Tag Archives: Pisces

Random Thoughts on the Writing Process

A good Facebook friend and aspiring author/writer recently asked for my advice regarding the length of chapters. Is it something predetermined before even putting thoughts to paper (or keyboard to monitor)? Or is it advisable to just write and see how it all plays out?

An excellent question for sure, and one for which I am not entirely certain there is a correct answer. As I’ve noted many times, the process by which I wrote Water Signs was highly unusual and most likely, unrepeatable. In another post, I described the circumstances that opened the floodgate of memories that led to the steady stream of consciousness that ultimately resulted in a 435-page novel. The words literally came through me from a higher place, and in most cases, I didn’t have to consciously or deliberately think about the mundane mechanics of the work itself. I intuitively knew when to end one chapter and begin another — though most ended up being 20 pages or so in length.

With Sea To Shining Sea, I am attempting quite deliberately to maintain that 20-page chapter limit, since it was very effective the first time around. But there’s a little more to it than that. For example, one of the literary techniques I employed successfully in Water Signs was flashback — whether to an event long-ago or in the recent past. So I would in effect, finish a chapter — leading the reader to believe they knew everything there was to know about the events contained therein, only to discover some new insights about the same event(s) in the next chapter. This helped to create a little more intrigue and drama.

Keep in mind also that I am a creative type who knew from the start I wasn’t going to follow the traditional publishing path, i.e. jump through all kinds of hoops to entice a literary agent, including conducting research on my genre at a book store. With the advent of Print-on-Demand and social media, I realized that a new and wondrous vehicle to reach  my audience and achieve success awaited me. So I was pretty much unconcerned with “trivial” things like chapter length, outline, competing titles and authors within my category, market research and all of the other things publishing houses obsess over (and demand that their potential authors research on their own time, with no guarantee of getting the contract anyway).

So put me in the “just write it” camp. You can always go back and edit later. Write from the heart and get ‘er done. That’s my advice.

While we’re on the topic, some other fascinating things occurred during the evolution of Water Signs — and here’s where the fusion of fact and fiction was at its most enjoyable. When I determined (somewhere around Chapter Eight) that this book was actually going to come into being very soon, I decided to take a proactive approach and search for the person who inspired Ken. For the record, my best friend (on whom the character of Elyse is based, and the same one who was there when I had the reading that ended my selective amnesia about this guy) thought it was a terrible idea.  In fact, she tried her best to talk me out of it. Ironically, she’s bumped into “Erin” unexpectedly a few times this year at business functions — something that had never happened before in all of her 25 years of living in Boca Raton. But I will discuss that at length when I explore the female friendships of Water Signs.

I am not sure if stubbornness is also a Pisces trait, or merely a personality foible, but I am the kind of person who — once I make a decision about something — cannot be convinced otherwise. For good or bad, I’m in.

So just like Madeline in Chapter 27 (after having a reading similar to the real ones I experienced, though altered a bit for dramatic purposes) sits down and pens a letter to Ken, I did the same with “Ken”. Though taken from real life, the one readers discover is a little more flowery and poetic than the one I wrote:

Dear Ken,

How are you? I can’t even imagine how you might feel right now, holding this letter in your hand. I mean, how long has it been? About a million years? And yet in so many ways, it feels like yesterday.

I don’t know what it is about 2008, but ever since this year began, I have had a palpable feeling that everything was coming full circle somehow. It took me a few months to realize exactly what that meant, but now I have no doubt it involves you—and some important things I’d left undone and unsaid. Things you really need to know.

It’s strange that you would be on my mind now; I can’t explain why this is suddenly the case since I hadn’t thought about you much at all over the years. For my own survival, I’d willfully blocked you out of my thoughts to the point where it was as if you never existed in the first place. There was just no way I could’ve been your friend, not in any sort of active way, at least. It was just too painful to see you with another woman, so I did the only thing I could do. You made your choice; I made mine. I even concocted a story to tell people whenever they would ask me why I moved to Florida. And the mind is such a powerful thing that I actually believed it myself.

Look, I know it is ancient history, but I am so very sorry for everything I ever said or did to hurt you. You were so good to me, so kind and caring. If I had a time machine, I am certain I would go back and make very different decisions where you were concerned. If I could go back with the knowledge I have now, I would understand just what I’d had in you. In many ways, you were so much more mature. You saw qualities within me that I was unable or unwilling to see for myself. And I never truly appreciated that.

You once told me that I inspired you; but the truth is you inspired me, too. I never realized just what a catalyst you have been in my life. These last fourteen years have been an incredible personal and spiritual growth journey, one that would not have been possible without you. While I’ve endured some pretty traumatic experiences (along with good ones), I can see now how every seemingly insurmountable obstacle, every hour of darkness, every tear shed in moments of anguish, have all contributed to making me the mature, self-adjusted woman I am today.

There are absolutely incredible people in my life that I am blessed to call friends, my writing career is finally in full swing and my health is excellent (warm weather definitely agrees with me). Perhaps most significantly, my faith is stronger than it has ever been in my entire life. I owe all of this to you. Ken, you opened my eyes. You made me realize that the world—my world—was more expansive and wonderful than I’d ever imagined.

This may or may not be appropriate, but I want you to know that no man before or after you has ever treated me with the same amount of respect, affection and concern. Sadly, at 25, I didn’t know what I had. You were everything I didn’t know I wanted. Yes, hindsight, as they say, really is 20/20. And no matter where you are or what you are doing, I hope it makes you feel good to know just how much you have positively impacted my life. At least, that is the intention of this letter.

