Author Bernard Schaffer debuts new cop series

Author Bernard Schaffer debuts new cop series

Bernard Schaffer’s new book THE THIEF OF ALL LIGHT is the debut of a tension-filled new police procedural series. This interview first appeared in the Mystery Ahead newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

1  Carmen Amato: Bernard, thanks so much for stopping by and congratulations. Your debut mystery, THE THIEF OF ALL LIGHT, just came out. A rookie and a jaded detective feature in this start to a tantalizing new police procedural series. Tell us how you came to create this “odd couple.”

Bernard Schaffer: I published multiple books in multiple genres as an indie author from 2011 to 2016, and wanted to take a crack at the mainstream. My writing had reached a level where I felt ready to try something new, so I took all of my experiences as both author and criminal investigator, and put them into a book.

2  CA: Your main character, Carrie Santero, has a fascination for serial killers? What research did you do to make this convincing?

Schaffer: I’m a career police detective for a department in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I’ve been studying criminals, up close and personal, my entire adult life.

3  CA: Fill in the blank for us, please, and tell us why: If readers like books by ________, they will also like the Santero and Rein series.

Schaffer: If readers like books by Thomas Harris, Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, and anyone else who writes gripping thrillers, they will also like the Santero and Rein series.

4  CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

Schaffer: My stock answer would be Hemingway, because I have an imaginary Hemingway who sits off to the side whenever I’m writing and gives me hell, kind of like a boxing coach. But at this point, I probably don’t need to sit down with the real one. I’d say either Alan Moore or Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Both fascinate me and I feel that I could learn from either of them.

5  CA: What is your best protip? Tell us about a writing habit, technique, or philosophy that keeps your writing sharp.

Schaffer: A few things. Real authors finish. They don’t work on ten pages of a manuscript for years on end, carting them all over to every writing conference they can find, in hopes of someone finally giving them permission to write the whole thing. If you want to do this, you have to finish your book. That means multiple drafts and rewrites, too. There’s no sitting around in the publishing world. I graduated from the indie game, where you live and die by your ability to produce quality at a rapid pace. That’s served me well at this new level. There’s no time to be lazy or unmotivated when people are relying on you to get your work done, and get it done right.

The Thief of all LightThank you so much for having me, Carmen. THE THIEF OF ALL LIGHT cameout in hardcover and audio on 7/31/18 from Kensington Publishing, and I cannot wait to share it with everyone.

More about Bernard: Bernard Schaffer’s law enforcement philosophy book titled WAY OF THE WARRIOR is now taught in multiple police academies, Field Training Programs, and universities across the United States. His fiction collaboration with J.A. Konrath combined concepts and characters from Konrath’s Jack Daniels series with Schaffer’s novel SUPERBIA. Schaffer is the father of two children, still working as a police detective, and still writing. Read more at https://www.bernardschaffer.com/

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

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Book Review: FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell

Book Review: FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell

FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell sets the standard for historical fiction with a touch of suspense and a healthy dose of Shakespeare.

But before I gush about how good the book is, let me say that Cornwell is one of my favorite authors. First, in 2014 when I wrote a blog series on bookstores vs ebooks, he took the time to answer my email. Second, he’s the author of the Richard Sharpe series. Apart from being some of the best historical fiction EVER, the Sharpe books were turned into a miniseries starring Sean Bean. We actually have the DVDs (still) and the board game.

The narrator of FOOLS AND MORTALS is Shakespeare, but not the one you’re thinking of. Richard Shakespeare is William’s younger brother, a crafty and likeable neer-do-well who wormed his way into Will’s acting troupe and steals when he can. He’s young and good looking. Typically cast as a woman, given that only men were allowed to be actors in Elizabethan time, he demands that Will cast him as a man and up his salary.

But Will has little time for the wild Richard. The Shakespeares and their royal patron are caught up in a bitter rivalry with another playhouse which similarly enjoys a royal patron. Good plays are the ammunition that fuel the war but they are few and far in between. There is no copyright protection, moreover; whoever has the manuscript puts on the play. Fresh material means big income and Will’s new play, written for a wedding the queen herself may attend, is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Until the handwritten manuscript is stolen.

Cornwell masterfully uses the political upheaval caused by Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne and resulting purge of Catholicism in England to drive suspense. Not only does he offer the minute details of Elizabethan England such as dress, habit, and food, but London has never been so noisy, so gritty, so perfectly captured.

