While Isabella Maldonado had writerly aspirations since childhood, her path toward becoming a published crime writer involved a lot more than research and writing workshops. Maldonado worked for 22 years in the field of law enforcement, becoming the first Latina to be named captain in her department before retiring. Maldonado’s books include the Veranda Cruz series and the Nina Guerrera series. The first book in the latter series, The Cipher, is slated to become a Netflix film starring Jennifer Lopez, while book two, A Different Dawn (Thomas & Mercer), released this month.
PW spoke to Maldonado about how wearing a gun and badge inspired her writing, finding a writing community, and having JLo play her character.
Can you give readers a peek into what happens in A Different Dawn, book two of the Nina Guerrera series?
In A Different Dawn, Nina is still finding her place among her new team. The group is tasked with analyzing two triple murders staged to look like a double-homicide-suicides. The deaths occurred on opposite sides of the country and four years apart…on Leap Day. As they delve into the cases, they discover that a cunning serial killer has been flying under the radar for nearly three decades.
How much of your experience in law enforcement informs your writing?
Most people figure 22 years wearing a gun and badge helps me get the investigative stuff correct—and it does—but what I really like to reveal through my stories is how it feels to do the job: What it’s like to negotiate with an armed suspect who refuses to come out. What it’s like to be in a high-speed pursuit. What it’s like to be the only woman on your squad. What it’s like to place your life in your partner’s hands.
What can you share about the Netflix adaptation of The Cipher?
Like most authors, I write for the joy of communicating a story that will hopefully touch another human soul on some level, and when The Cipher was optioned for film, that feeling increased exponentially. Jennifer Lopez is a phenomenon, full stop. To have someone whose nickname is a household word take an interest in your work is incredibly humbling. I am an executive producer and a consultant for the film, and it’s been quite a learning experience.
Tell me about the Sisters in Crime Desert Sleuths group you’re involved with.
Sisters in Crime (SinC) national is a wonderful organization for crime writers and fans of the genre. I joined the Desert Sleuths chapter in Phoenix in 2009, served as its president in 2015, and sat on the board until 2019. I met so many supportive and knowledgeable people who helped me with the arduous journey toward publication. The process of writing, submitting, and having my work edited was the learning ground I needed to hone my craft.
Do readers ever assume that your protagonists are based on you? Any truth to that assumption?
While I do understand Nina and Veranda and what drives them, they are not me. I chose advancement in my career, which meant I had to color inside the lines a lot more than either of them would do. If they worked under my command, Nina and Veranda would be in my office with some regularity. In my personal life, I have a stable marriage and a happy family, which neither Nina nor Veranda does. I would love for both characters to find happiness, but since each of them has enough baggage to fill a steamer trunk, that outcome seems doubtful for the foreseeable future.
How would the two get along over a cup of coffee?
The main trait special agent Guerrera and detective cruz have in common is a stubborn streak a mile wide, but the childhoods that shaped them make them quite different from each other. Nina was found in a dumpster as an infant and grew up bouncing between foster homes. She is a trauma survivor whose resilience transmuted her pain into strength. Veranda was raised as part of a large, warm, loving, sometimes interfering ethnic family. If the two women got together for coffee, they would get along fine if they were not working opposite sides of a case. In that situation, sparks could fly as neither is the type to back down.
How have your voice and writing style evolved?
When I first began, I stuck to actual police procedure more than I do now. It’s great for law enforcement accountability in the real world, but it will stop the story’s momentum dead in its tracks! I also strive to make things personal for the main character and the other characters as well. Then there is the antagonist. I love delving into the mind of a killer. Unlike in the real world, where murder is often senseless, fiction gives me the chance to explore the motives and background of people who kill—and to have situations turn out the way they should, instead of the way they do.