How to Fuse Fact and Fiction into a Novel
How to fuse fact and fiction into a novel? Are you familiar with the old adage “Write what you know?”
I don’t agree with it 100% — after all, depending on the genre your book fits into, you may have to conduct hours of research into things you don’t know.
However, when writing and publishing my first novel, Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal back in 2008, I definitely took this advice. Still, I didn’t want to publish a memoir; I wanted to use actual events and people in crafting a (hopefully) compelling contemporary romance.
But how to fuse fact and fiction?
While each author’s situation is unique, here’s a listing of how I incorporated real life into a fictional story:
- The character Madeline Rose is named for my grandmother and mother. Originally, I was going to use “Rose” for Maddy’s middle name, but decided it made an excellent surname for the entire family.
- My confirmation name is Madeline, chosen by me as a young girl to honor my grandmother’s memory.
- The shared birthday of Ken and Madeline, March 7, was my grandmother’s actual birthday. And while the real life counterparts for these characters don’t really share the same birthday, both are Pisces!
- I wrote most of Part One using a different first name for the Ken character — the name of the real life person upon which this character is loosely based. Not wanting to lose any ground, I kept going until I finally settled on the name, “Kenneth.” Thank goodness for the “Find and Replace” feature on Word!
- The name “Water Signs” was chosen for a variety of reasons, the most obvious having to do with Zodiac signs and the coastal locations of the story. However, since water is also a symbol of renewal in traditional religious faith and spiritual practices, the use of water imagery worked well for a 16-year personal growth odyssey. You’ll notice it throughout the book.
- Chapters 21, 22 and 23 were culled from a manuscript I’d written about 10 years ago, and then thrown into a filing cabinet, never to be seen again until I sat down to seriously write the book in March, 2008.
- A keeper of journals for over 20 years, I pulled them out to help me fill in details and flesh out characters, plots and circumstances.
- Though I’ve been fully recovered from panic and anxiety disorder for 12 years, it still pained me deeply to have to go back and read my real life journals, which chronicle that awful period in vivid detail. Though I’d written in them faithfully on a daily basis, I’d never gone back to review them. So pulling them out after all this time was tough. To make it easier, I literally wrote the happy ending — the 2nd half of Part Two — first, then went back and filled in the story!
- Technology progresses along with the novel, so we start off with the new phenomenon of “car phones,” work our way up to cell phones and beepers, and then finally to the Internet and website design!
- To help set the time period from 1992-2008, I employed a lot of great music. During the summer of 1992, Jon Secada’s Just Another Day and Elton John’s The One, were two of my very favorites. You’ll see them and other familiar songs along the way.
- Part One is laced with local Philly/South Jersey references including Herr’s potato chips, Wawa, Tastykake, Turkey Hill, soft pretzels and water ice.
- The Philadelphia Eagles play a prominent role in Part One; the Philadelphia Phillies are mentioned to a lesser extent. With both teams, I tried to highlight the famous Philly/New York rivalries. Therefore, in one pivotal scene it’s the Eagles home opener against the Giants; in another, it’s the Phillies battling the Mets.
- William J. Bennett’s Book of Virtues was actually given to me by my brother Paul (Damian) in 1994. The handwritten note inside the book’s cover that Madeline reads at the end of Part One are Paul’s words, verbatim.
- The flashback scene where Madeline recalls breaking her arm in a football accident with her brothers and cousins is also from real life. My brother Mark (Greg) fell into me while trying to catch a pass, resulting in one nasty fracture. And yes, he really did give me his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album as a way of expressing remorse — a hot commodity at the time! I used to love the sketches inside the cover, especially the one of Marilyn Monroe.
- Damian is Paul’s middle name; Greg is the name of one of my nephews. The name “Louis” has been a nickname for my brother Ralph for as long as I can remember; therefore, I gave his character that name!
- My sister Carolyn reminds me of a close friend named Lori; thus, the name of Madeline’s older sister.
- My dad’s middle name is Joseph and he is a retired general and vascular surgeon. And though in the book Dr. Joseph Rose is a neurosurgeon, the character is pretty true to his real life counterpart in every other way.
