Tag Archives: Les Miserables

Erin in Water Signs: A Boca Babe Embodiment of the Culture of Self-Absorption

More than any other character drawn from my own life in Water Signs, Erin Mahoney Lockheart owes about 90% of her creation more to a stereotype than an actual person. Yes, there is a real fiancée and wife whose acquaintance I’d made many years ago, and those recollections formed a starting point for the character sketch. However, after having spent so many years in South Florida, I felt very strongly about including a commentary about what I call our current “culture of self-absorption”, and it was this desire that led to the evolution of Erin.

Throughout Boca Raton and the surrounding areas, I’d seen, heard, witnessed and experienced enough examples of self-serving, egotistical and superficial behavior to write an entire non-fiction book on the topic.  But since I was penning what would in the end be a triumph of virtue, integrity, traditional values and true love over all sorts of formidable obstacles, I had to find a way to highlight this theme via plot and character. And it didn’t take long to realize that Erin was the perfect vehicle through which to do just that.

So it’s only in the early stages of Part Two that Ken’s fiancée even remotely resembles her real-life counterpart (whose name has been completely changed), although in what is most likely a very dramatic departure from reality, Erin absolutely hates football — one of the many contrasts between her and Madeline purposely created for dramatic reasons. Although Ken confesses his commitment to another woman to Madeline in an earlier chapter (more on that in another post), it’s not until Chapter 24 that readers — along with Maddy, who has reluctantly agreed to attend a BBQ at their condo — meet her for the first time:

From the moment she entered their two-story condo on the fifth floor, she felt a distinctive yet subtle hostility in the air, similar to the one that had greeted her at Kenny’s real estate office awhile back. And though physically attractive with a willowy figure, blue eyes and silky blonde hair, Erin definitely exuded a hard, urban vibe, notwithstanding her impressive career and level of education.

Yet it wasn’t her tough, Philly accent and her rough-around-the-edges veneer that most impacted Madeline; it was her pervasive coldness and attitude of indifference. She barely engaged Maddy in conversation, though Ken’s former flame conducted herself with as much dignity as she could possibly muster under the circumstances. And while Kenny did his best to facilitate the flow of conversation, it wasn’t long before Maddy wished she hadn’t accepted his invitation in the first place. When Erin abruptly excused herself to go to bed — claiming a migraine headache — Madeline resolved to banish all thoughts of Ken and Erin from her mind forever.

In Part Two, Maddy performs her own rendition of this heartbreaking song from my favorite musical, Les Miserables for a local dance studio production.

This incident instigates a thirteen-year, self-imposed, selective amnesia on the part of Madeline, embarked upon for the sake of her own sanity and self-preservation (it’s also a compounding factor in her bout with panic and anxiety disorder). She literally forces herself to forget that either one of these people even exists, just as I did in real life. It was just too painful to cope with, too unbearable to work through, even though, like Madeline, I had many sympathetic shoulders I could’ve cried on (while this isn’t really explored in the novel, I suppose for myself pride was also to blame for my reticence in sharing this devastating news with someone, anyone who loved me).

And since the story is basically told from Madeline’s perspective, that’s the last we see of Ken and Erin for a period of time, while Maddy endures the nadir of her panic and anxiety problem before solving it via a psychic; offers forgiveness to her old boyfriend Jake Winston when he calls out of the blue; and finds some career success via her writing and communications skills.

In Chapter 25, I do provide a bit of foreshadowing and embellishment using an event that truly is straight out of real life:

Taking a seat in a nearby rocking chair, Ken leaned back and closed his eyes as thoughts of Maddy permeated his brain. How was she doing? Had she gotten married yet? Was she still writing? He hadn’t seen a copy of The Good News Gazette in a while, though he’d secretly held onto the copy his mother had brought over to his house just weeks after Bonnie’s birth. That was before Erin had set up a home-based business and taken a corporate position in the creative department of a local cosmetics company.

Paula Lockheart had entered Ken and Erin’s home that morning, armed with a stack of newspapers and magazines, which she’d carefully set down on the coffee table before heading into the nursery. As Ken walked through the living room on his way to make breakfast, a photo of two familiar faces caught his eye. And when he picked up the publication to take a closer look, his heart was filled with pride and longing.

Beneath the headline, “My Brother, My Hero”, and the byline bearing the author’s name, Madeline and Louis smiled back at him, seated at a round dining table. Wow. She’d finally achieved her goal of becoming a published writer. He well remembered the endless conversations — by the ocean, snuggled up on the couch or wrapped up under the satin sheets of his water bed — during which Maddy would eloquently share her dreams for the future. In spite of everything, he still missed that connection.

And much like his real-life inspiration, Ken calls the editor of the paper in an attempt to obtain Madeline’s phone number, only to be dejected when she refuses to give it out. Instead, she offers to share his contact information with her newest writer and allow her to decide if she wishes to dial the number. Skeptical of whether or not she’d actually take the initiative to call, he is thrilled when a few days later, his former girlfriend’s curiosity gets the better of her:

Ken felt the same powerful eruptions within at the sound of her voice, though she gave no indication of her personal status, opting instead to update him about her parents and siblings. Madeline also omitted from the conversation her ongoing struggle with panic disorder, preferring to keep the tone light, so as not to solicit any unwanted offers of help or worse — an invitation to dinner at his home. The last thing she needed was an evening with Ken, Erin and their new baby.