Maybe I’m partial to the book because A Midsummer Night’s Dream features in a nightmare sequence in my suspense novel AWAKENING MACBETH.

Also, I played Tatiana in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But that’s only one more reason to enjoy the historical suspense of FOOLS AND MORTALS.

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

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Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews is a gripping Cold War espionage thriller in the style of John le Carré’s thrillers. Except longer.

SPARROW starts with a heart-pounding and authentic scene of spy tradecraft in Moscow. Nathaniel “Nate” Nash is stalked by Russian security services as he meets with an important SVR agent—SVR being the successor to the Soviet KGB intelligence service—who hands him valuable intelligence files from the SVR vault. The agent isn’t identified and Nate hangs onto the goods, but his cover as an economic officer at the US Embassy in Moscow is tainted. He’s sent home, into CIA career limbo.

Next we meet Dominika Egorova and follow her road to becoming an SVR “sparrow,” an intelligence officer trained in the art of sexual seduction and recruitment. Her backstory is long and complicated as she goes from prima ballerina derailed by a rival to trained intelligence officer to “demotion” to sparrow. Her Uncle Vanya is a ruthless spymaster who manipulates Dominika and her career, holding family matters hostage so Dominika does his bidding.

Dominika is also rather unique in that she can see auras, so she knows when people are lying or have killed, etc.

Huh? Trust me, Matthews makes it work.

Given a second chance, Nate is assigned to the US Embassy in Finland. Dominika is sent there to get to know the American and find out who he met in Moscow.

Soon Nate and Dominika are stalking each other at a public swimming pool in Helsinki and the Great Game of spy versus spy begins. The reader is immersed in the uncertainty and duplicity.

Does Nate recruit Dominika or does she recruit him? Are either of them a double agent?

Do they really fall in love? Or are both using sex to advance their careers?

Former KGB puppetmaster and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (this is before he was president) floats in and out of the narrative, perfectly described as a “blond scorpion with languid blue eyes.” Before the era of Facebook and online hacking, Putin’s intelligence services are up close and personal with their targets. They hunker down in Lada cars watching Americans walk the streets of Moscow and conduct psychological war through human proxies like Dominika.

Like le Carré’s THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the theme throughout RED SPARROW is who is real and who is false. Who is using and who is being used. There is so much meaty backstory that we are tempted to dig for buried clues. But there are many layers before we get to Russian bedrock.

There is also a short recipe at the end of every chapter in RED SPARROW, tempting us with delights like “Sparrow School Tokmach Soup.” At first I wondered if this was a joke, or a misguided effort to make an espionage thriller appeal to foodies. But in truth, it is just another way that Matthews lures us into his seductive world of spy versus spy. (If you are wondering about Soviet eats, check out the fabulous memoir MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by renowned food critic Anya Von Bremzen.)

The new RED SPARROW movie starring Jennifer Lawrence has gotten mixed reviews. I haven’t seen it, but if Hollywood followed the book faithfully, a lot has been crammed into two hours. For those who want to spend more time in the world of cloak and dagger, RED SPARROW is the start of an absorbing trilogy, which includes PALACE OF TREASON and THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE.

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

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Your VOTE Needed!

Your VOTE Needed!

The most recent Detective Emilia Cruz novels, PACIFIC REAPER and 43 MISSING, are in contention to win the Reader’s Choice award from the prestigious Killer Nashville mystery writer’s conference next month.

I think PACIFIC REAPER has the best chance of winning.

If you would be so kind as to vote, here is the link.https://killernashville.com/awards/killer-nashville-readers-choice-award/

Scroll down until you see the “Best Procedural” category, select PACIFIC REAPER, and click continue at the bottom of the page, then click Submit.

That’s it!

You may vote for titles in more than one genre, but you may not vote for the same title more than once. Multiple votes for the same title from the same IP address will not be counted.

Once again here is the link and thank you in advance!  https://killernashville.com/awards/killer-nashville-readers-choice-award/

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As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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As your gift for subscribing, I’ll send you the exclusive Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library!

2 novellas, 3 chapters, 1 unforgettable woman

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© 2018 Carmen Amato.

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I’m author Carmen Amato. I write mystery and suspense, including the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More

Dan Petrosini and the Detective Frank Luca series

Dan Petrosini and the Detective Frank Luca series

Dan Petrosini, mystery author and wine afficionado, was featured last month in the Mystery Ahead newsletter. His latest is THE SERENITY MURDER–just the name gives me the shivers. If you like police procedurals as much as I do, here’s a replay of our chat.

