How to Survive a Pandemic from Polar History’s “Wicked Mate”

How to Survive a Pandemic from Polar History’s “Wicked Mate”

I was recently asked if the coronavirus pandemic had changed what readers want from mystery authors.


Right now, I think readers appreciate a good tale of overcoming the odds.

That’s why polar history resonates with me right now. The early exploration of Antarctica and the North Pole regions is replete with true stories of resilience and fortitude when all hope seems lost. The exploits of Ernest Shackleton, Douglas Mawson, and Roald Amundsen are the stuff of legend.

One of the best known episodes from the so-called Heroic Age of exploration is the competition between Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen to be first to the South Pole. To recap, in 1912 Scott led a British team on a grueling march halfway across Antarctica to the South Pole, only to find that Norway’s Amundsen and his dogsledders had already come and gone.

Scott’s entire team died of illness and starvation on the return journey. Amundsen’s team dumped excess food as they sprinted back to their expedition’s hut.

There are a thousand lessons to be learned from the Scott-Amundsen race. But if you want to survive a pandemic, study the “Northern Party,” an all-but-forgotten sideshow to the Scott disaster.

It’s one of the most amazing survival stories you’ve never heard of.

Meet the “Wicked Mate”

Victor Campbell was a 34-year-old lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he accepted Scott’s invitation to join the British Antarctic Expedition. Campbell was named First Officer of the expedition ship Terra Nova and third in command overall (after Scott and Lieutenant Edward “Teddy” Evans.)

Victor Campbell

Victor Campbell in 1913


The rest of the British Antarctic Expedition were British Navy officers and sailors, civilian scientists, a Norwegian ski expert, and a Russian dog handler.

The expedition’s primary mission was to plant the Union Jack on the South Pole.  Scott’s Southern Party would march south from basecamp at Cape Evans.

The secondary mission was scientific discovery. Most of Antarctica was unmapped and untapped; a blank slate. A host of scientific programs was laid out that could be completed within range of Cape Evans.

The exception was the much smaller Northern Party, led by Campbell. This 6-man team would focus on geological discovery, mapping, and weather observations in the area south of New Zealand.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, in his gripping account THE WORST JOURNEY IN THE WORLD, wrote “Lieutenant Evans . . . was in charge . . . to cement together the rough material into a nucleus which was capable of standing without any friction the strains of nearly three years of crowded, isolated and difficult life, ably seconded by Victor Campbell . . . in whose hands the routine and discipline of the ship was most efficiently maintained. I was very frightened of Campbell.”

Campbell’s nickname of “Wicked Mate” came from the “mixture of respect, awe, admiration, trust, and finally affection” of the men who served under him, according to H.G.R. King, the editor of his diary. The Wicked Mate had a reputation for shyness but it came with a sense of humor, along with imperturbability and discipline. He was comfortable with authority.

Those traits would save lives.

Forging a team

Besides Campbell, the Northern Party was comprised of geologist Raymond Priestly, Royal Navy surgeon Murray Levick, and Petty Officers G.P. Abbott, F.V. Browning, and H. Dickason. The group spent most of 1911 at Cape Adare where the 1899 expedition led by Carstens Borchegrevink was the first to spend a winter on the continent.

Priestly wrote in his book ANTARCTIC ADVENTURE, “We left [Cape Adare] in January 1912 a well-knit party, reasonably satisfied with the scientific record we had achieved, to which every one of the six had made notable and essential contributions.” Cape Adare’s near-constant blizzards hampered their scientific work yet forged a team spirit of ingenuity and inventions that ranged from a makeshift alarm clock dubbed a “Carusophone” to a face mask to prevent frostbite.

More importantly, the now tight-knit team was accustomed to Campbell’s habits of naval discipline.

The expedition ship Terra Nova left its winter berth in New Zealand (to avoid being caught in pack ice) and took them from Cape Adare to the aptly named Inexpressible Island. The plan was for the Northern Party to continue scientific discovery there for a few weeks. Terra Nova would return in February to ferry them to the Cape Evans basecamp 230 miles away.

Ice blocked the Terra Nova from returning. As February turned into March and winter descended with furious wind that tore their canvas tents, Campbell realized the Northern Party was stranded.

Remember, this was 1912. They were at the bottom of the world. No electricity. No communication.

No help.

How could six men survive the 9-month polar winter, with bone-cutting temperatures and days of 24-hour darkness, with nothing more than a couple weeks’ worth of dried food and rapidly disintegrating tents?

Priestly summed up the situation: “It was evident that three things were absolutely necessary, and perhaps only three. We must have light, shelter, and hot food.”

The Sooner the Better

“The outlook is not very cheerful.” Campbell’s diary, 16 March 1912

Campbell quickly recognized that circumstances had changed and made no attempt to sugarcoat the situation. He embraced the brutal truth fast and didn’t waste time on self-pity or wishful thinking.

As early as 26 February, he set aside the remaining rations, fuel, and clothing designed for polar sledging, worried they would be needed for the trek over uncharted territory to Cape Evans. For all Campbell knew, the Terra Nova had sunk or was trapped in ice somewhere in the Antarctic Circle and he had to get his team back to basecamp on his own.

The next day, with three off exploring the island on a scientific trip, Campbell and two others began hacking a cave out of solid ice to serve as winter shelter for all six men. The result was 9 x 12 feet, with a max height of 5’6”. The tunnel to access it was 2’6” x 1’6”.

