The lost chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

The lost chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

My “Simplify” theme for 2019 led to some housekeeping and that in turn led to the discovery of a lost chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

Backstory

The novel was originally an 800 page (Not. Kidding.) all written from the point of view of the female protagonist, Luz de Maria Alba Mora. 500 of those pages were other characters explaining things to her that had happned while she wasn’t around.

Ultimately, after 8 years of editing, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY became a political thriller with a strong love interest in the style of Ken Follett’s books TRIPLE and THE KEY TO REBECCA. I always thought it would make a great movie, too.

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

One of the issues in the book is the slow transformation of Luz de Maria from a housemaid with big dreams to a woman unafraid to reach higher on the social ladder. The scene below ended up being surplus but I always liked the way she figured out the problem and gained confidence because of it.

The setup is that she has fallen in love with a man from Mexico’s highest social class–Eduardo “Eddo” Cortez Castillo–and he has asked her to marry him. Her answer is pending. They are in a luxury hotel and will attend a party later; Luz figures if she can survive the party it will help make up her mind.

The number 314 is symbolic; it was her number when waiting to be interviewed for a US work visa.

The lost chapter

“It’s a deal,” Eddo said and kissed her cheek. “Let’s seal it with some food. You order us up some breakfast while I take a quick shower.”

He disappeared into the bathroom. Luz went into the living room and realized she didn’t have a clue how to order room service. Her bravery popped like a bubble.

The hotel binder was on the table next to Eddo’s laptop. She scooped it up and flipped through the pages. It listed the times they served various foods but there weren’t any instructions. Luz tossed the book onto the loveseat and went over to the phone by the chair. Attached to the phone was a small card with a listing of hotel services. Reception-10, Concierge-11, Housekeeping-12, Taxis-13, Room Service-14. That couldn’t be right. No telephone number was only two digits. And every number in Mexico City started with 5.

He would just have to explain how this worked. Luz went into the bedroom and knocked on the bathroom door. The water was going. Eddo was singing Miguel Bosé’s Sólo Pienso en Ti. He didn’t hear her.

Luz sagged against the doorframe, torn between hopelessness and determination. Order us up some breakfast. She’d told herself she would let the despedida decide but maybe that had been a hollow promise. She could hardly marry Eddo if she couldn’t get food in his world.

Eddo started ringing out “Poco á poco” from the refrain. Luz shoved herself away from the doorway, thinking furiously. She went back into the living room, and hit ‘0’ on the telephone keypad. She would call the Telmex operator and ask if two digit telephone numbers were possible.

“Palacio Suites. How may I direct your call?”

“Is this still the hotel?” Luz blurted.

“Yes, señora. Were you trying to get an outside line?”

“I want to order breakfast,” Luz said.

“I’ll put you through to room service or you can dial 14 from your room phone.”

“Just ‘1’ and ‘4’? That’s not enough numbers.”

“That’s just when you’re inside the hotel, señora.” The operator paused. “Would you like me to put you through to Room Service now?”

“Yes, thank you,” Luz said.

There was a ring, then a woman’s voice. “Room Service. May I help you?”

Luz hiccupped in astonishment. It had really worked. “I’d like to order some breakfast,” she managed.

“Certainly. What is your room number, please?”

“Oh.” Luz had no idea. Who called to have food sent to their room and didn’t know what room they were in? It was good the person on the other end of the connection couldn’t see her face. “Hold please,” she said, just as Señora Vega had taught her. She looked around for a piece of paper with the room number on it but there was nothing. Even the card Eddo used to open the door, on the table with his car keys and cell phone, just had the name of the hotel on it. He was still singing in the bathroom as she flung open the door to the suite and looked outside.

Luz darted back to the phone as the door swung shut. “It’s 314,” she said breathlessly into the phone.

“Señor Cortez’s suite,” the woman verified. “El señor let us know you were coming, señora. I hope you are enjoying your stay with us.”

