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New London - Cynthia Rodriguez says she started writing her newly published novel, "Mystic Waters," nearly as soon as she touched down last year for her first deployment in Afghanistan.
"It was my closest link to sanity," says the 23-year-old Rodriguez during an interview at the Public Library of New London after returning from a nine-month deployment. "It got me away from the desert. .... Afghanistan can be so overwhelming."
Rodriguez, an enlisted soldier ranking as an E-4 specialist in the Army's Second Calvary Regiment, says she wrote the novel, released June 19 by Anterior Books, largely during lunch breaks and other free time on her laptop (always first disconnected from the Internet).
She would later email snippets to friends and family who became hooked on the spellbinding story, encouraging her to finish it and find a publisher.
"I need my fix - send me just a paragraph," her friend Simone Barner says she would plead to Rodriguez. "Her book - I could not close it. It's an amazing book."
Last month, the fantasy romance about the conflict between a half mermaid-half human character and a sea witch who torments her reached local shelves, the first book published by Anterior Media. Rodriguez has had three local book signings so far, including one Sunday at Bank Square Books in Mystic.
"To make your dreams come true on your own … there's a deep sense of contentment that follows you," she says in a May posting on her blog at cynthiaarodriguez.wordpress.com, where she included regular updates on her writing progress from Afghanistan (she also kept friends abreast on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter). "I am proud to say I'm a soldier. But I'm absolutely floored by the idea of being called an author."
Rodriguez, a New London High School graduate who also attended Ledyard High School, describes her style as flowery and musical, with a strong penchant for description. She gets in the mood to write certain scenes by playing favorite songs on iTunes.
"There was nothing like walking along the water while summer was shifting to fall," goes one of the passages she shared in her blog. "I pulled my loose sweater closer to my frame and admired the way the water lapped the shore. Looking out into the distance, my hair was billowing against my face. The cold sand didn't bother my naked feet and the fact that the sky was darkening did nothing to deter me."
Rodriguez admits she got lucky in getting the book published.
She queried agents before settling on Rosemi Mederos, an experienced editor from Florida who, as it turned out, also had just started a small publishing house. After working to fine tune the book and getting a few rejections, Rodriguez received a message from Mederos saying she wanted to publish "Mystic Waters" as her company's first book.
"Cynthia's in-depth reinvention of the mermaid lore in the 'Mystic Waters' series is going to be a big hit with fans of paranormal fiction," Mederos says in an email. "Readers will recognize a little bit of themselves in each character but may identify strongly with one character - and maybe even with a different character each time they read it."
While Rodriguez may write fantasy, the stark world of war intruded on her unit in December, when Jesse L. Williams, a soldier who worked in an office beside hers, died in a helicopter crash. By then, she had largely completed "Mystic Waters" and already was working on the sequel, to be called "Chasing the Tide," which she is dedicating to her friend.
The second book, she says, is darker than the first, and one of the main characters dies. She wrote that part of the book, she says, shortly after the incident in which her friend was killed.
"It helped me heal," she says.
Mystic Waters is heavily influenced by Rodriguez's time in southeastern Connecticut, where she grew up in a large family that included a brother and two sisters as well as three stepsisters and a stepbrother. The town after which the book is named, though, is really a compilation of Mystic, Niantic and New London, she acknowledges.
"She was a special child; I knew she would be somebody," says her mother, Cindy Torruella of New London.
"My parents were hardworking," Rodriguez, who when not deployed is stationed in Germany with her husband Juan, says in her blog. "I think I got my drive from them."
A diminutive woman with a wide smile and flowing hair, she recalls being tested in basic training, having to complete an exercise to graduate that required her to crawl in the sand with an M-16 rifle in hand and a barbed wire to skirt.
" I literally had to recite the Soldier's Creed just to find the power to move on," she writes. "And that was the day that I realized just how freaking awesome I could be."
Confronting fear is one of the main themes of "Mystic Waters" and one of the hardest lessons in her life as a soldier. But for Rodriguez, the story is mostly about love and magic and a keen desire to fit in - issues and ideas people in their early 20s are still trying to confront.
Rodriguez's enthusiasm is contagious as she describes her work on the book, which she said led to many sleepless nights.
"As an author, my characters are constantly whispering in my head," she says. "I love them almost obsessively."
While she admits that seeing her book come alive someday as a movie - such as happened to one of her literary heroes, J.K. Rowling - would be a wonderful thing, Rodriguez said she writes for the enjoyment, not out of any craving for fame and fortune.
"Reading is the realest form of magic," Rodriguez says. "I have a soft spot for romance. ... I like books that send out a good message."
Her editor Mederos calls Rodriguez a natural-born writer who "will not be an unknown author for long."