Monday, September 23, 2013

Sports in Novels

I'm not a sports fan, but somehow sports have found their way into almost all of my novels and stories. I even wrote a baseball story that was accepted into an anthology (that unfortunately the publisher never got off the ground). I'm not sure why I write about sports when I don't follow them, other than the Buffalo Bills, which isn't as much a fandom as a masochistic personality problem. Maybe it's because my brother was obsessed, so I've absorbed so much baseball and football and hockey information that I need an outlet for it. Also, my son is in love with baseball, so I know there are kids looking for sports in their books. But frankly I find it interesting in books for older teens, too, and adults. I think it's because sports players have definite goals and conflicts. (Other than the Bills, I don't know what they're trying to achieve because it's not winning games.)

There's also a nice regionalism about sports, a sense of place. Different countries have different definitions of football. In the US, Northerners care about hockey intensely while Southerners barely acknowledge its existence. A town where a lot of kids play lacrosse is a very different place than a town where a lot of kids play basketball. A girl who devotes hours a day to ice skating has an assumed income bracket (ice time is expensive) and we can assume she lives north of the Mason/Dixon line. Sports don't just reflect character, they reflect setting.

I've read three novels this year where a character was demonstrated to be an outsider because he or she wore a football jersey from a different town. I did it myself. My new kid wore a Red Sox cap in his new California school. That gave him the extra worry that someone would knock it off him or steal it. But he was the kind of person who wore it anyway, and I wanted a reader to know that.

Sports also make a great background for adventure plots. Your character who just fought off two assailants? It's a lot less improbable if he's been on the school football team, practicing for years. But a sports story can be a plot itself. Teams need to learn to work together, swallow jealousies, develop and overcome petty rivalries, fight prejudice, and tolerate others' shortcomings. There's a lot of meat there. Add in parental expectations and scholarships, and the stakes can be incredibly high.

If you're the type of person who fills in character sheets when building your character, why not add a line about sports? How does s/he feel about them, which ones does s/he identify with? Are you going deeper than the dumb jock/mean cheerleader/wimpy nerd stereotypes? If you're the "daydream about your characters" type of planner, imagine them at a baseball game. Are they trying to sneak beer from the concession stand or keeping track of every pitch on an iPhone app?

Lastly, I leave you with some recommendations for novels with sports subplots:

  • Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (YA): a young woman joins the school football team and falls in love with one of her teammates
  • Theft of the Star Tracker by Lisa Tiffin (MG): a rivalry develops between two boys who want to be their team's quarterback that spills over into life off the field
  • The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner (MG): Gianna's love of running helps her through tough family times, even when she clashes with her track teammates
  • Thaw by Monica Roe (YA): an injured teen ski champion stuck in physical therapy has to remake his self-image for a life off the slopes
  • Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena (YA): a half-white, half-Mexican boy trying to find his place within his Mexican family finds friendship and acceptance through baseball games
  • Eliza Bing is Not a Big, Fat Quitter by Carmella Van Vleet (MG): Eliza finds relief from the pressure of ADHD and her family's low expectations by sticking with tae kwon do
  • Gilded by Christina Farley (YA): a young woman uses her championship archery skills to face a Korean mythological figure who has cursed her family

Car and Christy's novels aren't released yet, but you know you want them! Trust me, they're awesome. If you have any other recommendations, please let us know in the comments. Thanks!

-- Kate

Monday, September 9, 2013

Ideas and Old Ladies

Image via Pimthida on Flickr

The other night my daughter and I were catching up on “Project Runway.” I’d been looking forward to it all day. They were just about to start the critiques, when someone knocked on our door. I was very surprised to find my elderly neighbor on my front porch, wearing what appeared to be pajamas.
My neighbor is from Vietnam. She doesn’t speak English and, frankly, can be a bit crabby. (It wasn’t uncommon for her to yell at my three kids when they were younger or to scold our dogs from over the fence.) Clearly, something was amiss for her to come to our door at 9:00 at night. But she was smiling and nodding and motioning me outside.

The woman took my hand and led me to her house. I thought maybe someone was hurt. Several generations live at the house, perhaps one of the young girls who like to play on the sidewalk needed help.  But, again, the old lady didn’t seem frantic. She let go of my hand and twisted her doorknob. 

“Oh!” I said. “You’re locked out.” I’m sure she had no idea what I’d just said, but finally we were getting somewhere.

The old woman took my arm again and began leading me down the sidewalk. And pointing. Did someone in the neighborhood have a spare key? Did she need me to translate for her? 

Then she began pointing up the road and waving around. 

I still didn’t understand what she wanted from me. I pulled out my cellphone, hoping she just needed to make a call. But she waved it away. 

 All I could do was smile and shake my head in what was, hopefully, the universal sign for “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

She was locked out. She was alone. I obviously wasn’t going to leave her outside so I began heading the two of us back to my house and tried to ignore the voice in my head that asked, “What the hell are you going to do with a 90 year old Vietnamese woman all night?!”

But then my neighbor stopped me in the driveway, by husband’s car. She pointed to it, to me and then waved her hand again up the road. 

Aha! Now I got it. She wanted me to drive her somewhere! 

I got my keys, belted the woman in and took off down the road, all the while watching for her frail hand to point which way to go. It may seem selfish, but I hoped wherever she needed to go wasn’t too far. I was already feeling awkward. (I kept wondering what would happen if we were in an accident. I didn’t even know the woman’s name.) 

As luck would have it, she directed to me the next development over. We found the house she was looking for and - huge relief - someone was there. A young man who came out to tell me she could stay there while she waited for someone to bring a key. The woman smiled and said probably the only two English words she knows, “Thank you.” 

As I drove home, I started to think about how ideas are like that little old lady. Sometimes they show up at really inconvenient times and dressed inappropriately. They  desperately want to tell us something, show us something, or take us somewhere. And we stand there, utterly confused. But if we take their hands and trust that the desire to be understood or to understand often gives us great patience, then maybe they’ll take us on an adventure. 

And if we’re really lucky, they’ll give us an opportunity to do something good, to write a book. Maybe for that one kid or teenager who can’t tell anyone what’s wrong. Or who feels locked out from “normal.” Or who is wandering around in their bare feet, needing somewhere safe to go for a while. 

Who knows? That one reader might just be the kid who lives next door.