The Real People Who Have Inspired My Leading Men

BooksAs I did a few weeks ago, I thought I’d continue this series which was inspired by a fellow writer’s blog whereby he wrote a post about people who have inspired his characters along the way. I loved reading his insights and what informed his writing, so I’m going to continue doing so with people who have inspired some of my own characters in my novels.

Again, I’ll pick three, one from each book.

MICHAEL CONTELLI from BENEATH THE MIMOSA TREE

BTMTNEWCOVER3-17.inddWhen I was little and my grandmother and grandfather (Nanny and Poppy) lived in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, on Myrtle Avenue, I would regularly visit. We didn’t move from New Jersey to Maryland until I was five, and I played with my grandmother’s next-door-neighbor’s child, named Michael, quite often. We would ride our trikes on the driveway and were little playmates.

When my grandmother passed away years later when I was in my mid-twenties and we were at her viewing, a lovely family came up to my mother to pay their respects. When I asked who they were, my mother told me they were Nanny’s neighbors, and that I used to play with their son, Michael. I asked them to show me a picture of grown-up Michael, and they did. He was big and muscular–a grown man now.

As I drove home from the funeral, I was stressing because I had to write a short story for the graduate class I was taking with Dr. Friedman at Towson University. The idea of a short story popped into my head as I thought about Michael and our days together as five-year-old kids. At the time, it begged the question: What would happen if you grew up next door to the person you fell in love with? And what if it didn’t work out?

The resulting short story is called Contelli’s Mimosa (Contelli was not Michael’s last name, I just pulled that one out of the air), and the story caused Dr. Friedman to tell me, as he handed back the story with a grade on it, that I might have a novel somewhere within the pages of that short story and that he hoped that someday I would write it. I trusted this professor more than any other, and he happened to also teach a course called Writing the Novel, which I was never able to take. My loss.

It only took me twenty years and the prospect that I had to write a book as my final thesis for my Masters of Fine Arts Degree (MFA) at National University that pushed me to turn that short story into a novel. Beneath the Mimosa Tree was born, with little remaining of that original short story, as I blew it up and started fresh. Incidentally, that original short story will be featured in my upcoming collection of short stories and poetry coming this summer.

Furthermore, of all the leading men in my novels, Michael is most like my husband, Anthony.

JACK THOMPSON from BASEBALL GIRL

BaseballGirl2018When you work in baseball for a while, you are surrounded by a lot of men, either in uniform or those who work in and around the sport. Jack Thompson’s character is that of a sports reporter with a bit of sadness to his storyline (I won’t tell you and spoil it).

I was friends with a lot of reporters when I worked at the Orioles, as it was part of my job to work with the media. Therefore, you come in contact with journalists on a regular basis. Jack, like many of my characters, is made up of characteristics of many people I know. And, if truth be told, in my younger days, I did go out a couple of times with someone who was a reporter and covered the Orioles, though no romance ever resulted from those interactions.

Therefore, Jack isn’t entirely based on that reporter, but more on what a relationship could be for Frankie with someone who was a really decent guy. That was most important to me overall; Jack had to be someone who had some commonalities with Frankie, which meant he had to be sharp, funny, vulnerable, and somewhat sentimental. I also didn’t want the romance to be only linked up with a ballplayer. I wanted readers to have someone grounded for Frankie, although many people have told me they wish there had been more with Joe Clarkson. 🙂

JOHN SALVIE from INN SIGNIFICANT

I know a couple of people who have served in the military and who have suffered from PTSD. One particular person even allowed me to pick his brain prior to writing Inn Significant to learn a little more about serving our country and being in the military.

John was a tough character to write (similar to Michael Contelli) because John had to be both macho and have his own thing to deal with as he fell madly in love with Milly. He is reserved and ridiculously patient, and I am neither of those two things in real life, so I had to find a way to write this male character who was believable. It’s not always easy writing the male lead because you want him to be realistic and so likable, and yet not be YOU at all.