- Monica Rose is based on my mom, whose photos as a younger woman remind me very much of Monica Crowley, making it easy to name that character!
- The psychic Ann Claire is based on a real person, someone I actually did meet at a monthly women’s social and business networking organization. Madeline’s interaction with her that evening mirrors my own almost exactly; only her name has been changed.
- Madeline’s conversation by the pool with they guy who asks her if she’d go out with him if he wasn’t married is also (unfortunately) a true-to-life incident.
- One of the best things about being an author is the ability to infuse the characters with personality traits, physical qualities and talents that may or may not exist in real life. For example, Madeline and I are both former ballroom dance instructors, but only Madeline is a professional singer, too!
- The Atlantic City restaurant, Frisanco’s, where Ken and Madeline share their first date is no longer in business. However, it was the setting for the actual date in 1992, along with the boardwalk and Trump’s Taj Mahal. And yes, the rolling chair incident really did take place!
- Les Miserables is my favorite musical, which is why I had Madeline sing On My Own in the theatrical production she participates in with her dance studio in Boca Raton. It also dramatically underscores her circumstances at this particular juncture of the book.
- My dad really does have his pilot’s licence and flew a Piper Cub for years. The aerial route over the Jersey Shore that I describe in the book was one of his favorites, especially when entertaining new passengers.
- I created the beach picnic scene as another method of getting the two characters near water (in keeping with the book’s theme), and a way of conveying a bit of the Philly/South Jersey culture, via the foods they are eating, e.g. provolone cheese from South Philly. This is one scene that is purely fictional.
- I used the fictional character of Erin Mahoney to represent what I perceive to be our culture of excessive self-absorption. While on one hand we have people who overextend themselves — often to their own detriment — in my experience many more are the opposite extreme. Their obsession with self tends to focus exclusively on the physical body and material possessions. Of the three Boca Raton transplants Ken, Erin and Madeline, Erin is the only one who loses sight of her values and becomes enveloped by the “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality.
- Traditional values and a clear-cut sense of right and wrong are deeply ingrained in me, and I wanted my book to reflect that. Madeline does the right thing by hiding her feelings and stepping aside, allowing Ken to make his own decision about his future without any outside interference. Years later, he unexpectedly comes back into her life as a free man, only because he and Erin failed to resolve their conflicts. The dissolution of their marriage is directly attributable to them — and not anyone else.
- I wrestled with a little bit of guilt over employing a psychic to help me overcome panic disorder in real life, but finally resolved it in my own mind as an answer to an oft-repeated prayer. I’ve been free of the disorder for 12 years now, and have absolutely no regrets. It doesn’t change my religious beliefs in any way; however, it is kind of ironic that someone who once feared psychics was actually healed by one!
- The characters of Isabella, Mark, Elyse, Audrey, Carolyn and Robin are all modeled after real people. All names have been changed.
- Sunfest is an actual festival that occurs every year in West Palm Beach. Mark calling Maddy to cancel their date at the last minute is also straight out of real life, as is their first face-to-face meeting in Mizner Park, and their evening at the Acapulco Grill and the Deerfield Beach Fishing Pier.
- Ken’s roommate Kathy is a fictional character I created to set up another contrast between Madeline and other single women in the story.
- Carmen is based on a personal friend, with whom I once taught at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Wayne, PA. While her name has been changed, the rest of the character is true to her real-life counterpart. Carmen also creates a contrast between Madeline and her peers, with Carmen assuming another “big sister” role in Maddy’s life.
- Although the book is loosely autobiographical, it is definitely not a documentary. Not all of Madeline’s experiences are my experiences; some are actually gleaned from various conversations I’ve had with female friends who love to talk about the happenings in their lives!
- Certain elements of real life experience have been embellished and/or used as a springboard to create more drama and intrigue. In many cases, I condensed the time period between events to tighten up the story. For example, Jake’s (based on a real person whose name I changed) phone call asking for forgiveness actually took place several years prior.
- Even the closest families have their difficulties, and mine is no exception; I worked hard to create balanced portrayals while also highlighting the importance of forgiveness — another theme of the novel.
- The Pisces pendant that Ken gives Madeline at the restaurant was just a literary ploy to reinforce the Pisces/water imagery, although I have eaten many meals at The Ship Inn in Exton!
