Award-winning author Isabella Maldonado wore a gun and a badge for two decades in real life before turning her talents to writing about crime, rather than chasing criminals.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Isabella talks about how The Cipher, the first book in her series featuring FBI Special Agent Nina Guerrera, is currently in development with Netflix starring Jennifer Lopez. She talks about how she came to crack the thriller suspense market.
We’ve got a free book giveaway, the Historic Spring Fiction book offer, 30 authors getting together, all offering free books. Check the show notes for this episode for the link to that offer. That’s where you will also find links to Isabella’s books and website.
Don’t forget you can get exclusive bonus content–like hearing Isabella’s answers to the Getting-to-Know-You Five Quickfire Questions—by becoming a Binge Reading on Patreon supporter. The only way you can hear those questions is by getting access to the exclusive bonus content. It will cost less than a cup of coffee a month and there’s a lot of great extra information there for you to access. Details at https://www.patreon.com/thejoysofbingereading.
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Links in this episode:
Nina Guerrera Series: https://isabellamaldonado.com/fbi-special-agent-guerrera-series/
J Lo Production Company: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuyorican_Productions
Brad Thor: https://bradthor.com/
Greg Hurwitz: https://gregghurwitz.net/
Orphan X series: https://us.macmillan.com/series/orphanx
JA Jance: (On Binge Reading) https://thejoysofbingereading.com/in-the-cross-hairs-j-a-jance/
JA Jance: https://www.jajance.com/
Susan Kiernan-Lewis: Next week on Binge Reading: https://susankiernanlewis.com/
Where to find Isabella Maldonado:
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/isabella-maldonado-b8474b150/
Introducing crime writer and thriller author Isabella Maldonado
But now, here’s Isabella.
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there Isabella, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Isabella Maldonado: It’s my pleasure to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: You are a former police officer. You had over two decades in the Force, and you’re also a graduate of the FBI National Agency at Quantico.
It seems that background has enabled you to move seamlessly into writing novels that are attracting wide attention.
You’re very much regarded as a writer to watch, and you’ve had awards for your work, and now you have got some exciting news about a movie project. What’s happening there?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, it is very exciting. What happened is that right after The Cipher came out, which is the first book in the Nina Guerrera series, Hollywood called. It’s a good way to put it. Actually, there was interest from several different studios and different people in Hollywood. I have a literary agent out of New York, and I then had to get a Hollywood agent and brokered a deal.
What ended up happening is, Jennifer Lopez has her own production company, Nuyorican Productions, and she teamed up with Netflix and they came in with the strongest deal. They did a great job and so we went with that. It’s very exciting. It is going to be wonderful to see my book come to life in that way.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I can believe why she would be attracted to the story. I don’t know if she’ll be playing the main role as well, but it is a wonderful main role for a Latina actress, isn’t it?
Jennifer Lopez will star as Nina in Isabella Maldonado story
Isabella Maldonado: She is going to star in it. She’s going to produce and she’s going to star. What they are going to do is make changes. People who have read the book will know that the lead character is 27 years old. They are going to make changes so the character will be more age appropriate.
Jenny Wheeler: It is a great role because Nina is a marvelous character, both in terms of her strength of character inwardly, but also she gets a lot of kick ass action as they say. It is a great combination of the emotional and the action side of it.
It seems to me that is something you like to introduce into your stories – the emotional growth as well as the very strong plotlines of action. Would I be right in that?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, absolutely. I love reading thrillers as much as the next person, but I think today’s more modern thrillers are bringing in more of an emotional component. I’ve noticed that, and so I wanted to have a fully developed character arc where the reader goes with the character, first of all on a physical journey that is extremely tough, but also an emotional journey.
It seems like it’s really resonating with readers. They’re enjoying the dual level with that.
Jenny Wheeler: In the first book, The Cipher, she has had a very narrow escape from a serial killer when she’s only 16, although at the time we don’t realize it’s a serial killer. But she had this very narrow escape.
