Winning an Award, Losing My Mother

Winning an Award, Losing My Mother

Murder at the Galliano Club, the first novel in the Galliano Club historical fiction thriller series won the Silver Falchion Award for Best Historical at the 2023 Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference.

I’m still shell-shocked.

Mystery author Carmen Amato with award

Wearing my Silver Falchion medal at the Killer Nashville awards dinner.


The Galliano Club series wasn’t supposed to be a major project. Just something to keep my mother Jean entertained as we endured lockdowns in 2019 and 2020.


4 Galliano Club covers

My mother had just moved into a lovely, assisted living facility in upstate New York about 90 minutes from my three siblings. Suddenly she was confined to her apartment, no longer enjoying three-course meals in the beautiful dining room with chandeliers and cloth napkins. Gone were the group activities. No more outdoor walks, movie nights, duplicate bridge, or spirited political discussions in the library.

An extrovert, my mother has always had a morbid fear of being alone. Far too many times after my stepfather passed, she ended up in the emergency room in the throes of a panic attack. The decision to move out of her own home and to the assisted living facility was driven in good measure by that fear.

For a time, it was a good decision.


As New York state locked itself into panic mode, she spent hours by herself, agitated and crying. Days went by when she saw no one besides a harried staffer in a mask delivering a box of food.

As my mother’s world shrank, so did her cognitive abilities. She forgot how to operate the television remote control, often confusing it with her cell phone. She re-read the same book over and over. She mixed up her medication.

“There’s something wrong with my brain,” she’d cry angrily.

When my siblings visited, they stood below her window for a shouted conversation. But I live in Tennessee, hardly within shouting distance. The miles between us stretched into an unknown infinity of time.

Pandemic project

During the pandemic, I couldn’t face writing another book in the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series full of cartels and corruption. I needed something easier. More hopeful and comforting.

Family and hometown provided the answer.

I’d write historical fiction inspired by my hometown of Rome in upstate New York and the stories my grandfather told of the days when he was a deputy sheriff of Oneida County during Prohibition. To give my mother something to think about besides her lonesomeness, she could give me authentic details.

killer nashville,galliano club,pandemic project

My mother Jean, circa 1965, when she was working for RCA at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome NY.


And so every evening as she sat alone in her apartment, we had long telephone calls about her childhood. The Italian community in East Rome revolved around Saint John’s Catholic Church, the convent, and festivals. Men worked at the Revere Copper and Brass Rolling Mill, Rome Cable, and other large manufacturers. There was a handball court behind the house when she was growing up.

Her grandfather moonlighted as the bartender at the Liberty Club, his faithful black dog at his feet. Rival to the real Galliano Club across the street which had a dance studio above it, the men-only social club was an impressive sight at parades when members formed a phalanx of tricolor sashes and banners.

I asked her what the men did at the club every evening. “Drink,” she said with a sniff of derision. “And play cards.”

Making Lido

As weeks turned into months and the evening ritual went on, my mother provided the details that would build the fictional city of Lido in the Galliano Club books. Details such as Nelson’s department store where ladies’ silk stockings were sold in flat boxes. The cleanliness of Red’s Meat Market. Madonia’s fruit stand smelling like citrus and bananas. Civic band concerts. Bocce tournaments. Pastries, habits, shops, friends.

“You should put this in,” she’d say, then proceed to tell me about her grandfather butchering a pig and making blood sausage.

Eventually the pandemic lockdowns lifted but the damage was done. My mother, now 94, suffers from dementia that has robbed her of the ability to do everyday things like read, turn on her television, or remember to brush her teeth. She lives in the memory care wing of a different assisted living facility. Given that she no longer answers her telephone or will call me, we rarely speak.

Carmen's wedding day with her mother

My mother Jean and I on my wedding day in 1989. Poofy sleeves were in. Don’t judge. Also my bouquet looks like it is trying to eat her.


She doesn’t know that all 4 of the Galliano Club books have been published, each a gripping thriller novel in its own right. She doesn’t know that publishing distributor Ingram liked the cover of Revenge at the Galliano Club so much that the book topped a display in the company’s lobby. She doesn’t know that author, poet and educator Michael Hogan compared the writing to that of E.L. Doctorow.

She doesn’t know that Murder at the Galliano Club won a prestigious literary award.

Yet the award belongs as much to her as it does to me.


Murder at the Galliano Club

Find Murder at the Galliano Club on Amazon or your favorite online bookstore.

