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Serendipitous Aspects of the Writing Process, Continued

Halloween 2008: Me as Sarah Palin and my "sister" Theresa as my "Muslim Secret Service Agent".

Aside from a devoted family, there is nothing quite so precious as a loyal, trusted friend. I’ve heard the saying many times, that if you have one good friend, you are truly blessed; I have been blessed infinitely in this area, since I have many dear, loyal friends whom I know have my best interests at heart. One of them is the real-life inspiration behind the character of Elyse Lombard, my beautiful, blonde “adopted sister”, Theresa.

Being the fiercely protective Mama Grizzly (or perhaps more accurately, Big Sista Grizzly) she is, Tre wasn’t shy about expressing her disapproval with my plan to contact the real Ken to apprise him of the nature of the book I was getting close to releasing on the internet. In fact, she was pretty adamant about not going there, offering some pretty compelling reasons to back up her assertion.

And being the strong-willed woman I am, I listened patiently and then determined in my mind to make the call anyway for reasons I mentioned in my last post.  This led to a series of emotionally charged conversations, punctuated with a few serendipitous revelations.

Good friends Kathy (left) and Theresa threw a party to celebrate the publication of Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal.

After checking out the Water Signs website (which I’d given him on the first call), I received a voice mail message from Ken, who appeared to be rather flattered, surprised and even a bit shocked by what he’d read in the synopsis on the home page:

Madeline Rose is a sweet, sheltered and eternally youthful young woman of 25-the youngest child of a prominent Philadelphia neurosurgeon. Despite the unending support of a loving, close family, she battles formidable insecurities, thanks to a recent, bitter break-up with her first real boyfriend and a turbulent adolescence characterized by a few extra pounds. Unsure of her future, she struggles to live up to her potential as well as her highly educated pedigree, given her fortunate placement in an impressive ancestral heritage.

Still adjusting to civilian life after four years in the United States Navy, handsome, affable and ambitious Ken Lockheart has two goals in life: to rise above his blue-collar Shore town roots and to marry his true love. Though the epitome of the classic, all-American male with his boyish good looks, six-foot frame and broad, muscular body, he retains a basic humility borne of a relentless work ethic and an inner drive to succeed.

When a chance encounter in a Somers Point nightclub initiates an unexpected relationship, neither one of them is prepared for the ensuing odyssey of heartbreak, personal growth and spiritual development that fuels their individual life lessons and leads them full-circle to a Divinely guided conclusion.

Although at that point in time the nearly complete, unpublished manuscript was still in a Word doc in my laptop and on a securely hidden CD, the synopsis description alone was enough to affect “Ken” fairly deeply; when we actually spoke, he noted how accurate my description of him had been, how I’d captured the essence of who he was and what he was trying to accomplish in his life.

I can’t recall if it had been that same conversation or one that followed shortly thereafter, but during one particularly heart-wrenching discussion, a few interesting things were revealed — things that seemed to confirm my intuition when crafting dialogue for the characters and/or expressing their thoughts and feelings.

For example, in Chapter 30, as a newly reunited Ken and Madeline are enjoying a cookout in Ken’s new house, they reminisce about past events and resolve previously unsettled matters. Of particular import is Maddy’s memory of a significant holiday they’d spent together:

“That was the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she confessed softly, thinking back to all of the fun they’d had dancing and joking around with her siblings and their dates at The Media Inn.

And as an author, I invoked creative license to have Ken respond with, “Me, too.”

I had no way of knowing if the character’s human counterpart felt the same way; in fact, I was pretty certain that after 16 long years, he’d probably experienced at least a few New Year’s Eve’s celebrations that far outshone the one we’d spent in a little town in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. After all, in South Florida there’s no shortage of glamorous locales from which to pop the bubbly and make out at midnight. Perhaps he and his wife had once taken a luxury cruise or a trip to the Caribbean to welcome Baby New Year?

Interestingly enough, I’d just completed this chapter when the real Ken and I had this particular phone exchange, prompting me to test the validity of character Ken’s response to Madeline’s statement. Keep in mind, the book was still unpublished at the time; there was absolutely no way he could’ve read this chapter — or any portion of the book, other than what was posted on the website. And that consisted merely of a synopsis, testimonials and an author bio — I hadn’t even gotten to the point of loading selected chapters for preview yet.

So I decided to conduct a little “test” to see if my creativity had unknowingly contained a kernel of truth by telling the real Ken (quite sincerely) that our New Year’s Eve was the best one I ever had. I think I might have even prefaced it by admitting, “As pathetic as it sounds…”

And without missing a beat, flesh-and-blood Ken replied, “It was for me, too.” Which — needless to say — sent shivers up and down my spine, for a myriad of reasons.

Did he actually mean it?

In that moment, I believe he did, although there’s always the possibility he was simply affirming what he thought I wanted to hear.  In any case, the fact that he hadn’t read any portion of the book, yet repeated a line attributed to his character verbatim did leave an impression.

Another interesting enlightenment came when I shared my bout with panic and anxiety disorder, only to discover that he’d also experienced the same problem, concurrent with me. He even related a story about driving down I-95 on his way to make a big corporate presentation, when all of a sudden, overcome with an acute attack of sheer terror (pounding heart, etc), he had to pull over to avoid an accident. I listened with empathy as he noted (paraphrasing), “Here I was, this blue-collar kid from New Jersey about to stand in front of a bunch of corporate bigwigs, feeling I had no right to be there. Who did I think I was?”

“Ken” seemed a  bit rattled (as was I) by this entire exchange, during which he’d also noted “We’re a lot alike, you and I” and announced that he didn’t even think I was that attracted to him, since I tried to avoid being alone with him and maintained some strict boundaries when we were. As a 25-year old young man with “raging hormones” my behavior had been a bit perplexing.