“Yes,” Luz said, taken aback. Did everyone in the hotel know that she was an unmarried woman sleeping with an unmarried man?

“What can we send up, señora?”

“What?”

“You wished to order breakfast, señora?”

Madre de Dios, she hadn’t even thought of what food to eat. Luz smacked herself in the forehead with her hand, feeling rushed and idiotic and embarrassed. The hotel staff was going to think Eddo’s unmarried señora was dull-witted.

Luz snatched up the room service binder and flipped it open to the breakfast page. “Two omelets with mushrooms and cheese,” she decided swiftly, deliberately not looking at the prices. “A fruit plate.” Eddo always ate fruit. “And coffee.”

“For two?”

“Yes.”

“Bacon or ham with the omelets?”

The choice paralyzed her for a second. Her mind jumped around, trying to remember the things she’d seen Eddo eat in San Miguel. He’d had both. Luz exhaled. “Ham.”

“Cream with the coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“And does el señor want his usual newspapers included with that?”

Luz closed her eyes. She had no idea what she was doing or how much this was all going to cost. “Yes.”

“It’ll be up to you in about 20 minutes.”

“Wait,” Luz gulped. Eddo liked spicy food. “Can you send some salsa roja with that?”

“Of course, señora.”

“Wait,” Luz said again. “Is it made fresh?”

“It’s made fresh daily right on the premises.”

“Thank you.” Luz hung up the phone and sank nerveless onto the loveseat. She dropped the binder and started giggling, on the edge of hysteria just for ordering some food.

Of course it wasn’t there yet. A waiter would bring the food on another little skirted trolley. An entirely new hurdle loomed as Luz realized she’d have to sign for the food, just like Eddo had done last night. And she’d have to give the waiter a tip. Nobody in Mexico performed a service without getting a propina.

Luz ran into the bedroom and pulled her purse out of the closet drawer. No doubt she had enough small bills in her wallet to give the waiter a tip. But the wallet was completely empty.

Luz dumped the contents of her purse onto the bed. Lipstick, compact, hairbrush, tissues, rosaries, cell phone, and the milky quartz stone fell out. She searched the empty purse, running her hand inside it, checking the zippered inside pocket, trying not to panic, sure that her money had to be somewhere. She opened the wallet again, frantically digging in the bill compartment, the coin purse, and in the slots for the credit cards she didn’t have. From the little slot she never used she pulled out the invalidated check for the first paintings she’d sold at el Jardin del Arte.

She sank down on the rumpled comforter, breakfast suddenly forgotten. As she unfolded the check, the humiliation and despair of that day in the bank rose up.

Chingate,” Luz said loudly.

“Did you say something?”

Luz jerked around to see Eddo coming out of the bathroom wearing a towel.

“I think I have water in my ear.” He rubbed his head then indicated the check in her hand. “What’s that?”

“Nothing.” Luz crumpled up the check. “Trash out of my wallet.”

Eddo moved over to the closet. He took out clean briefs and put them on, then walked back into the bathroom to hang up the towel. “Your clothes are still on the floor in here and mine aren’t,” he called smugly. “Just letting you know.”

“Oh!” Luz rushed into the bathroom, gave Eddo a big noisy kiss on the mouth, then pushed him back into the bedroom. “Put some pants on. Breakfast will be here any minute.”

She shut the bathroom door behind her. Her money and identity card were still in the right front pocket of her white jeans.

Luz tore the check into tiny bits and flushed it down the toilet. She had to pull the handle twice before every piece disappeared, swirling and gurgling down the bowl and into the sewer and far away.

Eddo was still buttoning his shirt in the bedroom as she signed the room service check. She had 50 pesos in her hand but didn’t need it. There was a line to write the propina. She mentally calculated ten percent.

Everything she’d ordered was there. Luz turned over the cups and poured them each some coffee.

“Omelets. Wonderful.” Eddo sat down next to her. “Thank you.”

Luz took the top off the condiment bowl. “Salsa roja?”