Isabella Maldonado’s Cipher – a real nail-biter of a story
Now, years later, she’s a police officer and she’s jumped by some random hoodlums in a park and a video of that attack goes viral because she gets the best end of the deal. Her previous attacker sees this online and is suddenly enraged about the thought that she got away the first time, and he’s going to come after her again.
That is an amazingly dramatic way to start it, and it becomes a real nail-biter of a story. There is a lot of social media involved as well, so she gets a lot of external pressure about what’s going on. It suddenly becomes a national story. That’s the way you tag team the action and the emotional side of things, isn’t it?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes it is. I wanted to include a social media component in there. From my own experience in law enforcement, the public do sometimes get heavily involved in a case, especially a headline grabbing case. It can be nightmarish at times to work a case and have the public also talking about it and trading information and gossip about it.
But it’s no longer just gossip around town. It’s gossip all over the internet. I wanted to put that forward. People get sucked in, and I wanted to show the effect that had on the investigation for the FBI agents.
Jenny Wheeler: The second book in the series, A Different Dawn, came out last August. Once again there is a strong social media component. They are very much 21st century stories.
Social media and police work now intricately linked
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, exactly. Traditional media and social media get involved. That is such a realistic part of what you do in law enforcement nowadays. Nothing is done in a vacuum. Everything you do, you can assume that someone is recording what you’re doing, and people are posting it. They’re streaming about it. They’re doing live commentary when you’re in the middle of doing it. It’s a part of what goes on in law enforcement nowadays.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s wonderful too that the reality aspect of it comes through so strongly because of your personal experience in that area. One of the things that is interesting is the way the local police force sometimes has to interface with the FBI. The FBI come in and there’s maybe a little bit of a territorial thing going on. You’ve personally experienced that as well with your FBI training, haven’t you?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes. A lot of people don’t understand it and so I try to make it really clear that the FBI has jurisdiction only in a certain kind of case. Your average murder – I hate to use the term ‘average murder’ but for lack of a better term – a normal murder that would occur in any city or town, is investigated by the local police, not the FBI.
The FBI can be invited in to assist by the local police. That is always the case unless the FBI have primary jurisdiction, and those are certain kinds of cases. If it’s federal land or if it involves an abduction over state lines, or if it’s a case like a bank robbery – there are specific cases where the FBI has primary jurisdiction. Otherwise, it is local law enforcement.
A police officer who always dreamed of being a writer
Sometimes there can be different feelings about it, but the FBI are always invited in. As a local law enforcement officer, a lot of times you like to have them come in because they bring a ton of resources. They have a huge budget and they have tens of thousands of agents and they can bring a lot to a case, even for a large police department.
Jenny Wheeler: Did you always have a passion for writing? All the time you were a police officer, did you have this secret dream that some time you might like to be a writer?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, absolutely. Starting from when I was a young girl. I remember the book that was transformative for me in that sense. It was A Wrinkle in Time. I read that book as a young girl and it transported me to such a different time and place that I felt, wow, this is magic – that you can take someone with your imagination and your words into a totally different world. That’s when I knew I wanted to write.
I ended up going into law enforcement but the whole time I was in law enforcement, I was avidly reading all the time. I always figured when I retire, by that time I will have some stories to tell. Not necessarily true stories. I write fiction, but I will have been enough of a student of human nature that I can write stories with realistic people in them.
Tackling a second career in a strategic way
Jenny Wheeler: You very much tackled writing as a second career. Looking at your website and some of the things you note there, it seems to me you approached it in a very hardheaded strategic way. Tell us a bit about what you thought when you stopped the police force. What was going on in your head at that time?
Isabella Maldonado: When I retired, I had 22 years in the department. I retired as a Captain and I was the Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. At that time, I felt like I had an understanding of investigations and I knew that I wanted to write and I wanted to write crime fiction.
People have asked me, why did you choose to write fiction as opposed to writing true crime, because true crime is very popular and you would naturally think that’s what I would want to do.