John is based on a few people I have known over the years, however, his kindness was the one constant quality I wanted to hone in on with him. He may be fighting his own internal battle, but his love for Milly gives him strength and makes him that steady-Eddie she may just need.

That’s it for now.

For more about my books, visit Stephanie Verni on Amazon.com.

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Why I Write, Part II

OliveTreesRain“The rain was beating down hard, hitting the awnings over the kitchen windows. The leaves of our old magnolia tree were drenched and wilting. I wished I could afford a place of my own. My parents had been kind enough to let me stay with them until I save enough money to buy something, but I was beginning to feel anxious. But this I knew for sure—that my house would be just as cozy as my parents, and in the backyard there would be a sprawling mimosa tree like the one in Michael Contelli’s backyard.” ~ From my short story entitled, Contelli’s Mimosa. 1992.

This is how the short story I wrote, “Contelli’s Mimosa,” ended. Twenty-some years later, it became a novel. My first. But we’ll get into that more in Part III.

One such edition of Orioles Magazine.
One such edition of Orioles Magazine.

Twenty-one years ago, I graduated from my first master’s program with a degree in Professional Writing from Towson University. It was a great program for me, and I focused primarily on public relations writing. I’d begun my professional career at The Baltimore Orioles, working in public relations, community relations, and publications. During this time, I was the editor of Orioles Magazine, and we put together Cal Ripken Jr.’s commemorative publication when he broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak. Those were exciting times in baseball, and I was fortunate enough to work there. I primarily wrote and edited nonfiction work—magazine articles that suited the ballclub’s publication.

I did, however, dabble on the side with fiction, though I did nothing with it.

Years later, when I had children and was primarily a stay-at-home-mom working part-time as an adjunct faculty member, I wrote a little on the side, as well. A little poetry and short stories were concocted when I had time, but my number one focus were my children.

When I went back to school in 2009 as I worked toward an MFA degree in creative writing at National University, I jumped in with both feet. My children were older, and I was working as a full-time faculty member at Stevenson University outside Baltimore. The fact that I could totally submerge myself in writing was therapeutic for me, and although I was working full-time, I enjoyed the stimulation of my online writing program. I highly recommend this type of program for writers who can work autonomously and are driven by deadlines and open to constructive feedback. It motivated me, and made me want to become a better writer.

One such outcome of my program was this poem I wrote about Queen Anne Boleyn and her beheading that was ordered by her husband, Henry VIII. It’s one of my favorites because I tried to image how she felt as she was about to be executed and wrote it from her perspective…

Anne Bolyen
Anne Boleyn, played by Natalie Dormer, in HBO’s THE TUDORS.

Anne’s Threnody

I feel the bareness, my little neck,
As I sit in wait, haunted Tower—
Despite my fate, I’m not a wreck
As I wait upon my hour.

Your Grace, the King
Of Thee, I sing!

I shall not contest for fear that she
Will be punished for her name alone;
Pray goodness will guide her destiny—
She, a blessing for the throne.

Your Grace, the King
Of Thee, I sing!

A Calais swordsman, honorable chore!
I shall pardon him with my eyes—
No longer a Queen, but witch and whore,
Pray I’m deaf to my child’s cries.

Your Grace, the King
Of Thee, I sing!

The Boleyn name tainted, dear brother George,
Ill-justice—vile and unnerving;
Vast suffering, torment and wanton scourge—
So unmercifully undeserving.

Your Grace, the King
Of Thee, I sing!

Death is upon me; I shall take my leave
From this earth, from sovereignty—
Meddle my cause* so that some may believe
It was his impropriety.

Your Grace, the King
Of Thee, I sing!

(Note: It is believed that Anne Boleyn, in her speech at her execution, did say, “And if any person will meddle my cause, I require them to judge the best.” (http://tudorhistory.org/primary/speech)).

