The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Where Do All of Those Characters in the Books Come From?

As we try to create the imaginary worlds of our books, to be believable we have to rely on reality for inspiration.  I try to 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 characters 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 clones named Pedro or Jose.  To solve this problem I try to use real people I’ve met in South America as models for fictional characters in these books by visualizing someone I actually met for a physical description or taking part of their personas to start building my fictional characters.  Let me introduce you to the path from reality to book pages of a few of the suspects in the murders being investigated and a couple of the minor characters from two of my novels.

      First up is Bernardo Colletti, the head of the Uruguayan Nazi Party from The Ambivalent Corpse and a suspect in the murder.  He has his roots in reality.  I first visited Montevideo in 1982 as a Fulbright Professor teaching courses in toxicology and in protein biochemistry during the waning days of an ultraconservative military dictatorship.  One of my hosts turned out to be married to a physician who worked in the Emergency Room (think of George Clooney’s role in ER) and was 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 (about 30 years) 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: very charming and intelligent in social settings where he deemphasized the more odious of his political views.  Some of the discussion over dinner that takes place in the novel is recreated from my memory of a dinner I had with my hostess and her husband in 1982 at the Mercado del Puerto in Montevideo.  In my mind the fictional Bernardo comes across as a complex character rather than a mere caricature of a Nazi because to me this ambivalence accentuates his evil and makes him terrifyingly real.  Parenthetically, I liked my hostess, the pediatrician, a lot.  She eventually divorced the real "Bernardo" and had a very productive career.

      Next up is another character (actually two characters, 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 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 that I described in the book is based on the actual Saturday morning Feria in the park across the street from our apartment we rented when we lived in Montevideo, and the negotiations for mate (the poor person's caffeine source in South America) gourds and bombillas (silver straws) are pretty much the way the negotiations we had in the Feria and on the streets happened when we bought tourist-type stuff to bring home with us.  Andrea’s research with algal toxins that she described at dinner in the book is pretty close to what the real “Andrea and Gerardo” do in Montevideo, and is part of the basis for our collaborative research and teaching.   Their life style as described in the novel is also authentic, and they organized and participated in a workshop we recently taught together in Lima, Peru.

In The Surreal Killer Suzanne is taken shopping for baby clothes at the Mercado de Las Incas in Lima by several women she meets at a scientific meeting.  Two of these women worked as scientists from government agencies in Lima and are based (their physical descriptions and their willingness to adopt Suzanne and show her the techniques for shopping at The Inca Market) upon the actual Peruvian government scientist who hosted our group from the University in Montevideo (including the real “Gerardo and Andrea”) and me in 2010.   We spent that week in Peru teaching a course to about 50 Peruvian scientists and engineers about analysis and toxicology of the Microcystins, toxins produced by Blue-Green algae that can contaminate drinking water supplies, a current problem throughout the entire world.   An exceedingly busy scientist spent some of her precious time to not only make us feel welcome in her country but to make sure that we had a few experiences that made us appreciate the rich Peruvian culture as well as the science being done locally.

Finally, in Chapter 18 of The Surreal Killer Suzanne and Roger are taken for a flight over the Atacama Desert in a small two-engined 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, one of them 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 a real 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. 

            In this brief blog entry I've tried to describe how a small part of the creative process can work 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, available from Amazon and also from Smashwords at, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble (Nook).  You can meet Pedro, Romero, and their Beechcraft Baron airplane, as well as the helpful women in Lima who take Suzanne and her future baby to The Inca Market, in The Surreal Killer, currently available only from Amazon.

[A slightly different version of this blog originally appeared as a guest contribution on Wendy Ely's blog at ]


  1. Okay. Now that's different. Hardly anything around about South America, and it's VERY nice not to have a Pedro Gonzalez as one of your characters. Ambivalent? Why ambivalent? Hard to imagine a corpse as ambivalent.

    1. Vonnie: RE: Why ambivalent? Please click on the icon to the right for the book The Ambivalent Corpse as if you wanted to buy the book. That will take you to the book page on Amazon. Read the book's blurb. All will be explained. The corpse is indeed ambivalent......