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 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

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 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 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” —

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.


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.

Inspiration for a Thriller

One of the most often-asked questions for a mystery and thriller author is “Where does your inspiration come from?” Funny you should ask . . .

We were invited to a dinner party at the home of another expatriate family in Mexico City. I’d met the mom, Amanda, at a school function. Amanda was a writer and we both participated in an English-speaking writer’s group. Her boys were close enough in age to my kids for them to play together.

A dozen guests sipped cocktails on the patio, then went into a dining room glowing with fine crystal and china. A lovely gazpacho started the meal, prepared and served by the family’s new maid. Itzel was about 18, wearing a stiffly starched uniform and a nervous smile.

We waited quite a long time after the soup for the main course. Amanda excused herself and went into the kitchen. A few minutes later she asked me to come with her.

The main course was fish. It wasn’t cooked. Amanda looked close to tears as she contemplated the ruin of her dinner party. She didn’t understand Itzel’s frantic explanation.

But I did. Itzel had turned on the heat and put the pan of fish in what she thought was the broiler. Nothing had happened, she wailed, and began to cry.

I nearly laughed. She’d put the fish into the storage drawer under the oven.

We found a frying pan and some butter. Ten minutes later the guests were eating trout almondine while Itzel recovered in the kitchen.

Itzel and I talked after that. This was her first job as a maid. Itzel was from a small town near Veracruz and had never lived with electric appliances, air conditioning, or flush toilets. The young girl went home every other weekend and supported her mother and siblings.

Itzel’s story became that of Luz de Maria Alba Mora, the central female character in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. I left out the part about the oven, however.

Books as Inspiration

Itzel’s story was only one source of inspiration. Two books also guided the narrative.

Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA has always been a favorite, for its characterizations, pacing, and points of view. I wanted HIDDEN LIGHT to have that same sense of developing danger–whether from the drug cartels or Luz’s risks–and for readers to have the same insight into the hero as the villain. An excellen thriller.

The other book which provided inspiration was THE EAGLE’S THRONE by Carlos Fuentes. Mexico’s power players are forced to conduct their political intrigues via letters and the book is a tribute to cunning craftsmanship. But more importantly, from my optic, the book perfectly captured the tone of Mexico’s politics. I wanted to portray the same sense of mistrust, intrigue, and constant one-upmanship.

Musical Interlude

Many authors talk about music they play as they write. I like silence–my head is always crowded with dialogue so things are noisy enough as they are. But I like to match music with characters.

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass was one of the first Latino music superstars. The Lonely Bull is one of my favorite albums. If HIDDEN LIGHT is ever made into a movie, that title song will be the theme of the main male character Eduardo Cortez Castillo.

Putting it All Together

Pinterest is where all my inspiration for THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY comes together. There’s a board called “Inspiration for a Thriller,” with tons of pictures and videos that reflect the book and the elements that inspired it. If you’re on Pinterest, please follow along!

Book cover

“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.”  Literary Fiction Reviews 

Book Review: Smokescreen, a thriller

Smokescreen by Khaled Talib is a thriller for today’s audience. It’s got a politically driven plot based on current events, an everyman hero, and enough double-dealing and deranged killers to keep the reader flipping pages and skipping meals.

What makes Smokescreen such a contemporary stand-out, however, is that unlike most popular thrillers, the hero is neither American nor British. Imagine that! Nor does the action originate in  either Washington or London. Instead, our hero is a mixed-race citizen of Singapore, but with a lifestyle and motivations that have universal appeal. The Asian nation of Singapore, portrayed in the novel as an international espionage crossroads, is a surprisingly terrific setting for a thriller. I started checking on flights just to go follow the novel’s path and see the sights.

Jethro “Jet” West is a pampered local journalist of mixed descent who writes a society column, takes martial arts classes, and is sleeping his way through the ladies of Singapore’s upper crust. But he also plans to edit a new independent newspaper, a move which gets him some unwanted attention. He’s identified to be the convenient fall guy in a plot to assassinate the Israeli Prime Minister by radical members of the Israeli military—aided by a sympathetic Singaporean official and his hired guns–when the PM visits Singapore. Seems the PM is going soft on Palestine and has offered up one too many concessions for the hard right wingers in Israel. They know how to fix things, although a spy within their midst passes on the information and the scene is set.

In order for the plot to work, West must be regarded as a plausible evil-doer with a criminal past. So the radicals will give him one. When the PM bites it, their logic runs, no one will be surprised that West is the culprit as he’ll have a “past” that fits his newly minted profile as a killer run amok. Talib does a good job of keeping West confused and angry by what is happening, yet figuring out how to survive and close down the plot. In the end, it’s West’s talents as a journalist that will be the key.

The book has the thriller’s edge of a Ludlum. West’s comfortable world suddenly implodes and he finds himself on the run. A shadowy American ambassador-cum-spymaster is his only help. Yet that man has his own agenda, questionable contacts, and reasons for helping. More characters are gray rather than wholly bad, yet the plot stays linear and the reader isn’t confused, which is an improvement over most Ludlum novels.

I would have liked the big climax to have circled back to the Israeli PM’s visit. But the right things happened and there’s potential for Jet West to make a repeat appearance. If he does, I hope he’s still in Singapore. Sights, sounds, and smells are on full display in the book, ensuring that the setting provides stiff competition to the action.

As a mystery and thriller author, I am always on the lookout for books with the elements most important to me: a great setting that draws me onto the streets and into intereesting palces, twists and turns in the plot, and multi-dimensional characters. Smokescreen has it all.  Highly recommended.

Khaled Talib visited this blog last year, letting readers know his favorite books. Check out what he’s serving for dinner, too.