Anyway, I am sure you are an awesome father, and I pray that you are well and happy. Take care of yourself and God bless!

Madeline

In this same chapter, I employed the literary technique of juxtaposition, to create more intrigue throughout the sections following the letter, which is where it also becomes a fusion of fact and fiction. Just like Maddy, I believed it safer to mail the letter to the home of the guy’s parents, who happen to live in the same town. But since I had no way of knowing how it all went down from there,  I had to use my imagination. Thus, in the very next scene, Ken’s mother Paula Lockheart is engaged in an active power-walk in her neighborhood, while musing about all of the recent events in her son’s life. This is also where we learn of Paula’s deep-seated affection and love for her son:

Paula Lockheart looked at her pedometer and picked up the pace as she conducted her customary late-morning power walk. An attractive woman in her late-60’s, she was diligent about remaining active and eating right to maintain good health. After all, she had two adorable grandchildren to see into adulthood. And now that her youngest son had endured a bitter custody battle and an acrimonious divorce, she was more determined than ever to support him and his offspring.

She’d always been so proud of Ken; from the time he was a little boy, he’d been her most affectionate and devoted son. Even as a newborn, she’d noticed something different—and wonderful—about her “baby.” His soulful blue eyes showcased a natural exuberance and passion for life. And despite their modest means, she knew from the very beginning that her fourth and last child was destined to be a success in every sense of the word.

So when she bumps into her mailman and enters her air-conditioned home with a stack of mail, she’s intrigued by the pink envelope addressed to her son, conspicuously missing the name of the sender, although bearing a return address. By this time, we’ve also found out that Paula is an intuitive mother who nevertheless makes it a practice to refrain from interfering in her children’s lives. Using more flashback, I have the character reminisce about Ken’s heart-wrenching dilemma many years prior when “the girl from Media” shocked him by actually relocating to Florida. Engaged to another woman, we learn that Ken had met his mother at the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier to talk things out. And true to her nature, a sympathetic Paula listens but does not offer any advice other than to follow his heart.

The Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier, one of the places my characters head to when trying to solve a difficult challenge or make a heart-wrenching decision.

All of this, dear readers, is a product of my imagination, conjured up at this particular juncture of the story to flesh out the character of Paula Lockheart (whom we’d only known through Ken up to this point), and clue readers in to some other previously unknown events that had taken place.

However, Ken’s reaction to the news, and Madeline’s concurrent visit to Disney World with her mother is a blend of fact and fiction. In real life, my mom and I took a few days to head to Orlando during one of her visits here to South Florida. We’d left on a Sunday and came back on a Wednesday night, making the 2 1/2 hour trip via car. And the night we got back, I listened to my voice mail and discovered a message from “Ken”, recorded on the Sunday of our departure (so I must’ve just missed him) and apprising me of his mom’s calling to inform him of the letter.

But the little fantasy he plays out in his mind while waiting to leave the voicemail is an example of creative license on the part of the author:

Ken felt his heart pound in his chest as he listened to the familiar ring tone and eagerly anticipated hearing the sounds of her sweet voice again. A few moments later he did, though it was via voicemail, and not the live version: Hi, this is Madeline Rose. I can’t take your call right now, but it is really important to me. Please leave me a message and I promise to return your call just as soon as I can. Talk to you soon and have a great day!

As her outgoing message played, he felt for the first time in over fifteen years the welcome bolt of electricity igniting his soul and coursing through his body; suddenly, it was 1992 again, and he and Maddy were making out on his waterbed, while the moonlight filtered through the skylight above them.

His hands caressed her face as he gazed into her expressive amber eyes. Nestled beneath his body, he could feel her heart beating fast while he placed his lips tenderly on hers, and then eventually tasted the sweetness of her mouth with his soft, subtle tongue. Maddy sighed, returning his advances with equal amounts of passion and fervor. In the background, the sensual sounds of their favorite music amplified their desires, steadily leading them on a mesmerizing path of fulfillment for body, mind and soul.

“Kenny?” Her voice was a mere whisper as he nibbled at her ear. He brought his face close to hers.

“Yes?” Her fingers traced the waves of his blond hair as she made her request.

“I want you to make love to me.”

Happily stunned, but wanting to confirm the words he’d been longing to hear ever since meeting her, he studied her face for a moment before asking, “You sure, sweetheart? ‘Cause you know I’d like nothing better than to make passionate love to you all night. I just need to know it’s what you really want, too. Otherwise, it won’t—”

Madeline answered him with a kiss that left him breathless as he proceeded to slowly unbutton her blouse to reveal her delicate, porcelain skin and the black lace of her bra. He began to trace kisses down her neck, working his way down to the curve of her breasts as he gently moved his hands over her. In the next moment, he carefully slid the garment off of her body and shifted her on top of him as he moved onto his back in one smooth move.

With her auburn hair cascading past her shoulders and her fair skin gleaming in the soft light, she far exceeded any vision of beauty he’d previously held in mind, both as an adolescent and a young man sailing around the world. He reached around her back to unhook the last trace of clothing from her chest, barely able to contain his excitement as delicious thoughts of finally seeing and experiencing every inch of her petite, curvy body conflicted with genuine concern for this being her very first time, and his desire to make it as beautiful for her as possible.

The whole concept of the “first time” is one that weaves its way throughout the entire novel because it is inextricably intertwined with the traditional values the characters espouse — which are simultaneously a cause of tension and heartbreak via Ken and Madeline’s  inability to communicate effectively with each other.

Back to the voicemail.

The one Ken records in the novel is almost identical to the one “Ken” left for me. And the conversation the characters have the next morning — the first in several years — is faithful to the actual event.