Diagram of cave by Raymond Priestley

Diagram of cave by expedition geologist Raymond Priestley


Campbell also calculated how many penguins and seals they’d need to kill before the full onset of winter when the animals took shelter and it was too dark to hunt.

By 19 March, the ice cave was home and the perpetual hunt to stock the larder despite frostbite and blizzard was on. The cave gave them the light, shelter and hot food Priestley deemed essential but not much else. A diet of meat, seaweed, and saltwater began to take a heavy toll on digestive systems. Seal blubber was used as fuel, so the floor—and the men—quickly became coated in greasy soot.

As blizzards raged outside and freezing temperatures reigned inside, the men spent most of their time in sleeping bags. Following Navy tradition, Campbell bisected the tiny space into “decks” for officers and sailors. An unwritten law decreed that what was spoken in one deck was not “heard” in another. When Campbell and Levick were seriously worried about Browning’s health during the winter, however, they passed notes.

Lesson from Campbell: The sooner you recognize that the situation is changed and adapt, the greater your chances of getting ahead of negative consequences. Refuse to see that the situation you expected has been overtaken by events? You risk a cascade of secondary problems.

Critical routines

“We take it in turns to be cook and messman.” Campbell’s diary, 9 April 1912

By June the sun had completely disappeared. Tucked inside the dark cave, with only crude blubber lamps for light, Campbell used routine to hold insanity at bay and maintain a sense of passing time:

Duty roster: Three teams of two men took turns as the day’s cook and messman, or cook’s helper. When on duty, the team was responsible for preparing meals, cleaning up, gathering snow for water, etc. The workday began at 7:00 am with breakfast preparations. Dinner was at 5:00 pm.

Food: To augment the diet of seal and penguin, they doled out minute portions of sledging biscuit—like a heavy graham cracker. Cocoa five days of the week. On Sunday they had 12 lumps of sugar and tea, which was reboiled for Monday, and then dried to be used as pipe tobacco. The last day of the month was celebrated with raisins, as were birthdays. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, they each got 1 ounce of chocolate. Birthdays were celebrated with extra treats as well.

Events: Singing concerts (a “sing-song”) took place Saturday nights. Campbell held a church service on Sundays “which consisted of my reading a chapter of the Bible followed by hymns.” Levick read aloud after dinner each night. When the books ran out, he gave lectures on human anatomy.

Priestley wrote: “The celebration of all special occasions proved to be a godsend . . . such gala days were looked forward to for a week or more and remembered for as long; they seemed to break the monotony of winter.”

Lesson from Campbell: Locked down by the pandemic? Don’t let your days become one big long blur. Create order and routine. Celebrate milestones, even in a small way. This approach creates a sense of control and forward progress.

Continuous improvement

“Levick some days ago designed a new stove which we call ‘The Complex’ in opposition to our old one, ‘The Simplex.’ The reason the ‘Complex’ did not catch on with the rest of us he put down to professional jealousy, but today I came in to find the designer using the old ‘Simplex’ while a much battered ‘Complex’ lay outside on the drift where it remained the rest of the winter.” Campbell’s diary, 7 June 2012

Throughout the winter, the men sought to improve the situation, going above and beyond the ingenuity shown at Cape Adare.

They created:

  • An “outhouse” by the entrance.
  • A ventilation system made of biscuit tins, snow blocks, and a bamboo sledge pole to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.
  • A variety of stoves using blubber for fuel that “reduced preparing and cooking the food to a fine art.”
  • Systems for cutting, storing, and transporting meat for the trek to Cape Evans.

Priestley wrote about their improvements saying, “As one difficulty after another disappeared we became more and more convinced that we were going to pull through, and this although we had at this time only enough seal to keep us going on half-rations until the end of July.”

Lesson from Campbell: You can always make your immediate environment better. No matter where you are, look around and make small improvements that support your goals. Each improvement is a force multiplier.

Get Ready for the Next Step

“We have been discussing our best route down, whether to go round the Drygalski [Glacier] on the sea ice or over the tongue. I, myself, don’t think the ice can be depended on round the Drygalski; it runs so far into the Ross Sea.” Campbell’s diary, 1 June 1912

At the end of September, the Northern Party left the ice cave on Inexpressible Island and struck out for Cape Evans. There was no way to know they would encounter sand-like snowdrifts, waist-high sastrugi ice waves, pancakes of sea ice, and the dangerous crevasses of the Drygalski Glacier.

Campbell had the fresh items he’d held in reserve for the journey. In every other way, the odds were against all six men surviving a 230-mile journey over uncharted territory.

But they prepared:

  • All the men were weak and suffered from swollen feet and ankles from months spent lying down. A stretching and isometric exercise regime prepped them for distance walking.
  • Browning was seriously ill with ptomaine poisoning. Levick experimented with his diet, which necessitated sacrifice for others but saved his life.
  • The sledges were damaged from wintering in snowdrifts outside the cave, but essential for hauling supplies. They brought them inside and repaired them using rudimentary tools.
  • Their sleeping bags had molted and were covered in grease. Tents had been shredded in March. Repairs were made to the extent possible.
Northern Party 1

Abbott, Campbell and Dickason leaving the ice cave, 30 Sept 1912


Northern Party 2

Priestley, Levick and Browning leaving the ice cave, 30 Sept 1912


Priestley’s account of the journey is harrowing. Roped like horses to pull the heavily burdened sledges, they burned more calories than they could take in. Starvation dogged them. At times, the surface was so difficult they resorted to relaying supplies. The unwieldy sledges sometimes dragged them over the ice or got stuck in crevasses.

