by Jerold Last
As we try to create the imaginary worlds of our books, to be believable we have to rely on reality for inspiration. I use the places I’ve lived in and visited in South America as settings in my South American Mystery novels. These novels have to be populated with people, both the central characters like my detectives Roger Bowman and Suzanne Foster, and all of the rest of the people they will meet as they investigate the murder or murders. We quickly encounter a problem of how to make these other characters into distinct individuals rather than just 20 stereotypes named Pedro or Jose. To solve this problem I generally use real people I’ve met in South America as models for fictional characters in these books. The process begins by visualizing someone I actually met for a physical description, and/or by taking part of their personas to start building the fictional characters. To demonstrate this process, let’s follow the path from reality to book pages of several suspects in the murders being investigated in three of my novels.
First up is Bernardo Colletti, the head of the Uruguayan Nazi Party in The Ambivalent Corpse, and a suspect in the murder. He has strong roots in reality. I first visited Montevideo in 1982 as a Fulbright Professor teaching courses in toxicology and protein biochemistry during the waning days of a right-wing military dictatorship. One of my hosts was married to a physician who worked in the Emergency Room (think of George Clooney’s role in ER) of the major hospital in Montevideo, who also turned out to be the head of the Uruguayan Nazi Party. Despite his politics, he was a charming and well-educated (Uruguay and Chicago, USA) physician with whom I was expected to interact professionally and socially while I was there. To create Bernardo’s character in the book, I merely aged his role model from 1982 to 2011 and grafted the real Nazi’s looks and personality onto the fictional one. Despite the obvious reasons one should not like a virulent fascist, I tried to portray Bernardo as I recalled the real person: extremely charming and intelligent in social settings where he chose not to emphasize the more odious of his political views. But, I have to admit, I enjoyed finally killing him off in The Body In The Bed.
Next up is another character (actually a couple) from The Ambivalent Corpse, Gerardo and Andrea, who act as hosts for Suzanne at the University de la Republica and become good friends of our heroes as the story evolves. The couple is modeled after my two best friends and scientific colleagues in Montevideo. They are, in fact, named after their two children. Now there’s a switch, naming the parents after their children. You can get a real sense of power when you write fiction! The scene at the Feria (open air market) in the park described in the book is based on the actual Saturday morning Feria in the park across the street from the apartment we rented when we lived in Montevideo. Andrea’s research with algal toxins she describes at dinner in the book is pretty close to what the real “Andrea and Gerardo” do in Montevideo, and formed a large part of the basis for our collaborative research and teaching.
In The Surreal Killer, Suzanne and Roger are taken for a flight over Northern Chile’s vast Atacama Desert in a small two-engine plane by two of their suspects, Pedro and Romero. Along the way, Pedro gives both of them lessons in how to fly the plane. Pedro’s character is a composite based upon a couple of real scientists I’ve known very well. One of them is a North American, originally from New Jersey, who actually taught me how to fly a single-engine Cessna many years ago while we were both research scientists at The National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. The other, more extroverted, half of Pedro’s character is based upon Manuel E., a Chilean scientist who hosted me during several visits to Santiago as we tried to build a collaborative program at The University of Chile similar to those we had already developed in Montevideo and Salta, Argentina.
Finally, the Kaufman sisters, Gretchen and Barbara, make their debut as murder suspects in The Origin of Murder, as fellow passengers on a cruise of the Galapagos Islands with Roger and Suzanne. They return to the series again to play substantial roles in Unbearably Deadly and Abra Cadaver. We met the sisters’ counterparts in real life as, you may have guessed, passengers on the cruise ship we took for our real vacation in the Galapagos Islands. One of the sisters taught school in the San Francisco Bay area, the other lived with her and worked for a publisher in the city. We spent several dinners together on board the ship discussing life for single women in San Francisco, our common love of dogs, and whatever other topics came to mind, and tended to hang together as we visited the islands. We also met for dinner in the Bay Area a few times after we returned to California, but that was a long drive and the friendship petered out. I grafted their physical descriptions and personalities onto the fictional sisters in the novel as the list of characters emerged. They were promoted to recurring character status in Unbearably Deadly. I like how they can interact with Roger and Suzanne to keep the plot moving along without having to steal the limelight from our main characters. I suspect we’ll continue to see them occasionally as the series continues.
In this brief blog entry I’ve tried to describe how a small part of the creative process works for fiction authors. Our life experiences are the source and our books and their characters are the product. If you’d like to meet Bernardo, Andrea, and Gerardo, they can be found hanging out in The Ambivalent Corpse. You can meet Pedro, Romero, and their Beechcraft Baron airplane in The Surreal Killer. The Kaufman sisters appear in The Origin of Murder, Unbearably Deadly, and Abra Cadaver. Finally, Bernardo Colletti also appears (very briefly) in the novella The Body in the Bed.
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Jerold Last is a Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the University of California’s Medical School at Davis, near Sacramento in Northern California. Jerry, a two-time winner of The Indie Book of the Day Award, writes “tweener” mystery books (tough and occasionally violent mystery stories that follow the cozy conventions of no graphic sex and no cussing), all published as e-books on Amazon Kindle with six also published as paperback versions, that are fast moving and entertain the reader. Several of the books introduce the readers to South America, a region where he has lived and worked that is a long way from home for most English speakers. He and his wife Elaine lived previously in Salta, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. Jerry selects the most interesting Latin American locations he found for Roger and Suzanne to visit while solving miscellaneous murders. Montevideo, Salta, Machu Picchu, Cuba, the Galapagos Islands, and Iguazu Falls are also characters in these books, and the novels portray these places as vivid and real. Jerry and Elaine breed prize-winning German shorthaired pointer dogs; Elaine also provides technical advice for Jerry’s dog-related novels like The Deadly Dog Show, Hunter Down, and Abra Cadaver, as well as editing for all of the books.
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