1  Carmen Amato: Dan, thanks so much for stopping by. Your police procedural series features Detective Frank Luca, (AM I THE KILLER, VANISHED, THE SERENITY MURDER) with action that travels between Florida and New Jersey. You describe them as “noir-heavy” detective stories. Tell us about the type of crime featured in the series.

Dan Petrosini: It’s great to be here. Luca, a homicide detective, pursues killers. Usually, he investigates one puzzling murder per story. However, Book 4, which is to be released in a couple of weeks, revolves around a serial killing.

2  CA: Luca has had a troubled life. How does that impact the plotlines of your books?

Dan Petrosini: Like all of us, Luca has personal issues; sickness, divorce, self-doubt, etc. At times they impact how he approaches a case and other times it’s a sub-plot. I’m a fan of realistic fiction. There are no super heroes or special powers in the real world and Luca lives in the real world.

Dan Petrosini3  CA: How did your writing style develop and what books and/or authors inspire you?

Dan Petrosini: When I began writing novels my writing at times was too dense.  I have worked hard at creating quick paced stories with realistic dialogue and the feedback is positive. I’ve accomplished that.

4  CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

Dan Petrosini: Whoa, just one? This is tough. Can’t we have a dinner party? My pick would surprise most people – Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  His portrayals and recounting of harsh Soviet means to silence dissent resonated with me.  Not one for goulash, we’d chat over fish and pasta washed it down with a river of wine.

5  CA: What is your best protip? Tell us about a writing habit, technique, or philosophy that keeps your writing sharp.

Dan Petrosini: I believe the most important component to writing successfully, is to do it regularly.  I write each and every day. My word count has grown and it has become easier. Not easy, but easier.

I realize many cannot find the time each day, which is fine. Find a time, one hour a week, one day a week, etc and stick to it. You will be surprised at how being disciplined will improve your craft and the words will pile up.

(Additionally, read like a mad man!)

More about Dan: Born in NYC, Dan Petrosini lives in SW Florida. Married with two adult daughters and a needy Maltese, Dan has written eight novels. Passionate about motivating others to pursue their dreams and creative sides, he plays saxophone in several bands and drinks too much wine.

Website www.danpetrosini.com

Amazon Author Page – https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B004LYEJ9E/

FB – https://www.facebook.com/DanPetrosiniAuthor/

Twitter – https://twitter.com/JAZZYWINE

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The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

read more

Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

read more

Warriors, souls, and the making of AWAKENING MACBETH

My great-uncle Nicky was the second-to-the-youngest of my grandfather’s five brothers. He was missing most of his right index finger. During WWII, while my grandfather turned out copper ship hulls as a foreman at the Revere Copper and Brass rolling mill, Nicky and...

read more

Ready to dive into the Mystery Ahead?

The twice-monthly Mystery Ahead newsletter delivers author interviews, mystery book reviews, and my own book release and sales alerts.

As your gift for subscribing, I’ll send you the exclusive Detective Emilia Cruz Starter Library!

2 novellas, 3 chapters, 1 unforgettable woman

all in a single downloadable PDF

© 2018 Carmen Amato.

Hello

I’m author Carmen Amato. I write mystery and suspense, including the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More

Season of change, complete with koi pond

Season of change, complete with koi pond

It’s the season of change.

After years as professional nomads, we finally bought the Dream House. The move to a new state was a 60-day exercise in logistics and determination during which we sold Old House, bought Dream House, packed up, and drove caravan-style for 2 days.

The television and printer, as well as much of my pottery from Mexico and Nicaragua, were casualties of the moving company. Otherwise we survived the ordeal intact to find that Dream House came equipped with a koi pond.

koi pond

Nothing against koi, but I never wanted any. The  pond is a magnet for the dog and takes time and attention to maintain. Koi food costs $30 a bag.

My husband calls them “the freeloaders.”

BUT watching flickering flame-colored fish soothes nerves frazzled by the Great Task of Settling In. Now after 3 weeks, 90% of the boxes are unpacked and I know how to get to the grocery store.

As a result, the draft of RUSSIAN MOJITO: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7 beckons. Big changes in my life will translate into big changes for the first female police detective in Acapulco, too.

But first . . .

Step 1

Find a dedicated writing space.

We decided to repurpose rooms. The family room off the kitchen has become the Banquet Hall. The dining room will be my new office. This means getting rid of the chandelier and the chair rail, not to mention the mud brown paint, to which the previous owners were much addicted. Brown is not a creative color, IMHO.