The Year We Made a Difference for

In 2014, I donated $1 from the sale of Kindle books to, the charity co-founded by Matt Damon to bring clean and safe water to communities worldwide. The goal was to provide clean water for life to 25 persons. The year-long campaign was called Writing for Water.

How The Fundraiser Worked

Every month in 2014 I tracked sales using Amazon’s KDP author dashboard and calculated how many Kindle ebooks I sold. I did not count giveaways, freebies, or print sales. In some months, when I ran a sale on a Kindle edition, the net profit on a Kindle edition could be less than $1. Didn’t matter. A sale was a sale and equated to $1 in donations.

I created fundraiser pages at’s website to explain what I was doing, showcase other authors who were participating, and submit my donations via credit card. At first I’d hoped to create a 12 month fundraiser on the site, which would have been a handy link to promote, but only lets you do it for 90 days at a time.

I also created a Writing for Water page on my website to explain what I was doing, plus a monthly blog post to track progress and hold myself accountable.

The Results

Writing for Water graphicEnough money was donated to to provide 25 people with clean water for life by August 2014. Sales slowed after that, due to changes in Amazon’s distribution streams. Overall, the year ended with 31 people able to gain access to clean water for life.

Lessons Learned

  1. It Took a LOT of Effort to Track and Promote

I didn’t realize how much time and effort it was going to take to promote other authors, promote the effort, promote our progress, and try to grow participation. I should have done some research about how the best fundraisers are promoted and planned out the effort before January 2014.

Beyond social media, the most useful thing I did was to send out a free press release which garnered a nice exchange with the folks at I also mentioned the effort in a couple of different author interviews. But I should have had a list of things to do and been more consistent and focused.

  1. Run a Tighter Calendar

An unexpected complicating factor was that only creates 90-day fundraisers when I wanted the fundraiser to last 365 days. This meant that I had to track when a fundraiser ended, change all the links on my pages, and create new ones. Then I ran into problems when I unwittingly created one fundraiser using my Facebook profile and another using my Twitter profile. In short, it was a structural problem that added to the workload. It could have been partially mitigated by using a dedicated campaign calendar, much like a blog calendar.

  1. Expect an Opt Out Rate

When I asked other authors to join me, six pledged to help. Three followed through and we cross-promoted each other in a mutual effort to boost sales. The other three were never heard from again.

A 50% opt-out rate is disappointing but probably not surprising given today’s overcommitted world. But it would have been nice to at least get a note saying they weren’t going to participate after all.

The non-participating authors had responded to a call I posted in a Facebook or Goodreads author group. We didn’t have a personal connection beforehand. Maybe that is the point.

The three authors who responded were terrific: Norm Hamilton, author of BY THINE OWN WELL; Jerry Last, author of the Roger and Suzanne mysteries; and Sharon Lee Johnson, author of a string of ebooks including the ME VS ZOMBIES stories.

  1. Charity Doesn’t Equal Marketing

Subaru uses charitable donations as a means of building its brand and making purchasers feel good about the car they buy. I wasn’t sure if the same should/would apply to books and why readers purchase them.

Bottom line, I don’t think my donations to made a difference to book buyers. Nor did readers flock to this blog to hear how the campaign was going. I met the goal, with a little help from friends, but didn’t sell in numbers big enough to warrant a Big Event or even a new YouTube video.

Was the campaign too low key? Maybe. But it felt strange to be all promotion-y.

What’s Ahead in 2015

I’ll continue to support, because it’s a critical mission. But I know that if I want to finish the next Emilia Cruz novel, as well as a couple of other writerly projects, I can’t do a big campaign again.

Instead, I’ll contribute on my own schedule, without using fundraiser pages. I also won’t use Kindle sales as the yardstick. I’ll be expanding distribution beyond Amazon in 2015 so my income and accounting are in for some changes.

But no matter how much I’m able to donate, it will make a difference. Whether they know it or not, so will my readers.

Book Review: Top Secret Twenty One

The Stephanie Plum books are like Pringle’s potato chips—I can’t eat just one despite the fact I know they’ll be full of empty calories. Maybe it’s the salt. Whatever. Pass the can.

Top Secret Twenty One is the latest in the Stephanie Plum bounty hunter series by Janet Evanovich set in Trenton, NJ. With 21 books in a series, frankly, it must be hard to keep things fresh–I’m up to 3 novels so far in the Emilia Cruz series so am not speaking from experience. That being said, having read 1-20, I was pretty sure what to expect.

No crystal ball needed for this book review.

In “21,” Stephanie is still caught between Morelli, the Italian cop she’s sleeping with, and Ranger, the mysterious Latino god-cum-security-expert she’d like to be sleeping with. Ranger is always available to lend Stephanie a car or get her out of trouble, which is amazing as he’s not getting any.

Basically he’s the hottest, yet most unfulfilled, man on the planet . . . Babe.

The novel has Stephanie hunting for a bail jumper named Jimmy Poletti who was arrested for running girls out of his car dealership. She can’t find Poletti but when a frenemy shows up at her door claiming that Poletti is trying to kill him (Randy the uber-short in a recurring role), Stephanie figures the odds have changed in her favor.

Babe. Bait.

There’s the obligatory scene at the funeral home, her mother still drinks and irons when stressed, Grandma Mazur and Lula take turns at being the inept sidekick, Ranger’s invitation remains open-ended, and there are more run-ins with the bad dudes on Stark Street. The formula is familiar but still works, although the chapter endings in this novel seemed flat as opposed to the cliff-hangers Evanovich normally leaves us with. The dialogue wasn’t as snappy, either, like soda that has lost some of the fizz.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll read “22,” sure that it will be the one in which Stephanie finally chooses between Morelli and Ranger. Or maybe that will happen in “23.” Or “24.”