Intention versus Reaction

“Persistence is the master virtue.”

The quote is attributed to the great thinker Anonymous. As I plug away at the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO, it really resonates. But along with persistence, a few other key words have been useful lately.

A good friend is a student of human behavior and has broadened my every day vocabulary with words like “intentional” and “threading.” Not only have these words led me to consider how I plot mysteries but also how my characters behave.

And me, too.

Related: The Emilia Cruz series character bios

Intention

To act with intention, or be “intentional” is a positive I-will-own-this-outcome concept. In contrast, by not acting with intention, we are willing to be reactive. That means possibly ending up owning  someone else’s agenda.

That’s not to say that acting with intention means you’ll always get your way. But to risk another quote from Anonymous: “If you aim at nothing you will surely hit it.”

Threading

Threading is another great term. When I’m threading, I’m carrying my intention through a series of actions. We talk about the “thread of a conversation,” often in the context of not losing it. What if we kept the thread, unspooling it via multiple intentional interactions? Wouldn’t that improve the odds of getting what we intended?

Huh. I think that’s called persistence.

In Other News

CLIFF DIVER, the first Emilia Cruz mystery, is just $0.99 for Kindle. Meet Emilia as she dives into the death of a dirty cop . . . her own lieutenant. Is another cop the killer? Or does a conspiracy reach far beyond the detectives squadroom and into Acapulco’s political machine?

Emilia is the first and only female police detective in Acapulco. Good thing she can take the heat.

Cliff Diver cover

The Elusive Charms of Productivity

I’ve been reading the blog of James Clear, a life coach and productivity expert. While I mostly agree that productivity is all about Me, I also think it’s all about Them.

Where for art thou, Productivity?

Clear gives great advice on how to live a richer life and enjoy the ride as you journey toward your goals, which I soak up like a sponge. As a mystery author, it is easy to lose sight of why I started writing in the first place and instead focus on sales numbers, useless comparisons with other (invariably more clever and successful) authors, and what I’m doing wrong (no marketing acumen) instead of what I’m doing right (creating memorable characters and stories that resonate and entertain).

Clear’s advice on productivity is thoughtful and practical. But he’s not the only one. There are oodles of tips for authors looking to maximize their time: write 1000 words a day, use these writing prompts, set a timer to take a break every 45 minutes because you’ll work like the dickens before the break.

But progress on the next Emilia Cruz novel, KING PESO, is merely crawling along. With all this great advice out there, why isn’t my productivity through the roof?

Maybe it’s not about me at all.

The Therapy Chair

For years, I wrote in the spare bedroom. The room featured a desk, a computer, and a pull out sofa. The kids were small and my writing time was limited to weekend mornings when Dad kept them busy.

When we moved, the new guest room featured two twin beds. The bed closest to my desk was a magnet for the kids as they made their way through elementary, then middle school. They’d lay back and talk about everything; teachers and homework and dogs.  They jokingly called it “the therapy bed.”

Another move and I gained a proper writing office, albeit with only enough space for an extra chair. It was promptly dubbed “the therapy chair.”

Over the years, I spent hours at the computer, hands in my lap, mystery plots replaced by conversations about teen romances, crazed teachers, and American TV shows the kids were missing because we lived overseas. The doctor was in.

Of course I don’t begrudge that time with my kids, and think those conversations helped them both to be the college honor students they are today. Could I have written more without that therapy chair? Possibly. But I would have missed the important stuff.

The most fascinating person in the world

Sometimes it is hard to be productive because you’re just too fascinating. Everybody wants to be with you, talk to you, have a little of that fascination rub off on them.

Fellow scribbler Deb Nam-Krane, wrote a short but brilliant list of why productivity can be so elusive and gave me permission to reprint it here:

1. If you want to convert Night Owls to Morning People, just start waking up really early (like 4:30 AM early) so you can work out, wash the dishes and get some writing in. This will ensure that everyone else will start waking up early, too, no matter how quiet you are. Because you are the most fascinating person ever.
2. Take advantage of every second of Adult Alone Time you have if you’re trying to be productive in ways that require concentration; otherwise you’ll be trying to get things done while two of your children are chatting in your room. Never mind that Every. Other. Room. in the house is unoccupied. Because, again, you are the most fascinating person ever.
3. The best way to get people to stop complaining about things you do and decisions you make is to put them in your shoes. It might take a long time, but it works.
4. Laundry is always there for you, just like the dishes.
5. Don’t waste energy resenting that you have to clean up after people who technically should be able to clean up after themselves. Just do it for your own survival- and then start throwing away anything of theirs you find in a place you disapprove of.

