Today we have a big treat for fans of romantic suspense. Pepper O’Neal, author of both the Black Ops Chronicles and the Blood Fest paranormal series was kind enough to answer some questions about her work and her writing process.
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. 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.
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Be sure to read on after the interview for my review of her second Black Ops Chronicle–Dead Men Don’t
1. How did you start writing fiction? Is it something you’ve always done in one way or another, or did you come to it later?
I guess it is something I have always done. I was first published in the fifth grade, when I won a contest and had a story published in the local newspaper. So I always knew that it was something that I wanted to do. However, I didn’t trust myself, I guess, as I went into non-fiction for many years, before coming back to my first love, which is fiction.
2. How can you tell when a plot idea has what it takes to make it all the way into print? Have there been times when you’ve had to abandon a project after a promising start?
I tend to finish what I start, one way or another, so I haven’t abandoned any projects, although a couple of them are, and will probably remain, at the bottom of the sock drawer. I guess you could say that a story has what it takes to become a project when it won’t leave me alone and I find myself focusing on it more and more.
3. Your heroes and heroines are pretty complicated compared to many others I’ve met in romantic suspense novels. How do you balance strength and vulnerability in your heroes, and create heroines who are likable, but don’t get steamrolled by their assertive co-stars?
I am not sure I can answer that. Characters seem to appear in my head, with all their strengths and weaknesses. People are complicated, at least real people are. They have layers, like Shrek and onions. There is the top layer they show to the world at large, a deeper layer that only their closest friends and family see, and finally, the layer they keep strictly to themselves. I think the more someone is aware of these layers in themselves, the more they like themselves, and the fewer secrets they keep from themselves, the more comfortable they are with showing others their faults as well as their strengths, i.e., being who they really are. I try to show a bit of all the layers. I also try to be true to my characters and not have them do something that doesn’t fit with their particular nature or personality, simply because it would be convenient to the plot. In fact, I often find that if I am having trouble with a scene that just isn’t coming together, it is because I am asking a character to do something that they would not do if they were real.
4. Dead Men Don’t, book two of your Black Ops Chronicles, has an intricate plot full of twists, turns and fairly involved action/escape sequences. What goes into developing such meaty plots—especially while remaining in the length constraints of the average romance novel? How do you balance strong plotting with good character development?
An author I respect once told me that you can’t write good fiction by being nice to your characters, and that is advice I took to heart. People don’t want to read just about sunshine and roses, they want to read about people overcoming obstacles and hanging on when things go wrong. And before you can show your characters doing that, you first have to make things go wrong. So I spend a lot of time thinking “What is the worst that could happen here? And how can he/she overcome or get around it?” And it’s easier with some characters than others. Levi, the star of Dead Men Don’t, is one of my favorite characters. He is based on a good friend of mine, who is one of the most capable and competent men I have ever met, so I get a kind of dark glee from making things as difficult for him as possible in my books. Levi was in the first book in this series, Dead Run, as well, and he had a heck of a time. His real life counterpart told me, after reading the book, that he was glad that I had no control over his real fate.
5. Your Black Ops Chronicles are a series of standalones, with each book focusing on a particular member of an extended group of covert operatives. How do you handle the story elements that have to carry from book to book and avoid continuity errors? Do you have a “big picture” plan for the series worked out ahead of time, so that you can keep your details straight?
I write everything down. I have an almost photographic memory, but even so, I don’t trust it completely. So I write dossiers on all the characters, as well as physical descriptions and time lines so I don’t lose track and I don’t have to rely just on my memory. If I can remember and don’t need it, that’s great. But if I do need it, it’s there. The hardest part is putting enough information into the following book that readers who haven’t read the previous book know what came before, but not so much that people who have read the previous book get bored because they already know it.
6. I don’t know about you, but I find balancing the creative side of writing with the nuts-and-bolts business of promotion and marketing my fiction something of a juggling act. How do you protect your creative time?
With a cannon and a bloody hatchet! Seriously, I lock the office door, unplug the phone, and shut down my Outlook. I figure anything that is an emergency will probably get through, and anything that isn’t can wait. If I am on a roll and the work is going well, I will stop every few hours and make sure the rest of the world is still there, but other than that, I consider that time precious and guard it fiercely.
7. What is your favorite way to engage with readers? Facebook? In-person events? Newsletter? Does reader feedback on a project ever influence future work?
I get a lot of emails from readers, and I really like that. I don’t have a lot of time to spend on Facebook, so I mainly use it for announcements. But reader feedback does affect me. If I get a lot of feedback telling me about something they didn’t like, or something they did like and want more of, I naturally adjust my stories as much as I can. Of course, you aren’t going to please everyone, and you first have to be true to yourself and your story, but readers know what they like, and I find that if they don’t like something, there is usually a good reason for it.
8. What’s next for our Black Ops heroes? And I just found out you have another series—Blood Fest, a paranormal romantic suspense series full of werewolves, weretigers and other exciting creatures, any future additions to that one on the horizon?
Right now, I am working on the third book in the paranormal series Blood Fest, doing the edits on Running Scared, which is coming out in the summer. Once that is done, I will start on the third book in the Black Ops Chronicles series.
Review–BLACK OPS CHRONICLES: DEAD MEN DON’T
Black Ops Chronicles: Dead Men Don’t
Levi Komakov doesn’t realize what he’s getting himself into when he’s charged with rescuing Anderson “Andi” Merrit from what appears at first glance is a kidnapping for cash or influence. Most likely the latter since her father is a heavy hitter for a crime family. Without spoiling the plot, let me say that the truth is far more twisted. Someone close to Andi has betrayed her and set her up for a life of servitude and abuse.
Is it any wonder then that Andi is a bit uncooperative when Levi first appears on the scene? From her point of view, this man may be someone just as dangerous as her captors, someone who wants her for his own ends. So, I can forgive her for making her rescue far more dangerous and complicated than it needs to be. Still, there are points in the novel, usually when the situation is most grim, that her temperamental displays grated on me. On the other hand it was a pleasure to watch her gradual transformation from victim into hero.
Andi’s growth is in large part due to Levi taking her seriously and not underestimating the danger she’s in or the power of the people who are after her. Though he falls a little too hard too fast…and then constantly second guesses himself…he’s a good alpha with a nice balance of sensitivity and strength. He and Andi share plenty of chemistry.
For a romance novel, the plotting is ambitious. Locations range from rural Washington state to the D.C. area to the Middle East. Every time I thought I knew where the story was heading, O’Neal threw in a twist. In particular, the Mission Impossible action at a foreign embassy was a nail biter. I held my breath the whole time.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more dramatic for this pair, the author throws a huge curve. Again, I don’t want to spoil the book for readers. Let’s just say that, along with Andi, we are taken into a world that few westerners get to see. Levi and his Special Ops buddies have a hell of job with this one. Andi, too, is pushed to her absolute limit physically and emotionally.
I always begin a book with optimism…I assume I’ll enjoy the ride. Well, I liked this one way more than even I expected. It’s an exciting blend of romance, action and suspense. I’m going to go back now and read the first one in the series!