More on the fusion of fact and fiction in my next post.

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Creating Ken, Part One

In my last post, I mentioned that although most of my Water Signs characters are inspired by and/or based upon real people I’ve known or met in my lifetime, at some point during the writing process, they took on rich, full identities that extended far and beyond their initial conceptions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of my two protagonists, Ken (based on a man I met in my 20s at the Jersey Shore) and Madeline (based on me, and named for my grandmother and mother).

For the purposes of this particular entry, I want to focus on Ken as an example of how to incorporate some of the qualities, mannerisms and attributes of a real person into a fictional counterpart. To minimize confusion while simultaneously honoring copyright laws, I will use “Ken” when referring to the flesh-and-blood man, and Ken when referring to the character that turns Maddy’s world upside-down in the novel.

Briefly, I met “Ken” when I was a young, somewhat naive woman of 25 (I know for some the “naive” part might be hard to fathom given the age, but I assure you, dear readers, it is the truth). Although I come from a loving, supportive and at times, rambunctious family that encouraged me to go for my dreams and believe in myself, I possessed stubborn, lingering insecurities over being “too fat”, “not good enough” and even “undesirable”, thanks to the normal slings and arrows of childhood and adolescence. Children and teenagers can be very unforgiving of things like an extra few pounds, especially teenage high school boys. Being  a sensitive Pisces sort didn’t help either, as I tended to internalize unpleasantness to the point where I would completely overlook reality.

Therefore, even after losing weight and becoming an attractive twenty-something, I still clung to an old, worn-out image of myself that no amount of positive feedback on any of my attributes could break. For example, I’ve been blessed with great skin, mostly due to the luck of the gene pool. But no matter how many times someone would genuinely compliment me on it, it was hard to absorb the truth in what they were articulating; in my mind, paying a compliment — sincere as it might be — was simply something people did to be nice. This tendency only got worse when my first boyfriend, immortalized in the book as “Jake Winston”, continually criticized me for everything from my hairstyle to the way I looked in a bathing suit.

Needless to say, outside of my dad, brothers, other relatives and a few close family friends, I regarded men suspiciously. They seemed to be people who inflicted a lot of emotional pain, interested in only one thing (for which you had to have the “perfect” face and body to qualify). The summer I met “Ken”, I’d just endured a pretty traumatic break-up with “Jake” and was still reeling from the hurtful things he’d said and done, not to mention the cowardly way in which he’d ended our relationship over the phone.

“Ken” — who was so full of life and energy — completely blew me away. The night we unexpectedly ended up together at a dance club in Somers Point (yes, Chapter One is pretty faithful to reality) after my girlfriend “Carmen” (whose character is written exactly as I remember her) trotted off with another female friend and their two Iranian paramours, I amazed myself with my own words and actions — not the least of which was announcing my intention to hang out with “Ken”, rather than go home at 10 p.m. (the thought of being alone in a crowded dance club was tantamount to torture).

After all, he’d bought a long-stemmed rose initially for my exotic friend, not me, when we were  shaking our booties on the dance floor to some high-energy tunes. I remember laughing with her as we moved to the beat, then — as if out of nowhere — seeing this hand in front of her, bearing the delicate red flower with the red devil attached to its stem. I visually traced the path from stem, to bloom to arm, until I finally noticed a tall, muscular, blond guy with a great smile nodding at her. She accepted the gesture, and as they began to dance, I headed back to our cocktail table, half-laughing to myself (knowing her date for the evening was set to arrive any moment), half-annoyed (she already had a date; why couldn’t some cute guy buy me a rose for change?).

So in the parking lot moments later, in the wake of his clearly expressed irritation at “Carmen” (if you already had a date, you damn well should have told me!), it was as if someone else spoke through me when I suddenly 1) complimented him for bringing along an extra shirt, which we’d all just witnessed him change into; and 2) announced in no uncertain terms that I would not be a “fifth wheel”, but would instead “stay here and hang out with Ken” for the night. It’s a testament to my pathetic sense of self-worth at the time that I immediately followed that by asking if it was alright with him, and then breathed a huge sigh of relief when he agreed to the arrangement.

But from that point on, “Ken” was a charming, attentive companion, once I demanded (in a another surprising move) that either he stop complaining about my friend or I was “outta here”! And when he reacted with amusement, instead of annoyance, it intrigued me. In the instant he took my hand and playfully announced, “Then let’s dance!” I knew the rest of the night would be memorable. I didn’t bank on ever seeing him again, mistrusting his obvious interest in me, thanks mainly to the baggage I was still carrying around. And yet, true to his promise, he showed up at the beach the very next day, much to my amazement and my family’s entertainment (Chapter Two humorously recounts the event in vivid detail).

So how does Ken differ from “Ken” and vice-versa?

In the beginning at least, “Ken” like his alter-ego, was incredibly complimentary, affectionate and respectful. He was also the first (and so far, only) guy to marvel at the small size of my hands. When we’d socialized together that night at the club, I remember him picking up one of my hands and kissing it, apparently fascinated. He’d often tell me how beautiful I was, and there were many occasions when I’d catch him staring at me (which of course, made me nervous since I still didn’t see myself that way).

Both men are Pisces, although I changed the birthdays, giving characters Ken and Madeline a shared birthday of March 7, in honor of my late grandmother’s birthday. My real birthday is March 14, but I thought it would be fun to add to the “star-crossed” appeal of the love story by bringing my characters into the world on the exact day, month and year. Thus, “Ken” and Daria are both Pisces, albeit about two-weeks or so apart, whereas Ken and Madeline not only share the same Zodiac, but also the same time of arrival on the earthly plane of existence.

