I thought I knew Benny Needles when I plugged him into my story. He began in 2006, at the Southern California Writer’s Conference in Palm Springs. I wrote a 250-word story on the topic “Ice”. Here’s the entry:
He was the kind of man who made you want to disinfect your eyeballs when you looked at him.
“You the private dick?” His voice oozed from the doorway.
“Private investigator,” I corrected him.
The stranger slunk into my office and poured himself into a chair. Pale and thin, his wispy blond hair lay pasted against his head, making his ice-blue eyes look large and reptilian. Taking a picture out of his pocket, he threw it across my desk.
“I lost something. I need you to find it.”
I studied the picture. “It’s an ice cube tray.”
“Not just any ice cube tray,” he told me. “It’s the ice cube tray used for Dean Martin’s drinks on Ocean’s Eleven.”
I stared at him, clearly unimpressed.
“It’s signed by Dino! I paid $1500 for it on Ebay!”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I get $100 a day, plus expenses.”
“Anything. Just find it for me.”
Taking out my notebook, I got to work. “Where did you see it last?
“In my freezer,” he said. “It’s still there somewhere, but I can’t see it for all of the ice.”
I sighed. Opening the bottom drawer, I pulled out my travel-sized hair dryer. “Give me your address,” I told him.
What the hell, I figured. It’s a paycheck.
That’s where Benny started. When I outlined my book, he was going to be that slimy little man with no redemptive qualities that Peri helps despite her better judgment. Although I wasn’t 100% certain, I was even looking at making him an amoral murderer. And then a funny thing happened.
Benny took human form. Once he started interacting with the police, his insecurities came out. His purchase of a Dean Martin ice cube tray became an obsession with Dean Martin. Peri isn’t a woman who would help out a sleazebag just for money, so I made his mother one of her first housecleaning clients. In the end, Benny wasn’t slimy at all, he was just OCD, and a social arthritic.
Of course, this meant going back to the beginning of the novel and softening Peri’s responses to his attempts at mixing in with society. And I cleaned him up a little, physically.
As for the name, I chose Benny after my uncle, who was kind of the black sheep of my dad’s family. Needles came from Needles, California – I was having one of those parallel trains of thought, remembering my grandmother’s discussion of Needles while I was thinking about character names. Mike Sirota told me I had to change it because it sounded too cartoonish. If more people had told me that, I might have, but I hardly ever do what one person says… unless it’s my hubby.
After my experience with my very first (really bad) novel, I knew that characters can be willful brats, so Benny’s conversion from slimy to misunderstood, while inconvenient, was easier for me to deal with. Now everyone loves Benny, even if I still find him a little creepy.