How To Turn A Real-Life Guy Into A Fictional Hero, Part 2

How To Turn A Real-Life Guy Into A Fictional Hero, Part 2

The process of transforming a real person — in this case, a former romantic interest — into a heroic, fictional character was quite interesting. As I noted in How To Turn A Real-Life Guy Into A Fictional Hero, Part One, memory can be a tricky mechanism. At first, when the floodgates burst open in my mind to overwhelm me with thoughts of the real guy and what had taken place sixteen years earlier — the way he’d treated me, the things he’d said, the way he’d looked, etc. — all I could think about were the good times, and all I could do was cry over what might have been.

I remembered our unusual meeting at the club, his initial attraction to my statuesque girlfriend and the means by which we ended up spending the night dancing and laughing until the 2 a.m. closing time. I cracked up reminiscing about going around the traffic circle to The Point Diner with him afterwards as a compromise, since I’d rebuffed several offers to go back his place for coffee (I didn’t write this dialogue in the novel, but I was apologetic, explaining that although he didn’t look dangerous, I couldn’t take a chance. He just sort of made a funny face in reply, prompting more laughter).

On and on these wonderful recollections went, moving into our first real kiss at the top of the Taj Mahal; a weekend spent going to a dinner theater on Saturday evening, followed by an Eagles game on Sunday; hanging out at his place looking through photo albums from his time in the US Navy; and of course, fighting the internal battle between physical attraction and fear, desire and morality.

And just like Madeline, I simply could not express in words what I was feeling. Thus, the occasions when I’d make him drive me back across the 9th Street Bridge from his bachelor townhouse in Somers Point to my family’s vacation home in Ocean City, where a houseful of people provided the comfort of knowing there would be no danger of caving in to temptation.

Then came the painful stuff: my mom’s uncharacteristic meddling in the relationship simply because the guy had not yet completed his undergraduate degree (to be discussed in a future post) which led me to write a Dear John letter in spite of the facts that I 1) wanted to continue the relationship; and 2) had the support of everyone else in my family.

Ken, after all, had a wonderful sense of humor, an infectious love of life, a quick-wit and obvious intelligence. Moreover, he was cute, romantic, manly and apparently enamored of me. In short, since he was the polar opposite of the jerk who’d dumped me over the phone a few months’ prior, I didn’t quite know how to handle his penchant for regularly telling me I was beautiful, and complimenting me on everything from the way I was dressed to the way I spoke in enthusiastic energy bursts (especially when the topic centered around the Eagles/NFL football and politics).

Then came anger. Anger at myself. Anger that, in spite of years of dating, I’d not yet found, nor married anyone who’d demonstrated the same sort of affection and respect.

Anger at him for also being human and for doing some hurtful and stupid things, like picking a fight with me one summer evening when I casually stated over the phone that I didn’t “care” what time he got off from work — that I would meet him whenever he was done for our date. What I’d meant was that I understood and did not hold against him the fact that he had to work a late shift, and although I perhaps could have stated it better, he did react immaturely. In the end, we made up at the same club where we’d originally met each other. And unlike the book, “Ken” and I danced to Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight that evening, whereas Madeline and Ken partake in a “dance” of a different sort while this song plays in the background in Chapter 34.

And — lest I forget — anger at him for standing me up for a ski date without so much as the courtesy of a phone call (to this day, I have no idea what really happened, but suspect he was already either living in Florida, or in the process of moving south); calling me out of the blue six months later to announce his relocation to The Sunshine State; and withholding the minor detail that his so-called “platonic female roommate” was actually his fiancée (not even coming clean after I’d finally declared my intention to make the move to Florida myself).

Was this payback for hurting him?

I’ll admit, I folded to imposed pressure, which led me to cancel out on attending both a family wedding and a work party as his date, then subsequently break up with him (before we got back together in a sense, a month or so later). So it’s fair to say that we each dished it out as much as we took it. Still, it hit me like a ton of bricks — notwithstanding women’s intuition — the day he showed up at my apartment and confirmed what I already knew in my heart to be true.

This particular portion of the memory reel was akin to watching a tragic movie in which — no matter how hard you might wish for a different ending — the hero succumbs to his illness, or dies valiantly in a dangerous rescue effort on the battlefield. Shedding my selective, 14+ year-old, self-imposed amnesia was not only painful and fruitless on a personal relationship level, it was also quite healing and inevitably useful in a professional sense, as it led to the creation of Water Signs. As I’ve said, writing is therapy. And when people actually like what you’ve written, it’s also unbelievably fulfilling.