But in reality, after having done police work for over two decades, I thought I want to write stories that end the way they should, instead of the way they often do. The way they end in real life is so unsatisfying and the motives behind real crime in real life are so insensate. They make no sense. They’re irrational, these crimes.
In fiction you can assign a motive. You can analyze it, you can give a satisfying ending, you can do all the things you could never do in real life. When I knew I wanted to do that, I realized that fiction writing and creative writing were totally different from all of the type of writing I had been doing during my career.
Learning the art and craft of writing
I knew I had a lot to learn in order to be able to tell a good story and to tell it in a way that people would want to read it. So, I began to study the art and craft of writing. I spent about five years doing a deep dive. I published three short stories in that timeframe, and I tried different techniques. One was humorous, one was first person, one was third-person multiple point of view. I experimented with these short stories.
They all were able to get published, but it was after the third one that I thought, okay, I’ve nailed down how I want to do it and how the story needs to go. Now I’m ready to tackle the novel. And I did. That’s when I wrote Blood’s Echo, which is the first book in the Veranda Cruz series about a homicide detective in Phoenix.
I was very fortunate. That went on to win an award for best first novel, and people seemed drawn to it. I wrote two more books in that series before turning to this new series featuring an FBI agent.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. Part of the Nina story is a little bit of a hint of romance. There is a police officer, Kent, who keeps on popping up and being there when she needs him. I was fascinated by a blog on your website called Cops in Love. The Untold Story which goes into the pitfalls for any police officer, male or female.
Dating pitfalls for female police officers
It’s a bit like journalists. If you are working funny hours and in a rather closed environment, you end up socializing with your work mates a lot. That becomes complicated, particularly for a police officer. Tell us a bit about how you found that in the police force yourself, but also how you’ve treated that for Nina in the story.
Isabella Maldonado: It is a challenge. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is harder for a female police officer to find love than it is for a male, only because it’s a traditionally male dominated profession and it still is to a large extent, even to this day. There are far more males than females.
When I was first in the department, back in the eighties, there were several times when I was the only female on the squad, depending which assignment I was working on, and you would get pigeonholed and stuff like that.
Dating was a challenge because I think men didn’t quite know how to handle the situation when I would date guys who weren’t on the Force. First of all, it was hard to meet anybody because I was working all these bizarre hours. I had rotating shifts. My schedule was insane. I never had a set schedule – rotating days off, rotating hours, sometimes midnight, sometimes morning, who knows. It was very hard to even have a regular schedule, to have a social life.
Masculinity challenged? Or overly fascinated by the firearms
When I would finally meet a guy and go on a date, a lot of these guys were very intimidated dating a female police officer. They felt like maybe their masculinity was being challenged in some way, even though I didn’t do that overtly by any intention.
Or some of them were incredibly overly fascinated. They got excited about the idea that I had a gun and I had a badge and that I could shoot and I had some take down moves or whatever. Just a little too fascinated with my weaponry and stuff.
I’m like, this isn’t right. A lot of the women I know – at least back in those days, it’s probably different now – if they did get married, they ended up marrying other law enforcement officers, only because it was a challenge. Some didn’t but that did happen. That did happen to me.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, it did. I knew that you were now very happily raising a son and I was quite curious, did you marry a police officer or not?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, I did.
Jenny Wheeler: I would imagine also that it would then be quite hard for two police officers to continue in the Force and have a family life as well, for the very reasons you’ve mentioned.
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, and for that reason I put off having a child until later in life. I was busy climbing the ladder and studying and doing other different things. I put it off until later, and so what happened is when I had the baby, I retired three years earlier. Instead of 25 years, I have 22 years on.
Marrying the Police Commander – and writing begins
I took a slightly earlier retirement when I had the baby because I realized I wanted to have a stable home environment and there wouldn’t have been with both of us working. He is a Police Commander; I was a Police Captain. We both were super busy and on call 24/7. Life was crazy, and so somebody had to do it, and I decided to be the one to do it.
Jenny Wheeler: What does your husband think about your books?