“Yes, please.” He beamed and spooned a large portion onto his plate. “Very nice. They usually just send up a little bit on the side.”

“Oh, yes,” Luz said airily. “I asked for them to send extra. And made sure it was fresh.”

She was quite sure it was the best breakfast ever.

You can get THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY on Amazon:

Itzel’s story, or how she came to be in a thriller

Itzel’s story, or how she came to be in a thriller

Many of the pivotal moments in my life have happened over a good meal.

One time, however, the meal wasn’t even cooked.

There was a thriving expatriate community in Mexico City when we lived there. Soon after arriving, I met Delia from South Carolina. Her husband worked for a cell service company and they had two boys, both younger than my kids. Delia and Bob ended up renting a house near ours in the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood. Delia and I both belonged to a small English-language writing group and the Newcomer’s Club.

Neither Delia nor I had ever hired domestic help when we lived in the United States but in Mexico it was somewhere between an obligation and a necessity. Domestic help was a big segment of the local economy. Salaries were low compared to the US. Houses were huge and pollution left a fine black ash on everything. Everyone had at least a maid and a gardener.

Related post: Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Expatriates had a lively underground network when it came to hiring. We heard which maids were looking for a post because their family had moved back to the US, who was lazy, who ran around, which placement services were reliable, and so on.

Delia hired a full time maid through a placement agency. Shortly thereafter, she invited us to a dinner party.

After drinks in the dining room, we four couples sat in the dining room set with Delia’s antique silver and crystal. Itzel, the new maid was very young and her navy blue uniform hung on her thin frame. She served the appetizer on individual plates and darted back into the kitchen through the swinging door. Later, she collected the empty plates and again disappeared into the kitchen.

We chatted while we waited for the main course.

And waited.

And waited.

Delia finally excused herself and went into the kitchen.

A minute later she asked me to come into the kitchen, too.

I found Itzel sobbing. Delia, whose Spanish was still at the beginner level, had no idea why there was no dinner.

The mystery was soon cleared up. Itzel had seasoned the fish as instructed, turned on the oven, and put in the pan.. But the fish didn’t cook. She fiddled with the scary knobs on the scary range, but 45 minutes later, the fish was still raw.

I’d seen this problem before. The young woman had put the fish into the storage drawer at the bottom of the range, not into the actual oven.

We quickly fried the fish in butter on the stove. Dinner was saved.

Later, I talked to Itzel. She was 16 and this was her first job as a muchacha planta, a live-in housemaid. It was also the first time she’d lived in a house with a stove, an oven, and a flush toilet. She was overwhelmed by the size of the house, all the different things she was expected to know, and the challenge of communicating with a family still learning Spanish.

But she was earning good money and got every other weekend off, when she went home to Veracruz.

Itzel unwittingly provided me with the outline of a character. Over the next few months, I colored in that outline until I had Luz de Maria, the woman who would anchor THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

Get THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY on Amazon

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

Swimming lessons, or how he got into a thriller

I’ve always liked to be in the water, but by no stretch of the imagination can I call myself a strong swimmer.

I didn’t take swimming lessons until I was in 5th grade, when I learned to do a passable crawl and a backstroke that always sent me into the next lane over. Years later, I got my scuba certification and travelled the Pacific with my gear in tow.

My husband is a swimmer, too. He competed on his high school swim team and still likes to swim laps to keep fit. Our best vacations have been on the shores of Adirondack lakes.

We lived in Mexico when our kids were ready to learn to swim. The American school had an enormous pool used for regional competitions, with football stadium-style bleachers running along one side of the modern pool house.

Lessons were held after school when a legion of mothers, maids, and chauffeurs invaded the locker rooms to get the elementary students ready. The mothers wore stiletto heels, skinny pants, and pounds of jewelry, along with the obligatory sleek ponytail. Maids were limited to navy, black, or gray dresses with white cotton trim. A few pinks stood out, indication of a dedicated nanny. Chauffeurs always wore suits and ties.