Only the routine, discipline, and ingenuity they had established during the winter saved their sanity and pushed them on. “Our tempers had stood an almost unparalleled strain during the past winter,” Priestley wrote. “And stood it successfully; we knew each other more thoroughly than most men ever know their companions.”

After almost a month, they found food depots left by other members of Scott’s expedition. The fear of starvation was finally banished.

Lesson from Campbell: Work on your health and optimism. Uncertainty will always be with us. There is always going to be another hurdle. Time spent preparing is never wasted time.

And Afterwards

The Northern Party arrived at Cape Evans on 6 November, only to hear that Scott’s Southern Party had never returned. They would not know what happened until later that month when a search party stumbled in, having found Scott’s tent and the frozen bodies of Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry “Birdie” Bowers. The diaries of the dead men told of losing the race to the Pole and the tragic journey which ended 11 miles from a food depot.

The Terra Nova returned to Cape Evans on 11 February 1913 and brought the survivors back to civilization. The British Antarctic Expedition was over.

The Wicked Mate was honored for his polar service. Campbell commanded fleet vessels with distinction during World War I, including at the Battle of Jutland. He retired in 1922 with a chest full of medals, moved to Canada, and was largely forgotten by historians.

Let’s not make that mistake twice.

All photos from THE WICKED MATE: The Antarctic Diary of Victor Campbell, edited by H.G.R. King

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


10 Winning Rituals to Bust the Broken Resolution Cycle

10 Winning Rituals to Bust the Broken Resolution Cycle

We make resolutions, fight the good fight for a while, and then lose track and lose heart.


This year,  break the resolution-defeat-discouragement cycle before it gets going. Start some rituals instead. These 10 help me keep writing, hit deadlines, and generally stay sane.

 1. Make a daily to-do list

Have at least 3 specific things on the list you want to get done that day. Nothing vague like lose weight. One should relate to a larger goal. The list needs to be written down—on your phone, on a sticky note. Don’t keep mental lists, they are easily misplaced and fatiguing.

2018 update: I’m giving Triple fold-out planning folios from Levenger’s a try. With the whole week on one expanding accordian card, I can easily carry over unfinished tasks from one day to the next.

 2. Own a Calendar

Put it on the wall, on your phone, in a planner. Get into the habit of looking at the month view rather than just the day or week layout. A month gives you a larger perspective for planning purposes. Don’t just let the year happen.

 3. Watch or Read Some International News

The world is a big place! Know what is going on beyond your own doorstep. It will stretch your brain, give you new perspectives and give you something interesting to say in an interview, cocktail party, or the first day in a new job. Try BBC News.

4. Keep a Small Victory List

Especially when things seem bad, you need to record the small victories. Got the child to stop crying, remembered to set up that automatic payment into your savings account, brought a mug to work to drink office coffee instead of buying a latte, etc. After a few weeks of keeping such a list, you’ll recognize talents you didn’t know you had.

5. Say Hello and Goodbye

We can enrich our relationships with just a hail and farewell. Greetings are such simple things but they provide acknowledgment and respect.

6. Thank the person who prepared or brought your meal

In our house, the dinner prayer always ends with a thank-you to whomever cooked. At a restaurant, we always thank the server. Gratitude for food sometimes gets lost in a fast food culture but it is basic good manners and always appreciated.

7. Eat at least 1 meal/day with an identifiable vegetable component

We can’t live by carbs and fried stuff alone. Eat something green, something fresh. Your colon and arteries will thank you.

8. Save Money

Put something in the bank every month or every payday. If you can set up an automatic deposit to a savings account, do it. Doesn’t have to be a lot. But the ritual of paying yourself first will pay dividends (pun intended) down the road.

9. Make a Schedule for Checking Your Finances

Every 2 weeks or so, check all your online banking accounts (write a reminder on the calendar!) Open up the statements that came in the mail and got dumped by the sofa. Have a folder for tax-related items and stick stuff in there. If you pay bills online, know when credit card bills are due and pay them ahead of time.

 10. Stretch in the morning

Get out of the bed and stretch. Feel the spine crack. Do a few arm circles. Touch the old toes. Get the blood going. See, a small victory already!

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Intention versus Reaction

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 friend is a student of human behavior and has broadened my everyday 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


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 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 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.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.



How to write a political thriller

How to write a political thriller

One of the most often-asked questions for a mystery and thriller author is “Where does your inspiration come from?” Political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY had quite the auspicious beginning . . .

inspiration for a thriller

Fateful dinner party

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 but it was still raw. 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 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, thinking it was the broiler.

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.

Gotta save something for the next book.

Related: Read Chapters 1 and 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Inspiring reads

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. Set against the backdrop of WWII and the British campaign in north Africa, it is probably the best thriller I’ve ever read.

The other book which provided inspiration was THE EAGLE’S THRONE by Carlos Fuentes. In this novel, Mexico’s power players are forced to conduct their political intrigues via letters. The result 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!

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


inspiration for a thriller

It Goes Without Saying

It wasn’t a high school for the performing arts, but it came darn close.

Every year, my Catholic high school raised the majority of its operating funds by putting on two plays and a musical. With about 360 kids in four grades, that meant that at some point, you were in a show.

