Monthly Archives: April 2011

Internet “Research”

When I was a kid, I remember my father (a writer) calling the number for the public library’s reference desk from memory.  I’d hear him say, “Phyllis, it’s Jim calling again.”  He knew their voices.  Their names.  They knew his.  For years, he always thanked the reference librarians who’d helped nail down factual tidbits he needed for his fiction.

Fast forward thirty years, and now I’m also a writer.  Like him, I also stop a few times a day to wonder whether my memory serves me correctly as I’m writing.  What year did that song come out?  How long would it take someone to drive from lower Manhattan to Buffalo?

But unlike my dad, I don’t call the reference desk at the library for answers.  I take to the internet.  Thanks to tools like Google and Wikipedia, we have a seemingly limitless ability to pull up the most arcane information in seconds.  Google Maps allows us to take a virtual walk around a midwestern town we’ve never been to.  Online menus let us see what a character might order at a southern diner whose grease-soaked air we’ve never smelled.  I even use my Facebook friends as a modern-day version of Phyllis the reference librarian, asking my “online kitchen cabinet” for suggestions about fictional town names and the imagined decor for a successful man’s home office in the early 1980s.

Yep, thanks to the Internet, an author’s job as researcher has never been easier. We don’t want emails from people telling us that a song playing at a character’s prom wasn’t written until her sophomore year in college, do we?  That’s why I love the archives of the Billboard Music charts. Did you know that the number one song the week of my birth was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies?  I did.  I looked it up.

We also don’t want a bunch of thirty year old characters with names like Barbara (too old — sorry Barbaras of the world) or Brianna (too young — sorry, really really sorry).  Did you know that the third most popular name for girls in 1981 was Amanda?  I did.  I looked it up.

A Name You Will Not Find in a Baby Name Directory

One downside to online research, however, is the potential for distraction.  Finding out what song was playing at Ellie Hatcher’s prom is worth a few-minute detour from the manuscript.  But, oddly enough, I never seem to stop there.  Instead, I decide I have time to look up the top song during the week of my birth.  Then I have to watch the song video on You Tube.  Then I have to stop by my own YouTube account to rewatch, for the fiftieth time, the video of my dog Duffer walking to daycare.


Then it’s a brief sojourn at Facebook, where friends Laura Lippman and Chevy Stevens have each independently sent me a link to this awesomely happy video of a hip hop french bulldog and his mad dance movez.


Then I have to send that link to my 13-year-old nephew, who doesn’t realize it’s a video gone viral, and really believes that the hip hop dog is my Duffer and that the boy in his undies on the couch is my husband.  And then I have to laugh about that — alot — with my sister.

Then I have to check out the links that friends have shared on my page in response to Laura and Chevy’s posts.  One of the links is to a website featuring funny pictures of upside down dogs.

Nothing funnier than that, right?  Well, except maybe this site, courtesy of Karin Slaughter, featuring super creepy Easter Bunny pictures.

Before you know it, that answer to the song at homecoming has cost me an hour or so.  Even at her most loquacious, Phyllis the reference librarian never sucked up an hour.

This year, I’ve been trying very hard to separate writing at the computer from researching (and, more often, playing) on the internet.  Thanks to a tip from Lisa Unger (wow, lots of name-dropping today.  My friend Bobby DeNiro told me never to name-drop)  — anyway, thanks to a tip, I downloaded an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which allows me to lock myself offline for however long I decide.  If a research question comes up, I can jot it down for later.  I haven’t been as diligent as I had planned, but do find that Freedom helps me get words on the page when I actually crack down and use it.

And when I don’t use it, man, do I love the internet!

P.S.  If you’re like me and goof off online, feel free to share some madness on Facebook or Twitter.

“I Don’t Read Women”??! Say It Ain’t So.

I frequently get emails from male readers who say, “I don’t like women authors, but I do like you.”  Appreciative yet perplexed, I started asking readers why they thought they didn’t like women authors.  Usually they said it was because the books weren’t hard-boiled enough.  Or they said there was too much romance and not enough action.  They believed that women writers were writing for women and not men.

Well, I’m here to say that women are getting a bad rap, and it’s time for readers (both male and female) to stop qualifying their support of female authors.  Some of the most inventive, brilliant, and, yes, bad-ass crime fiction being written today comes from women.  I’m proud to say that I’ve enlisted just a handful of those talented women in a fund-raising effort to support youth literacy.  Thanks to bestselling (and super cool) authors Lisa Gardner, Tess Gerritsen, Laura Lippman, Karin Slaughter, and Lisa Unger, “Real Men Read Women” gear is now available online.

