Larry's Essay "Who's That?"

By the time I complete a 250-page first draft, my characters are as well known to me as relatives and friends. I easily recognize them by name, deed, dress, and personality. There's a comfort level in knowing this when I pass my draft on to Rosemary, my wife and coauthor. So I'm surprised and annoyed when the second draft comes back to me and there are strangers moving through my original plot: Stan, Phil, Louise, and Joy.

What happened to my buddies, Ralph, Bill, Jill, and Harriet?

"Well," my wife replies, "the character just didn't act like a Ralph to me, so I made him Stan."

"And Jill?" I ask.

"Her name sounds too much like Bill, so I made her Joy."

Rosemary has a valid answer for each name change, so now I have to introduce myself to four new characters. Usually, I try to defend my choices, but in the long run, we iron out the third draft with her choices.

We write at different paces, and so, more often than not, we are working on different projects. I might be a whole novel ahead of her. This means that when she interrupts me to ask about one of the characters, I have to reply, "Who's that?"

In writing Locks and Cream Cheese, the first book in our mystery series, our initial idea was to make Simon and Rachel our sleuths and alter egos. By the time we finished the second draft, it became clear to us that Paco LeSoto and Molly Mesta were taking over as sleuths, and our alter egos were being demoted to second-class main characters.

All our characters come from real life with new names and most with composite traits from several people. The two of the non-composites are Paco and Molly. In describing my nameless retired Baltimore police detective, the first go-round, I suddenly feel I'm describing someone I know from many years ago. As he starts rounding out, I begin to remember where and when.

It is in the port of Barcelona, Spain and the year is 1957. We are both dinner guests aboard a U.S Navy ship in the harbor. He is Inspector Garcia Garcia Garcia (yeah, it's for real) of the Barcelona policia, a local goodwill liaison. He is in his mid-forties, short, solidly built, and is nattily attired in a colorful sport coat, tie, and saddle shoes. I am there as a global field engineer contracted to the Navy. Somewhere in the middle of dinner, the executive officer of the ship announces that the local American Council is having a reception, and all off-duty officers are invited. Between dessert and coffee we find there are only two diners left at the table, the Inspector and myself. Those off duty are dressing for the occasion, and the remainder are returning to their shipboard responsibilities.

Moving to the wardroom sofa, I find the Inspector's command of the English language to be excellent and his charm and friendliness genuine. I sit there spellbound, listening to his endless store of police anecdotes. His dark, bushy brows and full mustache flutter and leap to express the words coming from his mouth. I respond with questions and a showing of honest interest, which only spurs the raconteur on. We chat for nearly four hours before it is time for him to leave.

Inspector Garcia impresses me so much that a half-century later, I assign a Spanish name and title, Inspector Paco LeSoto, to my fictional policeman and complete him with more of the real man's attributes.

Molly barges into Locks and Cream Cheese when Rosemary introduces her own psychoanalyst father as the fictional character Dr. Avi Kepple. Rosemary's real father kept track of spouted malapropisms coming from his housekeeper-cook with the intention of submitting them to Reader's Digest. It's Molly's unique and skewed way of expressing herself with only a tenth-grade education. Sometime they are so apropos that one wonders whether some are intentional.

But Rosemary and I find his housekeeper, with her delicious dialogue, too good a character to miss out on, so we change her name to Molly and tag her malapropisms "Mollyprops." Molly Mesta's last name is a tribute to Perle Mesta, the famous Washington, D.C. hostess. Molly's beach-ball figure, waddle walk, honey curls, and good-natured, nosybody personality launch her into our mysteries. The romance between Paco and Molly starts when Cupid shoots Paco straight through the stomach with a tasty arrow dipped in chocolate "mousey."