Sunday, December 20, 2009

Researching Rome--Someone's Gotta Do It!

Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. THE BONE CHAMBER is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Her first thriller, FACE OF A KILLER, received a starred review from Library Journal. She is the author of four previous novels. View the video trailer at her website at: Or on Facebook and Twitter.

It's my last day on Criminal Minds. I hope you enjoy my final post!

Gabriella writes:

"How do you research the foreign police procedures and cultural aspects of your thrillers? Did you get to go to Rome? Do you need an assistant?"

I did my research the old fashioned way. Made it up. Just kidding! I was fortunate in that my mother lived in and taught school in Rome for a number of years and spoke fairly fluent Italian. Also I used the library and the internet. And just to make sure I had it right, I did get to go to Rome. Alas, no assistant needed. I took my mother, who was able to translate for me, and took me on the grand tour. (I think I had my picture taken with just about every carabinieri officer I saw! Loved their uniforms.) In fact we spent three weeks in Europe and traveled to every place in the book, just to make sure I had all the details right. And because of my mother’s archeological background, I had the inside scoop on the ancient Roman artifacts and locales that took place in the book. Since she’d lived there for so long, she could direct me on many of the cultural aspects.

The funny thing about actually being there was that I learned first hand that some scenes I had written would not work! It’s amazing how very different a photo on the internet, or even a film clip is, from the actual locale. Case in point. A scene in Naples, in which my bad guy drove up in a limo, and my good guys had to save the day (keeping it vague, so as not to create any spoilers). Once in Naples it became quickly apparent that a limo was not going to fit in the very narrow streets of the area in which I had set the scene.

By the time I got home, I had a very clear idea on what needed to be reworked.

I took about a gazillion photos. (You have to love digital cameras and high capacity memory cards!!! I'll try to restrain myself from showing them all! But if you'd like to see a quick view set to the book, do look at my video trailer for THE BONE CHAMBER--a little over a minute--painless, I promise!) My goal was to create a photo montage of the actual locations in the book, to give the reader a clear idea of where the story takes place. (This "tour" will eventually be on my website.) I made up a couple names for real locations, such as the Columbarium of the Nile Frescoes, where one of the clues was found, and the name of the hotel where Sydney stays, but they were based on real locations. Some of them I wasn’t able to get into (the underground columbaria, ancient burial sites—of which I am relying on my mother’s photos from when she researched them back in her archeological days), but others are very real locations (such as the Capuchin Crypt—alas, which wouldn’t allow photos inside where all the bones are kept! But do check out their website, and the photos on the Wikepedia page—amazing).

And of course it was fun to try the food. One of my mother’s favorite restaurants is just up the street from my fictional Columbarium of the Nile Frescoes (and up the street from a very real columbarium). The restaurant, Hostaria Antica Roma, is actually set in the ruins of some columbaria. We ate lunch there, and it became very clear that I had to set a scene in the book at that restaurant. The food was great. And the host, Paolo Magnanimi is now a friend. I can’t wait to go back.

If you could research any country for a book, which one would it be?


CJ Lyons said...

Wow, Robin! Sounds like a wonderful trip!

Sigh...all my books are set in places like Pittsburgh or rust-belt small towns. I need to come up with a story that includes travel to places like Rome and Paris!

Thanks again for joining us here this week!!!

Unknown said...

Robin, thank you so much for your posts this week! I learned so much!!!

Anonymous said...

CJ, thanks for inviting me.

It was a bit scary, switching locales, but I knew it would be fun doing the research! It did take me two books to move it over to another country--and give her a believable reason to be there.

Anonymous said...

Glad you enjoyed the posts!

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Hi, Robin,

Your week of posts has been fascinating.

I was lucky enough to win a signed ARC of Bone Chamber. I liked the book so well I plan to read it again as soon as have some time. In addition to being a real page-turner, I feel I learned a lot about the work of forensic artists and about ancient sites in Rome.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for posting about TBC. Glad you liked it. And to hear that you want to read it again is even better news! (Definitely made my morning!)

Gabi said...

There's nothing like actually being in a place to really be able to "see" the bodies and bullets. You've convinced me. My next series -- Death in the Bahamas. Thanks for the fabulous glimpse of Italy and your new book.

Anonymous said...

Death in the Bahamas sounds wonderful, Gabi, especially this time of year!

Kelli Stanley said...

How cool to have an archaeologist mom, Robin!! :)

And what a wonderful, memorable and productive trip ... Rome is like no other place in the world. I think you and David Hewson are on to something! ;)

Thanks a million for being our Grand Master this week--we've had a blast and have learned so much!


Jen Forbus said...

Oh that sounds like a fabulous research trip. If I could set a book anywhere? Good golly, I'd be happy with almost anywhere outside the United States. I've never been outside the borders with the exception of a weekend trip to Niagra Falls Canada one year with my family. If there is no snow, I would like to see it!! And I'm a maniac with the camera, so I too appreciate the digital camera - I use a 8G memory card. I've yet to totally fill it, but if I left the country, I bet I could give it a good run for its money! :)

Thanks Robin. It's been wonderful reading your posts. Have a great holiday season!