We’ve also got some “I Like Boys Who Read Books by Girls” gear. 

All profits will go toward the promotion of youth literacy.

Order your stuff here, and thanks in advance for your help spreading the word!

The Reviews Are Coming In

It’s exactly two months before publication day for my first stand-alone thriller, LONG GONE.  That means it’s time for the early reviews, the ones aimed at book retailers, librarians, and other industry types.  Two big ones came in this week, and I’m delighted to report they’re good!

Library Journal says, “Burke’s first stand-alone novel is a fast-paced, plot-driven nail-biter. Ripped-from-the-headlines hooks from the world of celebrity and culture are twisted into a knot of seemingly unconnected story lines dramatically resolved to a surprising, out-of-nowhere ending. VERDICT: Highly recommended for Burke’s Ellie Hatcher fans as well as general suspense and mystery readers.”

And from Booklist: “Burke delivers a tightly plotted, suspenseful account  . . . It’s very much in the Lisa Gardner vein—strong female protagonist, shadowy villains, intricate and suspenseful story—and fans of Gardner (and, of course, Burke) should find it very much to their liking.”  (Side note: I love Lisa Gardner!)

I’ll keep sharing news with you as it rolls in.  Be sure to sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t done so already.  I’ll be announcing a mystery gift for pre-orders in a couple of weeks.  (So if you pre-order LONG GONE, be sure to hang on to your receipt!)

New Interview

I’m interviewed by Jen Forbus over at Mulholland Books, where we talk about character development, procedural plotting, New York City, and of course the Duffer.   Read the full Q&A here.

Speaking of the Duffer, he’s reading a new book and thinks it has serious potential for a future Duffer Award.

The Sickness Within

I’m dark.  I teach, study, and write about crime.  All crime, all the time.  So, yeah, I’m a little dark.

But every once in a while, I read words that I placed on a page and think to myself, “Damn, that’s sort of sick.”

I remember sitting in my office a few years ago, knowing that I needed to finish the chapter I was working on before I could join my husband and his Army friend for Friday night festivities.  I don’t know whether it was the momentum of the scene or the promise of a cocktail, but I hammered out the words as quickly as I could type them.  Suddenly the bad guy was doing something I had no idea he was going to do.  And I was describing it.  (No spoilers here, but I’m referring to the big, explosive confrontation near the end of my fifth novel, Angel’s Tip.)

I walked into the living room and threw my hands in the air.  “Finished!  Let Friday night begin!”  As the husband shook my martini, his friend asked, “What were you writing?”

I summed up the scene in a single, bluntly worded sentence.

My husband’s friend — did I mention they knew each other from the Army? — looked at my husband, then looked at me, and then said, “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard.”  That’s right, y’all, I managed to freak out a West Point graduate who has spent the last twenty-one years in the military.  Hollah!

(I have no idea why this puppy doesn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re,” but his obliviousness makes him all the more awesome.)

Our friend asked where the idea had come from.  I truly had no clue.

Now, to be clear, by “sick,” I don’t mean prurient-sick.  Or gross-out sick.  I mean dark-sick.  As in, wow, that person must have gone through hell and back to think of something like that.

That kind of “Wow, I’m sort of sick” moment has happened to me only once in writing seven and a half novels.  Interestingly, though, I’m two for two on short stories.

In 2008, I wrote a short story called Winning (available here), about a husband’s reaction to the rape of his police officer wife.  My own editor said, “I had no idea you were so dark.”

[An aside: The title “Winning” alludes to gendered responses to violence, where men think “winning” means beating down an opponent, and women think “winning” is survival.  Please note that I wrote and titled the aforementioned story prior to this man’s conversion of the word to mean its exact opposite:

End of aside.]

Earlier this month, I turned in a short story for an upcoming Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child.  The book is called “Dark Justice” and features tales of vigilantism.  The story took me only a few days to write, but I find myself still thinking about it, wondering how in the world I came up with some of the story’s images.

I wonder not only where the sickness comes from, but also why I seem more able to explore it in short fiction.  Maybe living a full year with those kinds of thoughts would simply be too much to handle.  Or maybe at a subconscious level I worry about my audience, realizing that very few readers want an entire novel filled with that kind of darkness.  A short story is a low-risk, short-term way to purge some of the crazier voices that are pulling at the corners of my mind.