Charlie Burnette, a Rock Hill attorney who has just published his third novel, says the idea for becoming a novelist came from a conversation with the actor Tom Wilkerson.
Until he was picked as Wilkerson’s double and stand-in for “The Patriot,” the Mel Gibson movie shot partially at Historic Brattonsville in 1999, Burnette’s principal acting credit had been as Herr Drosselmeyer in the York County Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.”
Burnette landed the film job because he was about the same size as the British actor. He read Wilkerson’s lines as General Cornwallis while the actor temporarily was on another job in England. Based on that performance, he was invited to audition for a minor speaking part in “The Patriot.” He didn’t get that plum, but later, over lunch, Wilkerson kiddingly told him there were three reasons he didn’t get the part: “Too old, too ugly and a lousy British accent.”
Wilkerson then told him that the best way to land a movie part was to write a novel. If Hollywood wants to purchase the film rights, he explained, you can negotiate a role for yourself. That was all the incentive he needed to start writing.
Burnette, a Rock Hill native with more than 30 years of courtroom experience, pretty much has given up on the acting career (this year will mark his swan song in “The Nutcracker,” after 15 years), but he’s carved out a niche as an author.
His third novel, “Subsequent Thoughts,” which he describes as a psychological thriller, recently was released. If it sells as well as his first two novels, Burnette may be able to boast combined sales for all three books of between 4,000-5,000 copies – print or electronic. That might not seem like a lot to James Patterson or John Grisham, but many novelists would be ecstatic with those numbers.
A working lawyer with three children in college (his eldest completed grad school last year), Burnette says he burns a lot of midnight oil writing and makes use of down time, such as while a jury is deliberating.
Surprisingly for someone who racks up most of his billable hours on commercial litigation, Burnette’s novels have featured disturbed characters inflicting a lot of pain, physical and mental, on others. Burnette explains that many of the scenes are rooted in cases he handled as a criminal defense attorney early in his career.
Thomas Edison said that genius was 2 percent inspiration and 98 percent hard work. Barnette says that the inspiration part – when his creative juices start flowing – definitely is the best part of being a writer. Everything else, particularly rewriting, is hard work.
He seldom shares a book in progress. One exception is when he needs an expert to verify his facts. Schizophrenia figures heavily in “Subsequent Thoughts,” so Burnette ran parts of the novel by someone knowledgeable about mental illness.
Another exception is when he will read sections at a writer’s group, such as the Rock Hill chapter of the South Carolina Writers Workshop, which meets at Grace Lutheran Church. It’s hard when other writers find fault with his work, he said, but authors must learn to put their egos on the shelf. “If there’s 12 people in the room and 10 are saying the same thing about your writing, you need to listen.”
Another aspect of being a writer that many novices sluff-off is marketing. Although he contracted with a Charlotte-based publisher for his first novel, Burnette published his other novels himself. Unless an author is well-established, the task of promoting a novel falls mostly on the author’s shoulders anyway. During the next 12 to 18 months, the window when “Subsequent Thoughts” can still be considered a recent release, Burnette will spent many evenings and weekends speaking to book clubs, library groups, bookstore customers – whoever will provide an audience.
Burnette credits his wife, Marcia, and their children for supporting his writing career. “As long as I don’t miss the important stuff, they’re cool with it,” he said.
One critical lesson he has learned during his writing career is the importance of mentors. He credits Earl Wilcox, retired Winthrop University English professor, and local playwright/photographer Terry Roueche for encouraging him to write. That’s why he’s quick to support less-experienced writers. “If I hear someone say they think they might want to write, I ask if they have a story to tell. If they say yes, then I tell them they should write it.”
He advises timid writers not to worry about the prospects of success or failure. “Once the creative process starts to flow and you end up producing a story that other people find compelling, that gives you a great deal of personal satisfaction.”
For Burnette, longtime lawyer and occasional actor, writing is the thing.
Terry Plumb is a retired editor of The Herald.
Novels by Charlie Burnette
“Manipulation by Degree” (2009), Mint Hill Books, 340 pages, $14.95
What happens when an intellectually superior six year old boy is repeatedly sold by his own mother to abusive men? He rises up against his environment with a fiery vengeance torching all who wronged him. The combination of his abuse and brilliance create the building blocks of a criminal mind nearly devoid of emotion, taking the reader on an emotional and evolutionary roller coaster ride of shock and fear with unexpected consequences.
“Broken Town” (2011), Morris Publishing, 339 pages, $14.95
Wylie Tillman’s desire to do what is right, coupled with marginal intelligence, propels him to drag a teen girl’s severed arm from under his idling vehicle, carry the arm into the victim’s home, and lay it by her side. He calls 911, though quickly realizes he is a bit drunk, which might lead authorities to accuse him of running over the girl; so he runs. The police chief who controls Uniontown, a place where people don’t lock their doors, aims to preserve its false tranquility by hanging the murder around Wylie’s neck.
“Subsequent Thoughts” (2015) Morris Publishing, 365 pages, $14.95.
Abel Wood, a victim of incestuous practices of The Fellowship, a religious cult hidden deep in the Smoky Mountains, must wrestle with voices in his head that sometimes offer contradictory advice. Fueled by the need to avenge the murders of his mother and a beloved mentor, Abel escapes The Fellowship only to be victimized by a society that should be helping him. Subsequent thoughts control Abel as he rises above the ignorance and brutality of his backward hills and feed the justice he will seek against those who wronged the schizophrenic voices in his head.