Killer Nashville’s success story

Killer Nashville’s success story

There is a success story behind the Killer Nashville International Mystery Writer’s Conference.

The weekend among my fellow writers always inspires and recharges. This was my 4th time attending.

The schedule is geared to help attendees connect with other authors as well as learn from fellow panelists and guests of honor. Agents are available to review a few pages of a manuscript. The awards dinner is a highlight and a reason to get dressed up.

I also won a Killer Nashville Silver Falchion in 2019 and have been a finalist a couple of times, but that’s another story.

Related post: An Excellent Bunch of Murderers


Persistence was the unofficial theme of the conference this year.

Both guests of honor put themselves in the shoes of aspiring writers as they spoke about persistence.

Charlie Donlea (SUMMIT LAKE, TWENTY YEARS LATER) talked about spending years writing multiple books before a publisher took a chance on him. Hank Phillippi Ryan (HER PERFECT LIFE, FIRST TO DIE) shared all the jobs she had before writing and that her first book was completely rewritten into a new genre before it was published.

Everyone is encouraged be be persistent. Overnight success is rare. Keep honing your craft, making connections and believing in yourself.

This attitude was reflected everywhere. My friend Bradley Harper (A KNIFE IN THE FOG, QUEEN’S GAMBIT) says he has “no time to be timid” and keeps pushing the envelope with new genres and branching into screenwriting. Mike Faricy (RUSSIAN ROULETTE, THE OFFICE) has more than 50 books to his name and struck gold with the Dev Haskell series. Dr. Katherine Hutchinson-Hayes is not only a Claymore Award finalist but a podcaster supporting other authors. After punishing careers in law enforcement and the California prison system, Bruce Robert Coffin (AMONG THE SHADOWS, BENEATH THE DEPTHS) and James L’Etoile (DEAD DROP, BLACK LABEL) persisted and built second careers as authors.

I could do on and on. Serious writers have persistence.

Related post: 10 Lessons from my first Killer Nashville

When Logistics Go Bad

The conference persisted despite:

  • Hotel plumbing disaster
  • Website hit by a Russian denial-of-service attack
  • Schedule changes due to speaker illness/injury
  • Misprinted awards dinner program

None of it mattered.

We made jokes about noisy fans and having to walk through the kitchen when the plumbing caused a hallway to be closed off.

Those who had attended before kept panels running smoothly in the absence of those with health issues. Last minute substitutions were useful and entertaining.

Volunteers at the front desk helped when website information wasn’t available.

The misprinted awards program was managed so deftly by Clay Stafford as the dinner’s MC that it became a running joke and quite good entertainment.

Nothing was going to get in the way of this community supporting its members.

We want you to succeed

This year I realized what made Killer Nashville special enough to keep coming year after year.

You get to define what success as a writer is for you. We all know it isn’t the same for everyone. There are too many versions and variables. But everyone at Killer Nashville wants you to succeed.

Sometimes the message is said out loud, but mostly it’s subliminal. It’s the thread that runs through a conversation with a fellow writer before the panel gets going. Lunch with a stranger as you both eye the cheesecake. Those late connections in the bar when you trade war stories and marketing ideas.

We all come to Killer Nashville because we want to succeed as a writer. Just as importantly, we want you to succeed, too.

Now that’s a heck of a success story.


The importance of a good hair day

Selfies with friends during the Killer Nashville conference, August 2022.

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Killer Nashville on Writing International Mystery and Crime Fiction

Killer Nashville on Writing International Mystery and Crime Fiction

Killer Nashville, the international mystery writers conference, is a gold mine of inspiration and resources for the mystery and thriller author, including those who write international mystery and crime fiction.

Held last month outside Nashville, TN, Killer Nashville is a 4-day event full of opportunities to connect polish your craft and engage with writers at all stages of their careers.

Most of all, it’s a hefty dose of inspiration, most of which comes from fellow writers who share their expertise and experiences on panels with such great themes as “Creating Characters Readers Can’t Forget” or “Writing Detective and Police Procedurals.”

Writing International Mystery and Crime Fiction

I was honored to chair the only panel dedicated to the challenges of writing about people and places around the world: “Beyond Our Borders: Writing International Mystery & Crime.”  I’m immersed in this genre day and night so it was a thrill to see how many others are, too.

“Beyond Our Borders” was one of the biggest panels of the conference, with 7 authors dedicated to writing suspense with an international flair:

Key questions

Here’s a (sort of) instant replay of the questions that sparked the most discussion between panelists and with the audience:

What are the top 3 things an author needs to get right about an international setting?

