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.

What I did in the CIA: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

What I did in the CIA: Glutinous but not Unflavorful

Blame it on the Swedish meatballs

Early in my CIA career, I was having lunch in the cafeteria of the Original Headquarters Building (back when it was the only Headquarters building.) My friend Willa was apparently feeling daring that day. She ordered the Swedish meatballs.

After a few minutes at the table, I asked Willa how were her Swedish meatballs.

“Glutinous but not unflavorful,” she replied.

FYI, Willa went to Yale.

I did not.


“Glutinous but not unflavorful.”

Translation: My lunch looks like crap but tastes okay.

But “crap” and “okay” aren’t as precise as the words Willa used.

At the CIA, we were all wordsmiths in addition to whatever other skills and jobs we had. There is a certain discipline, flow, and format required by intelligence work. Mastering it was not easy, but it helped to be surrounded by people like Willa who were very cogent and precise in their thinking and expression.

When it comes to intelligence writing, descriptive precision is imperative. Conclusions and key judgements always come first, followed by the evidence to back them up. Modifiers are often used (“almost certainly,” “probably,” etc.) so that the prose does not mislead or assume a context not supported by the evidence.

Transferable skills

I spent my first 7 out of 30 years at the CIA as an analyst. Every subsequent position I held, as intelligence collector or other role, required the same understanding of how to use words to present information, clarify complex issues, and support conclusions.  Accuracy and objectivity were paramount.

Now retired, I’m comfortable reading non-fiction that delivers the same pace and detail as intelligence reporting. I love a crisp descriptive detail, a context that allows me to see the issue or event more clearly, and things in chronological order.

This is great for research, especially as I curate background details for the GALLIANO CLUB historical thriller series.

But transferring my CIA writing skills to the world of fiction takes effort.

The prose can’t be glutinous. It has to be flavorful.

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


Mini Masterclass: How to Write a Mystery Series

Mini Masterclass: How to Write a Mystery Series

Did you ever want to write a mystery series? Have an idea for a character but nothing else? Maybe you need a blueprint for finally getting that mystery series written.

True Story

When I worked for the CIA, diving into real-life mysteries, I loved reading mysteries like the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. So much so that I wanted to write my own.

When I wrote the first Detective Emilia Cruz story, drawing on my counterdrug experience, the plot came together easily. The rest was a hard slog.

Inventing a compelling main character was just the start. What about the secondary characters and the tensions they bring to the story? Plots ahd to be unique to the setting. What cultural elements helped do that?

Beyond all that, each book had to create anticipation for the next. I wanted readers to stay up all night navigating complicated plot lines, wondering if the main character had what it takes, and devouring every book in the series.

By the time I finished the 3rd book, DIABLO NIGHTS, I had unknowingly created a blueprint for the series. Each book wasn’t a one-off, but part of a richer whole.

Mystery masterclass logo

The formula

Eight books and some short stories later, I’ve distilled what it takes to create a page-turning mystery series into a 5-part formula that I call the Mystery Shark Method.


S = Setting

H = Hero/Heroine

A = Arc

R = Run time

K = Killjoy

I’ve put together an entire free Mystery Shark Method mini masterclass for you. Each SHARK element is explained, with examples. There’s also some writing exercises to help you create your own blueprint for a page-turning mystery series.

Find the mini masterclass here: http://carmenamato.net/mystery-masterclass

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


Mystery Shark Method masterclass

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


essential questions

The Importance of a Fatal Flaw

The Importance of a Fatal Flaw

Mysteries are all about complicated people solving complicated plots. We love characters with issues—even a Fatal Flaw–that make them vulnerable and real.  It’s why Spenser has his Code, why John Rebus hangs out in the Oxford Bar, why a 1000-year-old spirit lives inside Dr. Siri Paiboun.

Related: Book Review: The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

My favorite flaw

One of the best examples of a hero with a Fatal Flaw is the Harry Hole series by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Harry is a brilliant Oslo cop with addiction and alcoholism issues. Sometimes Harry’s drug use and alcoholism are in check, other times they send him into a death spiral. Every time, the reader is pulled into his self-destructive yet brilliant narrative. Will the good times last? Or will this be the disaster that ends Harry’s career/life/relationships?

Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz’s Fatal Flaw is that she’s an accomplished and habitual liar. The talent serves her well, except when it comes to her interpersonal relationships. Unable to commit, and unable to be truthful, her emotional life is often in a tailspin.

Related: Chapter 1, HAT DANCE: An Emilia Cruz Novel

Don’t make this fatal mistake

The trick to writing a character with a Fatal Flaw is making it part of their personality. The character has to be inbued with those traits. The Flaw isn’t a “once and done” thing.

I recently read a mystery novel which opened with the character doing something very much in keeping with the fatal flaw of Promiscuity. “Okay,” I thought. “This is promising.”

But the behavior/trait never came up again. In the rest of the book the character was more reserved, professional, and careful in her relationships.

The good start ended up gratuitous, as if the author threw it in to 1. Hook the reader with some spicy bait, or 2. Tried for a Fatal Flaw and assumed one scene was enough to get the message across. Either way the result was disappointing. The character was cardboard for the rest of the book and the opportunity for a zesty subplot was missed.

Related: Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

As I mentioned, Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole and his addiction issues have topped my Favorite Fatal Flaw chart for a long time. New favorites include Ernesto Mallo’s Inspector Lascano whose dreams of his dead wife invade his waking moments, and Estelle Ryan’s Dr. Genvieve Lenard who is a high functioning autistic savant.

What’s your favorite mystery character with a Fatal Flaw?

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


Importance of a Fatal Flaw for mystery characters

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