Writing advice from a balky mule and a train derailment

Writing advice from a balky mule and a train derailment

Readers often connect with me over the deep point of view style of the Detective Emilia Cruz series.

Writer and podcaster Patrick Greenwood specifically asked about this while taping an episode of his Writers on Espresso podcast, which you can find here:


The full answer to Patrick’s question has two parts.

Lessons from a balky mule

Remember that scene in Gone with the Wind when Rhett Butler abandons Scarlett O’Hara on the road to Tara? Sherman’s troops are burning Atlanta and he’s leaving her on a deserted road in the middle of the night with her frenemy Melanie about to give birth in a cart and the fires of Altanta licking at her skirts.

Scarlett’s mind jumps about, trying to remember what her father called balky mules so she can deliver the ultimate insult.

Reading that scene as a 5th grader, I was INSIDE Scarlett’s head, groping for the worst thing she can say that will sting Rhett Butler to the core. But all she can think of is to slap him and call him a cad.

I wanted to be able to write from inside the character’s head like that.

Channeling a train derailment

Like most writers, I use my own experiences, too.

This includes being in a train derailment in France during college.

One weekend my best friend and I took the overnight train from Paris to Italy. (Thank you, Eurorail pass.)

In the middle of the night, the train began to judder up and down. The sound was a terrifying boom boom boom boom. Luggage rained down from the overhead racks. We were tossed around the cramped compartment. People screamed and panicked.

The boom boom boom was deafening.

Screeching iron and sparks, the train car tilted over. We were flung helplessly against the side. Finally, canted at about a 40 degree angle, the car came to a screeching stop. We scrambled out of the windows into the utter darkness of the French countryside.

Later, we found out that a vehicle had fallen from an overpass onto the tracks right in front of the speeding train. As the engine chewed up metal and rubber, the first half of the train jumped the tracks. The boom boom boom was train wheels bouncing on the wooden ties. The first few cars fell over completely. Several people were killed.

In the inky darkness, we followed the tracks about two miles to the next station, a tiny country stop. A different train eventually came and collected us and we made it to Italy after all.

Years later, I can channel the adrenaline rush and heightened sense of awareness of that event. Those memories help me create the emotional perspective of Detective Emilia Cruz, from a fistfight in CLIFF DIVER, Book 1, to a panicked turn as a stand-in for a famous movie star in NARCO NOIR, Book 8.

And I do it to give each and every reader a deeper experience of what it’s like to be in Emilia’s shoes.

Cliff Diver book birthday

CLIFF Diver, the first book in the series, just turned 11. Although not my first published book, it’s the one that launched my career, paving the way for audiobook and film deals and a guest spot on NPR.

More importantly, CLIFF DIVER introduced me to an amazing community of readers who embrace Emilia in all she stands for: strength when times are tough, hope of better things, holding on when the tide wants to sweep you away, and finding love when you least expect it. They have been truly amazing, sticking with her (and me) through thick and thin over the past 11 years.

Thank you to each and every one of you!


Cover of Cliff Diver A Detective Emilia Cruz Novel

Cliff Diver is available everywhere. Click the cover to see it on Amazon.

How a Real Cliff Diver Tames Her Fears

How a Real Cliff Diver Tames Her Fears

Ellie Smart is a professional cliff diver, but not an adrenaline junkie.


A native of Missouri and former collegiate diver at UC Berkeley, with a Masters degree in sports and exercise science, Smart is the only American woman with a permanent billet on the 2022 Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Her next scheduled dive is 4 June, when she’ll attempt a dive off of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art into Boston Harbor. It could well be the most difficult dive ever done by a female competitor.


Smart says she isn’t fearless when it comes to being a competitive cliff diver, but says that “Having fear, but controlling that fear is key in our sport.” But how is it possible to control fear when the danger is so great and the disaster so final if she makes a mistake?

Much of her training involves a mental visualization technique.

Starting weeks before a major dive, Smart will begin visualizing it. Envisioning stepping onto the platform, how her body will feel as she moves through the air, how she’ll be positioned to hit the water. That way, when it’s time to do the actual dive during a competition, she will have already mastered it in her mind, which is critical to avoid going down the rabbit hole of “what if.”

Smart also uses a box breathing technique (two breaths in, two breaths out) “while envisioning a box with a different side lighting up on each in or out breath.” Finally, she takes time to reflect before the dive to remind herself both how prepared she is and how grateful she is to do something she loves. https://www.wellandgood.com/ellie-smart/

Maybe Detective Emilia Cruz will start practicing some of these techniques. After all, when you’re the first female police detective in Acapulco, the stakes are just as high.

In CLIFF DIVER, the first murder mystery in the series, Emilia is forced to lead an investigation into the suspicious death of her lieutenant.

Soon the man’s sordid sex life, money laundering, and involvement in a kidnapping double-cross combine to create an ugly mess no one wants exposed. The high profile murder case could wreck Emilia’s career. But when her worst enemy in the police department emerges as the prime suspect, keeping her job might be the least of her worries.

