How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, Part Three

How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, Part Three

Today’s installment draws a comparison/contrast between Water Signs main male character, Ken Lockheart, and Dr. Joseph Rose, the two most important men in heroine Madeline Rose’s life. As I’ve noted in previous posts, both are representations of the American Dream, though generations apart, and both are based on real people who impacted my life to varying degrees.

Dr. Rose (based on my father) is the offspring of immigrants, and a member of that generation that falls in-between The Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers. While he himself had been too young too have served during World War II, like my own dad, he certainly knew of those — including close family members and neighborhood friends — who had. Some of these noble men made the ultimate sacrifice, while others were fortunate enough to have returned home safely after honorably fighting for the cause of freedom.

My father did serve in the US Army during the Korean War, although this real-life fact is not obviously noted in the novel. Nevertheless, I grew up in a home that respected the US Military and celebrated traditional American values, quintessential holidays (Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc), and the right of the individual to pursue any path he or she might desire, whether it entail a career in medicine, law, journalism, engineering, graphic arts or countless other noble fields in which one could put their talents and abilities to their best use.

Although my dad was a practicing surgeon, he never imposed his dream on his children. Like my mom, his fervent desire was for each of us to create the life and career of our own choosing. And though his work schedule necessitated an upbringing in which my mother did the heavy lifting in terms of administering discipline, teaching values and prayers, helping with homework, providing transportation to and from extracurricular activities, planning family outings and parties, and otherwise managing all of the duties associated with raising five children (including one with a handicap), when my dad did arrive home, he was completely engaged in the family. (I will devote a separate post to my mom and her character, Monica Rose, both of whom are quite deserving of their own analysis)

Thus, our dinner (when he was able to make it home in time) conversations always centered on what we learned in school that day, what was going on in our lives and yes — what we wanted to be when we grew up. My response as a young child to that last question typically vacillated between: “I’m going to be a novelist!” or “I’m going to be a journalist!” To which my dad would always follow-up with approval and encouragement (Good thing, too, because although I was an excellent student, my obvious strengths were English and the humanities; math and science were a daily struggle and almost always marked the difference between the achievement of First or Second Honors in high school).

Another aspect of my father I didn’t fully appreciate until old enough to understand the pressures of the medical world (including the pervasive, sometimes devastating impact of trial lawyers and government) was that no matter how tough the day had been, he always came through the front door whistling. More often than not, he’d greet my mother with a cheery, “Che fai, Rosie?” and a kiss upon arriving in the kitchen, where she’d normally be preparing dinner. As a small child, I remember running to the foyer to greet him, where he’d always scoop me up and say, “How ya doing Little Lady?!”

All of these remembrances had their most profound significance in hindsight; I’m not exactly sure why it is so difficult to fully appreciate the gifts you’ve been given (e.g. a stable, loving family) when you’re young. But as I matured and met other peers in high school, college and far-beyond, I began to realize my good fortune of being born into a family that — while far from perfect — had almost been ideal compared with the familial circumstances of others.

Which brings me back to the character of Ken Lockheart. In Chapter Two of Water Signs, Ken completely throws Madeline off-guard by actually following up on his 3 a.m. promise of meeting her at the beach in Ocean City — a declaration made under the influence of an alcohol-induced buzz. He’d driven her back to her car in the nightclub parking lot, after the couple had gone out for breakfast at a local Jersey diner, and stated his intentions with conviction. Without the benefit of pen or paper, Maddy wrongly concludes that while cute, entertaining and interesting, this guy is far from serious about her. Part of this stems from her own insecurity, and part from her inability to let go of a previous hurtful relationship, both of which are explored in the novel in great detail.

After returning home from church much later that same day, Madeline gets the shock of her life when her sister announces that Ken is on the phone, wondering where she’s been all this time, as he’s been waiting patiently for her at the beach as promised. This ultimately results in the extension of an invitation to breakfast with the family, suggested by Madeline’s mother, Monica. After a brief bout with nervousness, Ken accepts the offer and enthusiastically joins in the conversation around the table, amazed by the way in which the Rose family relates to each other. He’s also blown away by their accomplishments, from Dr. Rose to Maddy’s attorney-siblings Greg and Lori, and absent brothers Damian (a pathologist in Nashville) and Louis (the Down’s brother who was working in PA that weekend, staying with family friends).

Later at the beach, he’s even more amazed by how the Rose family welcomes him into their circle, and by Madeline’s ability to express herself intelligently in bursts of enthusiasm and passion on everything from politics to pop culture to sports. I recall conversations from real life in which “Ken” would share his admiration of the way in which my family members ate together, amid sometimes boisterous but always engaging conversation on a variety of topics. With some puzzlement, I’d asked him why this was such a big deal. Didn’t his family participate in the same kinds of activities?

