Sunday, July 27, 2014
Are You Sure About That? by Pepper O'Neal
Please welcome guest blogger Pepper O'Neal today, sharing on the challenges -- and rewards -- of research. You can read more about her book Dead Men Don't on her website or buy it at Black Opal Books.
I’m often asked why I base so many of my characters on real people. And my answer is two-fold. First, I’ve met some extremely interesting people in my travels—people with amazing stories to tell. They’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it. So, while my imagination is pretty good, I doubt I could create characters as interesting and complicated as the people I actually know. It’s the little things about those people that make them so special. And secondly, because I know them so well, and because of the stories they’ve told me, it saves me tons of time on research. They’ve also been most of the places I want to write about, so if I haven’t been there myself, I can ask them. Most of them are honored that I’m impressed enough by them to put them in my books, even when I make them villains. When my first book in the Black Ops Chronicle series, Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Run, started winning contests, Levi, who was an important secondary character, was delighted. “You’re an award-winning author now, luv,” he told me, “so I guess that makes me an award-winning character. So when do I get my own book?” How could I resist? When I wrote the second book in that series, Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Men Don’t, which came out in June, Levi had a starring role.
Characters and dialogue come easy for me because I know the real-life counterparts of my characters very well, good points and character flaws, and can guess what they would most likely say in any given situation, which gives my books a ring of truth they wouldn’t otherwise have. But unless you are fortunate enough to have friends like mine who’ve led some extremely interesting lives, you’re going to have to do a lot of research on whatever subject or character trait you want to portray in your fiction. How can you tell the difference between a writer who’s done his/her homework with some good solid research and one who hasn’t? Easy. The writer who’s done the homework makes you feel like you’re actually there with the characters, experiencing what they are. They also have all their facts are correct and accurate.
So how do you 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.
Think about what you might know about a place after you’ve been there that you wouldn’t know before. For example, if you are writing about a place in a third-world country, what might you learn by traveling to that country that you wouldn’t know if you hadn’t been there? Some examples of this might be what the sanitation systems are like, how garbage is collected, what the markets and stores are like, how the people in the cities get their water—does it come from a central water supply reservoir like in the US or is it perhaps delivered by truck to a cistern on the roof of the house and then gravity-fed through the pipes when someone opens a faucet. What are the rural areas of said country like? How do the people dress, get to and from work, secure their homes, etc.? For example, I was amazed when I first when to work in Mexico that many houses didn’t have closets in the bedrooms like we have in the US. Many people who live there, at least in the more rural areas or in older homes, used armoires, giant chests that you hang clothes in. And I was shocked to discover that, at least in the small town where I first lived while I was there, the garbage truck didn’t pick up at a person’s house. The bags of garbage had to be carted to the corner of a designated street on garbage day and handed to the man on the back of the truck. Little things like this are what make you remember a place when other memories about the trip have faded. Those little things are also what make your readers feel like they’re right there in the scene with the characters. The same is true of your characters. If you’re writing about an ex-CIA officer, like I was, and don’t know one, you need to research not only the type of person you want to portray, but also the “shop-talk” or trade words that would be common in their everyday speech. For example, did you know that CIA employees are never called agents by those in the know? CIA personnel in the field are called officers or field officers not agents. Authors who call them agents haven’t done their homework. Facts like this are crucial to authenticity.
So do yourself and your career a big favor and check your facts. There is no quicker way for a writer to lose credibility than to use incorrect data or facts. Whether it is a novel or a blog, if you put it out there, make sure you do your research and that your facts are accurate. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I am not going to mention any names because some of you may have read this author, enjoyed her work, and never realized her facts were wrong. And I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of an author. But…
First let me say that I’ve had a number of jobs in my life—it took me a while to find my niche—and once upon a time, I trained racehorses. So when I saw a new novel about horse racing from a well-known author, whose work I had read and enjoyed before, I bought it. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Not because the plot or the characters were not up to this author’s normal quality. They were. But her racing terms were incorrect. Her term for young horses versus older ones, male versus female horses, etc. were also incorrect. For example, a female horse, no matter the age, should never be called a colt. A colt is a male, un-neutered horse under the age of four. After the age of four, he’s a horse or a stud if he’s breeding mares. If he’s neutered, he’s a gelding, regardless of the age. A female horse under the age of four is a filly. Over the age of four, she’s a mare. This author seemed unaware of facts that anyone who’s spent any time around horses would automatically know. And as someone who does, this bothered me to the point that I didn’t enjoy the story as much as I otherwise might have. It wouldn’t have taken this author that much more time and/or effort to check her facts and make sure they were correct.
The next book I read from this same author was set in my home state of Oregon, and I can only assume that she has never been there. Imagine my dismay when the heroine stopped for gas at an Oregon gas station, got out of the car, and filled up her own tank. Why? Because Oregon does not and never has allowed self-service gas stations. Period. Pumping your own gas in Oregon is against the law. Had her character done this in real life, she would have had to pay a $10,000 fine. Needless to say, that was the last time I bought one of this author’s books.
If you are unsure of your facts, do the research and find out the correct terms and facts, or else keep your terms and facts vague and generic. These kinds of mistakes may not hurt you too much if you are a best-selling author (and not everyone is as picky about proper terms and correct facts in fiction as I am—probably comes from being a researcher), but if you are just starting out, this can scuttle your career. So why chance it? If you’re going to take the time to do research for a novel and aren’t writing about something you know inside and out, go the extra mile and make sure that the facts you put in your books are right.
When I wrote the first book in the Black Ops Chronicle series Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Run, I had a scene in it where the hero stopped breathing but still had a faint pulse. So my heroine, who was pretty clueless about medicine, was going to try to do CPR. Well, my critique group at the time had a registered nurse in it and she objected to the scene because you don’t perform CPR on someone who has a pulse. She pointed out, and rightly so, that someone reading my book might, however unlikely, take that scene as fact and do harm to someone in an emergency situation. I had never thought of that, but once she pointed it out, it made sense. So I changed the scene to where the heroine gives him artificial respiration and bypasses the CPR. Not that I think I would have gotten sued had I left it in, but the book was better because I changed it. It was not only more accurate and, therefore, more believable, but I also wouldn’t have readers who were registered nurses, EMTs, or other medical professionals throwing the book against the wall because I didn’t have my facts right.
And it taught me a valuable lesson. Check your facts! If you’re writing about something you are unfamiliar with and are not 100% sure of your facts, check, check, and recheck. Believe me, your readers will thank you for it.
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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?
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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.
You can find the author on her website: http://www.pepperoneal.com