Tag Archives: Atlantic City

More Sisters of Water Signs

“On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, we we walk in a dream. On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, life will be peaches and cream.”

I paid homage to my sister Carolyn in my last post on the occasion of her birthday, but Water Signs also features another generation of close sisters: Monica and Maria, based on my mom and my Aunt Marie (who’s name really was Maria, although everyone called her Marie).

From the time I was a little girl, I always admired the relationship between Mom and Aunt ReRe (as I affectionately referred to her), which was as close a bond as I’ve seen between siblings. Like Carolyn and me, Mom and her younger sister were also opposites, physically speaking: At 5’5″, my active mother maintains an impressive figure, even after giving birth to five children. Aunt Marie, on the other hand was — in her own words — “pleasantly plump”, although height-wise, I believe she and my mom were about the same.

Both are and were attractive women  with sweet, beautiful and completely different faces. Whereas my blonde mother’s face shape is angular, frosted-haired Aunt Re Re’s was round. Mom has thin lips, Aunt Re Re had full ones — but both shared an unwavering commitment to the application of lipstick as the final touch of make-up before leaving the house. (A funny side note I will definitely incorporate into a future book: as a kid, I couldn’t get over how Aunt Marie could expertly apply make-up without ever using a mirror. She’d just laugh and tell me “Dar, I know my face!”).

In terms of personality, this passage from Chapter Four sums it up nicely:

“But though there were physical contrasts between the two sisters, each shared common traits of generosity, gregariousness, unselfishness, and — oh yes — an almost irrational love and over protectiveness when it came to their children.”

In that same chapter, Maddy muses to herself how blessed it is indeed to be so loved and cared for by these women. Certainly as a mature adult, I’ve made enough friends and acquaintances over the years to know that very few are so fortunate. I not only grew up with a mother who loved me, cared for me, and enjoyed spending time with me, I also had an aunt who loved me as if I was her child, too. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for that.

But as I am sure my sister Carolyn and cousin Annie will attest, when you’re young, it’s tough at times to fully appreciate such expressions of love and devotion.

When I sat down to write Water Signs, I knew I wanted to pay tribute to my dear Aunt Marie, who’s been in heaven now for just over six years. Although she was actually more involved in my life during the “Jake Winston” courtship, caring for my wonderful Uncle Merle (may God rest his gentle soul), and running a business demanded pretty much all of her time when “Ken” came into the picture. So I decided to alter reality a bit.

In real life, my mom’s good friend Marion was actually staying at the Ocean City house with us when “Ken” picked me up for our first official date. A wonderful woman in her own right, Marion was a femme fatale, a sharp dresser, a quintessential female — in short, a northern version of Tennessee Williams famous character, Blanch Du Bois. Like Aunt Marie, Marion has also gone on to the next life, but she lives on in my memory. She also inspired an unforgettable line in the book, which is uttered by Aunt Maria, just as Ken and Madeline are about to depart for Atlantic City:

“Drive nicely, Ken. You’re carrying precious cargo.”

And just like Maddy, I was completely embarrassed, though I never admitted it to my date, figuring (as Maddy does)  that there was nothing wrong with him knowing exactly how important my safety and well-being were to my family. Looking back, I’m fairly certain “Ken” was at least a little nervous, having recently been exposed to the entire boisterous clan over breakfast the morning after meeting me. And though I tried not show it, I most definitely had butterflies (more on that in another post).

In the early parts of the book, as the relationship between Ken and Maddy progresses, Aunt Maria becomes even more of a friend, confidant and support system, much like Lori. I even managed to pay homage to our younger years, when the two sisters would pile their respective kids (Mom’s five and Re Re’s two) in the car and set off on new excursions.

Much of these remembrances I incorporated into the story through the use of flashback. Thus, one evening when Ken is having dinner with Maddy, Monica and Maria, the conversation turns nostalgic as the characters discuss one of my very favorite childhood memories involving an intense summer heat wave and the Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey:

“Ken seemed to get a kick out them, particularly the one about a hot and humid day in August, 1973, when she and Maddy’s mother had decided to take all of the kids to Great Adventure. About midway through the Safari — where even the lazy, sleeping animals seemed to have been affected by the intense heat — the air-conditioning had broken down in the car. As a woman who was often “roasting” even on the most bitter-cold winter days, Aunt Maria had insisted on rolling the windows down, only to have the park ranger scold them over the P.A. system. Good thing he had, though, because right after that a mob of baboons descended on them, apparently for the sole purpose of “christening” Monica’s brand-new, white station wagon.

“And of course, having insisted on wearing her cute new sandals instead of practical sneakers to the park, Aunt Maria had ended up in First-Aid with blisters all over her feet. After throwing the shoes away, she’d stolen her teenage son’s hockey socks so she could walk around in comfort — but not before they’d wasted most of the day waiting for someone to help her.”

Fun times for sure! And just like Madeline in the book, as a six year-old child who absolutely loved amusement park rides, I only managed to experience two of them with my mom that day when all was said and done. Still, it’s a great memory.

As for the sisters’ shared love of Atlantic City casinos and intrepid hunt for “hot” machines, that is straight out of real life too, though these days, Mom spends more time at the new Harrah’s in Chester than she does at any of the offerings on the famous boardwalk. Oh and she’s constantly imploring my aunt for some heavenly assistance, though if God indeed allows such intercession, Aunt Re Re has yet to respond with a huge jackpot. I’m thinking she’s too busy regaling other loved ones on the other side of the veil with her side-splitting stories and infectious laughter to take time out for such mundane things. She’s on to much bigger and better experiences now.

So here’s to loving mothers, fond memories and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood. And someday when I get to heaven, I sure hope Aunt Marie tells me how happy she was with my portrayal of her.

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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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