As the investigation grinds on, Emilia compares herself to Acapulco’s famous cliff divers as they perform their thrilling show, diving off the rocky cliffs at La Quebrada, high above the Pacific Ocean.

“That’s me,” Emilia said as the youngest diver in the red suit stood poised on the platform again. The sinking sun was blood-streaked behind him, blotting out his swimsuit so that he looked naked and raw. “Going off a cliff, not ready for it. Not knowing if I’m going to hit the rocks and be smashed to pieces or not.”

Kirkus Reviews called CLIFF DIVER “Consistently exciting.” Leave your own review on Amazon here.

Cliff Diver

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.

Was this helpful?

Pinterest image Beyond our Borders

Writing a mystery: 3 essential questions

Writing a mystery: 3 essential questions

RUSSIAN MOJITO, Detective Emilia Cruz Book 7, will be released on 6 June. It is undoubtedly the most complex mystery I’ve ever written.

Emilia’s whole future is on the line.

Mystery writing: the big start

Every Emilia Cruz novel has multiple plot lines. My sticky note outlines are color-coded by subplot and spread across the wall above my desk. It grows as the book evolves, like a weed watered with Miracle Gro. 

essential questions

But before I can build that ever-evolving outline, I have to answer 3 essential questions:

  1. What personal aspect of Emilia’s life will be impacted?
  2. What uniquely Mexican cultural element will drive the crime?
  3. Where does Emilia end up emotionally?

Here’s how the 3 essential question exercise worked for RUSSIAN MOJITO:

1. What personal aspect of Emilia’s life will be impacted?

Detective Emilia Cruz

After the dramatic events in PACIFIC REAPER and 43 MISSING which basically destroyed Emilia’s personal relationships, in RUSSIAN MOJITO she needs to either rebuild or move on.

Emilia must decide what sort of relationship she wants with her mother, whom Emilia believes lied to her for years about the brother Emilia never knew. Emilia must also deal with the feeling that her life would have been much better if she’d been the child her mother gave away, instead of the brother who ruined all the advantages he was given.

And yes, Emilia must either salvage her affair with Kurt Rucker, the gringo manager of Acapulco’s most luxurious hotel, or finally let him go.

2. What uniquely Mexican cultural element will drive the crime?

Reuters Mexican fuel thieves

PIPELINE NO DIGGING: Warning sign at Pemex’s refinery in Salamanca, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

For some time, I’ve been tracking the phenomenon of fuel thieves in Mexico, called huachicoleros.

For most of us, living in tidy places were gas stations have credit card pumps and convenience marts, it is hard to imagine people driving through the night to the middle of nowhere to dig up a hidden gas pipeline, drill into the steel, insert a spigot, and fill cans with stolen gas to sell on the black market.

Think about the danger! Sparks from the tools used to drill through the steel. The dizzying fumes of gasoline drenching you as it gushes out of the tap. Wrangling heavy vats of gas and selling it by the gallon in some village square. The ever-present fear of fire and arrest.

It’s astounding that people are actually stealing gas out of underground pipelines but in Mexico, the problem has become big enough to close gas stations and have its own saint. Read Borderland Beat’s article about El Nino Huachicolero here. Read the Washington Post article on gas stations closing due to fuel theft here.

The danger is very real. For example, in January more than 80 people died when huachicoleros created a literal fountain of gas from a breached pipeline. Dozens of people rushed to fill containers. When the pipeline exploded, all those people were caught in a deadly fireball. Check out this stunning video from Euro News

3. Where does Emilia end up emotionally?

Again, after the cliffhanger endings of the previous two books, I wanted Emilia to get her life back on track.

RUSSIAN MOJITO has a  satisfying wrap, akin to HAT DANCE and DIABLO NIGHTS, yet also teases us with the next book in the series, NARCO NOIR.

Hey, what about the Russian angle?

Russian Mojito cover

What, there are Russians in this book? LOL Only kidding. 

Without giving away any spoilers, the Russians in RUSSIAN MOJITO insidiously find their way into every aspect of Emilia’s challenges. From her relationship with her mother, to what happens with Kurt, to multiple murders, to the huachicolero trade . . . well, you get the idea.

The cover hints at the type of cocktail the Russians bring to the party. Did I mention the cover is the 8th for the Emilia Cruz series by the talented Matt Chase?

Mark your calendars! 

23 May: Kindle pre-order

6 June: Kindle release

23 June: Paperback release

Need to catch up on Emilia’s adventures?

Get 43 MISSING on Amazon today!

 “A fast-paced procedural . . . a real page-turner [and] a very original plot.” — The Booklife Prize 

43 Missing by Carmen Amato

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essential questions


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


essential questions

“Authorize” Advice from Pulitizer Prize Author Richard Ford

Last year, I was lucky enough to attend the  F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival. Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Ford was guest speaker and winner of the 2015 F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for Outstanding Achievement in American Literature.

