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More Random Thoughts on the Writing Process

In my last post, I started to delve a little deeper into the fusion of fact and fiction, and some of the literary techniques I employed in penning Water Signs. There’s also a bit of personal intrigue intertwined in the entire experience — things I haven’t previously shared on my blog.

First though, I want to take up where I last left off, namely the reconnection via letter and telephone between the two main characters after a 13-year absence. In the novel, as in real life, the guy made the call upon learning from his mother that a letter had arrived for him at her house — before he’d even had it in his possession. Neither Madeline, nor I had signed a name above the return address on the envelope, but the address alone is (was) apparently enough information for the recipient to know exactly who’d been trying to reach him.

That first night back from Disney, as Maddy listens to the sound of Ken’s familiar voice, even she is taken aback by her reaction:

Nothing could have prepared Madeline for the fireworks that erupted within at the mere sound of Ken’s voice. As if afraid of her thoughts displaying on some sort of celestial cloud for the whole world to see, she moved to the recliner chair in her sitting area, which was located at the extreme front of her home. After listening to his message a few times, she pressed “2” to save it in the archives, and then jotted down Ken’s cell phone number.

“It’s all yours, Mom,” she said as calmly as she could, handing over the cordless before taking her cell and retreating to the privacy of her bedroom.

She’s also cautiously optimistic and admirably pragmatic:

Here it was, nearly 11 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. He’d mentioned specifically that the cell number he’d given her was a business line. Did she dare dial the number now? After a brief internal debate, Maddy decided to go for it. After all, she’d been searching for him long enough. It was high time to just get on with it, knowing that whatever might transpire, she could handle the outcome well. Having successfully overcome truly horrific problems in the past—the most formidable of which had been panic and anxiety disorder, Madeline could now effectively cope with anything else life threw at her. She’d been thoroughly tested and proven incredibly stronger for the experience.

This is another area where real life differs from the novel. Because right after Maddy returns Ken’s voice mail with one of her own, the scene changes to Ken’s bedroom, where he’s lost in thought over the woman he’d first met as a much younger man at the Jersey Shore — and wondering if she’s aware of the fact that he’s now officially divorced. It’s also an example of the novel’s recurring theme of reconciliation:

Yes, he understood the purpose of her card, and it touched him deeply that she felt the need to apologize for past transgressions. And at the same time, he acknowledged that he himself was also guilty of inflicting pain on her. In many ways, he should’ve been the one sending a letter.

Strange also that this particular year had brought her so much clarity; he’d just signed his divorce papers the previous fall. Did Maddy somehow know that? If she had been aware of his marital status, she offered no indication in her correspondence. His last recent search of public records had revealed no information whatsoever, which was understandable, given that his attorney had advised him it could take up to a year for such records to be updated on Internet databases. With no mutual friends or acquaintances to spread the word, Maddy was most likely in the dark. And that made her gesture even more impressive.

Of course, Madeline really has no proof and no reason to believe he’s a single man once again, her psychic friend Ann Claire’s prediction notwithstanding. And to keep the suspense going for the character (unlike the reader), I purposely kept any mention of it out of their conversation the next morning — which is based on the very same one I had with “Ken”:

Neither one of them dared mentioned children, spouses or even possible boyfriends, though Ken had the benefit of near-certainty of her single status, which had been implicitly stated in her letter. Still, he hesitated to ruin the joy of this reconnection by speaking of Erin, even for the express purpose of revealing his divorce. Why remind either one of them of the pain of the past? For now, he’d simply savor this long-overdue conversation with Madeline; he could fill her in on the details of his marital break-up when they finally met face-to-face again.

However, he couldn’t resist “confessing” to Googling her and feeling frustrated when his searches came up empty. His admission sent shivers of excitement down her spine, proving Ann right on yet another point—Ken had ardently wanted Maddy to contact him. The psychic had been adamant about so many things, not the least of which was Ken and Madeline’s ability to “recreate the relationship,” now that he was out of his marriage. And though Ann’s track record had been nearly flawless over the years, Madeline still yearned to hear him speak the words as she held the phone to her ear and paced around her bedroom.

In real life, this was a very warm, friendly and welcome conversation. Like the novel, it did end with a request to get together, though it had been more of a vague “Hey we should meet up for coffee sometime” kind of deal. Unlike the novel, the invitation thankfully never did result in an in-person meeting, for reasons I will share later. In terms of the book, however, to keep up a good pace and heighten the drama, Chapter 29 picks up with a nervous Maddy hastily applying lipstick in the ladies room of her corporate office building.

At this time in my life, I was working as a content writer in downtown Fort Lauderdale for a large financial firm, which provided plenty of inspiration in terms of settings for Madeline and Ken’s long-anticipated reunion. My co-workers and I used to frequent a nice restaurant called The Samba Room, which is actually a popular chain in South Florida. The real Ken at the time was working in Fort Lauderdale also, though not anywhere near downtown. So that gave me the idea of arranging a lunch date for my characters in a place I’d frequently shared good food with work friends. And it’s here where Maddy finally finds the strength and courage to forthrightly ask about his marital status:

That was Maddy’s cue to finally end the suspense. Folding her menu, she set it aside and, leaning slightly forward, politely but firmly demanded the truth. “Kenny, I need you to level with me, please. Look, nothing will ever change the way I feel about you. No matter what you tell me, I will always be thankful for this opportunity to reconnect. It’s so good to see you; especially since there was a time I thought I never would ever again—at least not in person.

“But for my own sake, I want to know right here and now exactly where things stand. Is there a woman in your life whose world would be torn apart if she knew you were looking at me this way? Is it really appropriate for you to say these things, knowing how much I—”

“Madeline Rose! Do you honestly believe I would toy with you like that?” Maddy’s heart leapt in her chest as he went on. “Sweetheart, I told you on the phone I’d been trying to find you. That wasn’t just because I missed an old friend; it was because I realized how much I missed my one true love. Once my marriage ended, I knew I had to at least look for you, though I also knew I was risking a huge disappointment. I mean, for someone like you to still be available—I just didn’t think it was possible. Surely some guy would’ve scooped you up by now.”

Here’s where I couldn’t resist adding a commentary on the dating rituals of this tropical paradise, something about which Ken himself is lacking in experience:

“Obviously, you are completely unfamiliar with the South Florida dating scene,” she smiled as a rush of excitement coursed through her body.

This leads to a renewal of their relationship in every way — emotionally, spiritually, mentally and, eventually — physically (following her acceptance of his marriage proposal in Chapter 33).

But I am getting ahead of myself.

This scene is purely fictional, a product of my imagination, based on real people and places. However as I mentioned in another post, some serendipitous things did occur in real life on the way to getting Water Signs published.

After that initial conversation, nothing much happened for a while. I kept writing my book and nearing its conclusion. And though I’d mentioned it in passing to “Ken” during our initial conversation, as the website began to take shape and I started to mobilize social media marketing efforts, I felt he should know the extent to which he was featured in the novel. That there wasn’t simply a character based on him — there was a character based on him who was the hero of the story. And that the story culminates with his character divorcing his first wife and eventually marrying my fictional counterpart.

In my mind, if he’d already admitted to “Googling” me, what would prevent him from doing it again, knowing I was working on my first book? He’d seemed pretty excited to hear that news — and understanding that certain contents might not go over too well with members of his family (particularly his wife), I figured I’d nip any potential unpleasantness in the bud.

This is where my friend “Elyse” disagreed with my decision, but true to form, I followed my instincts.

More to come in the 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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