Step 2

Get organized.

While I want to devote 100% to Emilia and company, there are many demands on my time and getting this house together is a major one. Establishing a routine will help maximize my writing time, as will simple repeatable processes (for updating social media accounts, running Amazon ads, etc). This means gathering up all my old notes from webinars and articles about productivity and implementing advice that works for my schedule and situation.

It’s a game of increments, as a clever gentleman recently advised me. Small gains on multiple fronts are achieved by organization and perseverance and eventually add up to Big Things.

Now, now, now

Being Type A, naturally I want everything done yesterday. Wish me luck!

But as another wise person said, it’s all about the journey.

Time to feed the fish.

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

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Straight Shooting with Mystery Author Mike Faricy

Straight Shooting with Mystery Author Mike Faricy

I just finished THE OFFICE, the 17th entry in Mike Faricy’s addictive Dev Haskell series and immediately scooped up his Dev Haskell boxed set. The books are like Pringle’s chips–you can’t read just one. In this chat, which originally appeared in my Mystery Ahead newsletter, Mike shares the secret of his writing success.

1  Carmen Amato: Mike, thanks so much for stopping by. Your wonderful Dev Haskell series is a briskly-paced PI series with a main character whose inner voice channels Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. Tell us how Dev came to be and the type of cases he handles.

Mike Faricy: Thank you for having me, Carmen. It’s great to be here. Over the years I wrote maybe fifty or a hundred, no doubt award winning, first chapters. Then one day I had a unique thought, maybe finish one of these or stop wasting your time, so I wrote Russian Roulette, the first book in the Dev Haskell series.

I’m a voracious reader and when I land on an author I like, I inhale just about all of their work, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Stuart MacBride, Ian Rankin along with a number of others. I had a ton of ideas bouncing around in my thick skull, and once I finished Russian Roulette I thought I can write another book with this character. Suddenly, I’ve had a series going and it just keeps coming.

One of the things that surprised me was I initially wrote Dev Haskell with a guy like me in mind as my reader. Almost immediately I started getting emails and messages from women telling me how much they enjoyed the books. One woman said she would love a wild, getaway weekend with Dev, but you wouldn’t tell your girlfriends about it for at least ten years, and then, when you did, one of them would say, “I did that, too.”

Dev ends up with all sorts of women who think; you know with a little work I could maybe fix this guy. Of course, by the end of the book they’re telling him to never, ever contact them again. I think there’s a couple of restraining orders out there on him. The most recent work in the Dev Haskell series is The Office.

The Office by Mike Faricy2  CA: Dev’s world is populated with a great cast of multi-dimensional secondary characters who both help and hinder Dev. Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?

MF: I look no further than real life. In all actuality some of the crazier characters are based on people I know, things that they’ve done, good and bad. What’s the line? Truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve found that to be pretty accurate. In a lot of my reading, things get so unbelievable. Some special forces guy jumps out of a plane using his raincoat as a parachute and lands on the roof of the White House to save the president.

Dev is involved more or less in day to day sorts of situations. He’s not saving the world from terrorists or stopping an international banking scandal. All my books are based on the sorts of people we all know. Maybe that slightly different kid you knew in grade school, you haven’t see in thirty years and you wonder what ever happened to them. You also don’t want to get too close, but you’re still curious. Often there is a history of bad decisions, or they were just plain lucky, but believe they’re suddenly smarter than the rest of us.

Plus, no matter what’s going on in your world, you read Dev and well, you figure, you don’t look so bad after all.

3  CA: Dev seems to date a different woman in every book! If you were his wingman, how would you introduce him in a bar?

MF: Carefully. He would be the perfect gentleman, or try to be, but in the end things always go the wrong way. He’s basically a nice guy. He’d help with a project, maybe paint a room, be kind to a child, bring you flowers or chocolate, maybe take you out to dinner where some crazy thing would no doubt happen, but in the end, he’s Dev Haskell. It’s just not going to work.

He has a ‘friend with benefits’ relationship with Heidi Bauer, but she regularly can’t see him because she’s with another guy or she’s still mad at him for whatever stupid thing he recently did. After a while women seem to wisely decide that, you know, this just isn’t working for me and they move on.

I had a scene where Dev’s cooking breakfast for a woman who spent the night after a romantic dinner and the toaster suddenly starts smoking. Turns out a mouse had been in the toaster and at that point, she’s getting dressed and hurrying out to her car never to set foot in his place again. That pretty much sums it up. That also really happened to a pal of mine, the mouse in the toaster, but that’s another story.

