2023 in Review: Highs, Lows and Turning Points

2023 in Review: Highs, Lows and Turning Points

How did your 2023 go? Mine went something like this.


I won the 2023 Silver Falchion award for Best Historical at the Killer Nashville International Writer’s Conference this year. The award banquet was Saturday evening, after 2.5 days of non-stop seminars, workshops, serious discussion and working lunches. So far I’d given a talk on Digital Deception and hosted the Author Speed Dating event. My name was fairly well known at that point.

When Master of Ceremonies Clay Stafford read my name as the winner in that category, the room erupted in cheers so loud that no one heard him read the title of the winning book, MURDER AT THE GALLIANO CLUB.

Award for Murder at the Galliano Club Killer Nashville 2023

That so many author peers were so supportive made the win doubly meaningful. I’m so grateful to the Killer Nashville community. What a great group pf people.


Sadly, my 2023 low goes hand-in-glove with the high.

Writing the Galliano Club books during the Covid lockdown gave my mother something to think about. Every evening I’d call her and get her to tell me stories of growing up in Rome, NY, which became the model for the city of Lido in the books.

She’d constantly say how excited she was to read the books when they were finally published. But dementia has claimed her now and she is no longer able to read nor recall those conversations.

Turning Point

I want to know “What positive action can I take based on the information?” As an former intel officer, “actionable” is always what I’m looking for.

Always look for the details that can prompt forward motion.

Can we look over the past 12 months and recognize the moments that set us in a new direction? A decision that led to something fresh and unexpected?

Did it lead us in the right direction?

Sometimes these moments are lost in the clutter of everyday life. Or they happened so gradually that it seems like the new direction took shape naturally, without any conscious effort.

Most importantly, can we embrace the positive turning point and replicate it? Can we recognize the negative turning point and avoid another?

  • My first turning point in 2023 came when I discovered that the blogging platform Medium.com is an amazing repository of marketing ideas. While this content is not specific to mystery authors, I can adapt this wealth of ideas from Australian writer Tim Denning, Alex Llull from The Steal Club newsletter, and Sharon Woodhouse, owner of the Conspire Creative agency, to name just a few.

Adopting a student mindset, I hope to expand my author business with fresh ideas from those experts and others in 2024.

An aside re Medium.com. I initially saw it as another stream of writing income. But after a few weeks, I realized that gaining traction there would take up too much time and energy away from fiction. No one is asking for my writing advice on Medium. They are, however, emailing to ask when the next Detective Emilia Cruz novel comes out.

  • In 2023, a second turning point was taking advantage of local sales opportunities. For the first time, I sold books at the Southern Festival of Books and at a fall craft market in my town. The latter event led to a partnership with 3 other small business owners to create the Literary Crime Club, a collection of exclusive quarterly soirées.

Crime Club logo

Each ticketed evening event will offer a unique literary activity plus snacks and adult beverages, as well as a thoughtful takeaway gift and a few surprises like raffles. Our first event of 2024 will be a Literary Scavenger Hunt!

So cast your mind back through 2023

  • Congratulate yourself on the highs and let go of the lows.
  • Find the turning points.
  • Learn from both the positive and negative.
  • Identify the actionable.
  • Grow the good.

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay | Literary Crime Club image copyright Lebanon Sisterhood. May not be used without permission.

The road between the storms

The road between the storms

Storm vs lull = success

The storm called RUSSIAN MOJITO has ended. The lull has arrived, allowing me to catch my breath and attend to all the housekeeping chores that built up while my brain was whirling with MOJITO. The modern do-it-yourself author has a never-ending to-do list related to marketing, social media, learning about the publishing industry, and so on. Success means the learning process never stops.

Although the next Emilia Cruz mystery is already percolating and the first chapter was a bonus at the end of RUSSIAN MOJITO, the lull is time to hit the road, looking at the big picture. Time to think about where we’re headed.

Related post: Open Letter to 2019

“Losers have goals. Winners have systems.”

This quote by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams struck a nerve as I thought about how readers find my books and interact with me. There’s so much sheer noise out there, without an easy way to do things–structure, repeatable processes, checklists, etc.–accomplishment is going to be slower than the roaring wave. And let’s face it, we can easily be swept under the fierce rush.

The Mystery Ahead newsletter is a repeatable process that works. Every other Sunday, the newsletter contains announcements, an exclusive excerpt, and my review of a mystery that I’ve read and can recommend.

By keeping to a template, readers always know what to expect. Consistency has created a great sense of connection. Readership is growing swiftly.

