When I’m invited to speak at a library or an organization, the first thing I do is scan the crowd for a face, or faces, that seem somehow interesting to me. It doesn’t have to be a beautiful one, but it must be an attention-grabbing face, one with a secret wisdom, a look that will trigger in me an emotional chord that makes me imagine it in various situations that I’ll one day use in a novel. After the event, I always jot down a brief description in my notebook or make an entry onto my tape recorder that I might use two, five, or even ten years down the line, long after the subject in question has forgotten they ever met me. It makes sense, after all. If I didn’t make notes on people I see, my next novel would be about my drapes, because that’s what I look at all day.
Every one of the characters in my books is based on someone I’ve met or might have noticed on the street or in a restaurant who has what I consider a distinctive look. So if you see me coming, watch out! You may become the inadvertent “star” of one of my books.
Still, I try hard to disguise my subjects. After all, in mysteries almost every character in the book is a suspect and therefore is in some way corrupt. They might not be the murderer, but they certainly have secrets to hide. This was what drove the plot of my second Cleveland novel, Full Cleveland, a novel about a group of people with secrets who are stunned when they discover they are all being blackmailed. (Several years later, I actually named one of my Milan novels The Best-Kept Secret. Unfortunately, my then-publisher, St. Martin’s Press, assigned some in-house flack to write the “flap copy,” the teasing material about the book and its contents that appears on the inside front flap of the book cover, and he or she actually gave away the big secret that one of the characters in the novel keeps to himself and that inspired my title.)
So when I meet someone who inspires me, say, a plumber in real life, I’ll change their name and make them an attorney, or a mobster, or a college professor. That’s why most people don’t even recognize themselves, even though their look is something I always keep in my mind as I write them.