4  CA: How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

MF: Setting is really important, but I’ve always taken the advice of Elmore Leonard which basically said, keep it short. A line or two, not paragraphs, and don’t dwell on the weather. If you describe a smell and a weeks worth of advertising circulars and past due bills on the coffee table that sets the scene. Or, if it’s a tense situation and the individual can hear their heart pounding, it’s late at night and the stair creaks, that conveys quite a bit. I use the KISS adage, Keep It Simple Stupid.

5  CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

Mike FaricyMF: Elmore Leonard is the guest and I’d probably be serving a crock pot meal with ciabatta bread and plenty of wine. Something like white chicken chili or a stew, only because I wouldn’t want to be distracted in the kitchen. We’d have hors d’oeuvres, beverages and a wine with dinner. And a dessert, I love desserts along with a small plate of nice chocolates.

We’d talk about plot, characters, general information and also our failures. A highly successful author once told me that we all have a work that we keep under the bed. Something we slaved over and at the end, it just didn’t work. It’s always inspiring to learn how much everyone stumbles, and falls. Then, the successful people get up, dust themselves off and keep moving forward.

6  CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

MF: Here’s a quote that fits me perfectly. “Well, you give me too much credit for foresight and planning. I haven’t got a clue what the hell I’m doing.”  Robert B. Parker

Thank you so much for the opportunity, wishing you and everyone out there, all the very best.

Thank you!

More about Mike: Mike Faricy lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and Dublin, Ireland. He writes crime fiction, the Dev Haskell series and the Hotshots series are written under his name, the Corridor Man series under the pen name Nick James, and the Jack Dillon series under the pen name Patrick Emmett. His latest work of genius is the first in the Hotshots series, Reduced Ransom!.

Email: mikefaricyauthor@gmail.com  Website: http://www.mikefaricybooks.com

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

read more

Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

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Itzel’s story, or how she came to be in a thriller

Itzel’s story, or how she came to be in a thriller

Many of the pivotal moments in my life have happened over a good meal.

One time, however, the meal wasn’t even cooked.

There was a thriving expatriate community in Mexico City when we lived there. Soon after arriving, I met Delia from South Carolina. Her husband worked for a cell service company and they had two boys, both younger than my kids. Delia and Bob ended up renting a house near ours in the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood. Delia and I both belonged to a small English-language writing group and the Newcomer’s Club.

Neither Delia nor I had ever hired domestic help when we lived in the United States but in Mexico it was somewhere between an obligation and a necessity. Domestic help was a big segment of the local economy. Salaries were low compared to the US. Houses were huge and pollution left a fine black ash on everything. Everyone had at least a maid and a gardener.

Related post: Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Expatriates had a lively underground network when it came to hiring. We heard which maids were looking for a post because their family had moved back to the US, who was lazy, who ran around, which placement services were reliable, and so on.

Delia hired a full time maid through a placement agency. Shortly thereafter, she invited us to a dinner party.

After drinks in the dining room, we four couples sat in the dining room set with Delia’s antique silver and crystal. Itzel, the new maid was very young and her navy blue uniform hung on her thin frame. She served the appetizer on individual plates and darted back into the kitchen through the swinging door. Later, she collected the empty plates and again disappeared into the kitchen.

We chatted while we waited for the main course.

And waited.

And waited.

Delia finally excused herself and went into the kitchen.

A minute later she asked me to come into the kitchen, too.

I found Itzel sobbing. Delia, whose Spanish was still at the beginner level, had no idea why there was no dinner.

The mystery was soon cleared up. Itzel had seasoned the fish as instructed, turned on the oven, and put in the pan.. But the fish didn’t cook. She fiddled with the scary knobs on the scary range, but 45 minutes later, the fish was still raw.

I’d seen this problem before. The young woman had put the fish into the storage drawer at the bottom of the range, not into the actual oven.

We quickly fried the fish in butter on the stove. Dinner was saved.

Later, I talked to Itzel. She was 16 and this was her first job as a muchacha planta, a live-in housemaid. It was also the first time she’d lived in a house with a stove, an oven, and a flush toilet. She was overwhelmed by the size of the house, all the different things she was expected to know, and the challenge of communicating with a family still learning Spanish.

But she was earning good money and got every other weekend off, when she went home to Veracruz.