You can read more of Deb’s clever observations on life and writing on her blog: http://writtenbydeb.blogspot.com/

Productivity goes to the dogs

The therapy chair was semi-retired when the kids went to college.

But then we got a puppy.

A killer attack voodoo puppy. Or for the layman, a Belgian Malinois from a breeder who sells to Navy Seals.

While we lived in Mexico, our big dogs thwarted more than one robbery. When it was time for another dog, we knew we wanted one that could keep our home safe no matter where we live.

Well, the home is now safer than Fort Knox. The dog is slowly becoming a good citizen, as long as you aren’t the pizza delivery guy, the mailman, or other intruder with evil intent. Training takes time. Plus there are toys to destroy, endless trips to the back yard to investigate the woodpile, walks to get used to her new urban setting, and an insatiable need for belly rubs.

Hmm. Maybe productivity is overrated.

In other news

Cliff Diver_June2014_120pxThe first Detective Emilia Cruz mystery, CLIFF DIVER, is just $0.99 for Kindle this month! Get the book Kirkus Reviews called “Consistently exciting . . a clever Mexican detective tale that will leave readers eager for the series’ next installment.” 

Rated 4.6 out of 5*

Come on down to Acapulco . . . if you can take the heat

Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Can a mystery author who writes about sunny Mexico really love cold places?

Yep. Besides Mexico, where my mystery series is set, my favorite country (except for home) is Norway. Not only does the country have superb natural vistas of mountains and fjords, but Norway’s history is likewise fairly amazing, if little known. Yes, Virginia, there’s more to Norway than Vikings, Voss water, and fellow mystery author Jo Nesbo.

Spectacular moments and singular people

Amundsen with dogsled and flag

Picture of Roald Amundsen courtesy The Sunday Times, UK

  • Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to the South Pole, beating out British explorer Robert Scott
Nansen passport

Picture courtesy World Digital Library

  • Norwegian explorer and statesman Fritjof Nansen’s Nansen Passport enabled WWI refugees to remake their lives
Norwegian resistance fighters

Picture courtesy cryptomuseum.com

  • The Norwegian Resistance fought during WWII  with courage and distinction

Related post: Remembering Resistance 

  • The nation of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy looked eerily like Norway’s traditional architecture. Okay, so this is the fabled battle scene when the Rohirrim ride against the orcs, not anything architectural. But a great bit of film and you should watch it.

Museums

Stave Church

Stave Church

I’ve been lucky to visit Norway twice and fell in love with the cobalt blue sky, crystal clear water, excellent (albeit pricey) shopping, and terrific museums. The Fram Museum houses the specially built polar ship that carried Nansen north and Amundsen south. The Folk Museum, where the Stave Church is located–the interior of which was very dark and smelled like bacon–is an immense meadow outside of Oslo filled with period homes.

Related post: The Kitchen UN

It was at the Folk Museum that I learned the Norwegian words for King (Konge) and Queen (Dronning) when I bought a huge paper doll poster. Awkward to carry home, I had notions of framing it. I still do.

King, Queen, and costumes

If cut out, Konge and Dronning would be bigger than Barbie and Ken. Each doll has several different costumes, just like these smaller paper doll postcards of Norwegian folk costumes also purchased at the Folk Museum.Unni and Elin paper dollspaper doll from Norwaytraditional Norwegian paper dollsAllied costumes

The last paper doll postcard is the most interesting of all, as it looks like 1940’s fashions. Norway struggled under German occupation 1940-1945. When reading accounts of those days it doesn’t seem that many women were wearing ball gowns or fancy dresses.

Another mystery?

For a couple of years, I’ve been gathering notes for a thriller set in Oslo during WWII. It is loosely inspired by OSLO INTRIGUE, the real-life account of Helen Astrup, a British woman who worked for the Norwegian Resistance during the war.

