Frequently Asked Questions

What did you do in the CIA?

I joined the CIA after graduate school as an all-source analyst. but soon after moved into more technical positions. My career really mirrored the rapid shift to online activity. In my first job we used Wang word processors. By the time I retired 30 years later, I was one of the founders of the CIA’s new Directorate of Digital Innovation.

Some of the technical issues I worked on include signals intelligence (SIGINT), machine translation (before there was such a thing as Google Translate!) and video surveillance techniques. Along the way I was the head of one of the national intelligence tradecraft schools and the Executive Officer of the CIA’s R&D office, which morphed into IARPA, an independent R&D entity.

Carmen Amato at CIA 2016

In the CIA lobby with my Career Intelligence Medal, Nov 2016.

How many places have you traveled to?

At last count, I’ve been to about 3 dozen countries including a few exotic places like Papua New Guinea and the Marshall Islands. I spent the most overseas time in Mexico and Central America. Italy, Norway, and Switzerland are all on the must-return list.

Will there ever be a movie based on one of your books?

Here’s hoping! The television rights to the Detective Emilia Cruz series were optioned by both NBCUniversal and Latin World Entertainment. Every few months someone else emails a query about availability. But filming a series set in Mexico carries real danger these days, as evidenced by the murder of a location scout for Netflix’s Narcos series.

My secret hope is that Eduardo Verastegui, producer of Sound of Freedom, makes a movie out of The Hidden Light of Mexico City and stars as Eduardo Cortez Castillo. *swoon*

Where can I buy your books?

Ebooks are exclusive to Amazon’s Kindle platform, although a few short story collections are also on Apple Books, kobo, Google Books and other ebook platforms. Audiobook are available on all audio platforms including Audible.

Paperbacks are available everywhere, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, etc.You can also find my paperbacks at Find all my books on Amazon

How do I find out about new books?

You can subscribe to my twice monthly newsletter and get a copy of the free Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library, too! Click here.

Do you follow an outline or just see where things lead?

I’m a fairly organized writer. I generally create an outline and character studies before grinding out a rough draft. To stay focused I pin details above my desk, such as lists of names or information about characters, as well as a color-coded outline..

frequently asked questions

All of the reference materials and the odds and ends that inspire the book go into a craft box. This book-in-a-box system helps cut down on continuity errors and saves time searching for information when I’ve spent time away from a draft.

Do you write at a computer or longhand?

The answer is some of both. Conceiving original prose at the keyboard takes the most mental energy but sometimes, when I know exactly how I want a scene to play, it goes so fast that I actually feel that I’m reading something already written. Of course I’ll still edit it 20 times before I am satisfied.

I write longhand when I feel uninspired or am tired.  I use spiral notebooks with stiff covers. As I was writing The Hidden Light of Mexico City I taped pesos coins to the covers for good luck. When I’m ready to type in what I’ve written longhand I edit as I type.  And of course I’ll edit that 20 times, too.

Notebook Carmen Amato

You’ll like my books if you like books by _____________.

If you like mystery and suspense by Peter May, Ace Atkins, Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo, and Cara Black, you’ll like my Detective Emilia Cruz books. We all write at the intersection of crime fiction, police procedurals, and the traditional murder mystery.

Some say that the Emilia Cruz series is similar in character development to the Shetland and Vera series by Ann Cleeves, and the Department Q mystery series by Jussi Adler-Olsen.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

1. Don’t fall in love with your first draft. Fall in love with your characters, in the setting, and in the plot twists. Keep editing and rewriting until your manuscript is as good as it can be. Learn to be a ruthless editor of your own work.

notebook and handwriting

2. Don’t change points of view within a single section. Just when a reader has identified with a certain character–whoops–suddenly they are inside another character’s head. This is my personal pet peeve. Read novels by Leon Uris and Ken Follett for great examples of keeping points of view separate and how to use different points of view to advance the plot.

What writers have inspired you?

This is a fairly diverse list:

Ken Follett: His earlier works including Night Over Water, Triple, The Key to Rebecca and The Eye of the Needle all have a tension-filled storyline, interesting characters with complex relationships, and multiple voices that are all integral to moving the plot forward. Not to mention the hot sex scenes.

P.G. Wodehouse: I discovered this British humorist in high school and have read dozens of his books and short stories.His world is that of 1920’s England. All of his books have an invariably tangled plot, crazy characters, and perfect phrasing (“he writhed like an electric fan”) that never grow old. My favorite is The Code of the Woosters.

Robert B. Parker: The creator of the Spenser mystery series is a study in perfect-pitch dialogue. Some of his books are a series of conversations that are so well crafted that virtually the entire plot/mystery is revealed in this way. His action scenes are never gratuitous which means they pack a big punch. My favorites are Potshot and Hugger Mugger.

Peter Mayle: His novels like Hotel Pastis and Anything Considered are the best examples of integrating a foreign language into an English language book.  His topics are light, focus on elements of French culture (truffles, wine, etc) and always make me smile.

I’m an aspiring writer? Can you help?

Here are some ideas to help you become the best writer you can be:

A writer’s group is a terrific way to get feedback on a draft and learn best practices from fellow writers. A side benefit is encouragement and the feeling that you’re not the only one with a writing obsession.

Find a writing partner and share drafts for timely feedback and brainstorming.

Writing workshops like those held by the Aegean Arts Circle can be an invaluable experience. Take your manuscript and immerse yourself in the writing life for a week or more. If you are serious it is worth the cost.

What is the hardest thing to write?

At first I found dialogue difficult but over time realized that I had to know the emotional trajectory of the conversation before writing (do they start off angry and reach an accord at the end, are they happy at the start of the conversation but end up arguing?) Descriptions of architecture and landscapes are also difficult for me and take a lot of time; otherwise everything starts to sound the same—“there was a shelf, there was a desk, there was a window.”

You write about strong women. Why?

I’ve been lucky to have grown up around women who were strong yet never hard-edged. They had to make difficult decisions, handle tough situations, yet never wavered in their belief in themselves. Both my grandmother and my mother have had the most influence in how I make decisions and set priorities. My closest friends are also strong women leading interesting, multi-faceted lives. I think there’s a theme here.

Have you been to the places in your books?

Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to have lived in Mexico and Central America for a number of years. I’ve also lived in Europe and traveled in Africa and the South Pacific. Every place is a new source of culture and inspiration.

Do you have a family?

Yes, I am married and have 2 grown children. Our home is ruled by a naughty pup named Dutch and a gorgeous German Shepherd named Hazel. We own 7 ereaders and around 2000 print books.

Are you Latina?

No. I grew up in an Italian family where going to church every Sunday was an Event. My extended family all lived in the same city and came together for every holiday. My grandfather’s home movies were all of people eating. I loved all the associated rituals: helping my grandmother set the table with her good china, arranging pepperoni, olives, and roasted red peppers for the antipasto, cranking the handle of my grandparents’ pasta maker to turn out homemade capellini.

When I moved to Mexico so much was already familiar. Church, family, rituals of food, celebrations of the homemade. It was easy to make it all my own.

Do you speak Spanish?

My Spanish is a work in process. It is the Spanish of someone who has forgotten more than she has ever learned and had a tin ear to begin with. I’ll be a student for a long time to come.

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