Isabella Maldonado: It’s funny. He likes to listen to the audio books. He’s a huge audio book fan. That has been fun. Other writers talk about how their spouse is their first reader. That is not the case with me. He hears the finished product when it’s all done, it’s been produced in a studio and it comes out on audio book. But he loves them, he really does.
Jenny Wheeler: Does he act as a sounding board for some of the technical aspects at times?
Isabella Maldonado: Absolutely. He helps me to reel it in when sometimes my imagination takes a flight of fancy. He only retired two years ago, so he is very current. But sometimes I get carried away and he’s like, I don’t know about that. Then I have to remember, oh yeah, that’s true. You’re right.
Jenny Wheeler: I guess that as well as being a female on the Force, your Latina background would have been a huge advantage in many ways, but also something that you were probably always rather aware of. Would that be true?
As a Latino police officer – called out for emotional situations
Isabella Maldonado: Yes. Especially, again, way back when I was starting out on the Force, there were only two or three Latina female police officers on the entire department. What happened is I ended up being on call 24/7 very early in my career because they would call me out to translate when they would have let’s say a sex assault victim who did not speak English very well and they needed someone who could speak Spanish and also a woman, so that she could talk about what happened and feel comfortable, rather than trying to talk to a male.
Another thing they used to call me out all the time for was death notifications. I make allusions to this in my writing – how hard it is to do a death notification. I did a lot of them in the Latino community because again, I think the Department felt it would come easier from a woman to give the family the bad news that a loved one had died, either by accident or a crash or, heaven forbid, a murder or whatever the case might be. I felt like I was the angel of death at one point. They would see me coming and they would already start crying because they knew it was going to be bad news.
There were times when it was something of a liability, but also other times when it really did help, because even as a very, very young officer I was able to work cases helping to translate. I would work cases that were way beyond what a rookie officer would work.
Learning from an early start as a Latino woman officer
I got involved in working homicides and robberies and sex assaults and fatal accidents and other kinds of things, and so I was able to learn about investigations really early. It was very helpful to do that.
Jenny Wheeler: Moving away from talking about the specific books to a wider look at your career, when you began in your writing, what was your initial goal? You have probably gone a lot further than what you initially might have expected. What did you want from it when you began?
Isabella Maldonado: This is true of many writers. My goal was that I wanted to tell stories that moved people. Part of it was to try and attract as many readers as possible because even if you have an amazing story to tell, if no one can hear the story, no one can read the story, then you haven’t touched as many lives as you want to.
I wanted to tell stories that were both exciting and emotionally resonant and to get these feelings across. Part of what I wanted to get across was how difficult it is to be a cop, – or an FBI agent in the case of Nina Guerrera – how difficult it is to be in law enforcement, and to humanize those in law enforcement and to use everything I’d learned also to discuss human nature.
I love people. I love all kinds of people, and I find people endlessly fascinating. To do a deep dive into exploring human nature and what makes people tick – that’s the basics of it.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Isabella as reader because we are coming to the end of our time together. This is The Joys of Binge Reading, and we like to give listeners a chance to find out about books they might be fascinated by that they haven’t heard of. Can we have a couple of suggestions from you. What are you reading at the moment and what would you recommend?
What Isabella Maldonado likes to read – favorite authors
Isabella Maldonado: I have just finished reading Near Dark by Brad Thor. He is excellent if you like a thriller, a real fast paced thriller. Gregg Hurwitz – any of his Orphan X novels are amazing, absolutely fantastic.
J.A. Jance – I am a huge fan of hers. I love pretty much everything she writes. She has four different series out there, and you really can’t go wrong.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, we interviewed JA late last year. It was interesting because when we did the end of year Top Ten which we’ve done the last couple of years, based entirely on the number of downloads so it’s a listener suggested thing, she came out on top.
Looking back down the tunnel of time, would you do anything differently in terms of the way you’ve managed your writing career? If you had your time all over again, is there anything you’d suggest for beginner writers that might be a good thing for them to be aware of?