Once the children were chivvied to the pool, mothers, maids, and chauffeurs took to the stands, although not together. The mothers sat in a tight clique on the lower benches, with their employees scattered above. Most maids used the time to do the children’s homework.

The swim coach was a handsome young man who strode up and down the pool deck in sweatpants and a coral necklace. The rumor was that he was a former Olympic athlete.

He never got in the pool, but merely called out instruction to the flailing kids. No one seemed to care. I got the feeling, as he preened around the pool, that being a swim coach wasn’t his only source of income.

After the lesson, the locker rooms filled again. Most of the children left the school grounds in pajamas and bathrobe, some carried across campus to the cars by the chauffeur.

My kids survived having neither maid nor chauffeur and figured out the swimming process on their own. My son was a lifeguard through high school. My daughter got her scuba certification when she was 14.

But the Mexican swim coach lives on in fiction. He anchored a memorable moment in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY:

Hector took Luz to the Colegio Americano for Victoria’s swimming lesson. Luz met the little girl at the school’s aquatic facility, got her suited up, then carried Victoria’s towel and backpack to the bleachers.

The little girl scampered over to her class. The swimming teacher was Coach Carlos, a muscular young man who taught the children by walking along the edge of the pool in tight warm-up pants and no shirt, flexing his biceps. Most of the mothers sitting in the bleachers during swim lessons couldn’t keep their eyes off him. There were far more maids than mother in the bleachers, however, all staring at the Coach Carlos show. Luz usually looked, too, although he was cocky and arrogant and way out of her league.

Coach Carlos said something to Victoria. He lifted her into the water, the muscles in his back rippling as he bent. He probably has lots of parent-teacher conferences, Luz thought. She pulled her eyes away and opened Victoria’s backpack. English homework again.

When the lesson was over Victoria ran back to Luz to be dried off. They went into the locker room and Luz dressed Victoria in pajamas and robe for the ride home and an early bedtime.

They were walking toward the front gate of the school, where Hector waited with the Suburban, when Luz heard the click of high heels on pavement. A hand tapped her on the shoulder.

It was Señora Portillo, with her son whining next to her and the Portillo’s chauffeur walking behind with the boy’s backpack and swim bag. Señora Vega and Señora Portillo were friends, part of a circle of beautiful coffee-drinking women who met regularly at the upscale Café O on Monte Libano in Lomas Virreyes.

“Luz de Maria, are you free to work for me the Saturday after next?” Señora Portillo asked. “I need some extra hands for Enrique’s birthday party and Selena said you can sometimes be helpful.”

“Saturday after next?” Luz verified.

“Yes.”

Luz was off again that weekend. If she worked for Señora Portillo on Saturday it meant she could not go home. But it also meant another 200 pesos and that was a real windfall so Luz said yes.

“Alberto can pick you up.” Señora Portillo indicated the chauffeur. She extended a piece of paper to Luz with the date, time, and address on it. Her attention immediately refocused on a high-heeled mother strolling by who was obviously a friend.

The chauffeur nodded at Luz as his employer chattered to her friend. He was a blunt-faced tank of a man poured into a sharkskin suit. Almost certainly a former boxer. “I am Alberto Gonzalez Ruiz,” he said.

He spoke formally, but his diction was sloppy. Luz had the sudden silly thought that he probably had gotten hit in the head a lot during his boxing career.

She gave him a weak half-smile.

“I shall be pleased to see you that day,” he said meaningfully. Señora Portillo ended her other conversation and Gonzalez Ruiz followed her out of the school gate.

Luz watched him go, her mouth dry. Chauffeurs made lots of money. Lots.


“Rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” — Literary Fiction Review

Get THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY on Amazon

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.

Update

Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The Great Madonna Mistake

The Great Madonna Mistake

It took me five years to realize the mistake. The Madonna mistake.