I don’t know when I’ll write the thriller. Maybe after I finish the latest Jo Nesbo :)

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

If you read this blog with any regularity you know the following;

Talavera Pottery

The latest thing to jog my imagination is talavera, the beautiful and colorful Mexican pottery. The only authentic talavera comes from Puebla and the surrounding villages “because of the quality of the natural clay found there and the tradition of production which goes back to the 16th century.

talavera

Traditional talavera pieces. The store owner eyed me suspiciously when I took the picture but was less suspicious when ringing up my purchases.

 

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

You can buy talavera online at La Fuente and Direct from Mexico.

Tasty Writing

Talavera was featured in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. The main protagonist, Eddo Cortez Castillo, is from Puebla. His family runs one of the oldest and wealthiest talavera companies.

Talavera,” Tomás said. “The Cortez family owns Marca Cortez, half of Puebla, and the land the new Volkswagen factory is on. Eddo is still the family’s legal advisor and sits on the board of directors. Don’t know how he finds the time. It helps that he never sleeps.”

Eddo is rich. Richer than the Vegas, even richer than the Portillos. “Puebla,” Luz said. “The city or the state?”

“Both.”

Phenomenally rich.

Real talavera is relatively expensive, although when I lived in Mexico City it was popular to go to Puebla and order service for 8 of a particular pattern. I knew of one family in Mexico City that refused to let their domestic help eat off of their talavera plates, prompting this intense scene in HIDDEN LIGHT.

Luz blinked at her sister. Lupe’s bottom lip was trembling. “Okay,” Luz said, drawing it out. A tiny white lie could put this awkward conversation to rest and Maria could be told the truth later. Luz took a deep breath as if embarrassed. “I . . . uh . . . broke a dish.”

“Six hundred fifty pesos for a dish?” Tío shouted. Everyone jumped. Someone’s spoon clattered to the floor.

Luz shrugged. “It was talavera.

Tío’s hand hit Luz’s cheekbone with a stinging smack. Her head snapped back, her eyes watered, the room sparkled with vertigo and she tasted blood.

Through a curtain of dizziness, Luz watched Juan Pablo rise up and throw a wide looping punch across the table. He put his weight behind it, his chair spurting out behind him, his feet nearly coming off the floor. Fist connected with jaw and Tío spilled to the floor.

“Don’t you touch my sister!” Juan Pablo yelled furiously.

“She’s a stupid girl,” Tío roared, scrambling to his feet. “Breaking dishes when her family needs the money.”

“So you can drink it?” Juan Pablo was barely in control.

“Lupe is pregnant,” Tío shouted.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you get a job?”

Tío threw a counterpunch across the table but Juan Pablo was younger and faster and sober. He jerked back to avoid the blow, then lunged forward, and suddenly they were snarling and grappling like two wild dogs, hands locked in each other’s shirts. The table between them rocked wildly as they wrestled over the dishes and the tortillas and the clay cazuela full of rice and seafood, ready to kill each other in the small cramped kitchen with everyone else sitting like shocked statues. Plastic glasses spun crazily and tipped over, flatware clattered to the floor, and Luz’s plate slid onto her lap.

Hidden Light by Carmen Ama

Keep reading!

4.8 out of 5 * on Amazon

“You’re hooked. Amato nails the gritty setting, the tug of a dream.” — Michael Schmicker, author of The Witch of Napoli

All the Best Fiction Books Deserve a Podcast

Finally, the Emilia Cruz series is not the exception and the podcast has landed.

I had the honor of being interviewed by George Plunkett of ChoseMexicotoRetire.com this week. George asked about my writing, favorite places Mexico, and the Emilia Cruz series. He’d read CLIFF DIVER and was much taken with the brawl in the unisex bathroom in the police station (no spoilers!)

George’s website showcases podcasts from a range of expatriates knowledgeable about Mexico, including authors, realtors, and owners of news sites. The podcast is available on the website, iTunes, and is already getting good attention.

All the best fiction books get a podcast, I hear. But if I could ask a favor. Let me know if I sound like Chandler’s old girlfriend Janice . . .

Giving Thanks to God on Rusted Steel

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)

I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as  Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought these two retablos in a small shop in the Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.Retablo as visual inspiration

In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.religious retablo inspires a mystey series

This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.

Book coverTHE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, a political thriller

“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review

 

Little Silver Miracles

I’ve been thinking about visual inspiration lately, as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Thankfully, Mexico is replete with visual cues to creativity, from large (the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City’s Zocalo, assorted volcanoes) to small (shots of tequila, Chupa Pops, silver milagros).