By the time I arrived for freshman year, resplendent in my sister’s hand-me-down red blazer and plaid skirt, the school knew how to wow its stolid upstate New York audience and the musical was firmly established as the social event of the year. Costumes were rented from Broadway, set construction overseen by local home builders, and the Capital Theater booked for 8 shows. Opened in 1928 as the first theater in the area for “talkie” movies, the theater was still an opulent, albeit faded, reminder of the Roaring Twenties by the time I walked its boards.

capital theater

Interior of the Capital Theater. Picture courtesy

Treading the Boards

I auditioned and won a role in every production the school put on. Freshman year I was cast as a plucky maid in George M!, the lively musical show about the life of Broadway actor and producer George M. Cohan. He wrote classics like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “Over There.” I still remember the words to half a dozen Cohan songs and will sing on request.

The show had a cast of 100, all of whom took tap lessons for months before. The guy who played George went on to become a professional dancer. The rousing final number included a Rockettes-style kick line holding sparklers.

As the music faded, a scratchy recording of a male voice started. “My father thanks you. My mother thanks you. My sister thanks you. And as for myself, it goes without saying.”

The voice was George M. Cohan himself, from a recording made when he was playing vaudeville with his parents and sister as The Four Cohans.

Statue of George M. Cohan in New York City.

Statue of George M. Cohan in New York City. Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Channeling George

I’m channeling George today. As an author, I have many people to thank for their support, friendship, and inspiration.

First, thanks to readers who bought, read, and reviewed THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and the Emilia Cruz books. In response to the number one question I receive, “When is the next Emilia Cruz coming out?” I can say KING PESO just came out.

Sign up for the Mystery Ahead webzine and you’ll never miss #booknews again.

Next, thanks is due to the generous fellow authors who helped me raise funds for Sharon Lee Johnson, Norm Hamilton, and Jerold Last. Bless you all.

To the many authors, bloggers, store owners, publishers, and pundits who contributed to the Bookstore of the Future project, especially thriller author Dale Brown, who was the first to respond. I was thrilled to get responses as well from marketing “evangelist” Guy Kawasaki, and historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. It was a fascinating project and the conclusions were surprising to many.

To the virtual friends from three special Facebook groups: Mystery Readers Corner, which does not allow any promotion but is the best place to talk about mysteries; Instant Bestseller, a group of authors connected by Tim Grahl’s online marketing course based on his book YOUR FIRST 1000 COPIES; and Mexico Writers, a vibrant community of authors whose passion for Mexico is evident every day.

To those who helped me reach new audiences by hosting me on their websites, including,,,, and

Being an author isn’t musical theater, but a journey of a thousand steps. I’ve said thanks, but know that every day, it goes without saying.

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It goes without saying


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


It goes without saying

Where’s a Cheerleader When You Need One?

Where’s a Cheerleader When You Need One?

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was part of my high school’s cheer team. I was also a member of the band, playing—yes, you read it here—the cymbals. Those cymbals were red hot when we New Yorkers played the Wisconsin fight song. Alas, we could only play the song before or after a game. The trombone player was also the captain of the football team.

It was a very small school.

The school team was the Red Wings and the cheer team was called the Wingettes, although we were also called Dingettes for unknown reasons. We wore red skirts and red and white vests and had a great time dancing to Journey tunes and rocking the crowds at half time.

Where’d the cheer all go?

But lately, as adult issues crowd in, cheer can be hard to find. That shouting, dancing, it’s-okay-to-be-the-center-of-attention kind of zest can often be replaced by fatigue, overwork, and feeling  overcome by change and responsibility and stress. Too much stuff we don’t want. Not enough of what we used to have.

Without energy, goals seem unreachable or too lofty. We slog in place, consumed by the day-to-day.

I’m tired just writing this.

Related post: Sweeten Life with 4 Jars of Happiness

Note to self

For several years, I carried a Blackberry with a couple of documents on it. Letters from me to me wherein I was my own cheerleader. These little notes reminded me of my goals, pointed out that I had what it took to achieve them, and exhorted my true self not to get distracted or pay attention to naysayers (“A book where all the characters are Mexican? Naaah.”)

I read the notes over and over again, particularily when it felt like my books weren’t gaining traction or finding a readership. But as with all Blackberry products, so it would seem, mine suffered a demise. My letters to self were lost.

Virtual cheerleading

I could perpetually mourn the loss of my Wingette uniform, my Blackberry notes, and my goals. Or this can be an opportunity to rewrite my letters to self. Make them more articulate, more focused on the kind of success I’m willing to work for.

So can you! Set it out there. Write that letter to self. Cheerlead for you. After all, if you won’t, who will?

No pom-poms required.

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.



The Lure of the Open Notebook

The Lure of the Open Notebook

open notebook

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Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


Maybe it’s a sickness.

Yesterday, as I was cleaning out my den (also known as the writer’s cave, Mom’s office, and a total mess) I found a COMPLETELY VIRGIN hardcover spiral notebook from Agatha Ruiz de la Prada. The rush of excitement was intense.

Paper Snob

I love the notebooks from Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, a Spanish designer whose paper products I first found in Greece. The notebooks have bright colors and the pages have color coded edges. But the important thing is that both front and back are hard laminated cardboard, which makes it very easy to scribble notes.

But why was I so excited?