Other similarities between “Ken” and Ken: US Navy service, working-class upbringing, Catholic schooling, close relationship with mom, difficult relationship with dad, desire for a better life, trailblazers in their families, passionate, patriotic, well-groomed, athletic, good dancers, fun-loving, smart, handsome, insecure at times, sensitive to a fault on occasion, hard-working, ambitious, strong, family-oriented and in possession of an ingrained sense of duty, honor and responsibility.

Both men hurt Madeline (and me) deeply, purposely and unintentionally, depending upon the circumstance. Both men confessed to “not wanting to live in sin anymore” as at least one motivation for marriage, and admitted (with obvious resignation) to “turning into my father after all”. Both wanted to have their cake and eat it, too in terms of retaining a friendship with Maddy/me after withholding the truth about their commitment to another woman.

Perhaps due to the fact that I am working on a sequel, the differences between fact and fiction have become more pronounced. As Ken develops and expands as a character in Sea To Shining Sea, he gets further and further away from his initial inspiration — a process that began somewhere in the middle of Water Signs. Quite possibly, this occurred somewhere around Chapter 30 or so, when the book started to dramatically transform from a fusion of fact and fiction, into purely fictional territory.

I’ll discuss this in greater detail in the next post.

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Literary Techniques Used In Water Signs

Taking a digression from the discussion of the themes of Water Signs, I wanted to share some of the literary techniques I employed to help bring the story to life. As someone who believes good fiction should engage the reader to the point where he or she loses all concept of space and time, it was important to me that my book have the same all-consuming effect. Thus, I used several different techniques to create a “mental vacation” for the reader and underscore the points I was trying to make through plot and characters.

So here they are, in no particular order:

Italics – A significant factor in Madeline’s personal development is learning how to effectively confront people and circumstances when warranted. Throughout most of the novel, this is a daunting challenge for her. To denote this element of her personality and allow readers a window into her real thoughts and motivations, I employed italics. One of the most dramatic examples occurs in Chapter 19, when Ken forthrightly asks her how the news of his engagement makes her feel. Unlike Ken, readers get the truthful answer, immediately followed by her articulation of a lie she deems honorable and necessary under the circumstances:

How the hell do you think I feel Kenny? You were the one calling and crying on the phone for nearly two years about how much you loved me and missed me; the one who practically begged me to move here in the first place; and the one who kept your live-in girlfriend a secret until there was no turning back! How the hell do you think I feel after uprooting my entire life, hurting my family and having to face the consequences of a misinformed decision alone? How could you deceive me like that? Is this some sort of payback for hurting you?

“Hey, I think it’s great!” she replied brightly. “Congratulations! I’ve been dating a lot myself since I got here. Believe me; I have my own things going on!”

Look for this technique throughout the novel.

MusicWater Signs spans sixteen years in the lives of its two main characters — 1992-2008. In order to help readers identify with the changing time period throughout the story, and relate more deeply to Ken and Madeline’s world, particular songs and artists are mentioned. Some of these were chosen specifically for their relevance to real life, while others either fit the narrative at a particular juncture perfectly, or reflect the characters’ Philly-area roots.

For example, in Chapter One, Ken and Maddy’s first slow dance takes place to Elton John’s The One, which debuted during the summer of 1992 and immediately became one of my favorites.

In Chapter Three, as the two characters are driving to Atlantic City — site of their first official date — in Ken’s black Acura (another detail taken from real life), Maddy asks him to stop switching the radio dials when Jon Secada’s Just Another Day starts blaring through the speakers. That’s also a page (no pun intended) out of real life, with the song being a 1992 hit with both the characters and their living, breathing counterparts.

In Chapter 23, Madeline performs her own unique rendition of the song, On My Own, from Les Miserables, for her dance studio’s local production. As I’ve mentioned before, singing beautifully and powerfully was something I’ve always wished I could do, but alas was not in God’s plan for me. Thus I took some creative license as an author and infused the character based on me with that very talent. I chose this particular song for two reasons: 1.) to dramatically underscore the melancholy circumstances of Madeline’s life at this point in the book; and 2.) to pay homage to my very favorite Broadway show.  However, like Madeline I am also a ballroom dancer, and I did participate in a Fred Astaire showcase in Boca Raton, as part of a group tango!

In Chapter 30, The Spinners’ Then Came You, not only retells the love story between the two main characters, but also recalls their native metropolitan Philadelphia origins.

Sports – In Water Signs as in real life, professional sports play a significant role. When crafting the novel, I endeavored to recreate the culture of the Philadelphia/South Jersey area (site of Part One) and South Florida (site of Part Two) via the incorporation of real-life sporting events. Much of this occurs as a remembrance uttered by a character over a breakfast or dinner conversation, such as when Maddy relates her experience as a young teenager at the 1980 World Series, and at the 1981 NFC Championship Game when her beloved Eagles beat the Cowboys, 20-7. Both of these are an example of art imitating life, as is Dr. Rose’s passionate devotion to the Phillies.

Food – As part of bringing regional culture and tradition to both a new and familiar audience, much of the activity in Water Signs revolves around popular foods and delicacies. Maddy and Ken’s beach picnic, for example, features provolone cheese from South Philly, homemade Italian wedding cookies and “tomato pie” (a special pizza-like creation first introduced to the area by a South Philly bakery in the 1900s).