In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, Luz de Maria is a maid in Mexico City who returns home to the small town of Soledad de Doblado after losing her job. There she sees a news report that leads her to believe the upper class man with whom she had a brief—but emotionally charged encounter—is dead. Blind with anger over the loss, she destroys the family’s shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. To make amends she paints a Madonna and Child for her family; an unintended self-portrait that becomes a small but pivotal plot element. (Sorry, no spoilers)

Related: The Hidden Light of Mexico City dreamcast and Chapters 1-2

Here’s the description of what she painted:

“Luz had sketched the third Madonna furiously one night after having the dream about Eddo again. The colors were cool grays and blues. El Greco colors, she thought and closed her eyes tiredly. That one was easy to name. La Virgen de las Lágrimas. Madonna of the Tears . . .

“In the painting, Mary wore a sheer rebozo shawl over straight dark hair. Her head was tilted to one side. Under the rebozo, Luz’s face gazed at the child in her arms, looking as if there was no happiness left in the world.”

As I wrote, in my mind’s eye I could see the painting.

The woman. The child. Her expression. Her cloak.

Everything except Mary’s halo.

When I realized that I’d never described the halo of Luz’s painting, I started looking at Madonna pictures. Mary’s halo is variously depicted as a circle of stars, a bright light shining behind Her head, a gold crown, a simple gold circlet, etc, etc.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child portrait hanging in vestibule of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Vienna, VA

Virgin of Guadalupe

The famous Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, always shows Mary with a full body halo that resembles a gold shell.

My favorite Madonna hangs in my dining room. She is dressed as medieval Spanish royalty and wears a hat. Tiny gold flecks on it suggest a halo. The painting is from Peru but I bought it in Mexico.

Carmen Amato's Virgin from Peru

My Madonna from Peru, in Spanish dress

Although omitting mention of a halo might have been oversight, I’d like to think that in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, there is a reason why Luz’s Madonna does not have a halo.

It is a self-portrait of a woman who is simply very human.

Like all of us.

 

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Open Letter to Readers About Sex

Open Letter to Readers About Sex

My first novel, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, contains two sex scenes. The first catches Luz de Maria and Eddo as they fall in love with an emotional depth new to both of them. The second is when they reunite after each separately survives violence at the hands of a Mexican drug cartel. The sex scenes illustrate the raw emotion of their relationship and both characters’ weaknesses, all of which are important plot elements.

 

The book is not a casual romance novel but a political and romantic thriller. Get it here: https://amzn.to/2CCL19H

As I wrote, I looked to some great thriller genre role models. Martin Cruz Smith’s ROSE, as well as several of his Arkady Renko novels, contains sex scenes that expose an unexpected physical relationship that is integral to the plot. In the Renko books, Arkady’s life is punctuated by doomed love affairs. In one of fiction’s most memorable sex scenes, he takes an unfaithful lover on the floor so forcefully that her head thumps rhythmically against the wood.

By the same token, the sex scenes in Ken Follett’s TRIPLE created a bond between characters and led to confessions about the main character’s secretive background and emotional turmoil.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I can honestly say I read TRIPLE many times and aimed to have HIDDEN LIGHT’s sex scenes advance the story in the same way. Given the Amazon reviews (4.8 out of 5 stars and proud of it), I think readers got the point.

Related: Read The Hidden Light of Mexico City, Chapters 1-2

That’s the reason to add a sex scene. To advance the plot, show emotional development, and dramatize a relationship with greater heft than a dinner date. It works best when the sex scene lives within a strong fictional framework and storyline.

When HIDDEN LIGHT was published, some family members were upset over those sex scenes. Asked if the scenes were the fault of a publisher out to woo readers. Added in later by someone else to spice up the book. Won’t buy it. Can’t read it. Certainly won’t review.

I was surprised at the level of controversy but not offended. Books with sex aren’t for everyone. My mystery and suspense novels are full of intense relationships, however, and there will be more sex scenes.