Thus, we’re starting to learn a bit more about Erin indirectly, by way of her husband’s lingering feelings for another woman. Readers already know from Chapter 19 that he’d had some reservations about going through with the wedding, confiding in Madeline that part of his motivation for doing so was that “we didn’t want to live in sin anymore”. And it’s also in this chapter that we get a glimpse into Erin’s personality when he notes how “she kind of depends on me” since most of her co-workers were busy with their own families and social lives. There’s a distinct impression that for all of her high-powered business acumen, Erin is also very high maintenance. This is confirmed (along with their eventual divorce) in Chapter 27 via Paula Lockheart’s internal musings during an outdoor power-walk:

Too bad her former daughter-in-law hadn’t shared that opinion. Oh sure, in the beginning she used him like a security blanket after she’d accepted a lucrative position with an ad agency in Miami and relocated from Atlantic City. Oddly, for such a talented and successful girl, Erin had more than her fair share of insecurities, depending on Ken to provide everything from a social life to a comfortable place to live.

And while he was working hard as a mortgage broker and real estate agent by day, and taking classes in marketing and business at Florida International University four nights a week, she constantly harangued him over stupid things, like buying her the “wrong” gift or not spending enough time together. Paula sighed as she recalled one particular Valentine’s Day, when Ken had inadvertently provoked Erin’s ire by buying her rollerblades — even though she’d been asking for them for months. That had been just one in a series of troubling incidents that should have prevented her son from walking down the aisle.

In Chapter 28, we get Ken’s perspective on his now ex-wife, and the reasons for the dissolution of their marriage:

Then there was the negative influence of the Boca Raton culture. While an exceedingly beautiful city and desirable place to live, Boca’s downside was the extreme superficiality of many of its residents, some of whom held positions of power within the community, from the local paper’s society page writer to the plethora of ambitious millionaires that populated upscale neighborhoods like Broken Sound, Royal Palm and The Sanctuary. While Ken envied no one, content to focus on his own goals, Erin got caught up in the web of botox, breast enhancements and liposuction that characterized the activities of the city’s wealthiest females.

And as her business thrived, so did her vanity, leading her to undergo a seemingly endless parade of plastic surgeries, all to assuage her fears of growing older, and to help her keep pace with the women with whom she networked for both business and social purposes. After almost thirteen years of marriage, Ken didn’t even recognize her — or was it more accurate to say he was just beginning to?

As a direct result of her own self-centered behavior, Erin’s marriage ultimately implodes. For all of his genuine efforts to make it work for the sake of their children, Ken realizes that without her willingness to change, it’s a futile undertaking. For a woman who had it all — a devoted husband, two healthy children, a beautiful home and a thriving career — Erin expressed very little in the way of gratitude, opting instead to focus exclusively on the superficial side of life. Thus, her humble Southwest Philly roots, doting childhood, foundation of faith and hard-earned education are tossed aside for the pursuit of all things material. And in the end, it costs her dearly.

Am I stating as an author that it’s bad to attain things like fancy cars and designer clothes? Absolutely not.

What I am positing however, is the need to keep these things in perspective and not lose sight of what truly matters in life. Ken rises from humble beginnings to find impressive success in the corporate world, but it never alters the person he is inside. He remains faithful to the morals and values with which he’s been raised; the same is also true for Madeline, though materially she is not quite as successful.

To Ken, his children are a top priority; to Erin, they are sometimes an afterthought far behind her own wants and desires (though she does truly love them).  In this society we’re living in and specifically in South Florida, I’ve seen parents, divorced or married, more concerned about their social lives than their own kids’ well-being. I’ve witnessed the substitution of money and material things for time, attention and discipline. And I’ve even watched as middle-aged mothers disgracefully competed with their daughters for the affection of a man, or the wink of a stranger’s eye.

Our current culture seems to have jettisoned the concept of growing old gracefully and dressing appropriately (albeit attractively) for one’s age. Our children are worse off because of it, and it’s well past time for good people to help swing the pendulum back. And I hope through my writing I can positively affect the discussion. In the meantime, I am forever grateful for my upbringing by loving parents who cared enough to spend time with, discipline and educate their children.

Fun Fact: The paper I used to write for was The Happy Herald, though at the time it was called The Happy Times Monthly. And yes, my first published piece was indeed titled, My Brother, My Hero in honor of my brother Ralph (Louis in the book), and featured a photo of us on the front page. If my scanner was working properly, I’d include that same photo here, but instead will post this one of the two of us in Deerfield Beach:

Ralph and I having dinner at Duffy's last summer.

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Filed under Lifestyle, Pop Culture, Professional Experience, Social Media, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal

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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