Because a blank Agatha is an open invitation to write another book.

notebook mystery series 001

A scribbled scene from DIABLO NIGHTS between Emilia and her cousin Alvaro, since deleted from the final manuscript

The rush of ideas

I write many scenes, as well as my outline, longhand. At least one notebook is dedicated to every book. When I wrote THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY I used a dozen before the manuscript was completed, labeling them and taping peso coins to the covers for good luck. Don’t ask me why.

So I stood there, in the den/office/cave/mess clutching my Agatha, knowing that I suddenly had the tool needed to start the next book, even before DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz novel set in Acapulco, was out the door. When I finished DIABLO NIGHTS several weeks ago, I felt wrung out. To some extent it had been hard going.

The latest Emilia Cruz mystery deals with some heavy issues–religion and martyrdom, drug smuggling, Mexico’s vigilante problem, and being honest to your significant other. Emilia contends with the first 3 but suffers from the last.

Notebook Carmen AmatoMy reaction caught me by surprise. It said “I’m ready.”

Yes, the next book will be the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Several scenarios are already circling around, each biting at my imagination like a shark.

First things first

A few things need to happen before that new notebook gets used, however. DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery novel, will be hitting the shelves soon–my subscribers will be the first to know the exact release date, so sign up if you haven’t yet.

Second, I’d better clean the den. Gotta find a pen.

How Deep Are Your Reading Roots?

How Deep Are Your Reading Roots?

I blame my oldest sister, really. She was studious and serious and had a lot of books. She organized them tidily on bookcases in the basement where they joined books my uncle had left when he joined the Navy and headed for Vietnam. The shelves also had room for an ever-growing collection of hardbacked Readers Digest Condensed Editions and assorted odds and ends from friends and church jumble sales.

Those basement books became my reading roots; books that formed my reading tastes, taught me the power of words, and inspired me to take on a literary career. There’s usually fewer than seven degrees of separation between those roots and whatever I’m reading now.

reading rootsHEAVEN HELP US! by Herbert Tarr

A dog-eared paperback came to live in the basement donated by a friend. It was an unlikely book for a young Catholic girl to pick up, with a cover showing a man in a yarmulke. But the 1968 story of young Rabbi Gideon Levi and his Long Island temple congregation was and still is one of the most cleverly written books ever.  Tarr, a rabbi and former Air Force chaplain who wrote several other books, made the Jewish religious experience universal. He had an engaging, lighthearted style that I’ve never quite seen replicated. Sophie Kinsella comes closest albeit from a female perspective.


reading roots

EXODUS by Leon Uris

Rabbi Levi’s congregation exclaimed so much over it I wondered if it was a real book and lo and behold it was. EXODUS was published in 1958 to major acclaim and turned into a movie starring Paul Newman and Sal Mineo (neither of whom looked anything like the character they played). It is the sweeping, engrossing story of Israel’s birth, moving from the early Zionist movement to Polish Jews escaping the Nazis, Ethiopian Jews emigrating after the war and the start of hostilities with neighboring Arab states. Although a novel, it was my first primer on Middle Eastern politics and shaped my political views for years.

All of Uris’s epic historical novels (MILA 18, QB VII, TRINITY) have the same breadth, strength, and excellent writing but EXODUS stands apart. It made me wonder if I could ever write anything so big. Still wondering.

reading rootsTHE LITTLE WORLD OF DON CAMILLO by Giovanni Guareschi

Don Camillo is a strapping fictional parish priest in Italy’s Po Valley, ministering to a small village congregation. His arch frenemy is Peppone, the Communist mayor of the town, who–as is to be expected of a Communist–says he does not believe in God. It is sometime after WWII and the two men fought together as partisans in the hills against the Nazis. The book is a series of softly humorous and philosophical stories in which Don Camillo and Peppone argue over conflicting beliefs (Peppone wants to baptize his son Lenin–oh the irony!), the welfare of the little village (both try to rig a soccer tournament between the church team and the People’s palace team), and the true meaning of friendship. Oh, and Christ on the cross in Don Camillo’s church talks to him/is his conscience.

I routinely re-read this book when feeling unsettled and always find both humor and solace.  Guareschi, a journalist from Milan who also illustrated the book, wrote other Don Camillo stories and several unrelated novels and stories which can often be found on amazon or abebooks. I was recently thrilled to find an excellent blog on the Don Camillo series. Enjoy!

reading rootsTHE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P.G.Wodehouse

My sister had a copy of THE MOUSE THAT ROARED by Leonard Wibberly. It was clever and inventive and I hoped there were others about the silly Duchy of Grand Fenwick. So I’m a high school freshman at the public library searching the Ws in Fiction and where WIB should be there was WOD. Wodehouse to be precise, which was almost as silly a name as Wibberly, and I was hooked.

Wodehouse’s books are all suspended in 1920’s England, where people pass time at big country houses getting wires crossed and trying to extricate themselves from nonsense. His language is a swift patter of hysterical dialogue, British slang, and light comedy. THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS is my favorite, with a cast of characters who appear in many Wodehouse books. It is one of the Jeeves books narrated by Bertie Wooster, whose valet (“my man, don’t you know”) Jeeves is constantly extricating Bertie and friends from impossible romances and other ill-judged escapades. I have multiple copies of this book, including the one in the 20-lb set of all the Jeeves and Bertie books I bought at the oracle of British bookstores, Hatcherd’s in Piccadilly, and hauled home back in the days before there was a 50-lb weight limit on suitcases.


reading rootsTHE KITCHEN MADONNA by Rumer Godden

This book is firmly rooted. It was in at least two of the Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions. Wikipedia lists it as a children’s story but it is a universal story of a dysfunctional family in London that changes for the better when the young son decides to make a homemade icon for their Ukrainian housekeeper, Marta. His effort takes him across London on a quest to do something for someone else for the first time in his life. Rumer Godden, who was raised in British India and wrote numerous books for adults and children, nine of which became movies, created one of her most uplifting stories. The book is sweet and thought-provoking and makes a unique gift.


reading rootsGONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

I can still see this book in my mind’s eye: the hardback cover is deep blue and the bottoms of the pages are wrinkled from having been inadvertently dunked in the water while I was reading and taking a bath at the same time. It topped my 5th grade reading list, back in the days when I knew what a “beau” was but had never heard the word pronounced.

