Thriller Writer Tj O'Connor

2 Days – The Hemingway Deception . . .location, location, location.

Mar 26, 2023

Ah, two days until Ana Karras, Cat Reyes, and all their nemeses arrive. It’s been a slog getting here for sure. In the early days of our book, I did research on where my story would unfold. That’s some of my favorite part of writing. Figuring out where my characters should be from, what brought them to the here and now, and where else will I send them is important. In my previous novels, I stayed pretty close to home most of the time. I love Winchester and Northern Virginia, so it’s easy to tell my tales set here. Not with The Hemingway Deception. I wanted a few more interesting locations—not that Winchester isn’t interesting, it’s just doesn’t offer the same backstory possibilities that I needed. No, my characters had to decide their pedigrees and their settings. Far be it from me to dictate to them! They wanted more adventurous settings.

You may not know, but way back in 1944, the phrase, “Location, location, location” was first coined by Lord Harold Samuel, a real estate bigshot in Great Britain. For a thriller writer, it’s a key element in making a story interesting and intriguing.  For The Hemingway Deception, it was a critical component of my character’s bonafides.

For The Hemingway Deception, the underlying theme is that two strong women are on the same mission—one from Cuba and one from the US. But they are coming at the mission from opposite sides and are on a collision course. Ana Karras, alias Ana Montilla, is a former FARC guerilla hiding in the US and trying to leave her combative and dangerous life behind. Cat Reyes is a former Cuban assassin trying to sneak into the US on a mission. She is trying to recapture her past, something she needs desperately to do if she’s to survive everyone hunting her.

For Ana, she and I chose New York City for her home base, specifically Manhattan for much of it and her home in Queens with her maternal Greek grandmother, Yaiyai Poppi. Why there? Easy. If you’ve ever been to New York City, you’d understand that hiding in plain sight is easy. You can walk down the street and be lost in seconds. Queens also made sense because there’s a good size population of Greek Americans there. Mostly, though, I chose New York and Manhattan because I’ve spent, and will continue to spend, a lot of professional and personal time there. I love the city. Everything about it, and that includes the dark sides of it, too. It’s the place adventure goes to play.

Manhattan, NYC

In The Hemingway Deception, there are some critical scenes and locations. For instance, the grand multi-million-dollar brownstone along Central Park West. It exists, although I changed it up enough to not violate anyone’s privacy or make it too obvious. That was an important location because I wanted a grand home where the bad guys could roost. A place that was opulent and spewed corruption and foreign influence. Now, in honesty, I have no idea who lived in the real place I used as a model. And since I changed it considerably, it can’t be construed as “the same place or the same people.” But the model was perfect. Grand. Expensive. A high-net worth address that would bring the NYPD calling if any trouble broke out. Yup, Central Park West was it.  My research gave me just enough insight and history to talk intelligently about it. And my travels to Manhattan allowed me more than one drive by and foot surveillance of the surrounding area to make the scenes realistic and accurate. Right down to the NYPD swarming a nearby address one evening that gave me the idea for the story’s NYPD/CIA showdown when Ana meets Detective Luke Brennan.

There’s also the faux CIA outpost across the river in Bayonne, New Jersey. I reconnoitered there, too. It was too easy. Hide a fenced in industrial complex among a thousand fenced in industrial complexes in one of the biggest port areas in the world and poof. Easy-peasy. Now, gulp, I sure hope my brethren from the agency don’t really have a facility there. How embarrassing for me, right?

Main Square Jardin, Colombia

Other places were easy to play out, too. The Mall in DC. Poppi’s Queens suburban neighborhood. And others. All places I have spent time and did my homework. Yes, for those of you who will now look for flaws to say, “Ah, ha! That’s not the right street! That’s not the same house!” You are probably correct. I changed things enough to not get, “Ah, ha!  I’m suing you for violating my privacy.”

Continuing with Ana’s past, her character called for a storied life as a guerilla fighter from Latin America. Since Colombia has the infamous People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, it only made sense that Ana would be a former FARC guerilla. How could I reasonably get a Greek-Latina to be there? Easy. Her parents were missionaries and met in Colombia. Her dad, a Cuban missionary doctor working in Colombia, and her mother, a Greek American missionary traveling through Colombia with a mission group. Poof, Ana is born. Her Greek American-Cuban heritage was established. And with that, the many Colombian villages and jungle scenes that form the pedigree of her story were understandably her old stomping ground.

Havana, Cuba

Next, is Catalina Reyes-an enigma throughout the story. It’s not until the last few chapters of The Hemingway Deception that her many memories and vignettes coalesce and reveal who she truly is and what she’s up to. Cat is a former Cuban assassin who has operated in Havana and the many cities and villages throughout South and Central America. For her story, I leaned heavily on research and my former life’s work for facts and locals. I also leaned on several friends with similar Latin American heritage for details and factchecking my story. Places like Havana, Cuba; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Nicaragua; and several key locals in Mexico like Nuevo Laredo. While I’ve never travelled to Havana, a couple friends have and that helped a lot in getting the details right. Also, since Cuba has a long and rollercoaster history with the US, there was ample material for me to research. What of the other places in Central and South America? Me? Personal experience? My lips are sealed. But yeah, there’s some first-hand experiences from my travels included.

