers, real crimes, and on my imagination. Truth is stranger than
fiction, but sometimes a good twist on the truth makes for a fresher
tale. As for my characters, no one character is based on one single
person. I usually find that if I meet an interesting person--whether
good guy or bad guy--and base a character on him or her, that character
is usually flat and lifeless. Perhaps a bit odd, when you think about
it. But what makes a character interesting is the depth, the quirks,
the little things. Everything, really. And how well can you know
someone you meet? For me, I usually find my characters become more real
when I combine qualities. Combine an acquaintance with a movie star.
That sort of thing. I used to think this was odd, combining two
characters to make one, until I read an interview with Johnny Depp, whom
I became infatuated with when I saw the first Pirates of the Carribean.
Depp said that for his character of Captain Jack Sparrow, he combined
the rock star Keith Richards (whom he thought had pirate-like qualities)
with Pepe' LePew (the skunk, who thinks all women love him, but they
don't, and he remains lovably clueless.) It occurred to me that if
actors do this, then I must be on the right track! (Or it could be that
I'm infatuated with Captain Jack Sparrow, so I'll interpret it in the
best light possible...?)

Gillespie and Torrance have an on-again, off-again romance. Is this a
fun part of the books to write?

I've had more fun with this relationship. And more fan mail than I'd
ever anticipated because of it. Women have stopped me and said that if
I don't let Kate sleep with Torrance, they will sleep with him. Some of
them get into these characters! But Torrance is another example of a
character based on two people. He's one part cop I met at Hostage
Negotiating school. I have a fun story about him that I won't share in
print (don't worry, it's clean. But it's all in the telling, and
inflection of the voice.) I combined those characteristics with Edward
James Olmos, the man who played the lieutenant on the old Miami Vice
show. He was very quiet, soft spoken, but when he had something to say,
you listened, because he didn't waste his breath with something that
wasn't important.

Is the Gillespie series done after Cold Case? Please let us know
about your next book.

I plan to revisit the Kate Gillespie series, but right now I'm working
on a new series for my publisher. The first book, called FACE OF A
KILLER, is about an FBI forensic artist, who begins to suspect that the
man about to be executed for her father's murder, might not be guilty.
But then, as the case progresses, she begins to discover that her father
wasn't the man she thought she knew. For this series, I bring to it my
experience as an FBI-trained forensic artist. The first book is done
and turned in, but I don't, as of yet, have a publishing date. I hope
to hear soon, so stand by!

Any advice for an aspiring writer?

Number one: read! Read in your chosen genre, and outside. Buy a used
book by your favorite author, then pick it apart like you would a
college text. Highlight those pages, write in the margins, note how the
author introduces new characters, describes scenes, tags dialog, shows
transitions, etc., etc. This was what I did. (Note I said buy a used
book--don't do this with your library books!) But how do you know when
a book is good enough for this method? When you read it over the second
and third time and still get lost in the story. All too soon, you'll
start to read stories and begin analyzing them, deciding how you would
have written them instead. Sometimes becoming a writer takes the
enjoyment out of reading. Until you pick up the next great book and
lose yourself in the story.

Many thanks to Robin Burcell for answering my questions. Please plan on attending "A Night of Mystery" on Friday, April 20 at Maidu Library, call 774-5900. You'll meet Ms. Burcell as well as Cara Black and Rhys Bowen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful mystery author interviews. Hope others are reading them.
These authors are new to me, but their personal stories are so interesting, I hope I have time to read them before the library event. So many books and so little time.