Humorous Side Note: When I spoke at the Hawthorne Writers Group last fall in North Jersey (about 20 miles from Manhattan), I thought it would be fun to bring wedding cookies (baked by yours truly) and tomato pie. Although I knew the latter was mainly found in South Jersey, I’d assumed it had finally made its way north, for the simple fact that it is absolutely scrumptious. After several fruitless calls to North Jersey bakeries and pizza shops,  I realized the Philly-area delicacy was nowhere to be found anywhere north of Trenton. So I ordered it from a local suburban place near my parents’ home and transported it by car. Thankfully, it survived the 2 1/2 hour trek unscathed (and uneaten). :)

Technology – One of the most enjoyable aspects of tracing the progression from 1992 to 2008 was referencing the various technology used by my characters. When the story opens, “car phones” are the latest rage, as evidenced by an excited Lori happily showing off the one that came with her brand-new Pontiac Bonneville (an actual event borrowed from reality) to her younger sister and her new beau. As the plot progresses, Madeline notes the heretofore unknown and excessive use of cell phones and pagers in South Florida (circa 1995). By the time we arrive near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, she is employed as a content manager for a company that specializes in online marketing for the hospitality industry, a fictional career based on the fact that I did indeed work as a content writer for a Boca Raton-based company, creating e-proposals for major hotel chains.

JuxtapositionWater Signs is about the journey, not the destination. Therefore, readers know the ending from the moment they read the prologue, demanding a compelling narrative on the part of the author to keep them turning the pages. In addition to the other methods mentioned, the use of juxtaposition was a great help in building suspense, beginning in Chapter One. It opens with Madeline and Carmen crossing the Walt Whitman Bridge and then speeding down the Atlantic City Expressway, their conversation informing readers of their backgrounds, motivations and plans for the evening ahead. Before long, the chapter shifts to a back-and-forth narrative that alternates between the girls’ arrival at the club to Kenny’s reluctant preparation in front of the mirror for a night of drinking and dancing (which also serves as his initial introduction to readers). This technique continues throughout the novel, with most chapters picking right up where the previous one left off.

Branding – Another method through which the culture and traditions of Philly, South Jersey and South Florida come alive for readers is branding. In Part One, I make several references to familiar retail chains and brands throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania and the Jersey Shore including Wawa convenience stores, Tastykake commercial baked goods; water ice (known to the rest of the country as flavored Italian ices); soft pretzels, Herr’s potato chips and Turkey Hill ice cream. In Part Two, Maddy gets stood up by the character of Mark Donnelly, who was supposed to take her to Sunfest (an unfortunate incident taken from my own experience AND an annual festival held in West Palm Beach); several chapters later, she and Ken reunite over lunch at The Samba Room, a popular restaurant chain in South Florida.

Side Note: I did once work in downtown Fort Lauderdale, where I also shared a few lunches with former co-workers at this particular Samba Room location, thus the inspiration for using it as the setting for Madeline and Ken’s long-awaited meeting.

Water Imagery – Aside from obviously paying homage to the book’s title, the use of water imagery also evokes a dream-like quality within the narrative, and supports the interwoven concepts of renewal and reconciliation. On a basic level, the coastal locations of the story, the characters’ shared Pisces sign and Ken’s US Navy service contribute to Water Signs’ “escapist” quality, conjuring up images of beach-inspired beauty, majestic ocean waves, colorful fish swimming beneath the sea’s surface and American heroes serving their country on awe-inspiring aircraft carriers.

But on a much deeper level, water is a symbol of rebirth in traditional religious customs and spiritual practices. It is also a symbol of the emotions, which play a significant role in character development, particularly for Maddy. She suffers for years with panic and anxiety disorder — a gross distortion of the emotions that negatively impacts the physical body — without actually knowing what it is — until she reads the packaging for the medication prescribed by her doctor. Prior to her unusual cure by a psychic, the only time she finds relief from her sometimes frightening symptoms is when she’s immersed in water, whether swimming in a pool, riding a wave in the ocean or standing under the pulsating refreshment of a hot shower.

Ken, although not a co-sufferer with this affliction, often heads to the beach or to the Deerfield Fishing Pier when life seems overwhelming. In Part Two, when rocked by Maddy’s unexpected arrival in Florida — blissfully unaware of his engagement to another woman — the pier is his destination of choice when he seeks his mother’s counsel in person.

Side Note: When I first moved to Florida, I’d often go to this pier for my own consolation, which is why it is also the setting for Maddy’s date with Mark (another fact turned into fiction). Today, I still visit there frequently as this section of Deerfield Beach also boasts plenty of retail and mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, as well as a beautiful, two-mile sidewalk along the beach.

More to come in another post!

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Fun Facts about Water Signs

I will post the second part in my ongoing series about turning real life into fictional novels and/or stories very soon, but thought I would share these “Fun Facts” I’d put together last year for my Amazon and Facebook pages. Enjoy!