During this time, I realized even more so than before, that I needed to write, and I reconciled myself with this eye-opening notion: it didn’t matter if I became rich and famous from writing, because writing is what I enjoy doing. And when you enjoy doing something, it’s really quite a sin not to do it.

Finding George: One Teacher’s Profound Effect on Me

This is the original draft, with George’s markings on it, of “Contelli’s Mimosa,” which later became BENEATH THE MIMOSA TREE.

This story begins back in 1992, as I was finishing up my master’s in professional writing at Towson University. I decided to take Writing Short Fiction as my final class—an elective of sorts—in the Professional Writing program. I had selected the public relations track, so this class was taken for fun. I had taken Creative Writing in high school, and had loved it, so I decided to give it a try.

Enter Dr. George Friedman, the professor. His teaching style was one that, to this day, some twenty years later, I try to emulate in my own classroom. There we were, all of us students writing stories, and George would ask us questions, make us think, make us re-evaluate why our character did what he did or said what he said. He made you want to work hard on your writing. I fell even more in love with creative writing that last semester, and I definitely loved George. I kept thinking—how ironic that through this very last class and after eight years of higher education—I reconnected with creative writing, something I wanted to do for me—because of the profound influence George had on me.

You see, it was George who read my piece of short fiction entitled “Contelli’s Mimosa,” a short story about two people who grow up next door to each other, find love, and then lose it.

George handed the story back to me and said, “I like this. It’s good, but you may have a novel here.”

I looked at him and said, “Really?”

“Yes,” he said. “And I hope some day you write it.”

I never forgot it.

George and I had stayed in touch, even through my time at the Orioles. When the Cal Ripken Commemorative book was published and I was the editor of it, George sent me a copy of the book to sign.  After I left the Orioles, George and I lost touch.

This past March, I published the novel that George encouraged me to write those many years ago. It’s now called, of course, “Beneath the Mimosa Tree,” and it was completely rewritten, but always with George’s kind words reminding me that I can and should do it in the back of my mind.

I did it. I thanked George in my acknowledgements in the book. However, I didn’t know how to reach him to send him a copy of the book.

Then…

I was at the Baltimore Book Festival three weeks ago. I was talking with people in the author’s tent, when a lovely lady named Dr. Marilyn Nicholas noticed on my sign that I went to Towson University. She is Professor Emeritus and Lecturer at Towson, and we began to have a lovely chat. She even bought my book (so sweet). Then, I asked her a question.

“Do you happen to know Dr. George Friedman?” I asked.

“Yes, of course! His wife is one of my dear friends,” she said.

My heart stopped for a minute.

“Where is he? I’ve lost track of him after his retirement,” I said.

“He’s in Towson in a new high-rise,” she said.

I was glowing. I couldn’t stop smiling. I grabbed a book and signed it to George.

“Will you give this to him? He’s in my acknowledgements page.”

* * *

Dr. Nicholas did indeed give it to George. And George read my book. This story has come full circle.

* * *

Sometimes teachers don’t know what a profound influence they have had on you. The truth is, if George had never uttered those words to me, who knows if “Beneath the Mimosa Tree” would ever have come to fruition.

So, to wrap this up, here’s what George wrote to me just yesterday in the comment area on my blog.

Even all these years later, all I can say is, I’m glad I pleased the professor.

* * *

Stephanie,

I’m sure this wasn’t the right place to put this, but I tried stephanieverni.com and my computer wouldn’t send it to that location.

I wanted to tell you how flattered I was initially, when I read your inscription and acknowledgments.

Then I READ Beneath the Mimosa Tree and realized how little credit I deserved. It’s an AMAZING first novel–the characters are so flesh-and-blood, Michael and Annabelle are so endearing I found myself DELIGHTED at the end–even though I understood perfectly why Annabelle was so reluctant ten years before.

I’m very proud of you, undeserving though I may be of your thanks, and I look forward to reading more.

Much love,

George Friedman