The book got progressively more dog-eared through middle school as I read and re-read it. It wasn’t the Civil War theme or the love triangle between Ashley, Scarlett and Melanie. No, it was the way that Mitchell put me right into Scarlet’s head.

Do you remember the scene when Rhett deserts Scarlett as they flee Atlanta before Sherman’s army? There was a line something like this: “Her mind jumped around, trying to remember what Gerald had called balky mules and Mr. Lincoln.” But nothing came and Scarlett ends up just calling Rhett a cad. My quote may be imperfect, but it was the first novel I read that showed how to bring the reader deep inside a character’s point of view.

Gone With the Wind on

The novel was better than the movie, too.

Fiddle dee dee, Carmen, how you do run on.

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reading roots


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


reading roots

Best of the Book Savor Series: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Best of the Book Savor Series: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner


The Book Savor series grew out of my passion for good friends, great books and interesting conversations about what we are reading. And what better way to wind it up than with a “best of” the who-is-coming-to-dinner question.


Read on to see what interesting people are serving for dinner and to whom.

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

Novelist Anne R. Allen: Dorothy Parker, and the conversation could be about anything she wanted: I’d just sit back and take notes. For the best stories, I’d probably better serve martinis.

Social Media Marketing Expert Frances Caballo: I’m serving paella, Manchego cheese with quince, salad and flan for dessert. I would invite Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of No Ordinary Time, and ask her about how she conducts the extensive researched needed for her books.

Canadian Author Sandra Nikolai: I’d invite forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, bestselling author of the Dr. Temperance Brennan series on which the program Bones is based. I’d serve lasagna with a tossed green salad and a bottle of Chianti. Nothing with bones! We’d chat about her books and Montreal—a city we both know well. I’d wait until we’d had coffee and tiramisu before asking her about the grisly details of her work in the lab.

Comic Artist TJ Robinson: Hemingway, and we will be serving whiskey and peanuts.  The subject will be about anything besides writing.

Fabretto CFO Monica Drazba: Well, aside from Carmen Amato and a variety of Mexican dishes, it would probably be David McCullough or maybe Robert Caro. I’d serve up something simple (grilled tenderloin, roasted vegetables, pilaf), so I could spend my time outside of the kitchen listening to their anecdotes and insights on modern history. Founder Monica Olivera: Rudolfo Anaya, I think. I would serve warm pork tamales (if I knew how to make them), fresh limonada, and maybe flan for dessert. Or tres leches. We would talk about the desperate need for our children to hear and read these stories that reflect our childhood experiences and how by writing we in some way immortalize said childhood and the loved ones who may have since passed on.

Mystery Author Jerold Last: I think it would be Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series.  We’ll serve braised pheasant, shot by me, and found, pointed, and retrieved by Jolie, one of our dogs, from the freezer.  Side dishes include mashed potatoes with garlic, since there’s a lot of gravy, and salad (it’s California so there’s always fresh veggies).  Conversation would be about mystery writing, and whether Spenser’s and Susan’s German Shorthaired Pointer, Pearl The Wonder Dog, would have fit into our pack of three GSPs.  Jolie, the model for Juliet in “The Deadly Dog Show”, seems to have a similar temperament to Pearl’s, but is much better trained. Finally, I’d like his opinion of whether Roger makes a good, albeit much more educated, Spenser-type hero, and what he thinks of Bruce as an assistant hero in the mold of Hawk.

Marketing Expert Bobby McDaniel: Douglas Adams. I’m a geek and I love to laugh, so I imagine hanging out with Douglas Adams would be an amazing experience. I would serve Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters, Gin & Tonics, and steak . . . preferably from a talking cow, but I guess any cow would do. Editor Lorraine C. Ladish: Stephen King, because he says it like it is. We´d have Spanish tapas and beer or wine. I´d ad lib. I´d love to hear how he cranks out the word.

Writer Elizabeth A. Martina: I adore the couple writing team, Bodie and Brock Thoene. I would serve them barbequed spare ribs, mustard potato salad and moscal wine. Ribs, because they are country folk and would probably enjoy that. The wine, because it is sweet and my favorite. Conversation would inevitably turn to history of the 20th century, which is predominantly their book themes, and to Christianity which is always their secondary theme.

Crime Fiction Author Jason Beech: Charles Dickens. I’d serve him my mother’s Sunday dinner of roast lamb, new potatoes, green beans, stuffing, spring (I think) cabbage, Yorkshire puddings, and mint sauce, smothered in gravy (onion). Then I’d ask him if he could have cut a few hundred pages from most of his novels, and ask if Britain has moved on much from Victorian times in social terms.