Itzel unwittingly provided me with the outline of a character. Over the next few months, I colored in that outline until I had Luz de Maria, the woman who would anchor THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

Get THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY on Amazon

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

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Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

I’ve always liked to be in the water, but by no stretch of the imagination can I call myself a strong swimmer.

I didn’t take swimming lessons until I was in 5th grade, when I learned to do a passable crawl and a backstroke that always sent me into the next lane over. Years later, I got my scuba certification and travelled the Pacific with my gear in tow.

My husband is a swimmer, too. He competed on his high school swim team and still likes to swim laps to keep fit. Our best vacations have been on the shores of Adirondack lakes.

We lived in Mexico when our kids were ready to learn to swim. The American school had an enormous pool used for regional competitions, with football stadium-style bleachers running along one side of the modern pool house.

Lessons were held after school when a legion of mothers, maids, and chauffeurs invaded the locker rooms to get the elementary students ready. The mothers wore stiletto heels, skinny pants, and pounds of jewelry, along with the obligatory sleek ponytail. Maids were limited to navy, black, or gray dresses with white cotton trim. A few pinks stood out, indication of a dedicated nanny. Chauffeurs always wore suits and ties.

Once the children were chivvied to the pool, mothers, maids, and chauffeurs took to the stands, although not together. The mothers sat in a tight clique on the lower benches, with their employees scattered above. Most maids used the time to do the children’s homework.

The swim coach was a handsome young man who strode up and down the pool deck in sweatpants and a coral necklace. The rumor was that he was a former Olympic athlete.

He never got in the pool, but merely called out instruction to the flailing kids. No one seemed to care. I got the feeling, as he preened around the pool, that being a swim coach wasn’t his only source of income.

After the lesson, the locker rooms filled again. Most of the children left the school grounds in pajamas and bathrobe, some carried across campus to the cars by the chauffeur.

My kids survived having neither maid nor chauffeur and figured out the swimming process on their own. My son was a lifeguard through high school. My daughter got her scuba certification when she was 14.

But the Mexican swim coach lives on in fiction. He anchored a memorable moment in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY:

Hector took Luz to the Colegio Americano for Victoria’s swimming lesson. Luz met the little girl at the school’s aquatic facility, got her suited up, then carried Victoria’s towel and backpack to the bleachers.

The little girl scampered over to her class. The swimming teacher was Coach Carlos, a muscular young man who taught the children by walking along the edge of the pool in tight warm-up pants and no shirt, flexing his biceps. Most of the mothers sitting in the bleachers during swim lessons couldn’t keep their eyes off him. There were far more maids than mother in the bleachers, however, all staring at the Coach Carlos show. Luz usually looked, too, although he was cocky and arrogant and way out of her league.

Coach Carlos said something to Victoria. He lifted her into the water, the muscles in his back rippling as he bent. He probably has lots of parent-teacher conferences, Luz thought. She pulled her eyes away and opened Victoria’s backpack. English homework again.

When the lesson was over Victoria ran back to Luz to be dried off. They went into the locker room and Luz dressed Victoria in pajamas and robe for the ride home and an early bedtime.

They were walking toward the front gate of the school, where Hector waited with the Suburban, when Luz heard the click of high heels on pavement. A hand tapped her on the shoulder.

It was Señora Portillo, with her son whining next to her and the Portillo’s chauffeur walking behind with the boy’s backpack and swim bag. Señora Vega and Señora Portillo were friends, part of a circle of beautiful coffee-drinking women who met regularly at the upscale Café O on Monte Libano in Lomas Virreyes.

“Luz de Maria, are you free to work for me the Saturday after next?” Señora Portillo asked. “I need some extra hands for Enrique’s birthday party and Selena said you can sometimes be helpful.”

“Saturday after next?” Luz verified.

“Yes.”

Luz was off again that weekend. If she worked for Señora Portillo on Saturday it meant she could not go home. But it also meant another 200 pesos and that was a real windfall so Luz said yes.

“Alberto can pick you up.” Señora Portillo indicated the chauffeur. She extended a piece of paper to Luz with the date, time, and address on it. Her attention immediately refocused on a high-heeled mother strolling by who was obviously a friend.

The chauffeur nodded at Luz as his employer chattered to her friend. He was a blunt-faced tank of a man poured into a sharkskin suit. Almost certainly a former boxer. “I am Alberto Gonzalez Ruiz,” he said.

He spoke formally, but his diction was sloppy. Luz had the sudden silly thought that he probably had gotten hit in the head a lot during his boxing career.

She gave him a weak half-smile.