In my latest suspense novel, AWAKENING MACBETH, their physical relationship moves history professor Brodie Macbeth and Iraq War vet Joe Birnam along a trajectory of trust and loyalty that is pivotal to their very survival. Get it here: https://amzn.to/2Sp3CvB

In the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, sex is a bit more off-screen. But Emilia Cruz and hotel manager Kurt Rucker are both very dynamic people and the reader is aware of the sexual attraction between them.

Sex in fiction can be a controversial subject. Are you for or against?

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

If you read this blog with any regularity you know the following;

  • I am a mystery author
  • I drink too much coffee
  • I love Pinterest and Twitter
  • I find inspiration in unlikely places

Talavera Pottery

The latest thing to jog my imagination is talavera, the beautiful and colorful Mexican pottery. The only authentic talavera comes from Puebla and the surrounding villages “because of the quality of the natural clay found there and the tradition of production which goes back to the 16th century.

talavera

Traditional talavera pieces. The store owner eyed me suspiciously when I took the picture but was less suspicious when ringing up my purchases.

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

You can buy talavera online at La Fuente and Direct from Mexico.

Tasty Writing

Talavera was featured in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. The main protagonist, Eddo Cortez Castillo, is from Puebla. His family runs one of the oldest and wealthiest talavera companies.

Talavera,” Tomás said. “The Cortez family owns Marca Cortez, half of Puebla, and the land the new Volkswagen factory is on. Eddo is still the family’s legal advisor and sits on the board of directors. Don’t know how he finds the time. It helps that he never sleeps.”

Eddo is rich. Richer than the Vegas, even richer than the Portillos. “Puebla,” Luz said. “The city or the state?”

“Both.”

Phenomenally rich.

Real talavera is relatively expensive, although when I lived in Mexico City it was popular to go to Puebla and order service for 8 of a particular pattern. I knew of one family in Mexico City that refused to let their domestic help eat off of their talavera plates, prompting this intense scene in HIDDEN LIGHT.

Luz blinked at her sister. Lupe’s bottom lip was trembling. “Okay,” Luz said, drawing it out. A tiny white lie could put this awkward conversation to rest and Maria could be told the truth later. Luz took a deep breath as if embarrassed. “I . . . uh . . . broke a dish.”

“Six hundred fifty pesos for a dish?” Tío shouted. Everyone jumped. Someone’s spoon clattered to the floor.

Luz shrugged. “It was talavera.

Tío’s hand hit Luz’s cheekbone with a stinging smack. Her head snapped back, her eyes watered, the room sparkled with vertigo and she tasted blood.

Through a curtain of dizziness, Luz watched Juan Pablo rise up and throw a wide looping punch across the table. He put his weight behind it, his chair spurting out behind him, his feet nearly coming off the floor. Fist connected with jaw and Tío spilled to the floor.

“Don’t you touch my sister!” Juan Pablo yelled furiously.

“She’s a stupid girl,” Tío roared, scrambling to his feet. “Breaking dishes when her family needs the money.”

“So you can drink it?” Juan Pablo was barely in control.

“Lupe is pregnant,” Tío shouted.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you get a job?”

Tío threw a counterpunch across the table but Juan Pablo was younger and faster and sober. He jerked back to avoid the blow, then lunged forward, and suddenly they were snarling and grappling like two wild dogs, hands locked in each other’s shirts. The table between them rocked wildly as they wrestled over the dishes and the tortillas and the clay cazuela full of rice and seafood, ready to kill each other in the small cramped kitchen with everyone else sitting like shocked statues. Plastic glasses spun crazily and tipped over, flatware clattered to the floor, and Luz’s plate slid onto her lap.

I have a few pieces of talavera and this fishy pitcher is my favorite.

Carmen Amato bookshelf

My talavera pottery fish serves a noble purpose

 

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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 . . .

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! https://www.pinterest.com/carmenconnects/inspiration-for-a-thriller/

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The Lure of the Open Notebook

The Lure of the Open Notebook

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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.

On The Occasion of My First Anniversary of Being a Published Author

On The Occasion of My First Anniversary of Being a Published Author

In addition to being a celebration of the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862—which has morphed into a popular celebration of Mexican culture and food–Cinco de Mayo was my first anniversary of being a published author.