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, there is actually, if I had it to do over again. What happened is when I wrote that very first manuscript, I had barely gotten it finished and I had a chance to speak to an acquiring editor for a publishing house.
Normally, they don’t accept un-agented manuscripts. Literally the ink wasn’t even dry on my manuscript and I needed one more pass through to edit, but the story was complete and it was time for the conference and they were accepting pitches right there. So, I went ahead and pitched the story and lo and behold, and much to my shock and surprise, they got back to me with an offer for a three-book deal.
What Isabella Maldonado would do differently next time
I did not have an agent. I had not even put the finishing touch. I needed to do one more editing pass. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even know who to talk to. I’d never been published by a publishing house like this, with a novel, so I took the deal because I’m like, I don’t know what’s going to happen here. I’d better just take this deal.
That is something I shouldn’t have done looking back on it. I ended up getting an agent later and since then I understand that was the better way to do it, to get an agent first. It was a bird in the hand and I took it because I was concerned. You hear all these stories about people who go 10, 20, 30 years and no one ever publishes. They get 100 rejections.
Now all the other authors out there are going to throw rocks at me when I say this, but literally the very first acquiring editor who read it offered me a three-book deal. The very first. Right out of the chute. I’m like, this is lightning striking. That’s what the odds are of that happening. It may never strike again. I’d better do it. But it turns out that it probably was not the best move.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s a nice position to be in. Tell us what your next 12 months looks like. I know you’ve got a third Nina book coming out this year. Tell us about that and looking ahead a bit.
Looking ahead – the next year for Isabella Maldonado
Isabella Maldonado: The third Nina book is going to be called The Falcon and that is coming out in June of this year, so in a few short months. In a couple of days, I’m going to get the final, final copy edits, the tiny little tweaks where they make sure everything is perfectly lined up. I’m really excited about it. Talk about a creepy villain. It’s awesome. It’s also different from the other stuff I’ve done. It’s fun. It’s going to be a different kind of book and I’m enjoying writing it.
In the meantime, I’m also working on the next book which is going to be a brand-new series. I am still getting all the ideas straight, but I have just started writing that one and it will be coming out the following year. There’s a lot going on, but I’m getting ready to start yet another series.
Jenny Wheeler: Can we assume that this will be the final Nina one?
Isabella Maldonado: Probably. But you never know.
Jenny Wheeler: Do you like interacting with your readers and where can they find you online?
Isabella Maldonado: Oh yes. Like I was saying, I love people and I find them interesting and endlessly fascinating. I’m an extrovert by nature. A lot of writers tell me they’re introverts and that’s not me. I am an extrovert. It’s hard for me to sit at my computer and write by myself. That is what I have to do, but it’s against my nature. So yes, I love to interact and if they go to my website at www.isabellamaldonado.com they can find everything there they need to interact, whichever way they want to do it.
Where to find Isabella Maldonado online
All my social media sites are there as well as my Amazon author page. There is an email link on there too. There are many different ways to reach out. You can also hear the latest about the books and I have a newsletter that you can sign up for. That way you get first dibs at all the latest and greatest information. That is the best way to do it. Go to my website.
Jenny Wheeler: We will have all those links in the show notes that we publish with the episode, so people will be able to find them online. That’s wonderful. Thanks so much for your time with us today, and we will look forward to that movie with a lot of interest.
Isabella Maldonado: Yes, me too. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Thank you for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: I could see it being a series actually. Once they’ve done one, they’ll definitely want to do book two.
Isabella Maldonado: I hope so.
Next week on The Joys of Binge Reading Podcast
That’s it for today. Next week we’re talking to Susan Kiernan-Lewis about her romances with a touch of dystopia located in France and Ireland. What happens when the world as we know it breaks down and we’re left to fend for ourselves? She talks about that and her writing on The Joys of Binge Reading next week.
Bye for now. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to join us again next week and in the meantime, Happy Reading!
If you liked Isabella Maldonado you might also like one of her favorite authors, J A Jance, In the Crosshairs…
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