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The Sisters of Water Signs

In honor my sister Carolyn’s birthday today (Happy Birthday, Car! :)), I am dedicating today’s post to a discussion of the sister characters in Water Signs.

Born under the sign sign of Cancer (another water sign), Carolyn and I share several traits, not the least of which are fierce loyalty to family and friends, emotional sensitivity, compassion for others and a drive to succeed. Five years my senior, physically speaking, she is quite different from me — standing at a stately five-feet, seven-inches, with big dark eyes, dimpled cheeks and a light-olive complexion. (I didn’t include this real-life fact in the novel, but during the summer of Flashdance, Carolyn was actually mistaken for Jennifer Beals at an upscale South Jersey Shore restaurant, where her then-boyfriend had taken her to celebrate her birthday).

With respect to academics, well — she kind of blew me away in school. Like her, I was smart and worked hard but oftentimes my best efforts would only result in achieving “Second Honors” instead of “First” in high school (although I did occasionally attain the pinnacle of quarterly Catholic school success). My sister on the other hand, never failed to make “First Honors” every grading period in high school after earning the coveted “plaque” (an elementary school phenomenon I describe at length in  Water Signs) at eighth-grade graduation; in college, she achieved a perfect 4.0 every semester and graduated at the top of her class while maintaining an active social life.

To their great credit, my parents cheered us on and acknowledged each of us as individuals, granting every child his or her just recognition for a job well done, while avoiding confidence-killing admonitions like “Your sister (brother) achieved that. Why can’t you?”

Being very much a late-bloomer, I sometimes envied Carolyn’s confidence and her easy ability to make friends. She never seemed hampered by the slings and arrows of adolescence, although she was not immune from being on the receiving end of the typical cattiness of teenage girls, or the hormonally fueled arrogance of teenage boys. In fact, although she was quite attractive, to the best of my knowledge, she did not have a steady boyfriend in high school, which I suspect was partly due to my mom’s influence. Our mother really wanted us both to get a good education and make our mark on the world before settling into marital bliss. And let’s face it: knowing that society had dramatically changed since her own carefree high school days, I am fairly certain at least some of the motivation stemmed from a desire to keep us out of “trouble”, though my mother always had the utmost faith in us.

I honor of Carolyn, I created the character of Lori Rose, newly engaged, 30 year-old sibling to Madeline who has witnessed her little sister’s heartbreaks over the years and longs for her to find happiness with the right guy. As we learn in Chapter One, Maddy’s heart has recently been broken in two by the first man she’d ever really called a boyfriend, Jake Winston (based on a real man). Among other things and for reasons having nothing to do with Madeline herself, he has beaten down her self-esteem by being overly critical of her appearance and failing to appreciate her better qualities.

Having pretended to be asleep the night Jake cruelly ends things with Maddy over the phone, the second the gut-wrenching conversation ends, Lori jumps into Maddy’s bed and, with a warm hug and these reassuring words, “I know exactly how you feel”, offers the best medicine for her sobbing sister. This is exactly how it went down in real life. And to this day I’ll never forget my sister’s kindness and compassion.

In Chapter Two, Lori’s breathless announcement  — in-between uncontrollable giggles — of Ken’s presence on the other end of the phone line, is another example of fact woven into fiction. The memory of that morning and its comedy of errors — “Ken” waiting for me at the beach while I was talking the long way to mass via the Ocean City boardwalk, then arriving home to discover “Carmen” had apprised everyone of the “new guy” I’d met — is one that will stay with me forever. Part of the upside of having a close family is that they take joy in your potential joys; part of the downside of having a close family is that it’s next to impossible to keep anything, no matter how personal, a secret for long.

In Water Signs (and in my own life), as Maddy nervously takes the call in her parents’ bedroom (where she’d mistakenly believed she’d have some privacy), it’s only a matter of seconds before her excited mother and sister appear at her side, with her mother mouthing the words, “invite him over for breakfast”.  And yes, Ken’s reaction in the book is pretty much verbatim to “Ken’s”: In my bathing suit? Are you kidding? I can’t meet your family like that!

Later on, when Maddy is under pressure to end the relationship due to Ken’s lack of a college education, Lori (like Carolyn) takes her side, encouraging her to follow her heart and disregard their mother’s misguided, though well-intentioned, opinion on the matter.

Throughout Part One, Lori remains a loyal sister, a trusted confidant and a voice of reason. Though for dramatic purposes, we don’t see much of her in Part Two until the very end, my own sister continues to be a welcome presence in my life — another great gift from God I know I can depend on.

Happy Birthday, Carolyn! May all of your wishes come true! xoxo

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God and Spirituality in Water Signs, Part One

Front cover of my novel, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal

As in real life, faith and belief in God and spiritual growth play a major role in Water Signs, particularly in the character development of the book’s heroine, Madeline. Like me, she was brought up in a traditional, Catholic home where the family attended weekly mass together, celebrated sacramental milestones (First Holy Communion, Confirmation, etc) and sent their children to parochial school.  One of the things for which I am most grateful to this very day is the solid foundation of faith my parents gave me — along with clear boundaries of discipline. While I never thought of them as being overly strict or too lenient, my guess is that by today’s standards, most kids would view them as “out of touch”.