Italian wedding cookies.
Some plot points are left purposely vague. For example, I know of a woman who was raped on the beach by a former boyfriend. To give an added element of drama as well as a contrast between Ken and the rest of the men Maddy encounters, I created Ray Smith, an older guy who takes advantage of her. The point here is not about a crime being committed, but Maddy learning an important lesson about trusting her inner guidance. It also serves later on as a test of Ken’s character and Madeline’s courage.
- Since we are all free to filter literature through the prism of our own biases and experiences, some may interpret the book as a repudiation of traditional values. As the author, I can assure you it is not. Quite the opposite: the true merit in striving to live up to one’s moral foundation lies in the fact that it is difficult. And it’s only through faith, forgiveness and endurance through the trials of life that we become better people and develop a closer relationship with God.
- Although I wanted to, it just wasn’t possible to immortalize every good friend through fiction; likewise, there were some real life events that didn’t make the cut. Good thing, or the book might have been 800 pages!
- The character of Cassie is based on my close cousin, Annie, who was also one of my “test readers” along the way.
- I really did live with family friends when I first moved to Florida. They were wonderful people who opened their home to me for nearly two months, until I got on my feet. My mom really did grow up with the Rita character (last name changed), whose daughter Debbie has been my hairdresser for 14 years!
- Elyse Lombard is based on a very close friend who is very much like another big sister to me. Our friendship grew even stronger as a result of a horrible tragedy — the untimely death of her five year-old nephew from brain cancer. This awful incident is referenced in the story. And yes, in real life, this friend loves to offer unsolicited fashion advice!
- Audrey Solomon is also based on a dear friend with whom I also share a sisterly connection. She’s really a foot and ankle surgeon, wife and mom of two (though her second baby wasn’t born until well after the book was written).
- Water Signs delves into sensitive emotional and physical territory — the kind of intensely personal matters most of us are reluctant to discuss. In addition to panic disorder, Madeline deals with overwhelming insecurites regarding the opposite sex and her own attractiveness; irregular menstrual periods; fear of physical intimacy and even pelvic floor dysfunction. Some of these are “borrowed” from friends’ experiences; some are my own experiences.
- There is nothing gratuitous in my book, though there is plenty of “adult content.” Maddy struggles to live up to her values while trying to date in the modern world and deal with her own grown-up desires. The chapters involving older, divorced man Mark Donnelly are an excellent example of this.
- I debated whether or not to include a consummation scene near the end of the book, but ultimately decided it was necessary in order to demonstrate the physical, emotional and spiritual growth of both characters. Still, I focused on making it more romantic (as opposed to explicit), by incorporating conversation and describing the setting in vivid detail. I am not as concerned about what the characters are doing as I am about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
- Having made the above two points, it was still not easy to reconcile my inclusion of intimate scenes with some members of my family. As an author and an adult, I knew most people would certainly understand and approve; however, as a daughter I was well aware that my parents still think of me as their little girl. I am happy to report my mom loved the book, though she was a little put-off at first. Now she’s my best PR agent!
- The karaoke scene is also pure fiction; however, I used to sing karaoke a lot with some close friends at a little bar in Pompano Beach. Getting up to sing in front of a crowd really was a fear I wanted to confront. Leather and Lace and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around were two numbers I used to perform with the bartender that worked there.
- The nicknames Elyse bestows on Madeline’s parents — “Yaki” and “Tootsie” — are straight out of real life. A few years back, this friend and I took a road trip to Philly to visit my family. Though we were exhausted from the drive, my excited dad, who just loves to take pictures, insisted we view his photo gallery from a recent trip to Italy — thus the nickname “Dr. Yakimoto”, or “Yaki” for short!
- My mom has a very dear friend she calls “Lolly”, short for Lauretta. Amused by the nickname, my friend “Elyse” was inspired to dub my mother “Tootsie” as in tootsie roll and lollypop!
- My grandmother really did leave me her engagement ring, a beautiful antique piece I wear every single day. Though many have suggested resetting it, I have steadfastly refused. And though I’ve worn it for years, I still get compliments!
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