Success! But what about everything else?

When in doubt, call an expert

In my case, it’s social media expert Frances Caballo. She’s doing an online audit and hopefully I’ll get some good feedback as to how best to manage my online self. No one wants to come off as bragging or sales-y but social media is a critical way for authors to introduce themselves to today’s online audience.

BTW, Frances is the author of SOCIAL MEDIA JUST FOR AUTHORS and a fellow dog lover.

I’ve also subscribed to {grow}, a blog by THE CONTENT CODE author Mark Schaefer. Anyone who creates content for an online audience has to read this book.

“There is no happiness without action.”

Benjamin Disraeli may not be the most famous British prime minister (Hello, Boris Johnson!) but I found this quote gets to the point. A lull is the perfect time to plan, prep and get ready for the next storm.

Happiness comes from a state of growth, as Gretchen Rubin discovered in THE HAPPINESS PROJECT. Blogger and author Mark Manson knocked it out of the park when he wrote that happiness comes from solving problems in THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT GIVING A F*CK.

This lull was the time to do the UNTHINKABLE.

Yes, I got a NEW LAPTOP! Lots of horsepower and a bigger screen. New versions of Word and Photoshop.

My ancient Sony (does Sony even make laptops any more??) laptop crashed if I accessed my website. Microsoft kept warning that its version of Windows was going to be mothballed. But in 7 years across 3 different countries, I wrote 7 novels, half a dozen short stories, and over 200 blog posts on that mighty little machine.

The next storm starts soon.

It’s called NARCO NOIR: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 8.

Are you in a storm or a lull?

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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 mystery of the disappearing home office

The mystery of the disappearing home office

As 2019 approaches, many of us (self included) look to see the progress made over the past year. For many of us (self included) it was a year of transition.

We moved to a new house in a new state. The Dream House, in a place with lots of creative energy and a friendly community.

Related: Saga of the koi pond

In the 6.5 years since my first book was published, we’ve moved 4 times. Each house offered different places for me to write and I found that environment shaped my writing routine.

This house is no different, but it has taken me longer to figure that out.

Where she writes, take 1

When we moved into the Dream House with an open concept blueprint, we switched up how the rooms were used. The cavernous family room would be our Banquet Hall. The previous owner’s formal dining room–essentially an extension of the front hallway–would become my combo work and home office.

In our previous house, my writing desk was in the former living room. For as long as we lived there, I swore my next office would have a door.

But being a bear of very little brain . . .

I took out the chair rail, slathered the mud-brown walls with Benjamin Moore’s Heaven, hung buffalo plaid curtains, and replaced the chandelier with a sputnik fixture from Sazerac Stitches in New Orleans. Gorgeous.

Rainbox chandelier Sazerac Stitches

I plunked down a bed for the dog, tacked up my outline for Detective Emilia Cruz #7, and got to work.

Sort of.

The open concept guaranteed interruption. No, let me rephrase that.

Fostered interruption.

Front door, television, kitchen, laundry room. Everything within reach and making noise. Family members talking to me because, hey, I’m basically sitting in the middle of a hallway everyone passes through on the way to everywhere else.

Compounding the mistake, I created a mashup of office purposes. Now, if you have ever moved to a new place and had to get a new driver’s license, car registration, accounts for gas, electric, water, etc, you know how it goes. Moreover, after nearly 3 decades of blissful ignorance, we found that our marriage certificate was incorrect!

Bottom line, lots of distractions. Minimal progress on the novel, despite a knockout outline and complete mental mastery of the entwining plot lines.

(Yes. Mental mastery. Having a good day.)

Aaaand, take 2

Fast forward a few months. I’ve declared defeat at the hands of the open concept house and commandeered an upstairs bedroom for my new writing lair. Home office stuff stays downstairs.

It’s a bare bones situation so far, but I’m already feeling more productive. (Witness “mental mastery” line above.)

A few overdue lessons learned, too, which might be helpful to fellow creatives:

  1. If I can’t see it, I won’t do it. This applies to outlines, social media updates, etc. Things need to go up on the wall and be visual reminders.
  2. I need to assign specific tasks to different days of the week. For years, I have paid bills on Mondays. The newsletter goes out every other Sunday. I’ve fallen off the wagon when it comes to social media and blogging, but these need to be scheduled.
  3. If I write down 3 goals for the next day every night, I won’t waste time idly surfing Pinterest the next day.