While reliving the good, bad and the ugly, I realized that “Ken”, like all people, had his faults. He was not above pettiness, nor was he immune to the foibles of human nature. When his heart and ego were bruised, he responded by bruising back in kind. I doubt he ever expected me to work up the courage to uproot my life “up north” and relocate to a tropical paradise where my only known contacts aside from him were former schoolmates of my parents I’d never even met, but who nonetheless opened the doors of their home to me until I could secure my own living arrangements.

I can only imagine what must’ve gone through his mind as another woman’s betrothed, knowing that a former romantic interest would now be living in the vicinity, blissfully unaware of the truth. This is yet another example of something I had to completely fabricate in the novel — thus fictional Ken embarks on a lot of soul-searching in the wake of Maddy’s unsettling news, going so far as to meet his mother for a heart-to-heart at the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier, during which he expresses his “torn between two lovers” dilemma.

Was this the case in real life? Did “Ken” experience an emotional tug-of-war, featuring conflicting feelings for two distinct women, or was it simply guilt for withholding important information from me?

Who knows for sure, although in another entry I will share some real-life events and conversations that transpired prior to the novel’s publication. We do not always receive clear, genuine answers to every life event and that has been the case for me with respect to this relationship. The best I could do was learn and retain whatever was helpful, uplifting and positive from the experience.

For me, that was creating an amazing network of friends and contacts in my adopted state, and writing my first novel.

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How To Turn A Real-Life Guy Into A Fictional Hero, Part One

How To Turn A Real-Life Guy Into A Fictional Hero, Part One

Although most of my Water Signs characters are inspired by and/or based upon real people I’ve known or met in my lifetime, at some point during the writing process, they took on rich, full identities that extended far and beyond their initial conceptions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of my two protagonists, Ken (based on a man I met in my 20s at the Jersey Shore) and Madeline (based on me, and named for my grandmother and mother).

For the purposes of this particular entry, I want to focus on Ken as an example of how to incorporate some of the qualities, mannerisms and attributes of a real person into a fictional counterpart. To minimize confusion while simultaneously honoring copyright laws, I will use “Ken” when referring to the flesh-and-blood man, and Ken when referring to the character that turns Maddy’s world upside-down in the novel.

Briefly, I met “Ken” when I was a young, somewhat naive woman of 25 (I know for some the “naive” part might be hard to fathom given the age, but I assure you, dear readers, it is the truth). Although I come from a loving, supportive and at times, rambunctious family that encouraged me to go for my dreams and believe in myself, I possessed stubborn, lingering insecurities over being “too fat”, “not good enough” and even “undesirable”, thanks to the normal slings and arrows of childhood and adolescence. Children and teenagers can be very unforgiving of things like an extra few pounds, especially teenage high school boys. Being a sensitive Pisces sort didn’t help either, as I tended to internalize unpleasantness to the point where I would completely overlook reality.

Therefore, even after losing weight and becoming an attractive twenty-something, I still clung to an old, worn-out image of myself that no amount of positive feedback on any of my attributes could break. For example, I’ve been blessed with great skin, mostly due to the luck of the gene pool. But no matter how many times someone would genuinely compliment me on it, it was hard to absorb the truth in what they were articulating; in my mind, paying a compliment — sincere as it might be — was simply something people did to be nice. This tendency only got worse when my first boyfriend, immortalized in the book as “Jake Winston”, continually criticized me for everything from my hairstyle to the way I looked in a bathing suit.

Needless to say, outside of my dad, brothers, other relatives and a few close family friends, I regarded men suspiciously. They seemed to be people who inflicted a lot of emotional pain, interested in only one thing (for which you had to have the “perfect” face and body to qualify). The summer I met “Ken”, I’d just endured a pretty traumatic break-up with “Jake” and was still reeling from the hurtful things he’d said and done, not to mention the cowardly way in which he’d ended our relationship over the phone.

“Ken” — who was so full of life and energy — completely blew me away. The night we unexpectedly ended up together at a dance club in Somers Point (yes, Chapter One is pretty faithful to reality) after my girlfriend “Carmen” (whose character is written exactly as I remember her) trotted off with another female friend and their two Iranian paramours, I amazed myself with my own words and actions — not the least of which was announcing my intention to hang out with “Ken”, rather than go home at 10 p.m. (the thought of being alone in a crowded dance club was tantamount to torture).