Thriller Author Khaled Talib: Mary Shelley. I’ll be serving saffron-based beryani rice with mango chutney, salad, stuffed chicken and various accompaniments. This would be followed by custard cake for dessert with chocolate sauce and Turkish coffee. I’d like to probe her mind about the soul of man, and on the light side, we’ll talk about her travels and adventure. The conversation will be electrifying!’s Jason Sullivan: Without a doubt, my choice would be Edgar Allan Poe. For dinner, we would have the Mid-Atlantic specialties of Silver Queen corn and extra-large Chesapeake Bay crab cakes. We would discuss Virginia and Maryland, an area we both know well. I would have secured a bottle of the finest cognac for after dinner. Once the first glasses of cognac were finished, we would sit by a roaring fire and begin to talk about everything imaginable. We would discuss Romanticism and poetry, delve into his seminal influence in Science Fiction and Mystery, and as the shadows begin to make ghastly figures upon the wall, he might share a word or two about the genre for which he is most famous – Horror. I would also want to hear his views on some of the major events that occurred after his death, such as the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars, technology and globalism. I would bring up a few things of particular interest to me. For instance, what are his views on the nature of time and affection, and what were the circumstances surrounding the writing of “A Dream Within A Dream”? He might mention what transpired during those last few days in Baltimore, but I would not ask about this. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, as the fire drew down, we would dare to speak of the eternal secrets … before falling asleep in our chairs to the glow of the last few dying embers.

Who’s coming to dinner at your house? Are we invited?

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coming to dinner


Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.


coming to dinner

A Book Savor Chat with Novelist Anne R. Allen

The Book Savor series grew out of my passion for good friends, great books, and interesting conversations about what we are reading.

This week’s guest, novelist Anne R. Allen, talks about the books she savors.

1. Carmen Amato: What was the first book you read that marked the transition from reading kids’ books to grown-up fare?

Anne R. Allen: I remember when I was in fifth grade I picked up a new book my dad left on the coffee table. (He was a professor of Classics at Yale.)

It was a thin volume and had pictures and lots of white space, so it looked like books I was used to. I sat down and read it cover to cover. One of the most exciting stories I’d ever read. When my dad saw I’d read it, he freaked. “That’s not for children!” he said. “Did it upset you?” I said it didn’t but I thought the hero was pretty much of a creep.

The book was a new translation of Euripides’ Medea. Kids aren’t as shocked by bad behavior in adults as we think they will be.

2. CA: You are shipwrecked with a crate labeled “Books.” What 3 books do you hope are in it?

ARA: That’s hard. All I can say is I hope they’re really fat ones. Maybe some of those long, tough ones I’ve never had time to read, like Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. 

cat_cartoons3. CA: What book would you give as a housewarming gift and why? 

ARA: Maybe the New Yorker Book of Cat Cartoons. The best kind of book to keep on the coffee table to keep guests occupied while you’re hostessing. And cats are funny. I’m not sure why.

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?

ARA: Dorothy Parker, and the conversation could be about anything she wanted: I’d just sit back and take notes. For the best stories, I’d probably better serve martinis.

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

ARA: Probably one of the most inspiring books, quotes &  concepts ever is Pay it Forward. The book is so much more inspiring than the movie and I am blessed to call the author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, a close friend.

Tell us about yourself in 3 sentences or less.

ARA: I’m a novelist, blogger and actress who believes that laughter is the best medicine. The biggest compliment I ever got was from an old Borscht Belt comic who came backstage after seeing me in Auntie Mame and said, “I didn’t see you act funny once in that whole performance” (pause) “you don’t act funny—you THINK funny—the secret to great comedy.” I feel so blessed to be able to write funny books and have people buy them!

ARA roseMore about this week’s guest: Anne is the author of six romantic-comedy/mysteries: THE GATSBY GAME, FOOD OF LOVE and the Camilla Randall mysteries: THE BEST REVENGE, GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY, SHERWOOD, LTD., and NO PLACE LIKE HOME (the latter 3 just came out as a new collection.) She’s poured all her energies from her previous career as artistic director of the Patio Playhouse in Escondido, CA, into her books and a blog about the writing life at

On Learning from Mistakes

On Learning from Mistakes

I made two mistakes recently.

The first was an expensive one.

Mistake 1

Flush from my record-breaking (my records, anyway) month in September, spurred by the publication of short story The Beast in the Huffington Post’s Fiction 50 showcase, I went for some top-of-the-line advertising. The Millions is a wonderfully rich website for book lovers, with reviews, essays, and best-of lists, and the same vibe as The New Yorker magazine. The site is targeted at my demographic: educated people who like travel, current events, and engrossing reads.

Cliff DiverI spent big $$ for a 1 week ad promoting CLIFF DIVER, using a quote from Kirkus Review as the main hook: “Consistently exciting . . . a clever Mexican detective tale.” Expectations were high that this ad was going to catapult sales and reach a new audience.

Huh. Only one copy of CLIFF DIVER sold that week. (Insert sound of flushing water.)

The second mistake was less expensive, but more foolish.

Mistake 2

I’ve never recorded the milestones attained during this writing journey I’m on.

There have been a few cheerleader notes on my trusty, albeit ancient, Blackberry: “got website up and running,” and “figured out what a plugin is.” But nowhere have I written down the date that I sold more than 30 books in a month, or the date when both CLIFF DIVER and HAT DANCE made it to the top 10 on the International Mystery Top Rated list or the date an Amazon Top 50 reviewer gave HAT DANCE 5 stars.