  • The character Madeline Rose is named for my grandmother and mother. Originally, I was going to use “Rose” for Maddy’s middle name, but decided it made an excellent surname for the entire family.
  • My confirmation name is Madeline, chosen by me as a young girl to honor my grandmother’s memory.
  • The shared birthday of Ken and Madeline, March 7, was my grandmother’s actual birthday. And while the real life counterparts for these characters don’t really share the same birthday, both are Pisces! :)
  • I wrote most of Part One using a different first name for the Ken character — the name of the real life person upon which this character is loosely based. Not wanting to lose any ground, I kept going until I finally settled on the name, “Kenneth.” Thank goodness for the “Find and Replace” feature on Word!
  • The name “Water Signs” was chosen for a variety of reasons, the most obvious having to do with Zodiac signs and the coastal locations of the story. However, since water is also a symbol of renewal in traditional religious faith and spiritual practices, the use of water imagery worked well for a 16-year personal growth odyssey. You’ll notice it throughout the book.
  • Chapters 21, 22 and 23 were culled from a manuscript I’d written about 10 years ago, and then thrown into a filing cabinet, never to be seen again until I sat down to seriously write the book in March, 2008.
  • A keeper of journals for over 20 years, I pulled them out to help me fill in details and flesh out characters, plots and circumstances.
  • Though I’ve been fully recovered from panic and anxiety disorder for 12 years, it still pained me deeply to have to go back and read my real life journals, which chronicle that awful period in vivid detail. Though I’d written in them faithfully on a daily basis, I’d never gone back to review them. So pulling them out after all this time was tough. To make it easier, I literally wrote the happy ending — the 2nd half of Part Two — first, then went back and filled in the story!
  • Technology progresses along with the novel, so we start off with the new phenomenon of “car phones,” work our way up to cell phones and beepers, and then finally to the Internet and website design!
  • To help set the time period from 1992-2008, I employed a lot of great music. During the summer of 1992, Jon Secada’s Just Another Day and Elton John’s The One, were two of my very favorites. You’ll see them and other familiar songs along the way.
  • Part One is laced with local Philly/South Jersey references including Herr’s potato chips, Wawa, Tastykake, Turkey Hill, soft pretzels and water ice.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles play a prominent role in Part One; the Philadelphia Phillies are mentioned to a lesser extent. With both teams, I tried to highlight the famous Philly/New York rivalries. Therefore, in one pivotal scene it’s the Eagles home opener against the Giants; in another, it’s the Phillies battling the Mets.
  • William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues was actually given to me by my brother Paul (Damian) in 1994. The handwritten note inside the book’s cover that Madeline reads at the end of Part One are Paul’s words, verbatim.
  • The flashback scene where Madeline recalls breaking her arm in a football accident with her brothers and cousins is also from real life. My brother Mark (Greg) fell into me while trying to catch a pass, resulting in one nasty fracture. And yes, he really did give me his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album as a way of expressing remorse — a hot commodity at the time! I used to love the sketches inside the cover, especially the one of Marilyn Monroe.
  • Damian is Paul’s middle name; Greg is the name of one of my nephews. The name “Louis” has been a nickname for my brother Ralph for as long as I can remember; therefore, I gave his character that name!
  • My sister Carolyn reminds me of a close friend named Lori; thus, the name of Madeline’s older sister.
  • My dad’s middle name is Joseph and he is a retired general and vascular surgeon. And though in the book Dr. Joseph Rose is a neurosurgeon, the character is pretty true to his real life counterpart in every other way.
  • Monica Rose is based on my mom, whose photos as a younger woman remind me very much of Monica Crowley, making it easy to name that character!
  • The psychic Ann Claire is based on a real person, someone I actually did meet at a monthly women’s social and business networking organization. Madeline’s interaction with her that evening mirrors my own almost exactly; only her name has been changed.
  • Madeline’s conversation by the pool with they guy who asks her if she’d go out with him if he wasn’t married is also (unfortunately) a true-to-life incident.
  • One of the best things about being an author is the ability to infuse the characters with personality traits, physical qualities and talents that may or may not exist in real life. For example, Madeline and I are both former ballroom dance instructors, but only Madeline is a professional singer, too!
  • The Atlantic City restaurant, Frisanco’s, where Ken and Madeline share their first date is no longer in business. However, it was the setting for the actual date in 1992, along with the boardwalk and Trump’s Taj Mahal. And yes, the rolling chair incident really did take place!
  • Les Miserables is my favorite musical, which is why I had Madeline sing On My Own in the theatrical production she participates in with her dance studio in Boca Raton. It also dramatically underscores her circumstances at this particular juncture of the book.
  • My dad really does have his pilot’s licence and flew a Piper Cub for years. The aerial route over the Jersey Shore that I describe in the book was one of his favorites, especially when entertaining new passengers.
  • I created the beach picnic scene as another method of getting the two characters near water (in keeping with the book’s theme), and a way of conveying a bit of the Philly/South Jersey culture, via the foods they are eating, e.g. provolone cheese from South Philly. This is one scene that is purely fictional.
  • I used the fictional character of Erin Mahoney to represent what I perceive to be our culture of excessive self-absorption. While on one hand we have people who overextend themselves — often to their own detriment — in my experience many more are the opposite extreme. Their obsession with self tends to focus exclusively on the physical body and material possessions. Of the three Boca Raton transplants Ken, Erin and Madeline, Erin is the only one who loses sight of her values and becomes enveloped by the “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality.
  • Traditional values and a clear-cut sense of right and wrong are thoroughly ingrained in me, and I wanted my book to reflect that. Madeline does the right thing by hiding her feelings and stepping aside, thus allowing Ken to make his own decision about his future without any outside interference. Years later, he unexpectedly comes back into her life as a free man only because he and Erin failed to resolve their conflicts. The dissolution of their marriage is directly attributable to the two of them — and not anyone else.