So now here I am, with a secluded but bland beige new work space. Time to tape up the outline  and the big map of Acapulco, and get to work on RUSSIAN MOJITO, Emilia #7.

novel outline

Office décor suggestions much appreciated.

home office

The Ultimate Secret to Productivity

My #1 secret to productivity isn’t an app or a clock. But it works better than either.

As a mystery author, I look for as productivity tips the way Detective Emilia Cruz looks for clues to solve the latest murder in Acapulco. Productivity becomes an even bigger issue when I’m staring down the barrel of a book publication deadline.

My social media stream is awash in advice from productivity pros like James Clear and Rory Vaden. But despite this great inspiration, I wasn’t meeting goals. Okay, to be frank, I wasn’t even very diligent about setting goals.

The problem? Shiny Object Syndrome.

Shiny objects are great. Glittery. Fun. Full of promise. There’s always another one just ahead!

Everybody’s shiny objects are different. I rush after sparkly things like graphic design, home decorating, endless lists related to marketing, and social media. Hours can go by as I troll through design sites like Behance.com or Awwwards.com or read about growth hacking or play with Photoshop.

I’m not the only one struggling to clarify goals and stay focused. Fellow scribbler Jessica Tregarth found herself with a similar case of Shiny Object Syndrome. To try and defeat it, we decided to connect once a week (we live 3 time zones apart) as each other’s “accountability buddy.”

Accountability buddy in action

Every week Jessica and I brainstorm actions that take a bite—no matter how small—out of our respective long term goals for writing, continuous learning, and a healthy lifestyle. We each come away from the session with 4 or 5 actions we want to accomplish in the week ahead. The next week we review how much of our respective lists we accomplished and trouble-shoot how to resolve what is holding us back.

How is it going so far?

Accountability is a powerful motivator. I’ve stayed on track with finishing KING PESO, the 4th Detective Emilia Cruz novel, and been much more intentional with my time on social media. That weekly list stays in front of me, a reminder that I have to account for how I used (or wasted) my time. I also don’t want to let Jessica down.

In short, having an accountability buddy is the best thing I’ve ever done to define goals and stay focused.

Making it work

Finding the right buddy is key. It helps that Jessica and I have known each other for almost a decade and have the same approach.

  • Your accountability buddy needs to be as committed as you are and be ready to make it part of their routine. You don’t have to connect every week but create a fixed schedule. Just promising to get together “whenever” makes it too easy to put off.
  • Don’t overcommit because you want to impress your buddy. Be honest, know your limits, and help your buddy do the same. Discuss possibilities and realities. This is not a competition.
  • Keep a log so you know what both you and your buddy are working toward. Review your progress each time you connect. If something didn’t work, try to figure out together why—was it a one-off problem or a systemic issue that needs to be resolved before real progress can be made?

Yes, Shiny Object Syndrome will always be there. But an accountability buddy is a force multiplier.

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


Secret to productivity by Carmen Amato

Lighting the Path

Lighting the Path

“Surround yourself with those who light the way.”

It was just another pithy Pinterest graphic; worth a nod and a smile. Forgotten in the wake of a great chicken recipe or a cat playing the piano.

But I recently had occasion to reflect on the wisdom of “lighting the path” when a friend and I had a long conversation about career decisions. She’s got two opportunities to choose from, both with pros and cons to them. Meanwhile, I was wondering if my writing career can expand into a website devoted to time management and productivity for fellow writers, and if the Emilia Cruz series will ever get off the midlist.

Tipping points

As we talked, my friend–a social scientist–unwittingly defined for me what “lighting the path” means when faced with a decision:

1.How many people will it help? Do we want a life that is self-contained and narrowly focused? Or a life that impacts others for the better?

Will the next decison create well-being or lead to better health? Solve problems for others?

2. Just because an opportunity is available doesn’t mean it is the right one. Will a short-term gain wipe out the chance to fulfill a long-term dream?

Yes, this is why Penny quit waitressing at the Cheesecake Factory.

3. It is worth spending time defining and owning your long-term goal. My friend and I discussed our career goals. Where would each like to be 5 years from now.  Once we did that we could apply one of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly successful people: “Begin with the end in mind.”

Ongoing process

We didn’t bring peace to the Middle East but the conversation clarified things for both of us. We can both see a better–albeit highly ambitious–path.

Now the question is one of courage.

I hope you have a chance now and then to have such conversations with friends who help light your path.

No flashlight? Dead battery? Strike a match and keep going. Brainstorm, weigh options, find your heart’s desire, own a long-term goal. Don’t aim at nothing.

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lighting the path


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


lighting the path

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