Since this technique is such an important element in Water Signs, particularly in terms of creating intrigue, I decided to devote an entire post to its discussion. Given that readers know the ending of the story the moment they read the Prologue, I had to employ every possible literary tool at my disposal to build suspense and maintain a good pace throughout the novel. I’ve noted most of them previously, but wanted to delve into the flashback technique in greater detail, since the entire work of fiction is, in essence, a series of smaller flashbacks within the context of one big 16-year flashback.
Part One begins in 1992, with Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey (i.e. Greater Philadelphia area) as the setting. The Prologue, set in Deerfield Beach in 2008 at St. Ambrose Catholic Church (a place where I regularly attend Mass), has just alerted readers to the significance of the nuptials about to take place between Ken Lockheart and Madeline Rose, “by the grace and mercy of God” and “at the end of a long, arduous and oftentimes broken road.” Considering I’ve now piqued their interest in the long journey leading to this momentous occasion for my two main characters, I next had to focus on crafting an interesting, page-turning tale worthy of the intrigue generated from the outset.
Of course, as I’ve noted before, it helps that so much of Water Signs is based on real life, proving the maxim “write what you know”. And in spite of a well-meaning editor/friend’s advice, I declined to change the geographic locations of the story from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Illinois, and from South Florida to Southern California, for this very reason (along with a few others). I didn’t have to agonize over describing unfamiliar locations, or researching the local culture and traditions of unknown parts of the country, and then trying to infuse them into the makeup of my characters.
I know what constitutes a Philly girl versus a suburban Philly girl versus a Boca Babe, and a South Jersey guy versus a South Florida guy. I feel passionate about Philly sports, food, culture and history. I’ve spent countless summers at the Jersey Shore in my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. I’ve lived in South Florida most of my adult life. Therefore, immortalizing these characters and settings was effortless. And the result is an authentic work of fiction that simultaneously uplifts, instructs and and occasionally tugs at the heartstrings.
However, I still had to make many necessary adjustments and/or embellishments to certain plot points because — let’s face it — sometimes actual events do not quite have the same dramatic oomph required for compelling fiction. Case in point: the night Maddy and Ken peruse his old US Navy photo albums while hanging out at his house (Chapters 4 and 5). While this is a true-to-life occurrence, it took place in “Ken’s” living room, while we were both seated on the couch in broad daylight, not in his bedroom in the late-evening, as is the case in Water Signs. I changed the locale from living room to bedroom and time period from afternoon to the almost wee-hours of the morning, to increase the sexual tension between the characters, as well as to test Ken’s ability to respect his new love’s clearly articulated boundaries, and in turn, her willingness to trust in his sincerity.
This incident is also a great example of the flashback technique, as although the scene begins in Chapter Four and continues into Chapter Five, it’s not until later in Chapter Five, when Madeline is cruising along the highways of suburban Philly conducting sales calls for her job, that we learn the full extent of what transpired during the previous night’s intimate moments. Prompted by the song, Just Another Day, she reminisces back to Ken’s recounting of his broken engagement, complete with raw emotional betrayal and visceral heartbreak. This gives readers another insight into Ken’s history, and his motivation in wanting to marry and settle down with his true love; it also offers a window into Maddy’s soul, and the extent to which her lingering insecurities, exacerbated by a previous relationship, will cause problems for her nascent romance with Ken.
Much later, in Chapter 31, as an older, wiser and recently reunited couple are cruising down Camino Real on the way to Ken’s parents’ home in the Royal Oak Hills section of Boca Raton, Maddy embarks upon a silent remembrance celebrating the history of her family. This provides readers yet another new insight into her character, and conveniently (for the author) lays the groundwork for future prequels featuring the entire Rose clan.
Look for the use of strategic flashback through the novel.