  • I wrestled with a little bit of guilt over employing a psychic to help me overcome panic disorder in real life, but finally resolved it in my own mind as an answer to an oft-repeated prayer. I’ve been free of the disorder for 12 years now, and have absolutely no regrets. It doesn’t change my religious beliefs in any way; however, it is kind of ironic that someone who once feared psychics was actually healed by one!
  • The characters of Isabella, Mark, Elyse, Audrey, Carolyn and Robin are all modeled after real people. All names have been changed.
  • Sunfest is an actual festival that occurs every year in West Palm Beach. Mark calling Maddy to cancel their date at the last minute is also straight out of real life, as is their first face-to-face meeting in Mizner Park, and their evening at the Acapulco Grill and the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier.
  • Ken’s roommate Kathy is a fictional character I created to set up another contrast between Madeline and other single women in the story.
  • Carmen is based on a personal friend, with whom I once taught at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Wayne, PA. While her name has been changed, the rest of the character is true to her real-life counterpart. Carmen also creates a contrast between Madeline and her peers, with Carmen assuming another “big sister” role in Maddy’s life.
  • Although the book is loosely autobiographical, it is definitely not a documentary. Not all of Madeline’s experiences are my experiences; some are actually gleaned from various conversations I’ve had with female friends who love to talk about the happenings in their lives!
  • Certain elements of real life experience have been embellished and/or used as a springboard to create more drama and intrigue. In many cases, I condensed the time period between events to tighten up the story. For example, Jake’s (based on a real person whose name I changed) phone call asking for forgiveness actually took place several years prior.
  • Even the closest families have their difficulties, and mine is no exception; I worked hard to create balanced portrayals while also highlighting the importance of forgiveness — another theme of the novel.
  • The Pisces pendant that Ken gives Madeline at the restaurant was just a literary ploy to reinforce the Pisces/water imagery, although I have eaten many meals at The Ship Inn in Exton!
  • Some plot points are left purposely vague. For example, I know of a woman who was raped on the beach by a former boyfriend. To give an added element of drama as well as a contrast between Ken and the rest of the men Maddy encounters, I created Ray Smith, an older guy who takes advantage of her. The point here is not about a crime being committed, but Maddy learning an important lesson about trusting her inner guidance. It also serves later on as a test of Ken’s character and Madeline’s courage.
  • Since we are all free to filter literature through the prism of our own biases and experiences, some may interpret the book as a repudiation of traditional values. As the author, I can assure you it is not. Quite the opposite: the true merit in striving to live up to one’s moral foundation lies in the fact that it is difficult. And it’s only through faith, forgiveness and endurance through the trials of life that we become better people and develop a closer relationship with God.
  • Although I wanted to, it just wasn’t possible to immortalize every good friend through fiction; likewise, there were some real life events that didn’t make the cut. Good thing, or the book might have been 800 pages!
  • The character of Cassie is based on my close cousin, Annie, who was also one of my “test readers” along the way.
  • I really did live with family friends when I first moved to Florida. They were wonderful people who opened their home to me for nearly two months, until I got on my feet. My mom really did grow up with the Rita character (last name changed), whose daughter Debbie has been my hairdresser for 14 years!
  • Elyse Lombard is based on a very close friend who is very much like another big sister to me. Our friendship grew even stronger as a result of a horrible tragedy — the untimely death of her five year-old nephew from brain cancer. This awful incident is referenced in the story. And yes, in real life, this friend loves to offer unsolicited fashion advice! :)
  • Audrey Solomon is also based on a dear friend with whom I also share a sisterly connection. She’s really a foot and ankle surgeon, wife and mom of two (though her second baby wasn’t born until well after the book was written).
  • Water Signs delves into sensitive emotional and physical territory — the kind of intensely personal matters most of us are reluctant to discuss. In addition to panic disorder, Madeline deals with overwhelming insecurites regarding the opposite sex and her own attractiveness; irregular menstrual periods; fear of physical intimacy and even pelvic floor dysfunction. Some of these are “borrowed” from friends’ experiences; some are my own experiences.
  • There is nothing gratuitous in my book, though there is plenty of “adult content.” Maddy struggles to live up to her values while trying to date in the modern world and deal with her own grown-up desires. The chapters involving older, divorced man Mark Donnelly are an excellent example of this.
  • I debated whether or not to include a consummation scene near the end of the book, but ultimately decided it was necessary in order to demonstrate the physical, emotional and spiritual growth of both characters. Still, I focused on making it more romantic (as opposed to explicit), by incorporating conversation and describing the setting in vivid detail. I am not as concerned about what the characters are doing as I am about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
  • Having made the above two points, it was still not easy to reconcile my inclusion of intimate scenes with some members of my family. As an author and an adult, I knew most people would certainly understand and approve; however, as a daughter I was well aware that my parents still think of me as their little girl. I am happy to report my mom loved the book, though she was a little put-off at first. Now she’s my best PR agent!
  • The karaoke scene is also pure fiction; however, I used to sing karaoke a lot with some close friends at a little bar in Pompano Beach. Getting up to sing in front of a crowd really was a fear I wanted to confront. Leather and Lace and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around were two numbers I used to perform with the bartender that worked there.
  • The nicknames Elyse bestows on Madeline’s parents — “Yaki” and “Tootsie” — are straight out of real life. A few years back, this friend and I took a road trip to Philly to visit my family. Though we were exhausted from the drive, my excited dad, who LOVES to take pictures, insisted we view his photo gallery from a recent trip to Italy. Thus, the nickname, Dr. Yakimoto, or Yaki for short!
  • My mom has a very dear friend she calls “Lolly,” short for Lauretta. My friend “Elyse” came up with “Tootsie” for my mom so they could be “Lolly-Pop” and “Tootsie-Pop.” Silly stuff, but fun nonetheless!
  • My grandmother really did leave me her engagement ring, a beautiful antique piece I wear every single day. Though many in the past had suggested I reset it, I steadfastly refused. And though I’ve worn it for years, I still get compliments!