After all, he’d bought a long-stemmed rose initially for my exotic friend, not me, when we were moving to the beat on the dance floor to some high-energy tunes. I remember laughing with her, then — as if out of nowhere — seeing this hand in front of her, bearing the delicate red flower with the red devil attached to its stem. I visually traced the path from stem, to bloom to arm, until I finally noticed a tall, muscular, blond guy with a great smile nodding at her. She accepted the gesture, and as they began to dance, I headed back to our cocktail table, half-laughing to myself (knowing her date for the evening was set to arrive any moment), half-annoyed (she already had a date; why couldn’t some cute guy buy me a rose for change?).

So in the parking lot moments later, in the wake of his clearly expressed irritation at “Carmen” (if you already had a date, you damn well should have told me!), it was as if someone else spoke through me when I suddenly 1) complimented him for bringing along an extra shirt, which we’d all just witnessed him change into; and 2) announced in no uncertain terms that I would not be a “fifth wheel”, but would instead “stay here and hang out with Ken” for the night. It’s a testament to my pathetic sense of self-worth at the time that I immediately followed that by asking if it was alright with him, and then breathed a huge sigh of relief when he agreed to the arrangement.

But from that point on, “Ken” was a charming, attentive companion, once I demanded (in a another surprising move) that either he stop complaining about my friend or I was “outta here”! And when he reacted with amusement, instead of annoyance, it intrigued me. In the instant he took my hand and playfully announced, “Then let’s dance!” I knew the rest of the night would be memorable. I didn’t bank on ever seeing him again, mistrusting his obvious interest in me, thanks mainly to the baggage I was still carrying around. And yet, true to his promise, he showed up at the beach the very next day, much to my amazement and my family’s entertainment (Chapter Two humorously recounts the event in vivid detail).

So how does Ken differ from “Ken” and vice-versa?

In the beginning at least, “Ken” like his alter-ego, was incredibly complimentary, affectionate and respectful. He was also the first (and so far, only) guy to marvel at the small size of my hands. When we’d socialized together that night at the club, I remember him picking up one of my hands and kissing it, apparently fascinated. He’d often tell me how beautiful I was, and there were many occasions when I’d catch him staring at me (which of course, made me nervous since I still didn’t see myself that way).

Both men are Pisces, although I changed the birthdays, giving characters Ken and Madeline a shared birthday of March 7, in honor of my late grandmother’s birthday. My real birthday is March 14, but I thought it would be fun to add to the “star-crossed” appeal of the love story by bringing my characters into the world on the exact day, month and year. Thus, “Ken” and Daria are both Pisces, albeit about two-weeks or so apart, whereas Ken and Madeline not only share the same Zodiac sign, but also the same time of arrival on the earthly plane of existence.

Other similarities between “Ken” and Ken: US Navy service, working-class upbringing, Catholic schooling, close relationship with mom, difficult relationship with dad, desire for a better life, trailblazers in their families, passionate, patriotic, well-groomed, athletic, good dancers, fun-loving, smart, handsome, insecure at times, sensitive to a fault on occasion, hard-working, ambitious, strong, family-oriented and in possession of an ingrained sense of duty, honor and responsibility.

Both men hurt Madeline (and me) deeply, purposely and unintentionally, depending upon the circumstance. Both men confessed to “not wanting to live in sin anymore” as at least one motivation for marriage, and admitted (with obvious resignation) to “turning into my father after all”. Both wanted to have their cake and eat it, too in terms of retaining a friendship with Maddy/me after withholding the truth about their commitment to another woman.

Perhaps due to the fact that I am working on a sequel, the differences between fact and fiction have become more pronounced. As Ken develops and expands as a character in Sea To Shining Sea, he gets further and further away from his initial inspiration — a process that began somewhere in the middle of Water Signs. Quite possibly, this occurred somewhere around Chapter 30 or so, when the book started to dramatically transform from a fusion of fact and fiction, into purely fictional territory.

I’ll discuss this in greater detail in another post.

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Water Signs: Countering The Culture of Self-Absorption


No mere love story, Water Signs celebrates the values that made America the “last, best hope on Earth.”