His response was something along the lines of “not the way your family does.” It was a telling example of another seemingly unimportant detail of my upbringing, and one of the first reminders that not everyone I’d meet would share the same kind of family experiences.

In a later chapter, Maddy (as did I) learns of the troubled relationship between Ken and his father, instigated by Ken’s admirable decision to enlist in the US Navy to serve his country, earn money for college and to avoid, in his own words, “turning into a surfer bum.” During an evening spent perusing photo albums from his years in the service, a teary-eyed Ken admits to her that — unlike his supportive mother — his father never once visited him when he was on leave, nor wrote him one letter, although he did show up for the ceremony marking the successful completion of his son’s time in the Navy.

As with real life, “Ken” goes on to simultaneously complete his college degree and find success in the corporate world.

In the novel, I explore the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation through several characters. In this particular case, recalling the tension between Ken’s human counterpart and his father afforded me the opportunity to start with a real-life element and carry it through the entire work of fiction.

Between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day of that same year, “Ken” had spent several days hanging out with my family and me at our home in Pennsylvania. I clearly remember his emotional dilemma on New Year’s Day, wanting to call his parents, yet dreading having to speak to his father — an issue he shared openly with me. After listening for a while, I suggested that he follow through with the call, mostly for his own sake, as it was clearly causing inner turmoil. Further, by doing so, he’d take the high-road, demonstrating respect without actually conceding that his dad was correct in his unfair criticisms of his son. Ken subsequently took the advice and they had a cordial conversation.

Both of these incidents served as starting points to chronicle the evolution of the troubled father-son relationship between Ken and Carl Lockheart. By the book’s end, Carl has developed a healthy respect for his youngest son’s decision to embark upon a dramatically different path than the blue-collar, union card-carrying one he’d initially envisioned for his offspring.

Having spent several years apart from Ken mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically, Madeline is thrilled to discover this incredible father-son milestone when circumstances conspire to bring him and his family back into her life. In a purely fictional chapter, she finally meets Kenny’s parents when she joins him for Mother’s Day dinner at their home, where, among other things, they enjoy a round of karaoke (inspired by my own karaoke experiences with friends at a friendly, Pompano Beach bar). This scene is but one of many examples of coming “full-circle” in the novel, and one of my favorites in terms of the writing process. Unlike me, Madeline has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, which is one of the countless qualities that Ken finds so intoxicating about her.

When I first met “Ken”, the similarities between him and my father were not obvious to me; only in hindsight have I been able to fully see and appreciate them. From overcoming difficult obstacles on the way to achieving success, to possessing an incredibly attractive, genuine love of God, country and family, there are many ways in which Ken and Dr. Rose mirror each other. Yet, perhaps the most significant of these is their shared love for Madeline — one as the man who brought her into the world, and the other as the man for whom she forever alters his.

Preview and purchase Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal on Amazon.com.

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How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, Part Two

How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, 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.

Mom and Dad with Santa Claus — a Christmas Eve tradition – circa 1971.

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.

The early days: Mom and Dad with my older brothers Ralph (on mom’s lap) and Mark.

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 asGermantown, 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.

All five DiGiovanni siblings with our parents.

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.

Preview and purchase Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal on Amazon.com.

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How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, Part One

How To Turn Fact Into Fiction, Part One

Now that we’ve discussed copyright laws, and the obligation to remain mum about your “fictional” characters for legal, moral and ethical reasons, let’s turn to the process by which real people become characters in a novel. This of course, is based on my own experience of writing Water Signs, so the information is purely subjective, and intended as helpful advice to others embarking upon the same kind of adventure.

Since there is so much I want to share with my fellow authors, I am breaking the topic down into several posts; I want to concentrate on specific characters in my book to support my statements.

Photo by Anthony M. Davis.

My novel is infused with many themes: first love; second chances; family; faith in God; personal resiliency and development; patriotism; traditional values vs. modern-day society; reconciliation; The American Dream (embodied by two specific characters, Ken Lockheart and Dr. Joseph Rose); and spiritual growth. Although I explore these themes through the use of characters, plot, circumstances and symbolism, for this particular post, I will focus on characters because it ties in with the practice of basing them on actual people.

So let’s start with my hero, Kenneth Lockheart. Also known as Ken and Kenny in the novel, he is modeled after a real guy I met and dated back in 1992. At the time, he seemed so much larger than life. Even though we were both young adults of 25 (yes, I am giving away my age…:), “Ken” had already amassed so much more life experience, having spent four years in the United States Navy. An outgoing, energetic, intelligent and good-looking man, I was blown away by the fact that he’d summed up his young life and decided if he wanted to go after his dreams of a college education (something his parents could not provide), meaningful career, and eventual wife and family, he had to go after it himself.