Ford is the author of five collections of short stories and eight novels, including the acclaimed Frank Bascombe series. The second novel in the series, Independence Day, won the Pulitzer in 1996

In his acceptance speech at the Fitzgerald festival, Ford was humorous and articulate, with a soft Southern sway to his voice as he described his writing journey from Mississippi to New York.

An author’s discipline

I took notes as he talked. Ford drew laughter several times from his rapt audience, but he had a message about writing that resonated for its gently forceful lesson for authors. Ford said that ordinary human beings can write great books but that it takes great discipline. His exact words were: “A sternness I live with and have learned to enjoy.”

As an example of this, Ford described how before he writes a book, he creates a tabbed binder full of research on characters, location, and events. All this research—which might take more than a year—is needed to get the book’s concept and setting firmly fixed in his head before he writes anything. Validation! I do something similar except that I use an archive box.

Ford also declared that as an author, he “authorizes.” For him, there is no such thing as the characters “taking over” the story. As a writer who writes to an outline, this really resonated with me. Ford also claimed that literature is most interesting “when the villain says something true.” I liked that pronouncement as well and have enough dialogue under my belt to that this type of writing cannot be achieved by letting characters meander “unauthorized” through the story. Bottom line: discipline.

“Sternness” matters because . . .

I pulled out my notes of Ford’s talk when I saw his article on assessing short stories in the 18 April 2016 edition of America magazine. After discussing how and why to define short stories, but cleverly managing to avoid actually doing so, Ford took the reader’s point of view to tell us why an author’s “sternness” matters:

“I like stories that understand they are husbanding my precious attention and need therefore to give me back something important. And I like stories that are up to telling me directly something important about life, something I did not know and in language I can understand.”

Thank you for putting it so perfectly, Mr. Ford!

You, dear readers, are sharing your “precious attention.” I hope that myself and fellow writers offer you valued entertainment–be it humor, excitement, curiosity, joy, or a tingle up the spine–in return.

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author Richard Ford


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


author Richard Ford

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Anne R. Allen’s Essential Tips for New Authors

Lately, several emerging authors have asked me what to focus on as they start their careers. For a pro opinion, I turned to Anne R. Allen, author of How To Be A Writer In the E-Age. Anne writes the essential blog for today’s writers at http://annerallen.com/. When I asked her for a few tips, she shared this great advice:

1) Concentrate on writing short work (both fiction and personal essays).

Yes, you’ve got that novel or memoir you’re pounding away at, but spend at least half your time on short pieces. Short stories and essays will help you hone your craft and get you published in journals and anthologies. They might even make you some money. Some short story contests have big prizes.

And yes, you can write some of those short personal essays on a blog—either your own or as a guest—which will do amazing things for getting your name out there.

When you finish a short work, it gives you a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, and you can send those out to contests and journals and anthologies. There’s nothing more empowering than getting something in print and putting “published author” after your name.

2) Don’t write in a vacuum.

Take a class, join a critique group, find beta readers or a critique partner. You want to do this fairly early on. Writing in a vacuum can lead to bad habits and unrealistic expectations. Learning to write well is a long, steep learning curve. Don’t stay stuck at the bottom longer than you need to.

3) Read contemporary books in your genre.

If you only read the young adult books from your own youth or you read the regencies or mysteries you loved 20 years ago, you won’t be able to compete in today’s market. What was hot then will be clichéd now.

4) Network with other writers.

There are lots of great online social media groups and forums. (Some are fantastic and others not so much, so run if you see any trollish behavior!)

Blogging is a great way to network with other writers, and there are great blog networks for new writers like the Insecure Writers Support Group.

Simply commenting on well-known writing blogs gets your name into search engines and raises your profile. Get to know people and get known!

Genre groups that welcome both amateurs and professionals can be especially helpful, like RWA, SCBWI, and Sisters in Crime. They usually have online and in-person meetings.

You may be lucky enough to live in a community that has in-person writers clubs that meet at local libraries or bookstores. Network anyplace you find kindred spirits.  But you want to be online too. That’s where you’re going to make your sales and establish your career.

Online networking is a great way hear about agents who are looking for work like yours and to learn from people who are self-publishing and decide if it will work for you. This is where you’re going to find out about the business and learn the latest scams to stay away from (there are always scammers looking to pounce on newbie writers.)

5) Write everything down.

Don’t “talk out” your novel or story. Jot down your ideas—in notebooks, on Evernote, or whatever program works for you to save those thoughts, names, settings, weird stories that you can work into plots. Take it with you everywhere. They will be a goldmine later.

Thank you, Anne!

To learn more about Anne R. Allen and mine her trove of great advice, check out http://annerallen.com/ and her book How To Be A Writer In the E-Age.

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Anne R. Allen


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


Anne R. Allen

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