In the wake of Mistake #1, I realized that without a log, it is hard to remember the positive moments and easier to focus on the negative like the toilet getting plugged with the $$ I’ve just flushed away.

Why didn’t the ad on The Millions boost the book?

I was so exciting about advertising on The Millions. The site seemed to be a perfect fit. Appearing on the site felt like my books were in the Big Leagues. But maybe I was out of my league . . .

  • The Millions (and The New Yorker) projects an image of being at the top of the literary food chain. A self-published author who has been at this for only 18 months hasn’t the name recognition these sites bank on.
  • The books on the site are mostly by traditionally published authors. Maybe that is important to the site’s fans.
  • Almost all the books showcased on the site are literary fiction. I was promoting a mystery. Might be the same demographic but they go to The Millions for a specific genre.

let's make better mistakes tomorrow on blackboardSulk vs Plan

Not only did I waste a big chunk of my tiny advertising budget, but I didn’t have the foresight to track the slow and steady milestones that I have achieved, thus depriving myself of a great source of solace and common sense. I could sulk about the situation–which has nothing to do with my ability to write a darn good mystery–or do something. So, like Bridget Jones who would not be defeated by a bad man and an American stick insect, I’m opting for a plan:

  • Start systematically recording the small successes and milestones achieved. Remind myself of the results of perseverance and the joy of slow, steady progress.
  • Identify the gap between newbie author and authors who are known to readers of The Millions. Where are these authors in their career trajectory and what are their best practices?

Mistakes are still ahead; after all we are all learning as we go, right? But they’ll be better than the mistakes this week. They have to be. I’m out of cash!

Help me learn from your experience. Have you ever made an action plan after a mistake? How did it turn out?

 Cartels. Corruption. Love. Survival . . .


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Book Review: THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

Book Review: THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen

THE SPY COAST by Tess Gerritsen This excellent thriller, with a cast of characters to root for and deft plotting, is one in a recent string of bestsellers built on the trope of retired spies called back into action because of an operation in the distant past that went...

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Book Review: THE BONE RECORDS by Rich Zahradnik

Book Review: THE BONE RECORDS by Rich Zahradnik

THE BONE RECORDS by Rich Zahradnik is a wonderfully edgy “everyman” thriller but don’t expect a Clark Kent action story. THE BONE RECORDS gives us a down-on-his-luck drama with a compelling sense of place and villains who are still fighting the Cold War. Raised by his...

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3 Compelling Lessons from The Lone Ranger

Were the critics right when they proclaimed The Lone Ranger a flop? I like to judge these things for myself so when the movie came to my local theater (as El Llanero Solitario with Spanish subtitles) my daughter and I went to decide.

Reminiscent of The Lone RangerRight off we noticed a few things. First, in the subtitles, Tonto’s name was changed to Toro, probably for good reason. Tonto means “silly” in Spanish while Toro means “bull.” If you were sharp you noticed the last thing The Lone Ranger says to Tonto as they are riding off into the sunset: “Do you know what your name means in Spanish?” (We were the only ones in the theater who laughed.)

Second, we liked several things about the movie: the banter between The Lone Ranger and Tonto, the banter between Tonto and the horse, the definition of Kemosabe as “wrong brother,” the two little boys who had pivotal secondary roles.

But as we walked out of the theater we both confessed to feeling uneasy. The movie, despite it’s big budget quality and obvious Disney imprimatur, just felt wrong.

Here are 3 lessons from how The Lone Ranger went awry.

 1. Decide your focus and stick with it. In this case, make The Princess Bride OR Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee OR 3:10 to Yuma. Don’t try to make them all at once.

The only vehicle that had success stuffing comedy, race relations, and war into one package was MASH and that show had over a decade in which to do it. Moreover, Frank Burns was the kook inside the tribe and the nutty insider is more fun than the sad castaway like Tonto.

I genuinely thought we had a Princess Bride-esque thing going—reinforced by the storytelling bit reminiscent of Peter Falk reading to a sniffly Fred Savage–until the horrible bad guy eats the heart of his live victim and I knew there would be no storming the castle tonight.

2.  Don’t start what you can’t finish. One of the things that made The Lone Ranger such a long movie was the array of unresolved subplots and logic chains left dangling. Why is the bad guy a cannibal? Why does The Lone Ranger’s brother have such an unhappy marriage?

And the most annoying subplot of all concerns Red, madam of the local brothel. She had been a ballet dancer and one of the bad guys is responsible for her having lost a leg? Why? How? Beyond all that, why doesn’t Tonto ever get to be happy? Why isn’t the live crow with him in the end? What the heck was that scene of an old Tonto stumbling in the desert during the credits supposed to mean?

It would have been better to have fewer odd bits in the movie and be able to tie them all up neatly.

3. Make your finale understandable. I loved the big climax, the swelling William Tell Overture, the white horse on the roof, the excitement of the two racing trains. But by the time the second train car decoupled both my daughter and I had lost track (pun intended) of who was on which train, where each train was headed, and if The Lone Ranger and Tonto were working together or separately.

It ended well, but was simply too confusing.

Sooooo, are the lessons from The Lone Ranger just for moviemakers?

No. These lessons are universal for any creative endeavor, whether it is finishing a report, throwing a birthday party, writing a book, or designing a fashion show.

Did you see The Lone Ranger? What lessons did you take away from it?

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