While this might not sound so unusual to my readers, as the youngest child of a successful surgeon, whose parents were determined to provide all of their children with a college education, it was a refreshing change for me. My dad, affectionately known as “Dr. Al” on Blog Talk Radio, was the child of Italian immigrants who supported him emotionally, but did not have the financial means to finance his dreams of higher education. Thus, beginning with high school and continuing on through medical school, my father worked several jobs, always grateful for the opportunity to achieve something greater, thanks to the USA (more on that later).

When he became a father himself, Dr. Al was adamant about removing as many obstacles for his children as possible. Thus, I never had to worry about attending college; it was a given in my family that — at the very least — a Bachelor’s Degree would be the path for every DiGiovanni child (with the exception of my exceptional brother Ralph, a Down’s guy who achieved his own remarkable success. More on him later).

Back in 1992, I’d just come out of a very painful breakup with a guy (my first boyfriend) who’d spent a lot of time criticizing me, whether for my fashion choices, hair color or weight (years later, he sincerely apologized and we put the past behind us, which is another plot point in the story). Having come through a challenging adolescence, during which an extra 10-15 pounds made my life miserable in terms of my desirability among high school boys, I was still carrying around the unwanted emotional baggage of this relationship, along with my previous disappointments pertaining to the opposite sex. And although I’d lost most of the weight and had become — in the eyes of most others — a beautiful, sweet and attractive young woman, it was nearly impossible to see myself that way.

Which brings me back to Ken. When we “accidentally” ended up hanging out together at a Somers Point, New Jersey nightclub, I couldn’t reconcile in my mind his interest in me, expressed through conversation, hugs, high-fives and chaste kisses on the cheek. And the more I learned of his independence and self-sufficiency, the more impressed (and somewhat intimidated) I was.

To this day, no man prior and no man after him has treated me with the same genuine respect, admiration and affection. So when crafting the story, I realized that the Ken character had to be larger-than-life, in order to set him up as a stark contrast to the other men Madeline dates in the novel. Thus when readers meet Ken, they see a hard-working, optimistic, traditional, intelligent, and determined young man who believes in his dreams and pursues them with passion. He knows the blue-collar job he’s currently holding is a means to an end, a way to keep himself going financially, save for the future and figure out his next moves.

All of that is true to the real man, along with his physical description. Sure, I could have changed eye/hair color, stature, physical build and place of residence (on this last point, my advice is to stick with the places you know, if indeed your novel is based on real life…what a time-saver!). I chose not to do that. This is obviously a personal decision for each author, but for me, authenticity is paramount. So while I did change the names for all of the obvious reasons, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to his other characteristics.

Now don’t get me wrong: Ken is a flawed human being like the rest of us. It just so happens that, unlike the other men Maddy dates, beneath the flaws remains a deep, consistent, abiding love for her. Therefore, everything he does — including the hurtful, stupid things — are a result of pure, genuine emotion. Readers may scratch their heads over some of his actions, but they will most likely never doubt his love for the story’s heroine.

Pertaining to the theme of traditional values versus modern-day society, Ken is also very much an all-American kind of guy: a patriot and US Navy veteran with a solid work ethic, love of freedom, and fervent desire to settle down with the right woman. Yes, he’s a young gun with all of the usual raging hormones and normal manly desires; however, he’s quickly tiring of the dating game, even as he optimistically searches for his perfect woman. Marriage is foremost in his mind — not meaningless hook-ups that regrettably characterize our current culture. And when he meets Madeline — a traditional woman in every way, he knows his search is over.

He’s blown away by the three things:

  1. she refuses to go back to his place for “coffee” after the club closes at 2 a.m.;
  2. she’s not been with anyone in the Biblical sense, something he’d long given up on finding and;
  3. she’s planning on attending mass the next day, he realizes she’s a cut above the typical dating scene, and the women he’s previously encountered.

Of course, these qualities also become a source of conflict, particularly because Madeline lags behind a bit in terms of her own emotional maturity. While she’s adamant about upholding the values with which she’s been raised, the thought of marriage — and everything it entails with respect to physical intimacy — is incredibly frightening. She’s still struggling with body image and a fear of the unknown, a reality she has tremendous difficulty verbalizing to the man who stares at her adoringly and thinks everything she does is wonderful.

Ok, back to some specifics in fashioning Ken after his real-life inspiration.