“I shall be pleased to see you that day,” he said meaningfully. Señora Portillo ended her other conversation and Gonzalez Ruiz followed her out of the school gate.

Luz watched him go, her mouth dry. Chauffeurs made lots of money. Lots.


“Rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” — Literary Fiction Review

Get THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY on Amazon

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

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Mystery author Sandra Nikolai: Poisons, pressure, and everyday heroes

Mystery author Sandra Nikolai: Poisons, pressure, and everyday heroes

Canadian mystery author Sandra Nikolai writes the excellent Megan Scott/Michael Elliott series featuring a ghostwriter and an investigative journalist. Sandra and I have watched each other’s series grow book-by-book, while indulging in a shared love of chocolate almonds.

1. Carmen Amato: Sandra, thanks so much for stopping by. Your series set in Canada drew me in from the start because it was different than the norm with two main characters—a ghostwriter and a reporter. Why did you go in this direction instead of a police procedural or private detective series?

Sandra NikolaiSandra Nikolai: Happy to be here, Carmen. There’s something intriguing about a hero that everyone admires, whether it’s a feisty female cop (winks) or a shrewd private detective. Because I liked the notion of everyday people helping to solve crime, I created my heroes based on the premise of ordinary characters facing terrifying situations. No one represents the everyday hero better than ghostwriter Megan Scott, a young woman with high ethical standards whose sheltered world is turned upside down when she is accused of murdering her husband and sets out to clear her name. Add investigative reporter Michael Elliott, a daring young risk-taker who pursues justice despite dangerous and unpredictable circumstances, and you have the creation of an interesting duo.

The difference between Megan and Michael is their approach to investigating a crime. Where Michael is cool and trusts his instincts, Megan is cautious and analytical. Her interest in his sleuthing activities and her aptitude to decipher the tiniest details convince him to take her along on some of his ventures. For Megan, a covert outing provides an exciting break from her “boring” job as ghostwriter of non-fiction material, but it fulfills another purpose. It enables her to pull Michael back from the brink of death when necessary. Megan’s curiosity occasionally lands her in trouble too, so it works both ways.

2. CA: How do you create multi-dimensional fictional characters, including your lead characters Megan Scott and Michael Elliott? Where do you look for inspiration when creating characters?

SN: For each of my lead characters, I create a chart that includes their family and work history, physical appearance, personality traits, and behaviors. To produce well-rounded characters, I also describe their fears and aspirations, likes and dislikes, and preferences for food, clothes, and music. I go through a similar routine—though not as elaborate—for secondary characters. I might add information to the charts as the main characters develop from book to book in the series.

Inspiration for my characters comes many sources—the news, movies, crime case studies. I do a lot of research to find tidbits of information that I can develop and weave into my stories to make the characters and their actions credible.

3. CA: Poison figures in more than one of your novels, in crafty ways. How much research do you do and how do you keep it organized?

SN: I can thank Shakespeare for inspiring the poison scenes! (laughs) Okay, on a more serious note, once I research the poison or drug I want to use in the story, I keep the relative website links, notes, and photos in a computer folder so I can easily refer to them. For my novel Broken Trust, a mystery that highlights the current fentanyl overdose crisis, I researched how the medical community and law enforcement dealt with people affected by the drug. I read personal stories about youths who unwittingly took fentanyl-laced street drugs and died, and about other users who lived but suffered devastating physical and mental consequences. The research process dug up a lot of disturbing information, but I wanted to accurately depict the growing dilemma that first responders face today as one of the elements in the story.

4. CA: Your characters are rooted in Montreal, but your novels travel beyond to other parts of Canada. Why is Canada a good setting for a mystery? How do you use setting to create and build suspense?

SN: Canada is a vast country with settings ranging from small towns to large cosmopolitan cities—much like the United States. The weather can vary immensely from coast to coast and temperatures can fluctuate widely, even within a twenty-four hour period. Having lived in Montreal for decades, I used that city as the setting for my first book, False Impressions. When I decided to continue the series, I varied the settings for subsequent stories. I also ensured each new story occurred in a consecutive season and used the weather to heighten suspense when possible. For example, False Impressions takes place in Montreal during a sizzling summer; Fatal Whispers in Portland, Maine in the cool fall; Icy Silence in a suburban college school during a winter ice storm, and so on. I don’t have a title for book #6 yet, but a rainy autumn is the season of choice.

5. CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

SN: I’d invite Louise Penny, Canadian author of the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series set in the fictitious village of Three Pines, Quebec. Still Life, her first book in the series, won multiple awards including best first crime novel in Canada and the United States.

We’d enjoy French onion soup topped with cheese toasts, steak frites with a glass of red wine, and a slice of sugar pie for dessert—menu selections mentioned in her detective series. We’d chat about her insightful Inspector Gamache and the artsy, quirky, and sociable inhabitants of Three Pines. On a personal level, we’d compare notes on our experience living in La Belle Province of Quebec and discuss how it influenced our choice of characters, plots, and settings. It would be magnifique!

6. CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

SN: “Writing is its own reward.” – Henry Miller

Thank you for inviting me, Carmen!

Sandra weaves ordinary characters into extraordinary, life-threatening situations, using the premise that evil often lurks in familiar places. Her popular, fast-paced mystery series featuring ghostwriter Megan Scott and investigative reporter Michael Elliott has earned rave reviews internationally from fans who love the challenge of solving heart-pounding whodunits. Visit www.sandranikolai.com to find out more.

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

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El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

Everybody has heard of Don Quixote. The image of the fictional tilter-at-windmills is everywhere in Mexico, which has long adopted Spanish literature and legends as its own. But when I went looking for the literary hero for my fictional Mexican hero in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, I needed someone more, ahem, successful than Don Quixote.

El Cid movie posterMovie star

El Cid was a character I’d seen mentioned by Mexican authors. With little more context than the Charleton Heston movie, I assumed he was a fictional creation like Don Quixote.

But I was wrong. It only took a little digging to find El Cantar de Mio Cid, or The Poem of the Cid, the only surviving epic poem from medieval Spain. The poem, similar in form to The Song of Roland, recounts the adventures of the real Spanish warlord and nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. He was called El Cid Campeador, a title that reflected the esteem in which he was held by both the Moors and the Spanish. “El cid” was derived from the Moorish al-sidi, meaning sir or lord, while “campeador” means champion in Spanish.

El Cantar de Mio Cid is a dramatic retelling of daring deeds with a heroic figure, facing down enemies with courage and his sword. A continued refrain in the poem is that El Cid, with zest for the fight, was born in a fortunate time.

Historic figure

El Cid had already made a name for himself fighting the Moors for King Ferdinand when the king died. The lands Ferdinand had ruled were divided among his five children. They immediately started fighting each other. Sancho, the son who’d inherited Castile, named El Cid commander of his armies. When Sancho was assassinated, his brother King Alfonso was the chief suspect. El Cid made Alfonso publicly proclaim his innocence. Angered, Alfonso forced El Cid into exile alone, in effect holding his daughters and beloved wife Jimena hostage.

On his warhorse Babieca and brandishing his sword Tizona, El Cid became a mercenary, mainly fighting the Moors but not being too fussy in his choice of employer. Eventually he managed to squeeze Alfonso into relenting on the exile and was reunited with his family. Aligned once again with Alfonso, El Cid conquered Valencia where he and Jimena ruled in Alfonso’s name until El Cid died in 1099. His daughters became queens of Aragon and Navarre. His sword is preserved in Spain’s Museum of the Army.

Role model

El Cantar de Mio Cid is as much about leadership as anything else. Surprising for his time, El Cid often “took counsel,” asked his men for input, and actually listened to their advice. As a result, his men were fiercely loyal to him; 115 knights spurned King Alfonso, went into exile with El Cid, and fought by his side as mercenaries.

This was the perfect role model I’d been looking for as my fiction hero, Eduardo Cortez Castillo, leads a brotherhood of cops sworn to be incorruptible. In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, “Los Hierros,” the Iron Ones, will take on not just police corruption but a scheme to allow Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel to buy political power through the Mexican presidential elections.

El Cid’s relationship with his beloved wife Jimena gave the role model an extra dimension. Like El Cid, Eduardo falls in love, although with a woman who by the unspoken laws of Mexico’s rigid class structure, cannot stand by his side. Yet Eduardo tells Luz de Maria about his role model and references to El Cid become a secret code between the two lovers.

I hope you check out THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and find the clues to El Cid.

But most of all, may you, like El Cid, live in a fortunate time.

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

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Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

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The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.

Update

Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition. We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of...

read more

Welcome to the opioid crisis

I spent 30 years with the CIA. My official resume says things like “distinguished record of solutions-driven leadership across multiple mission areas,” and “led program responsible for collection, translation, and analysis of breaking events,” and “oversaw work of...

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