The word milagro means “miracle.” Milagros are small charms, typically silver or tin, that represent an intention. The Zanzibar art website, which carries folk art from around the world, talks about milagros on its page devoted to Mexico.

The bearer typically is asking a saint to intercede on their behalf. They may be asking for health after an injury or illness, a successful romance, or the survival of their livestock. The charms are in the shape of an item related to the request, such as arms, legs, hearts, animals, etc.

The requestor leaves the milagro at the shrine of the saint that they are asking to intercede on their behalf. Mexico is full of statues and crosses covered with the silver charms, including those pinned to ribbons or threads adorning a statue. In many cases, the milagros are pinned to clothing worn by a statue. A milagro can also be carried for protection and good luck, in the way Detective Emilia Carmen Amato free stories The AnglerCruz carried her rosary with her in DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery.

I used a milagro as visual inspiration in The Angler, a stand-alone short story that takes place before the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series. The story is free at free-ebooks.net.

When I left Mexico, I took some milagros with me, in the form of this crucifix and a shape known as a Sacred Heart.silver charms adorn a purple cross

Mexican milagros charms

I’m writing in the room where they hang. KING PESO is coming together, albeit slowly.

Not that I’m praying for an intercession, mind you.

But visual inspiration that turns into faster typing wouldn’t hurt.

Cliff DiverCLIFF DIVER, the 1st Emilia Cruz mystery

Kindle version just $0.99

“Consistently exciting” — Kirkus Reviews

 

Boxing Up a Mystery Series

She came back a moment later with a box decorated in the traditional rayada carved lacquer technique. It was the size of a loaf of bread and the bottom was fitted with a small drawer with a tiny gold knob.

This is a most special and precious item,” Tifani said as she moved the other items aside and spread a velvet cloth over the glass-topped counter. Lupita placed the box reverently on the fabric. “A relic of the most holy martyr Padre Pro.”

Emilia’s breath caught in her throat. “Really? Padre Pro?”

“Who’s that?” Kurt asked.

“Padre Pro,” Emilia said, as her heart thumped. She was glad she was already sitting down. The rayada box was lacquered in blue and black with an etched design of crosses rather than the usual animal motifs. “He was a priest. A martyr of the Cristero War.”  (DIABLO NIGHTS)

As I start work on the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO, I’ve been collecting (at least mentally) the unique Mexican influences that will underpin the story. Visual inspiration is important to me, as readers of this blog might have guessed by now, and I’ve done the same for all of the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Related post: Acapulco: Locating the Emilia Cruz Series

The quote above from the first chapter of DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd book in the mystery series, narrowed the country’s turbulent religious history down to a riveting moment in a Catholic shop. But my favorite detail was about the box containing a purported relic from Padre Pro, the real-life Catholic martyr.

In DIABLO NIGHTS, the relic is housed in a rayada box. Rayada is the Mexican technique of carving lacquer. Markets in Mexico are never without trays, boxes, and even gourds decorated with this painstaking technique. When we lived in Mexico City, I was picky, always looking for the right shade of red or bypassing pieces that weren’t as finely made.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

I now wish I’d bought more besides the two below. The red box, with its exceptionally detailed lacquer carving, has long contained my desk supplies and directly inspired Padre Pro’s relic box. The small tray functions as a coaster for my coffee mug.red rayada laquer box from mystery serieslacquer box from Emilia Cruz mystery seriesrayada technique tray from mystery series author Carmen Amato

I never knew just how much effort went into these little artistic gems, until I read this “how-to” page from worldexperience.com. Possibly as much time as it took me to write DIABLO NIGHTS, if you don’t count the time I spent rearranging sticky notes on the master outline, pretending to be both characters during Emilia-Silvio argument scenes, and drinking coffee.

So what happens in DIABLO NIGHTS after the infamous rayada box is opened?

Tifani slid the drawer closed and opened the lid of the box. She took out two pieces of styrofoam and set them aside. She reached back inside the box and drew out a small rectangular display case. Lupita whisked aside the now-empty enamel box and Tifani set the glass case on the velvet pad and turned it so that the front faced Emilia and Kurt.

The sides and top of the display case were made of clear glass. The wooden base was stained a dark mahogany and bore a small brass plaque with an inscription that read A Relic of the Most Holy Martyr Blessed Padre Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J. 1891-1927.