As I mentioned, I remained true to his physical characteristics and personality traits. As much as I could recall through my journals and my memory, I recreated the townhouse he owned in Somers Point, NJ and I retraced some of the steps we’d taken on the Atlantic City boardwalk and toward Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, on our way to watch a live Eagles game.

Thus Ken and Maddy’s first date at Frisanco’s (a restaurant no longer in business), subsequent stroll on the A.C. boardwalk and eventual first kiss high atop the Trump Taj Mahal are all straight from real life. Other things are not, but were created with the book’s themes in mind. In keeping with the title, I placed my characters by water as often as possible. Therefore, in one of my early chapters, Ken surprises Madeline with a private beach picnic in Ventnor City. Did this really happen? No, but it certainly is something that could have happened, and it provided me a wonderful opportunity as an author to delve further into my characters’ feelings, motivations and outlook.

Other examples of things I did not alter: Ken’s birthplace, zodiac sign (the real guy and me are both Pisces), high school, family (both the real guy and me are the youngest in our respective families), faith (both the real guy and me were raised Catholic), marriage to another woman, and ultimate success in the corporate world. The reasons for this are varied — the shared Pisces sign, for example, ties in with water, which symbolizes renewal and emotions, the foundation of the story.

Examples of things altered:

Unlike the real guy and me, Ken and Madeline share the exact same birthday of March 7, 1967. This supports the “soul mate”, spirituality, and metaphysical aspects of the book. In real life, we’re about two weeks apart, although both born in March. March 7 was chosen to honor my real grandmother’s birth, since she plays an integral part in the plot, albeit from the other side of life.

As I’ve previously stated, the name “Kenneth Lockheart” is completely made up. I needed a first name that would lend itself easily and obviously to shortened versions, thus Kenneth becomes Ken, becomes Kenny. As a side note, I wrote half of the book using the guy’s real first name as it took me that long to settle on a fictional one!

Ken and Maddy’s date at The Ship Inn in Exton, where he gives her a Pisces pendant is also a purely fictional scene. However, I’ve shared some enjoyable meals at The Ship Inn with family and friends, so incorporating it into Water Signs was easy to do. It is also relevant by virtue of Ken being a US Navy vet, and the use of water and the Pisces zodiac sign as symbolism in the novel.

Ken’s physical fight with his co-worker that ultimately results in his dismissal from the electric company is another made-up element that helps to advance the story and underscore certain themes. In this particular case, it is the tension between “working class” and “middle class”, fomented by jealousy on the co-worker’s part. It also feeds into Ken’s insecurity of not being good enough for Madeline, having not yet completed his education.

In my next installment, I will expand upon the points I’ve made here. I will also place particular focus on the American Dream theme, with a comparison and contrast between the two most important men in Madeline’s life: Ken and her father.

Preview and purchase Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal on Amazon.com. 

 

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A Lesson from the Five Gifts for an Abundant Life Class: The African Queen

I will get back to my regular posting about the characters, plots and themes of Water Signs, but wanted to take a moment to share some of the lessons I am learning in the Five Gifts course written by Diane Harmony and offered by Unity Church of Delray Beach. The following excerpt is from author Alan Cohen, pertaining to the principle of surrender:

In “The African Queen”, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn are exhausted after a long and grueling adventure down a troublesome river. After overcoming terrible obstacles, their boat is stranded on a dry river bed, inestimably far from the ocean they have fought so hard to reach. Spent, and knowing they can do no more on their own behalf, the couple falls into a deep sleep, prepared to surrender to death. As their eyes close, the camera slowly pulls to an aerial view that reveals the ocean they have sought lies just beyond the next bend, but a few hundred yards away.

Then a miracle happens.

While the couple sleeps, rain comes and in a short time the river begins to flow again. By the time they awaken, the boat has floated to the ocean they believed was many miles away. They were closer than they thought.

You, too, may be just inches from your goal — not the miles you believe. If you have done everything that you can possibly do, it may be time for you to surrender and accept help from above. Self-made millionaire and insurance mogul A.L. Williams called his book All You Can Do Is All You Can Do But All You Can Do Is Enough. We are asked to do only what we can; beyond that, the universe is in charge.

Author Alan Cohen.

Consider any projects or goals you have been struggling over, or about which you feel are fruitless. Write them down on a piece of paper, and place it on an altar. Make a statement of surrender in which you let go of your efforts to make something happen, and entrust the entire process to the hands of a loving God. Like the “African Queen” travelers who made their best efforts and then surrendered, you may find that the ocean is just around the next bend.

Affirmations:

“I have done all I can. Help me to find the peace I seek.”

“I turn my intention over to God, trusting that love will care for me.”

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