Given the prevalence of current cultural problems like drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and generally out-of-control, irresponsible behavior,  I consider myself very fortunate indeed to have grown up with parents who cared enough to set and enforce the rules. This responsibility mainly fell onto my mom, since my dad’s work as a surgeon often kept him out of the house during the after-school hours of dinner, homework and play time. Being a strong, independent and determined woman, mom was never one to scold, “Just wait until your father gets home!” when one of us was in need of severe reprimanding. Whenever there was a need for punishment (which, in truth, was rare as we were all pretty good kids most of the time), she had no qualms dispensing it. For me, one warning look from my mother was typically enough to change my behavior. I knew she meant business.

But I also knew her as not only disciplinarian, but as ever-willing helper with school-work, homeroom mother, Home & School Association President, confidante and comforter. Perhaps most importantly, she was also my first spiritual guide who taught me how to make the Sign of the Cross and recite prayers like the Our Father.  And the values imparted in the home were reinforced through 18 years of Catholic schooling — from Montessori to university.

However, our traditional beliefs never stopped us from doing something that I now know many Christians consider the work of the Devil — reading a daily horoscope. Along with the crossword puzzle, my mother and I used to take great delight in checking out that day’s forecast for Aries and Pisces, our respective signs. Never did either of us think of it as anything more than fun entertainment, kind of like a thought for the day. And in no way did it change our beliefs about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit; it was simply an enjoyable activity that became part of our morning routine.

In the novel, the same is true for Madeline. Thus, when she unexpectedly makes Ken’s acquaintance at the Somers Point dance club in Chapter One, she takes no offense when he expresses his delight upon discovering that they are both Pisces. He’s further intrigued to learn that not only do they share the same sign, but also the same exact birthday, down to the year.  As an author, I gave my two main characters the same date of birth to enhance the “star-crossed”, “soul-mate” aspect of the novel, as if to suggest that God purposely brought these two souls into the world simultaneously so that they could experience life in a physical body and aid in each other’s spiritual growth while on Earth. Once they’d finally met each other for seemingly the first time (at least at the physical level), this purpose could be fulfilled. In real-life, “Ken” and I are both Pisces born in the same year, but about two weeks apart.

The Pisces symbol also reflects real life significance in terms of Madeline’s grandmother. In a previous post, I revealed that March 7 — the shared birthday of Ken and Madeline — was actually my maternal grandmother’s birthday. I’d enjoyed an especially close bond with her, having been born several months after my grandfather’s death and thus provided her a much-needed, joyful distraction from bereavement and sorrow. According to my mom, it was almost as if I were her baby, given the way she constantly doted over me. Although she died quite traumatically a month before I turned seven, my remembrances of her are crystal-clear, thanks to the close bond we’d shared, and the many wonderful hours we’d spent together. “Nanny” epitomized everything a grandmother should be: loving, warm, caring and comforting. A stickler for looking her best, she always had her hair done, and wore nice dresses with matching pearl necklaces and earrings. Her best accessories, however, were her ever-present smile and joyful disposition.

Which brings me to perhaps the most controversial element of the book, which is also an event straight out of real life. While still battling panic and anxiety disorder — in spite of embracing just about every known remedy from prayer and meditation to Yoga and exercise — I bumped into a very interesting woman at a monthly business/networking meeting. Trained in what is known in military circles as “remote viewing”, she was in reality what most civilians call a psychic — and many Christians a “handmaiden of the Devil”, although upon first sight, she looked like just another no-nonsense businesswoman.

When Maddy meets Ann Claire in the novel, it’s an accurate retelling of my own experience. Thus, when Ann accurately calls out Maddy’s guilt for “leaving behind a middle brother who is handicapped” (my brother Ralph who is in-between oldest son, Mark, and youngest son, Paul), and notes that she is still “in mourning” for a grandmother who’d passed away over 20 years prior, it’s an example of fact that has only been fictionalized marginally. I might have changed the names and altered the descriptions a bit, but the basic events are 100% true, including the fact that Maddy awakes one morning — six months after a private reading with Ann — to discover that for the first time in years, her head is clear, her stomach is calm and that the black cloud that seemed to relentlessly hang over her head has completely dissipated:

And exactly six months later, Maddy awoke with a clear head, a calm stomach and an overall feeling of excellent health for the first time in nearly eight years. It was as if a black cloud had finally been lifted, leaving a clear, blue sky and a brilliant rainbow in its place. Overcome with sheer gratitude, joy and relief, Madeline called Ann to share the wonderful news, exclaiming, “Ann, thank God I ran into you that night! I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t — I was at my wits’ end!”

“Madeline,” she replied dryly, “You manifested me into your life, don’t you know that? God led you to me, based on your own intentions.”

As was true for me at the time, Madeline doesn’t quite grasp the meaning of that statement until much later, when she takes a course at Unity Church in Delray Beach. She’d been reading Daily Word faithfully for years, having been gifted a subscription by her mother, and had even called their toll-free prayer line on many occasions, without really knowing anything more about the organization. That would change upon meeting the local minister and taking a few classes.

More thoughts on God and spirituality in my 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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