As I’ve said, location-location-location helps make a great story. I’ve had my own wild location experiences that I’ve drawn on for my novels, too. And a few wild stories that are great at dinner parties. Since I promised to tell a few during my blogs, I’ll relate one that makes for a great location . . .

Frankfurt International Airport, Germany, 1991ish. The First Gulf war was still going on and I had been sent into Turkey to run a team of OSI agents on an operation against the Turkish PKK terrorists. I’d spent a year going in and out of Turkey (and other places) and was raggedy tired on one of my trips. I’d bugged out of Ankara late one night and didn’t do a great job packing my bags. It all came home when I was swapping planes at Frankfurt in the early hours one morning.

This nice German Federal Policeman was checking passports and carryon luggage. I was next in line and was very groggy. I’d missed him calling me to the counter and that irritated him. I think he needed a coffee break as badly as me. When I finally woke up and dragged my bag up and plopped it on the counter, he eyed me with great distain. Great, great distain.

For the backstory here, Germany had its decades of terrorist problems with the Red Army Faction (RAF), or Baader-Meinhof Gang, and others. The Germans learned a great deal about dealing with terrorist over the decades. Most notably, they didn’t take crap from anyone. During the Gulf War, terrorists were moving through Europe constantly and the German’s were on the lookout for trouble. They didn’t want any rekindling of terrorist problems on their turf and would not allow the trouble in the Middle East to spill over onto them.

Enter sleepy, rundown, not-paying-attention me. First, my passport showed me coming and going in Greece and Turkey a lot. A knowledgeable airport official might find that odd, given the Greeks and Turks were arch enemies. And, my travel dates into Turkey coincided with some rough patches during the Gulf War. Officer “Don’t piss me off” at the airport had his radar up—big time.

First, he rapped at me in German. I failed to respond because I don’t speak German. Then, he tried English, of course, and I stupidly responded in Greek. Not sure why, it just came out.

Red Flag One.

He asked me about my travels, and I tried to stay low profile and claimed to be travelling for pleasure.

“Pleasure? In Turkey? Now?” He scoured my passport again. “Open your bag.”

I did, and he proceeded to dump the contents on the table beside us. My eyes, and his, immediately went to the black nine-millimeter holster and two ammo pouches mixed in with my mighty-whites.

Red Flag Two– Oops.

Yup, in my haste to make my flight, I neglected to stuff my leather gear in my bigger bag going into the hold on the airplane. Instead, it was in my carryon. What a rookie move.

Officer-Very Suspicious said, “Where is the gun?” He gestured to the holster.

Me: “It’s empty.”

Officer-Very Suspicious: “The gun?”

Me: “No, the holster. There is no gun.”

Officer-Very Suspicious: “You just said it was empty?”

Me: “No, I meant the holster is empty.”

Officer-Very Suspicious: “Where is the gun?”

Me: “There is no gun.”

Officer-Very Suspicious: “Then why do you carry a holster and ammunition pouches?”

Me. “For my gun and its magazines.” Boy, what a silly question, right?”

Officer-Very Suspicious immediately spoke into his lapel microphone. Before I realized I should have led off with, “But I’m an American OSI agent . . .”  Six Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (GSG9) commandos appeared from everywhere but the ceiling and surrounded me. GSG9 is the police tactical unit of the German Federal Police (Bundespolizei)—their best commandos. They’ve since changed their name—no, it wasn’t because they beat the shit out of me and I sued them, either. Anyway, Officer-Very Suspicious explained to them in German what was going on—I assumed he said I was a terrorist trying to piss him off—and the six less-friendly GSG9 commandoes invited me back into the annals of the airport for a little chat about flying safely in Germany. The moment they put the habeas grab-ass on me, I pulled my OSI creds (which I should have done fifteen minutes sooner but tried to play it cool) and tried to explain to them I was a good guy. Two hours later, after missing my flight to D.C., we were all back-slapping buddies, and I was put aboard another United Flight to DC. Actually, we were not buddies. And thereafter, every time I transited Frankfurt airport, I was on tv in their GSG9 lounge. I swear the coffee shops were onto me and the shoeshine boy followed me everywhere I went, too.

So, remember, location-location-location. Had I pulled the above “ah duh” stunt in say, Boise, it wouldn’t have been as exciting. But in Frankfurt, in 1991 during the height of the war, well, it makes for great table talk.

Stay tuned for my next blog. I’ll have more on Ana and Cat’s adventures in The Hemingway Deception, and perhaps another tale of “ah duh” from my adventures. Perhaps I’ll tell of my perils with the Greek Police while stalking Abu Nidal in Athens, or perhaps nearly wetting myself while recruiting assets in Greece and Turkey. There are many little tidbits of humor and intrigue, but like the Brownstone on Central Park West, I’ll have to change some details to keep out of trouble. Stay tuned.

Be safe and well.


I first fell in love with writing while in grade school and over the years continued to dabble with characters and stories whenever life allowed. Lately, I've focused my energy on pursuing this dream—interrupted only by life as a security consultant and the demands of two Labrador retrievers.

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