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.

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

 

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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.

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

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The Evolution of Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal

The Evolution of Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal

One of the questions I am asked most frequently by readers is “How long did it take you to write Water Signs?” Paradoxically, there are two correct answers:

  1. Just under four months; and

  2. Fourteen years.

I originally conceived the title in 1994, as a reaction to some very traumatic, real-life events involving a handsome guy and a relocation to a state about 1,200 miles away from home. To put it in a nutshell, I’d moved under false pretenses, believing the guy (whom I’d met and dated two years prior), was still a.) single and b.) avidly desirous of having me move to The Sunshine State, although I’d initially balked at the idea. By the time I’d found the courage to make such a bold choice, he’d moved on with a “platonic roommate” who turned out to be his betrothed.

Indescribably humiliated, angry, hurt and demoralized, I nevertheless found the strength to view his purpose in my life as a catalyst for positive change — one of forcing me to make some painful, yet necessary decisions which I now realize were vital to my personal and spiritual growth. However, back in the excruciatingly painful reality of late-1994/early 1995, such magnanimous, mature thoughts had yet to take root in my mind (although they soon formed the foundation for my emotional survival).

When he surprised me with an in-person visit to break the “happy” news, every fiber of my being wanted to scream, cry, berate and interrogate to get the answers I knew I deserved. I wanted to tell him I loved him, but could never find the courage to admit it. Instead, I just sat there, unable to articulate a coherent sentence. That is, until he asked me point-blank how I felt about all of this. And in a performance worthy of an Oscar, I smiled sweetly, expressed my congratulations and assured him that — since my arrival in South Florida — my social life had been moving along swimmingly (which was actually true, thanks to some family friends with offspring in my age group, and a determination to create my own social circle). Thus with all the sincerity I could muster, I congratulated him and his bride-to-be, a woman whose acquaintance I was yet to make, but for whom I’d nevertheless felt an obligation.

In my mind, an engagement was a commitment that precluded any interference from past girlfriends. Should he arrive on his own at the conclusion that he and his fiancee were all wrong for each other, and therefore cancel the wedding, that would be one thing. As for me, I was not willing to hurt a woman I’d never even met, simply because he and I couldn’t get our timing straight.  Stepping aside then, was the only moral thing to do.

Somewhere in the middle of all the trauma, an image of my future book, along with its title, Water Signs, popped into my head. While I am not necessarily adept (yet) at the practice of holding an image firmly in mind, I clearly saw a book with the head-to-tail, in-a-circle, Pisces fish immersed in rippling water — hardly surprising since the gentleman and I are both March babies, born about two weeks apart under the last sign of the zodiac. I jotted down some notes in a journal. And soon after, I banished the book, the title and the guy in the deepest recesses of my mind, never to be seen or heard from again. At least that was the plan. I continued to journal, as I’d done for most of my life, but for all intents and purposes, the man for whom I’d uprooted my entire life had never even existed.

Fast forward to February, 2008 — and an odd, amorphous “full-circle” kind of feeling that led me to visit with a local intuitive named Ann, a woman I’d seen about once a year for nearly a decade. During the span of our fifteen-minute conversation, Ann ushered in a flood of unparalleled emotion by uttering one word — the proper name of the man who’d broken my heart so many years prior. It didn’t sink in at first, because I’d always called him by a nickname that’s a natural offshoot of his baptismal name, as had everyone else; additionally, this proper name is also shared by my brother-in-law. Coupled with the fact that I was still suffering from selective amnesia where this person was concerned, it took a bit of clarification before I realized that the man Ann declared was “cycling back in” was the same one I’d deliberately and forcefully sealed off in my mind’s vault, forever. Or so I thought.

And once the floodgates surrendered to the onslaught, a relentless rush of memories overwhelmed me to the point where  the only logical course of action was to prove the age-old axiom, “writing is therapy.” Thus, the “fictional” novel Water Signs began to take form in my mind. And once I sat down at the computer, the words sprung from my keyboard and onto my computer screen without much assistance from me, other than as a diligent typist, dutifully keeping pace with their frenzied demand.

Though I had a full-time job and a 40-minute, round-trip commute at the time, I’d rush home and spend a minimum of four hours every weeknight, and pretty much every waking hour of every weekend creating the story of Ken and Madeline. It was as if an angel was sitting on my shoulder, whispering the words into my ear. At no point did I have to consciously think about where to use descriptive narration versus character dialogue; where to end one chapter and begin another; or even how many pages to comprise each chapter. Although I did refer to my journals to fill in details and retrace my heart-wrenching journey through panic and anxiety disorder (a topic for another post), and even pulled out a manuscript I’d written ten years prior to formulate Chapters 21, 22 and 23, the bulk of the novel originated from a mind and a heart that had finally found the courage to tell a story whose time had finally arrived.

I sat down in March of 2008 with the intention to complete the novel by July 4 of 2008. On June 29, 2008 — my parents’ 51st anniversary, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal, had completed its 14-year trajectory from obscure idea with an intriguing title, to a compelling, romantic novel comprised of 435 pages and 35 chapters.

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