It was more like a developing awareness of the similarities between my grandmother, my mother and myself. On paper we could not be more different. And yet, over the years, I began to see a deep similarity in our motives, particularly for the romantic choices we made. In some way, I suppose I wrote this story for my daughter and the children that I hope she will one day have. Perhaps reading Valentine to Faith will set them free of family patterns that they might unwittingly inherit.
I’m embarrassed to say how long ago I began this novel. I kept putting it down to work on pressing projects and family matters. At one point there was a long prequel to the story, which I later cut. Then two years ago, when I had an awful flu that laid me up for six weeks I realized my soul was aching to finish the story. I suddenly realized that, like the main character Angel, my heart would heal if I could finish the tale.
Our heroine Angel has hid the past from her daughter and built their lives upon a lie. When the lie comes to light, Angel must reveal the truth. The stories she writes about the past tie into the heart-opening self-discovery she experiences in the present. During the writing, I played around with various tenses and narration until I settled on the third person intimate author’s voice in the present and Angel’s first person narration of the past.
My family vacationed on Sanibel Island in Florida several times when I was a child. I treasure memories of trailing after my father on the beach while he collected seashells, which were plentiful. I later learned that Sanibel bills itself as “The Shell Capital of the World.” Since the sea goddess and shells are important motifs in the story, what better setting could there be?
As a child, Angel suffered from her parents’ competing spiritual beliefs, with her father’s devotion to the Sea Goddess and her mother’s reverence to God Almighty. When she rejects their ways and binds herself to another kind of savior, her family and community reject her. Ultimately, when she witnesses the downfall of not only her parents, but also the unraveling of her life, she is left broken-hearted and in great danger. In that moment, in order to survive, she closes off the past and bars the way to her heart.
When Angel meets Max, their palpable attraction challenges her to open her heart once more. Long ago she barred the door to romantic longing, hoping to avoid the mistakes of her parents and her grandmother. She has kept faith with this course by refusing the sultry influence of the Sea Goddess. And yet, here comes handsome, thoughtful Max, the new owner of the local shell shop and teacher of the Victorian shell craft of Sailor’s Valentines—a perfect storm of emotional and romantic challenges for Angel.
I don’t know how to describe the process, but it’s very much like falling in love. There is the first blush of acquaintance, a glimpse of certain qualities that intrigue. You want to know more and so begins a dance with the character; his or her strengths and weaknesses come to light. Essentially, you are creating a fictional biography. Sometimes there is a strong visual in your mind or perhaps the light slowly dawns to reveal an image. Place is a key ingredient to character, at least in my process. Our surroundings affect us intellectually, emotionally, and in our bones. Knowing where the character is from and what influenced his or her development might unveil speech patterns or references to flora and fauna, even culinary preferences. Not all of the development process lands on the page but, hopefully, the nuances will create a more interesting, less stereotypical character.
Angel’s father, the Captain, and her mentor, Tilly, were fun characters to write. The Captain’s superstitions about fishing, especially his devotion to the Sea Goddess lend him deep vulnerability. I believe everyone can relate to wanting to his deep need to be saved, even if it leads to his downfall. Tilly already has found salvation and peace through her shell craft. Her gruff, colorful demeanor belies a tender heart. I think we all need a “Tilly” in our lives to point the way at one time or another.
My mother taught me sewing and embroidery and later I learned ceramics. I have always found the process of creating things, whether it’s a dress or a vase or a novel, deeply relaxing and satisfying on many levels. I grew up in Florida where I spent a lot of time on the water and developed a keen interest in seashells. When I first came across a Sailor’s Valentine, I discovered a fascinating marriage of handiwork and shells. I also love stories, especially romantic ones. And what’s more romantic than the history of Sailors’ Valentines? Originally, mariners in the 1900’s bought the shell mosaics in Caribbean ports for their loved ones. Imagine the pride and hope a sailor must have felt while saving his hard-earned money to purchase a Valentine and then carefully transport it across the seas. Perhaps he hoped that the message embedded within would endear him to his beloved when he returned to sea: Be Mine, Ever Yours, Forget Me Not.
The Sailors’ Valentines symbolize the intuitive healing energy that we can access when we are quiet and open. In Valentine to Faith, Angel learns to listen to her inner voice when she first learns the shell craft. Her newfound strength enables her to leave an abusive relationship and move forward in life, even if the one she establishes is based upon a lie. Because she never finishes the work she begins, both the creation of a Sailor’s Valentine as well as the process of self-inquiry, her emotional growth stalls. When she meets Max, who buys the local shell shop and offers a class in Sailors’ Valentines, Angel finds the opportunity to not only open her heart but to finally finish a Valentine.
In a literary novel there are no rules and therefore, they are much harder to write. For example, in genre fiction, such as the detective mystery, certain signposts guide your story, which the reader comes to expect. And while Valentine is a contemporary romance, which incorporates given romantic conventions, the parallel stories in past and present allow for a much wider framework. This latitude required more patience, discovery and time than anything else I’ve written.
Holding the tension tight between the parallel stories of the present and the past, along with related facts, dates and moon cycles, created a big challenge. I had to reveal just enough information through memory before we get into the stories Angel writes about past in order to set up the crisis between mother and daughter. Then, of course, the balance between the revelations of the past and the present danger into which Faith falls required careful plotting, especially because we are nearing the end of the story and the various threads need resolution.
First of all, I hope Valentine to Faith will entertain. Perhaps, also, the reader may see similarities in the way emotional patterns have been unknowingly handed down in his or her own family. Hopefully, this story will inspire patience and understanding for not only oneself, but also our loved ones.
It looks like a curving line that circles round and round in ever widening circumference until finally, one day, I am finished. I’m only half-kidding. Although I work from a skeletal outline, my process is very intuitive. I usually begin with an idea—a what if?—that tugs at my heart and won’t let go until I must satisfy my curiosity. Before I begin writing, I get to know my characters. I must be very cozy with them so that I can hear their voices and feel their concerns.
Don’t talk about it. Keep the lid on the pot and let the steam build until you simply must write it down.
I’m currently working on the novelization of a movie I co-wrote years ago, Déjà Vu, a contemporary romance with mystical overtones. It deals with a subject that continues to fascinate me: is there a soul mate for each of us? What do we do when that person upends our well-ordered lives? Is it worth the risk to follow our hearts or do we fear true love is a myth?