In today’s climate of government irresponsibility, where the same “leaders” who helped cause the economic meltdown (e.g. Chris Dodd and Barney Frank vis-à-vis Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) are not only absolved of all culpability, but actually permitted to retain their posts; and an increasing number of citizens erroneously believe it’s the president’s job to pay your mortgage and put gas in your tank, it is easy to lose sight of the enduring principles upon which our country was founded. Try as I might, in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” I cannot extract anything remotely resembling a health care, employment or housing mandate on the part of the federal government.

Then again, I am a third-generation offspring of a family lineage in which faith, determination and hard work are the only things you need to find success in a free and democratic nation. My relatives are hardly unique in this regard, as America’s Founding Fathers—and most of yesteryear’s immigrants—shared the same philosophy. Their spirit of self-reliance lives on through my book’s main characters, many of whom are based on real-life people.

Take Ken Lockheart, for example. A handsome young man of 18, he wants more out of his life than his sleepy Jersey Shore town can provide. Unfortunately, Ken’s working- class parents are unable to assist with paying for the formal education he so ardently desires. Moreover, his father misinterprets his son’s ambition as a personal insult, threatened by his industriousness, and enraged that he would dare forge a different path from the one set out for him by his three older brothers.

An optimist by nature and a patriot at heart, Ken defies his father by enlisting in the US Navy, where he serves his country honorably. Upon his return to civilian life, he accepts the employment opportunities he discovers—not because they align with his ultimate career goals—but because they offer a means to meet his financial obligations and develop a reputation of accomplishment and reliability, even as he strives to attain something better.

Although he faces formidable challenges, it never occurs to Ken to be envious of others who don’t share them, or to whine to the government for assistance. Having seen first-hand the brutalities of some foreign regimes in faraway lands, it is enough for him to live in a country where anyone can rise above their circumstances through sheer force of will.

When Ken unexpectedly meets the beautiful Madeline Rose, he not only falls deeply in love with the sweet and frustratingly self-effacing young woman, but also with the successful family from which she hails. In particular, Ken regards renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Joseph Rose as the embodiment of notable achievement tempered with affability, humility and sincerity.

Like Ken, Dr. Rose enters life as one of four sons in a blue-collar family, though he faces the added challenge of being a child of immigrants. While the good doctor’s upbringing is filled with love, it is also lacking in the financial resources necessary to pay for college and medical school tuition. But rather than cry about the unfairness of it all, Joseph relies on his own diligence, perseverance and sacrifice, working three jobs while maintaining a stellar academic record. He eventually earns a reputation as a top neurosurgeon in Philadelphia.

Both Ken and Joseph embody the American Dream, a concept that has been completely distorted in modern times, where it is not only commonplace, but completely acceptable to wallow in “victim-hood.”

Personal responsibility, patience and a Higher Power be damned! We want it all and we want it now!

The character of Erin Maloney exemplifies our current culture of self-absorption. Though married to a faithful man and devoted breadwinner who loves her dearly, Erin becomes thoroughly intertwined in the negative aspects of the Boca Raton lifestyle, with its obsessive focus on plastic surgery, designer clothes and extravagant mansions. In a futile attempt to retain her youth by means of endless surgical procedures, she ultimately causes the disintegration of her own family. Of the three transplants to South Florida, she’s the only one who loses sight of her traditional values.

Lastly, in the character of Madeline Rose, we find the internal conflict of desire versus morality, driven by the difficult challenge of honoring one’s moral upbringing while functioning in the contemporary dating world. Exacerbating the situation is her stubborn resistance to seeing herself as the lovely young woman she is, rather than the chubby child and adolescent of her past. Contemporary women’s magazines—none of which seem to reflect her viewpoints as a female and a Christian—only compound the problem by extolling the virtues of casual sex, size-2 figures and artificially enhanced breasts. Yet Maddy stubbornly upholds the high standards that have shaped her very existence.

When presented with a heart-wrenching moral dilemma, she chooses the honorable path, hiding her feelings for Ken so as to avoid hurting another woman. In the process, she inadvertently lays the groundwork for the darkest period of her life. Yet in the end, Maddy emerges victorious by holding firm to her faith in God, nurturing her personal relationships and moving through obstacles with resolve and determination.

Perhaps if America were exclusively populated with citizens like Ken, Joseph and Madeline, economic bailouts, unscrupulous politicians, moral relativism and the looming specter of socialism would be the stuff of horror films, instead of just another day in D.C.

Note: This piece was also published by Smart Girl Nation.

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