Stories have the power to make us feel less alone, help us better understand the world and curb boredom.
“Four Letter Words: Act One,” a debut novel by Schenectady author Haley Beth Costisick-Unwin, began as a way to keep the latter at bay.
She started writing the book about eight years ago while working at a Piercing Pagoda at ViaPort Rotterdam (or Rotterdam Square mall as it was called then). The business was slow during certain shifts and Costisick-Unwin needed a way to pass the time.
“I would do inventory counts, this and that, talk to any person that would even come near my Piercing Pagoda to say hello,” Costisick-Unwin said. “However, sitting there one day I just decided that I was going to write myself a story because I had a notebook they gave me that morning and I said, ‘Write what you know.’ ”
The story follows Ally Jean, a high school senior living in a fictionalized Paradox Lake, who is facing the recent deaths of her father and brother. Fierce and foul-mouthed yet bubbly, Ally Jean seems to be just marking time until she can follow them. Everything changes when she falls for someone who helps her renew her belief in herself.
The novel is at times heavy, dealing with suicide, addiction, depression and self-harm. However, there’s also plenty of dark comedy mixed in with the dialogue.
While “Four Letter Words” is Costisick-Unwin’s first published book, growing up in East Greenbush, she took to writing fiction at a young age. Her father gifted her a computer when she was around 6 years old.
“. . . for a six-year-old to have her own computer was a big deal, so I had to do something with it besides play Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing,” Costisick-Unwin said.
Thus, she wrote stories, beginning with “The X-Files” fan fiction and “Laverne & Shirley” fan fiction, among others.
“Supplanting myself into fan fiction, into movies, into TV shows has always been my thing,” Costisick-Unwin said. “It’s not passive for me.”
At school, she had an encouraging teacher who read her work and told her to keep writing. For a long time, she didn’t pursue it seriously, however, once she started “Four Letter Words” she was encouraged to stick with it by a co-worker, who asked Costisick-Unwin to read the story aloud to her at work.
“No one asks you that. No one goes, ‘Oh my gosh, would you read to me?’ I mean, you are dying for people to ask you to read to them,” Costisick-Unwin said. It made her realize that she had a compelling story to tell.
From then on, the plot just seemed to fall into place. She tends to write linearly, with a focus on dialogue-driven scenes rather than long-winded descriptions.
“Basically, I hear the dialogue, I hear the characters and if the characters talk, the story keeps going, as long as I keep listening, and every time I hear them I stop what I’m doing and I write it down. It has to come first,” Costisick-Unwin said.
“That is how the whole story came together was just hearing these characters talk, and as long as I kept picking up and rereading what I wrote the day before, I would know exactly where to go. It wasn’t as much ‘How do you plan the story?’ as it was ‘How do you stop?’ ” Costisick-Unwin said.
During that time, she’d write from the moment she got home from work until midnight or later. Even when she wasn’t writing, ideas for the story would pop into her head and she’d stop whatever she was doing to write them down, using anything from receipts to her arm, whatever was available. The intense pace paid off and she completed the book in two years. Yet, for several years after that, the novel existed only as a file on her computer, gathering, as Costisick-Unwin puts it “digital dust.”
Finally, at the start of the pandemic, she signed up for a virtual writers club organized by Karen Hodges Miller, an editor and publisher at Open Door Publications. Costisick-Unwin shared “Four Letter Words” with Miller, who then offered her editing/publishing services.
Though Costisick-Unwin was hesitant at first, her husband encouraged her to go for it.
“He believed in me like he has from the beginning,” Costisick-Unwin said. “He is the best, he is absolutely the love of my life and the inspiration for most of what I do.”
Editing and revising the book came with its own challenges, especially when it came to writing courtroom scenes and others that required hours of research.
“It’s the most fun challenge though. Research for your own project [is] just a reward,” Costisick-Unwin said.
Since the book was published by an imprint of Open Door Publications in January (both in e-book format and paperback), it’s received positive reviews and several readers have reached out to Costisick-Unwin to tell her they enjoyed the story, especially her pop-culture references, which are peppered throughout the story.
The author already has a second book written, slated to be published this fall, and several other books planned out in the series. Each novel will follow Ally Jean during different stages of her life.
While Ally Jean is an original character, she stems from a work of “Clue” fan fiction that Costisick-Unwin wrote as a child.
“She’s been my main character [ever since] . . . She’s always been that name in some variation but the minute that I started writing this and she started talking I was like ‘You’ve been looking for your home since I was six or seven, huh?’ ” Costisick-Unwin said.
Beyond writing the books, Costisick-Unwin put together a soundtrack for the series on YouTube and hopes to someday make a film out of Ally Jean’s story.
“But for right now, [I’m] working on the book series,” Costisick-Unwin said.
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