For some reason, Amazon lists the publication date as April but THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY was officially released 5 May 2012. Here’s the press release.

Was it only a year ago

The week that it was published I texted myself a wishlist of what I would consider to be success as a published author after 1 year.   Written on the trusty notepad feature of my antique Blackberry here is the complete text:

Success as a writer after a year:

  • Sold 100 copies of  HIDDEN LIGHT
  • 2 books listed on amazon.com
  • 100 visitors to my blog
  • Got published on Huffpost
  • Got mentioned in a blog or other online venue I don’t own

Reality Isn’t so bad

So how does reality stack up?

  • Sold nearly 400 copies of  HIDDEN LIGHT (and received real checks!)
  • 2 books, HIDDEN LIGHT and CLIFF DIVER, are listed on Amazon. Thenext book, HAT DANCE, is scheduled for a late July release
  • This blog has received some 6000 visitors
  • I’ve done guest posts and interviews which are listed here
  • Every reviewer on amazon has given my books a 4 or 5 star rating and 61 percent of CLIFF DIVER reviewers said they wanted to read more in the series.

Sadly, I have not been published on Huffpost but I also didn’t submit anything except a short story last week for Rita Wilson’s project to see what women over 50 are writing. I assume my effort is lost in the slush pile but it was good incentive to write an Emilia Cruz story which I’ll soon make available from this website as a free download.

What I Learned Along The Way

So have I been a huge commercial success in my first year of being a published author? Of course not. This is a marathon, not a sprint. But here is what I did do:

  • Exceeded expectations that I thought a year ago were virtually unachievable
  • Recognized that my goals should be those that I can control and  reasonable for the resources available to me
  • Embraced the fact that I am engaged in a massive learning process to master new skills (blog design, marketing, etc) because there is more to this author business than just writing
  • Realized that I am providing readers with both a quality entertainment experience and a learning experience, just as I had always intended to do

Related post: Why Read a Book About Mexico

Related post: Be Angry and Pray Hard

Looking Ahead

So what will my second year as a published author bring? Here’s the next wishlist. We’ll check the progress on 5 May 1014. In the meantime, wish me luck!

  • 5 books listed on amazon (yes, 5)
  • Redesigned website with free download of Emilia Cruz mini-anthology
  • Re-release of HIDDEN LIGHT with new cover, lower price, and at least 1 promotion

Are you a goal-setter too? Let me know what your goals are and how you stick to them.

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

What McDonald’s Taught Me And It’s Not About The Food

What McDonald’s Taught Me And It’s Not About The Food

In my quest to find connections across cultures I’ve been thinking about how different cultures influence what we eat (salsa, anyone?) But if we turn that around to look at how a food influenced different cultures we come to one inescapable word: McDonald’s

Yep. The fast food giant has had its share of cultural impact.

After all, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved less than 2 years after McDonald’s opened in Moscow in early 1990. Maybe it was just a coincidence but maybe not . . .

So not to be outdone by the end of the Cold War, here are my top culture-meets-McDonald’s moments:

Vienna

In the weeks after Romanian Communist dictator Nikolai Ceausescu was overthrown, Romanians came by the busload to Vienna, the closest big Western city, to see how the rest of the world lived. They all looked as if they’d suddenly got out of prison. Their clothes were drab, they were all thin, and they looked fearful and excited at the same time.

My husband and I were in Vienna’s two-story McDonald’s. We each tucked into a substantial fast food meal; Big Macs, fries, the works. A Romanian couple our age was in the booth across the aisle, sharing the equivalent of a hamburger Happy Meal. They each took small bites, savoring the strange food, still in their coats as if they expected to be chased out at any moment.

Mexico City

It was my housekeeper’s anniversary and I took her to the big mall in Santa Fe to pick out a king sized bed for her and her husband. After arranging to have it delivered to their house, we went to the food court. She said she wanted to eat at McDonald’s but would not say what she wanted to order.

