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Badges to books

Lodi writer Robin Burcell published her first romance novel while she was a Lodi police officer. Now she’s taken her experience as an FBI-trained forensic artist and turned it into a career writing thrillers for Harper Collins.­

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Posted: Saturday, October 16, 2010 12:00 am

If you want to get published, eat taco salad. That’s Robin Burcell’s motto, and she should know. The day she mailed off a manuscript for the first time, she had taco salad. The day she learned Harper Collins wanted to buy her book, she had taco salad. Any time she needs a writing miracle, taco salad is involved in at least one meal.

“When I got the call saying, ‘we’re going to buy your book and make you a star,’ I had eaten taco salad. And it wasn’t just taco salad, it was chicken taco salad,” Burcell said.

Burcell, a long-time Lodi resident, retired from her job as a criminal investigator with Sacramento County in December. She was a detective, a hostage negotiator and a FBI-trained forensic artist. Before that, she was a Lodi police officer for 18 years. Sometime between crime scenes    and the birth of her three daughters, including twins, Burcell added novel writer to her list of titles. On a recent Thursday afternoon, the author, who is in the middle of writing her eighth novel, spoke at the Lodi Library about the keys to publishing success.

Talent, tenacity and taco salad.

Burcell has a liveliness about her. She tells stories. She talks with her hands. She is quick on her feet, a quality that has helped with decades on the force. She speaks with excitement, and makes you wait for the final punch line.

As she speaks, her story board is propped up behind her. It’s covered in yellow, pink and green Post-It notes that help her keep track of her characters and storylines. The tall Burcell pulls out a spiral-bound notebook from behind the board. It’s so simple, yet important enough for her to hold it with both hands.

In a spiral-bound notebook is where her writing career began.

Burcell had always wanted to be a journalist. Instead, she became Lodi’s first female patrol officer in 1983. She had a patrol car, 25 pounds of gear and romance writing on the brain. She always carried a notebook and a pen. She never knew when she might get an idea for that book she always dreamed of writing, or when she’d hear an interesting conversation or a potential name of a lead character.

The notebooks accumulated, the stacks in the living room getting deeper and deeper until her husband, Gary, couldn’t ignore them any longer. She’d mentioned she wanted to write, and the notebooks were a good sign that she was serious about it.

“Fifteen years ago, she told me she wanted to write a book, and I laughed a little,” Gary Burcell said.

But it was his idea to buy a computer. It was time for her to get serious.

She gave up TV, kept her day job and went to work writing a romance novel. When she   wasn’t solving Lodi’s crimes, being a good wife, raising her first-born daughter or writing, she was going to critique groups and learning as much about the writing and publishing process as she could consume. One organization, Romance Writers of America, changed her life. It offered lectures by authors and publishers, which she attended as often as possible. She shared chapters with other writers. And when she heard about the Golden Heart Contest, she entered the first 50 pages of her manuscript. The winner of the contest would get to show their manuscript to a big-time publishing house. She sent it in. All that was left to do was wait.

In the meantime, she received a package that had her returned manuscript with a rejection letter. It came back from an agent, who she hoped would represent her to publishers.

The query letter she sent them was hidden, accidentally, inside of the 50 pages.

“On this query letter that shouldn’t have come back to me, it had three letters with three underlines written under it: yuk,” she said. “Y-U-K.”

That was the hard part.

“It’s scary to think you’re going to take your baby to somebody and you’re going to say, ‘look at this,’ and somebody’s going to go, ‘You have an ugly baby and I don’t ever want to see your baby in my office again,” she said.

However, an editor at Harper Collins Publishing had a different impression. She’d seen Burcell’s manuscript while judging the Golden Heart and wanted another peek. An editor at a major publishing house, she thought, was “oh-so-much better” than a literary agent.

After sending off her manuscript, Burcell waited for a response. She cleaned the house. She wrote a few traffic tickets. She kissed her daughter goodbye. She ate taco salad. She waited for the phone call.

“Good news comes by phone, bad news comes by mail in this business,” she said

Four  days after she sent off her book, Burcell walked down her long narrow hallway toward the answering machine. Her boots were heavy. Her belt shifted. Her keys jingled and jangled with her body. With each step, she got closer to the four blinking lights.

She knew three : Likely the dentist, the doctor and a repairman. But the fourth?

It couldn’t be.

But it was. Harper Collins wanted to buy her book.

She sold her first book, “When Midnight Comes,” in late 1993.

Then, Burcell’s life changed again. She had twin daughters. As fast as her family was growing, so were her careers. She was trying to write another romance. She quickly learned that selling one novel wouldn’t make her a millionaire.

There was another problem. Every romance became a crime.

“There were always dead bodies and some sort of mystery going on,” she said. “I was really on the mystery path.”

Murder mayhem might be more her style, she thought. Plus, she admits, it was hard to find romantic inspiration when she was writing a book, solving real-life crimes and being a mom.

Her second book — and  each one after that — have been thrillers: “The Bone Chamber,” “Face of a Killer,” “Cold Case,” “Deadly Legacy,” “Fatal Truth” and “Every Move She Makes.”

With each book, the stories are getting better.

“What I’ve noticed is her stories have gotten bigger, deeper, stronger,” said romance writer Susan Crosby, who has been critique partners with Burcell for 17 years.

Her main characters are not completely fictional. One of her main characters, Sydney Fitzpatrick in “The Bone Chamber,” is an FBI-trained forensic artist, like Burcell was herself. Fitzpatrick tries to confront her father’s killer. Events make her question what she originally believed and seeks the hidden truth.

Burcell gracefully and skillfully works through twists and turns. She helps her character uncover ancient secrets. She helps her  barely escape a killer.  And whenever the human race needs saving — which is all the time — it’s a g ood day of work for Robin Burcell.

In her retirement, Burcell is writing more than ever. Her life is still filled with dentist appointments, cheerleading practice and, no doubt, the ingredients for taco salad.

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