Author’s Note: Family members mentioned in these bullets were excited about being immortalized through fiction, thus I had permission to use their real names. For reasons outlined in my copyright post, real identities of the other characters will never be divulged by me.

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Coming Soon: A New Book Review of Water Signs

I was very excited tonight to receive a call from a good Facebook friend and contact, a prominent voice on talk radio and contributor on Fox’s Strategy Room. I’ll reserve disclosure of his identity until he reads the book and (hopefully) likes it, but I’ve been a frequent guest on his excellent radio program over the past several months. Needless to say, the first task on my To-Do List for tomorrow morning is to get a signed copy of Water Signs in the mail!

If all goes well, I’ll be invited back on his show for the sole purpose of discussing my novel and its many themes. Stay tuned! Oh, and the next installment on turning fact into fiction is coming soon. :)

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The Evolution of Water Signs

One of the questions I am asked most frequently by readers is “How long did it take you to write Water Signs?” In truth, there are two paradoxically correct answers:

1. Just under four months; and

2. Fourteen years.

I originally conceived the title in 1994, as a reaction to some very traumatic, real-life events involving a handsome guy and a relocation to a state about 1,200 miles away from home. To put it in a nutshell, I’d moved under false pretenses, believing the guy (whom I’d met and dated two years prior), was still a.) single and b.) avidly desirous of having me move to The Sunshine State, although I’d initially balked at the idea. By the time I’d found the courage to make such a bold choice, he’d moved on with a “platonic roommate” who turned out to be his betrothed.

Indescribably humiliated, angry, hurt and demoralized, I nevertheless found the strength to view his purpose in my life as a catalyst for positive change — one of forcing me to make some painful, yet necessary decisions which I now realize were vital to my personal and spiritual growth. However, back in the excruciatingly painful reality of late-1994/early 1995, such magnanimous, mature thoughts had yet to take root in my mind (although they soon formed the foundation for my emotional survival).

When he surprised me with an in-person visit to break the “happy” news, every fiber of my being wanted to scream, cry, berate and interrogate to get the answers I knew I deserved. Instead, I just sat there, unable to articulate a coherent sentence. That is, until he asked me point-blank how I felt about all of this. And in a performance worthy of an Oscar, I smiled sweetly, expressed my congratulations and assured him that — since my arrival in South Florida — my social life had been moving along swimmingly (which was actually true, thanks to some family friends with offspring in my age group, and a determination to create my own social circle). Thus with all the sincerity I could muster, I congratulated him and his bride-to-be, a woman whose acquaintance I was yet to make, but for whom I’d nevertheless felt an obligation.

In my mind, an engagement was a commitment that precluded any interference from past girlfriends. Should he arrive on his own at the conclusion that he and his fiancee were all wrong for each other, and therefore cancel the wedding, that would be one thing. As for me, I was not willing to hurt a woman I’d never even met, simply because he and I couldn’t get our timing straight.  Stepping aside then, was the only moral thing to do.

Somewhere in the middle of all the trauma, an image of my future book, along with its title, Water Signs, popped into my head. While I am not necessarily adept (yet) at the practice of holding an image firmly in mind, I clearly saw a book with the head-to-tail, in-a-circle, Pisces fish immersed in rippling water — hardly surprising since the gentleman and I are both March babies, born about two weeks apart under the last sign of the zodiac. I jotted down some notes in a journal. And soon after, I banished the book, the title and the guy in the deepest recesses of my mind, never to be seen or heard from again. At least that was the plan. I continued to journal, as I’d done for most of my life, but for all intents and purposes, the man for whom I’d uprooted my entire life had never even existed.

Fast forward to February, 2008 — and an odd, amorphous “full-circle” kind of feeling that led me to visit with a local intuitive named Ann, a woman I’d seen about once a year for nearly a decade. During the span of our fifteen-minute conversation, Ann ushered in a flood of unparalleled emotion by uttering one word — the proper name of the man who’d broken my heart so many years prior. It didn’t sink in at first, because I’d always called him by a nickname that’s a natural offshoot of his baptismal name, as had everyone else; additionally, this proper name is also shared by my brother-in-law. Coupled with the fact that I was still suffering from selective amnesia where this person was concerned, it took a bit of clarification before I realized that the man Ann declared was “cycling back in” was the same one I’d deliberately and forcefully sealed off in my mind’s vault, forever. Or so I thought.

And once the floodgates surrendered to the onslaught, a relentless rush of memories overwhelmed me to the point where  the only logical course of action was to prove the age-old axiom, “writing is therapy.” Thus, the “fictional” novel Water Signs began to take form in my mind. And once I sat down at the computer, the words sprung from my keyboard and onto my computer screen without much assistance from me, other than as a diligent typist, dutifully keeping pace with their frenzied demand.

Though I had a full-time job and a 40-minute, round-trip commute at the time, I’d rush home and spend a minimum of four hours every weeknight, and pretty much every waking hour of every weekend creating the story of Ken and Madeline. It was as if an angel was sitting on my shoulder, whispering the words into my ear. At no point did I have to consciously think about where to use descriptive narration versus character dialogue; where to end one chapter and begin another; or even how many pages to comprise each chapter. Although I did refer to my journals to fill in details and retrace my heart-wrenching journey through panic and anxiety disorder (a topic for another post), and even pulled out a manuscript I’d written ten years prior to formulate Chapters 21, 22 and 23, the bulk of the novel originated from a mind and a heart that had finally found the courage to tell a story whose time had finally arrived.

I sat down in March of 2008 with the intention to complete the novel by July 4 of 2008. On June 29, 2008 — my parents’ 51st anniversary, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal, had completed its 14-year trajectory from obscure idea with an intriguing title, to a compelling, romantic novel comprised of 435 pages and 35 chapters.

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