Award-winning author, Pepper O’Neal is a researcher, a writer, and an adrenalin junkie. She has a doctorate in education and spent several years in Mexico and the Caribbean working as researcher for an educational resource firm based out of Mexico City. During that time, she met and befriended many adventurers like herself, including former CIA officers and members of organized crime. Her fiction is heavily influenced by the stories they shared with her, as well her own experiences abroad.
O’Neal attributes both her love of adventure and her compulsion to write fiction to her Irish and Cherokee ancestors. When she’s not at her computer, O’Neal spends her time taking long walks in the forests near her home or playing with her three cats. And of course, planning the next adventure.
And now, let's hear from her.
What Do You Mean You Haven’t Been There?
A lot of writers today set their fiction in places they have never been, and do it very convincingly. While this wasn’t possible as little as twenty years ago, today it’s as easy as sitting down at a computer and logging onto the Internet—well, at least if you know what to look for.
While I have traveled extensively in Mexico and the Caribbean—and I have set a novel there—I’ve also set novels in places where I’ve never been, like England and the Middle East. I currently have two series out, one about vampires and shifters (Blood Fest) set in England for the most part, and the other about the mafia and the CIA (Black Ops Chronicles) set in the US, Mexico, and the Middle East. But apparently I do it well enough that I’ve had more than one author contact me and ask me questions about places I’ve used in my novels that they want to use as well. They’re certain I’ve been there and should be able to answer their questions. I’ve also read novels written by an author friend whom I’ve known for years—long enough to know that she has never been to the places she writes about—and would never guessed, had I not known her, that she hasn’t actually been there.
So how do we do it? The answer to that is complicated. First you have to do hours of research, on the internet, or contact organizations in the target country that deal with tourism, or—if you’re lucky enough to have them—ask friends who have been there. And secondly, you have to know what questions to ask or the research you do won’t give your novel that authentic ring of truth.
Think about it. When you travel to a foreign place, what memories to you bring back with you that last the longest? And what is it about foreign places that a person who’s been there knows that someone just doing research doesn’t? The answer is one that has become a cliché of sorts. It’s the “little things,” the ordinary, everyday inconveniences and differences that have had people scraping and saving, sometimes their entire lives, just to experience these places.
For example, did you know that in a lot of places in Mexico, Central America, and South America the sanitation systems are so inferior that they can’t handle toilet paper and you have to put that in a trashcan by the toilet? Or that in most of the smaller markets you have to bring your own bags as the merchants don’t provide them? Or that many towns and villages have only dirt sidewalks and streets and that, when you walk on them, you kick up little wakes of dust behind you that can hang in the air for hours if there’s no breeze? Or that in a lot of less-than-five-star hotels and motels you’re likely to have company in the shower in the form of the largest cockroaches you’ve ever seen? Or that if there is something you routinely use, such as emery boards or certain cosmetics, and you find it at a local store, you need to buy several if you can, because the next time you need it, you might not be able to find it? Or that it’s very hard to find dark hair dye anywhere in those countries except in the largest cities? (Blonde or red, no problem, but as dark hair is the norm in those countries, stores rarely stock dark hair dye.) Or that, unlike in the US, the rules often don’t apply?
For example, one of my fondest memories from living and working in Mexico and the Caribbean comes from the time I had to take a bus trip. I worked for an educational resource firm based in Mexico City. We collected information for documentaries, many of them for The Discovery Channel, as well as for schools and universities, and for organizations preparing educational programs. This one time, my team was asked to gather some information on a particular area in rural Mexico. We usually drove wherever we needed to go, but this particular time several vehicles were dead-lined for repairs, so we were handed bus tickets. The trip was a fairly long one, so the bus stopped for a meal break at a small village restaurant. However, this busload was fuller than usual, thanks to my team, and the little restaurant was overwhelmed. And as the bus had a schedule to keep, we didn’t have a lot of time to wait for our food. So the other female on the team and I went back to the kitchen to see if we could help. Now picture this: the two women in the kitchen spoke no English and, at that time, neither my teammate nor I spoke much Spanish. So we learned to make tortillas and salsa with instructions consisting of grunts, gibberish (to us anyway), and hand gestures. Our misinterpretation of many of those instructions had the entire group in stitches. I’m not sure how much we helped, as we were probably more of a hindrance, but everyone had a blast. If the food was perhaps a little less tasty than it normally would have been, it was still the one of the meals I enjoyed and remembered the most. And the flour and tomato sauce we were covered with when we got back on the bus was an indication of how much fun we’d had—an experience we’d never have gotten anywhere in the US, as least nowhere I’ve ever been.
In my latest novel, the second in the Black Ops Chronicles series, Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Men Don’t, which came out on June 28, 2014, my female lead, Andi, is kidnapped and taken to the Middle East and my black-ops-expert hero, Levi, has to rescue her. Now while I have never been to the Middle East, Levi has, or at least his real-life counterpart has. He really did work for the British SAS as well as the CIA. So in addition to the internet research I did, I got a lot of my information from Levi. For example, there’s a sandstorm in my novel and, obviously, I’ve never experienced one of those. But luckily—or unluckily depending on your point of view—Levi has. So he was able to tell me about how strong the wind was (I guess it would have to be to blow that much sand around) and how that sand burrowed under your clothes and stung every inch of skin it could reach. It wasn’t an experienced he relished. And while he hadn’t enjoyed the experience or the memories, they were invaluable to me. Luckily, he has a great sense of humor and didn’t get too offended by my enthusiastic delight at what he suffered. I tried to be sympathetic—honest, I did—but it was hard when I was getting so much valuable information. He told the story with that dry humor the British are so famous for and, when he was finished, I felt like I’d been there. Would I have had Andi taken to the Middle East if Levi hadn’t been there? Maybe, maybe not. There are plenty of other places I could have used that I’ve either been to or have friends who have. But the Middle East worked with my plot line and, as Levi had been there and had a wealth of information I could use, how could I resist?
A strange man has come to save her...but is he friend or foe?
Anderson Merritt’s been kidnapped, but when a stranger comes to rescue her, she isn’t sure he is who he says he is. He claims to work her father’s boss. But someone close to Andi set her up, and now she doesn’t know who to trust. Every man she’s ever known has seen her only as a tool to get to her father or his money, so why should this one be any different? As the sparks between them ignite, and the danger escalates, Andi has to choose—go off on her own, or trust that some men really are what they seem.
He doesn’t want to hurt her…but he may have to if she doesn’t come willingly.
Ex-CIA black ops specialist Levi Komakov doesn’t believe in hurting women, but when the place is set to blow and Andi won’t cooperate, he has no choice to but toss her over his shoulder and carry her out of danger, determined to keep her safe in spite of herself. But the beautiful little spitfire doesn’t make it easy for him. With her abductors seemingly always one step ahead of him, Levi suspects there’s a rat in the woodpile, but who? Could it be someone close to Andi’s father, someone in the FBI, or someone in the family Levi works for? When a new threat appears, and even the CIA can’t help him keep Andi safe, Levi puts everything on the line—but will it be enough?
Pepper O’Neal—Come for the Adventure, Stay for the Romance
Black Op Chronicles: Dead Run: http://www.blackopalbooks.com/
Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Men Don’t: http://www.blackopalbooks.com/
Blood Fest: Cursing Fate: http://www.blackopalbooks.com/
Blood Fest: Chasing Destiny: http://www.blackopalbooks.com/
Love Potion No. 2-14: http://www.blackopalbooks.com/