But knowing my family, he understood when one of the many reasons I offered for keeping him at arms’ length was my absolute terror about accidentally becoming pregnant and bringing dishonor to my parents. As I told him, it was probably the most disgraceful, hurtful thing I could ever do, though they would’ve forgiven me (us) eventually. However, with this kind of mood-killing mindset, there’s no way I could’ve simply relaxed and enjoyed it, even if we’d used every type of contraception on the market.

“Can you imagine their reaction if I’d gotten pregnant?” I asked.

“Yeah, your dad would’ve taken me out back with a shotgun,” he laughed.

Which is probably an accurate statement, though I’ve often thought my father would’ve been the calmer parent in this scenario.  I could be wrong, of course. And to this day, even at my age (assuming it could still happen), I’d never want to test my theory. 😉

More intrigue to come in my next post.

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Guidelines on Fictionalizing Facts into a Novel, Part Two

With the news that my wonderful father, Dr. Al DiGiovanni, will be honored by the Drexel University College of Medicine (now consolidated with Hahnemann Medical School, the institution from which he graduated in 1960) for 50 esteemed years in the medical profession, it is only fitting to focus this next installment on the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

As I mentioned in Fun Facts, I initially planned to make “Rose” my main character Madeline’s middle name, before deciding that it made an excellent surname for the entire family. Rose happens to be my wonderful mother’s first name, while Madeline (technically the Italian version, Madelina) had belonged to my maternal grandmother. So it had always been a given that I would create a character named Madeline Rose as a tribute to both women (I’ll discuss the character of Madeline Rose, who is based on me, in another post).

Like my dad, Dr. Joseph Rose is a successful doctor with an outgoing personality; deep love of family and friends; passionate allegiance to the Philadelphia Phillies; and abiding zest for life. In fact, Joseph Rose is pretty much a mirror-image of his real-life counterpart with the exception that his specialty is neurosurgery, whereas my dad’s had been general and vascular surgery. I specifically chose neurosurgery for Dr. Rose, knowing that his daughter Madeline would struggle with panic and anxiety disorder in the novel. Prior to her correct diagnosis, the medical profession would have to rule out possible brain abnormalities. By making her father an expert in this area, it helped to intensify his and his wife’s distress over their youngest child’s worrisome symptoms, which mimicked those of a patient with a serious neurological disorder.

In all other aspects — and perhaps most importantly in their representation of The American Dream — Dr. Joseph and Dr. Al are synonymous. Both are products of immigrant parents who migrated to the United States from Italy, in search of economic freedom and opportunity. Both grew up in the “inner city”, a section of Philadelphia known as Germantown, in a small row-home shared with their parents and three brothers. Both aspired to be Major League Baseball pitchers, but had to turn to their second-love, medicine, when career-ending injuries forever shattered their dreams of pitching no-hitters to packed stadiums of loyal, enthusiastic fans. Finally, both are eternal optimists, grateful for the opportunities afforded them in a free and prosperous country where even the sons of broken-English-speaking immigrants could raise themselves up to greater heights, fueled by their own passion, persistence, hard work and determination.

These are the qualities that define my dad and his character. I have to admit, there was much I took for granted growing up as a doctor’s daughter — namely, my father’s stunning transition from a poor boy with big dreams to a well-respected surgeon with a loyal patient following. I didn’t fully appreciate the obstacles he’d faced and overcome, having only known him an accomplished member of the medical profession. And since he was never one to harp too much (although he had his moments) about how tough life was when he was a kid, (preferring instead to talk about the positives of being part of a close-knit, though financially challenged family), most of the stories I remember involve food, cooking, laughter, childhood pranks and parental devotion.

Not that things were always rosy. There was the occasional brush with bigotry, as when Chestnut Hill Hospital refused to bring an “Eye-talian” doctor on board, resulting in my parents’ move to Delaware County, where he was offered staff positions at Mercy Catholic Medical Center and Riddle Memorial Hospital. And years prior, the tragic and unexpected loss of his mother when he was just a 19 year-old college student.

And yet, my dad persisted — always with an attitude of gratitude and an optimistic outlook.

In spite of his success, neither of my parents ever forgot their roots (although as the daughter of a pharmacist  who owned a corner drugstore in the neighborhood, my mom had grown up in a relatively affluent environment by comparison). Their closest friends included people from all walks of life — doctors, dentists, plumbers, printers, small business-owners, truck drivers and military veterans.

As children, we were taught to be proud of our family members for their accomplishments, but never to think that we were better than anyone else by virtue of what our father did for a living. And my dad certainly walked his talk. Whenever we were out in public places like restaurants, he would always engage our waiter or waitress in friendly conversation, so much so that typically by the end of our meal, we knew as much about that person as they were willing to share — which was normally a great deal, thanks to Dr. Al’s genuine interest and friendly nature.

Ok, I’ll admit, as a kid I found this somewhat embarrassing, just as my mother — a much more reserved person when it came to strangers — often did. We’d joke affectionately about how Dad felt absolutely compelled to know as much as he could about people he’d most likely never bump into again. But as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate and respect this rare quality, particularly in the frantic, me-first culture we’re currently living in. If more people treated strangers, especially those who work in the service industry, as my dad did (and continues to do), our world would be a much better place.

Thanks for the great lessons, Dad! I hope I’ve done you justice in the character of Dr. Joseph Rose.

Note: In my next installment, I will create a comparison/contrast between Dr. Joseph Rose and Ken Lockheart, my novel’s embodiments of the American Dream and the two most important men in Madeline’s life.

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