Culture was the top answer from all panel members. Authentic details about the culture are essential to ground the reader in the setting and make it believable. Savvy readers will know when you don’t get it right.

Other things an author needs to get right included a sense of the foreign language, the social strata of the foreign location, physical attributes like architecture/street signs/automobiles, etc. and conveying a deep sense of place using all five senses.

What resources do you use to research a setting?

The best research is actually being there and experiencing the place as a local, not a tourist. Get a reputable tour guide from your hotel, talk to people as if you plan to move there, and keep a detailed trip journal. Authentic details matter but are also the easiest things to get wrong, like a one-way street.

If you can’t travel everywhere, research like crazy, using Google Earth, YouTube videos, memoirs, and translations of local newspapers. Google Translate is your friend. Not everything is on Wikipedia.

How do you convey to your readers that your characters are speaking a foreign language?

Panelist agreed that the best way was to sprinkle in foreign language words in a way that their meaning is easily understood. It is common practice for foreign words to be written in italics. Foreign language words should be spelled as they exist in that language, not spelled phonetically in English.

Are your plots unique to the setting? Could they only take place there?

The answer was a resounding Yes.

Either elements of the culture drive plot and motive, true events create a framework, or the specific location contributes a unique twist or complication.

(Author note: Do all three and it’s a hat trick. You also have my undying admiration.)

Thank you, Killer Nashville

I tackle these questions with each Detective Emilia Cruz mystery set in Acapulco. Thanks to Killer Nashville, I got a boost from hearing how other authors deal with them, too.

More importantly, the panel tried to give our audience tips for adding authenticity and deepening the reader’s curiosity.

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Pinterest image Beyond our Borders

Killer Nashville 2019: An excellent bunch of murderers

Killer Nashville 2019: An excellent bunch of murderers

He put the cord over my head. It scratched against my neck, heavier than I expected. My heart was beating too fast. The noise buffeted me, my vision a blur . . . 

Nope, I wasn’t strangled, but won the Silver Falchion award for THE ARTIST/EL ARTISTA in the Short Story Collection/Anthology at the Killer Nashville mystery writer conference.  Competition included a story by R. L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series. 

Novelist Joyce Carol Oates, who received a lifetime achievement award, and David Morrell, creator of Rambo, were both in the audience.

Carmen with award


As thrilling as winning an award is, the real reason for attending the Killer Nashville conference is the ability to network with other authors. I like Killer Nashville because it is a relatively small setting, as writing conferences go, and there is time to have sidebar conversations–although never enough! 

Related post: Lessons from Killer Nashville 2018

killer nashville

With Mike Faricy, author of the Dev Haskell series

Amato and Baron Birtcher

With Baron Birtcher, who won 3 awards including Best Overall Novel for “Fistful of Rain”

Killer Nashville

R.G. Belsky, Carmen Amato, and conference founder Clay Stafford

Souvenirs for all

Killer Nashville is also a good place to get a dose of inspiration. Panel presentations are specific to the mystery and thriller genre. Conflict, characters, setting, red herrings. Finding out how other authors twist their plots or plan their characters is like a dose of new insights and fresh ideas.

It’s the proverbial shot in the arm.

My solo presentation “Inside the CIA” was delivered to a standing-room-only audience. Everyone stayed, despite the wonky projector that muddied my slideshow. I’ll be replaying it in a webinar for the Atlanta chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can sign up for the webinar here:

Andrea Amherst, who came all the way from Vienna, Austria (!) for the conference, joined me in leading a workshop on “How to Make Your Website Work for You.” We used this PDF checklist, which you can download here:

Observations and a suggestion

Last year, I came away from Killer Nashville with the feeling that a storm between trad and indie publishing had brewed under the surface, led by indie publishing champion Joe Konrath. He did not attend the 2019 conference, so the buzz was quieter, albeit still there.

Most of the authors still working on their first novel want a trad deal rather than “being forced” to strike out into the wilds of indie publishing. Yet almost all the authors I spoke to who were traditionally published had a nightmare story of publishers closing, editors bailing on them, contracts left in limbo, etc. Indie authors were making a decent income and liked the sense of control.

I expect this will continue to be an ongoing debate.

This year, I ran into more would-be authors who were still in various stages of completing a novel and wondering how to get it published. All seemed to be looking for a mentor. Beyond the actual writing process, they were looking for someone who could explain the publishing industry and how to market books. Maybe next year’s Killer Nashville could have a mentor program.


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


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