After a strange and frustrating exchange about the menu she finally said she’d have whatever I had. It turned out that she’d never eaten at a McDonald’s before.

She was 28.

Wellington

New Zealand’s capital is a bit more lively these days but when I was there 20 years ago it was a sleepy town, especially on the weekend. There was shopping and a city tour on Saturday but most things were closed on Sunday. Except the one McDonald’s a couple of miles from my hotel. I walked there for lunch, then went to the movies, then walked back to McDonald’s for dinner.

Without McD’s I would have starved. Or had the hotel’s cold mutton buffet for all 3 meals.

Athens

The Olympic stadium in Athens housed the biggest McDonald’s we’d ever seen and my kids were as fascinated by the restaurant as by the Olympic events. No mix-and-match fast food here, you could only order from a short list of preset meals, including the first salad any of us had ever eaten at a McD’s. We sat in the middle of the huge space listening to the babble of  languages and watching the array of national costumes.

My kids got it then–the fact that not everybody is like them. Meeting people who aren’t is exciting. The Frenchman in the skinny white capri pants and Puma flats is still remembered fondly.

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Like Glass in the Belly

Like Glass in the Belly

Whenever I’ve landed in a new place, I’ve tried to understand the local culture as if it was a system. Mexico was one of my first experiences and there I learned that a cultural system is underpinned by a network of stories and narratives—Bruce Chatwin’s songlines–that run through cultural cornerstones such as language, food, architecture, and the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But last Sunday, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakharia, author Salman Rushdie sent my thoughts in a different direction when he referred to a “culture of insecurity.”

Rushdie posited that the “rage machine” we’ve seen reacting to a cheap independent film trailer and cartoons unflattering to the prophet Mohammad—which most of those in the Arab street have probably never seen–is easily cranked up in cultures that are built on insecurity. A culture secure in its identity can dismiss criticism and stupid films.

But if the songlines of a particular culture are defined by what is lacking and resentment toward what others have, then there can be little cultural confidence and emotional security.

To define one’s culture only in terms of what it lacks is a large and disturbing concept. Is a culture built on negativity and rage sustainable?

Well, rage is cheap. Cheaper than fast food, nice cars, sports franchises and higher education. Cheaper than running water and reliable electricity. If rage stems from what a culture is thought not to have—and alternative ideas are weak and no one moves to tamper the rage—it probably can be sustained through several generations, especially if education rates stay low.

But rage on a cultural scale is a huge loss in terms of productivity, economic growth, educational development—the list is endless. Unless someone is profiting by it, common sense would say that profound efforts would be made to reverse the culture of insecurity.

So who profits from a culture of insecurity and the rage it can promote?

Unfortunately this isn’t a hard question to answer and Rushdie noted that the deliberate use of rage is a “political act.” Throughout history we’ve seen people attain and retain power by manipulating populations with negative messages of external threats. Iran. North Korea. East Europe during the Cold War.

I didn’t realize this was ultimately what I was writing about in this conversation about a presidential candidate from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY:

“This country’s entire social system is predicated on the majority of the people being tolerant. Educated people find things out and aren’t quite so tolerant after that . . . “

Luz blinked at him, struck by the intellect behind his words. “So how do we change that? Make the country . . . healthy.”

“Reform is hard.” He seemed about to say something else, but stopped.

“But if nothing changes,” Luz said, thinking about the dwindling opportunities for Juan Pablo. There would be even less for Martina and Sophia. “What will happen?”

Eddo shrugged. “The leftovers will remember Lorena’s catchphrases. That’s all she wants them to do.”

He was saying such hard things. Luz leaned forward. “Do you mean to tell me Lorena is happy to cry for the pain of the people if it means they’ll stay uneducated enough to vote for her?”

And as for those trapped in a culture of insecurity, to paraphrase a poem by the late Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes; the children in the street will eat glass if there is nothing else to fill their empty bellies.

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CARMEN AMATO

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

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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