The back was decorated with a color picture of a priest in a bloody cassock lying with arms outstretched at the feet of an officer holding a sword and wearing a garish Napoleon-style uniform.

But it was the object inside the display case that took Emilia’s breath away. A long-lost relic of Padre Pro. Her life had come full circle.

Diablo NightsGotcha! Sorry, no spoilers. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

“Unique and gripping” — OnlineBookClub.org

Get it today!

How Selling Books is like Choosing Wine

Walking through the grocery store the other day, I had an epiphany: books and wine have a lot in common. Besides the obvious benefits of having both, of course.

Too many choices

Check out the rows and rows of bottles in my local store. With so many types of wine to choose from, how is the casual afficionado–those of us who aren’t a trained sommelier–supposed to choose a wine?  Price? Color? Word of mouth?

wine bottles in store

Isn’t this what authors (like moi) are continually wondering? How do I make my books stand out when the drinker/reader doesn’t know what the product inside tastes like?

related post: 5 Lessons about survival of the fittest & the bookstore of the future

Packaging matters

Beer makers face the same challenge. The default is to make the packaging stand out. Wine and beer makers are having tons of fun with this concept. And like authors and publishers, they are coming up with clever ideas for the covers of bundled products as well as stand-alones.

Branding

Here’s a great example from Great Lakes Brewing. They make craft beers and market their brand with a retro-but-contemporary look. The retro bit uses Irish cops, the famous shipwreck Edmund Fitzgerald, and famed crime fighter Eiliot Ness, with clean and bold images on the 6 packs.

6 pack of beer

6 pack of beer

6 pack of beerLocal Flavor

Trying for an exotic allure? Check out this beer. Castaway beer. Everything about it says I’m ready to set sail for a good time.

beer from Hawaii

Best in Store

Wine makers are getting artistic and creative with bottle labels. There are so many of each kind, it is hard to make a brand really catch a buyer’s attention. So if the label can catch the eye, that bottle has a better chance of being picked up and assessed by a potential buyer.

I hear it works the same with book covers . . .

clever wine label

fresh wine label design

dark red wine label

Is there a lesson here, Carmen?

Yes, there is and so glad you asked. We need to pour a glass of wine, or some Castaway beer depending on preference, and think hard about the image we project. Is it consistent? What message does it send? Like body language, what subliminal message is being broadcast?

Set sail for a good time beer or be intellectually creative with this clever little flying machine Malbec?

There is no right or wrong. We each stand out, depending on the choices we make.

In other news

Cliff DiverCLIFF DIVER, the first Detective Emilia Cruz novel, is just $0.99. Read the book that Kirkus Reviews called “Consistently exciting” and meet a woman you won’t soon forget.

Book Review: The Orphan Uprising

The Orphan Uprising is the riveting last book in the Orphan Trilogy by the father-and-son writing duo of Lance and James Morcan from New Zealand. I hear they are making a movie based on the books and if so, it ought to be a blockbuster.

The first two books, The Ninth Orphan and The Orphan Factory, lay the groundwork: the shadowy Omega group is bent on world-wide domination and through genetic testing has evolved a group of people with super mental and physical capabilities. They have been raised with numbers for names, based on their birth order, and raised in a secret orphanage where they learned to be uber-intelligence agents to help Omega get rid of enemies and solidify members in positions of global power and influence.

But Orphan Nine, the best yet not the most ruthless, wants out. And so the saga begins.

The books move like Hollywood action scripts, combining elements from The Boys from Brazil with YA action akin to Divergent. Part sci-fi, part political thriller, all of the books are great fun but Uprising is the best. Nine has successfully broken from Omega and lives with his son and pregnant wife in French Polynesia. But Omega has somehow learned of his offspring—who would be valuable from a genetic testing standpoint—and kidnaps him. Nine has a heart attack at the crucial moment. Barely recovered, he goes after the boy, into Omega controlled territory including a string of genetic testing laboratories. The trail leads Nine around the world in 80 breathless days of action, drama, and well described unique locations including Greenland and the Congo. It’s a page-turner right to the end and a hefty read to boot. The Morcans don’t skimp on the action, making this an excellent entertainment value.

As a mystery and thriller author, I look for plot twists and turns, engaging characters, and balanced construction that makes a book review a pleasure. The Orphan Uprising delivers on all counts.

Highly recommended.