When Characters Surprise the Writer with CJane Elliott

August 21, 2015

When Characters Surprise the Writer

Hello all! I’m pleased to be back on the Dreamspinner Blog to talk about the release of the third novel in my Serpentine Series: Sex, Love, and Videogames.

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The Serpentine Series books are standalone contemporary novels set at the University of Virginia. Although many characters are in more than one book, each book can be read separately. Sex, Love, and Videogames features Jed Carter, who is the quiet nice guy Pete Morgan takes advantage of in Serpentine Walls. Its other main character is Charlie Ambrose, who is what U.Va. students call a “townie.” Charlie is biracial and grew up in a tight-knit African-American family and church community in Charlottesville. Besides the two main characters, the book is the story of Morocco Ambrose, Charlie’s cousin. She’s transgender and as extroverted as Charlie is introverted. Another extrovert, Jed’s best friend Myesha, rounds out the central cast of characters.

Writing Sex, Love, and Videogames surprised me. I couldn’t get a handle on Jed’s love interest. I thought it was going to be his older brother Kent’s college roommate, Tucker. But the story wasn’t going anywhere with that plot and I was having a hard time getting into Jed’s head. The light-bulb finally turned on when I realized I was again relegating Jed to the sidelines in favor of a more compelling character (Tucker), just the way Jed was relegated to the sidelines by Pete in Serpentine Walls.

With that realization, a character named Charlie emerged: a shy artist who isn’t part of the university crowd. Charlie was white when I first visualized him, but quickly he was in my head as biracial. And his amazing transgender cousin Morocco was right there with him. People think writers plan all this out in advance: “Aha! I know – I’ll have a biracial townie and his trans cousin in the Jed novel!” If I were to show you my first outlines of the story, Charlie and Morocco are nowhere to be found. But once they popped up, I went with it. And it turned out that Charlie and Jed are perfect for each other.

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I grew up in the DC area, which is quite diverse, and have had many close friends of other races and ethnicities. Still, I’m glad Dreamspinner has a Diversity Panel because even though I agree books need diverse characters, I live in fear of being unknowingly offensive or racist or whatever else I have unknowingly done. Members of the diversity panel read my draft and pointed out places where I put my foot in it, thus allowing me to withdraw my foot by hitting the delete button.

I struggled with how to write dialect without being too over the top. (For the record, we DO say y’all in Northern Virginia!) I was informed one of the terms I used to describe transgender was no longer welcome. I read books on being black and gay in the South and books on the transgender experience. I talked to people who live further South than I do about aspects of the culture there. (Did you know “bless your heart” means “screw you” in Southern?)

And all the while, Charlie and Morocco and their family were talking in my head and I knew them. I knew all about them and loved them. I want a Granny Myrt of my own. Or maybe not Granny Myrt until she evolves her beliefs about LGBTQ folks, but an Aunt Tawniece. I want Morocco and Myesha to be my besties and call me “girl.” I want to go out dancing with them and get our funk on.

Jed is still being outshined, because he and Charlie are never going to be as “out there” as Morocco and Myesha. But that’s okay, because Jed ends the story knowing who he is and where he wants to go in life, and having a great guy by his side.

Excerpt:

Jed made it out of the frat house and walked toward the dorm through the crowds of bid-night revelers. He hadn’t thought about how awkward things could get with him and Kent in the fraternity together. Frats meant parties, which meant alcohol and girls. Put Kent in the middle of that, with his “everyone follow me over the cliff” personality, and that was it. Jed was sunk. Dead meat. He’d either have to persuade Myesha to be his beard, or… come out?

Right. Get real.

As if summoned by the gay unicorn gods, Aidan Emery and his merry band of queers appeared, strutting down the sidewalk, laughing and singing. Jed’s insides contorted with jealousy. He wanted to stick out his foot and trip them for daring to be so openly gay and happy about it.

Coming out? To Kent and a bunch of Wahoos in SAE? To the rugby team? To the world in general? No way.

Jed changed course and headed to Lucky’s. He’d thought about going to lift weights at the university gym, but the truth was, he was tired of everything U.Va., with its fraternities, homophobia, and all the rest. He needed a videogame fix. Kent had told him Lucky’s had the best selection in town. The wind picked up, carrying with it a hint of snow. He pulled his coat closer around him and started a slow jog, relieved to be leaving the Grounds and the parties behind.

Ten minutes later, Jed reached Lucky’s, breathing hard but feeling more centered as he pushed open the door. He stopped to survey the scene, having never been there. The place was hopping—people eating, drinking, playing pool and pinball—and there against the far wall were huge screens and sofas for gamers. He went over to scope out the games.

“Let me know if I can help you with anything.”

A handsome black guy stood next to the counter. He gave Jed a shy smile, and Jed smiled back. Zing. Jed had never thought about having gaydar, but this guy set something off in him that said they were playing for the same team.

“Do you have any suggestions?”

“D-depends.” The guy came to stand next to him. He was a couple inches taller than Jed and he smelled nice. Plus he had striking greenish-brown eyes. His nametag read Charlie. “W-what’re you into?”

You. Jed’s cheeks warmed. Damn stupid blushing. “I like Halo, Mass Effect, stuff like that. But I also like fantasy games. I was way into Oblivion in high school.”

Charlie picked out a game and handed it over. “You’d l-like this if you haven’t p-played it. It came out a c-couple months ago.”

“Dragon Age: Origins. Cool. I’ve been wanting to try this one. Thanks.” He followed Charlie back to the counter. “You go to U.Va.?” Jed wasn’t usually this forward in striking up conversations, but something about Charlie—his obvious shyness, his slight stutter—made Jed want to put him at ease. To Jed’s dismay, his question seemed to embarrass him.

“N-no.” Charlie shut his mouth in a grim line as he rang up Jed’s rental.

“Oh.” Jed cast around for something else to say but a bunch of high school kids rushed up to the counter, clutching games. Charlie didn’t meet Jed’s eyes as he handed over Dragon Age and turned to his new customers. “Um, thanks.”

Jed left Lucky’s, puzzling over Charlie’s response. So he’s a “townie.” So what? Oh well. The guy hadn’t seemed all that interested in Jed anyway. He lost himself in reading the game jacket as he walked back to the dorm.

Near Alderman Library, he heard, “Carter, you are so busted!” Bud weaved toward him on the sidewalk. “Where the hell’d you go?”

“Nowhere.”

“Like hell you did. I—oh.” Bud lurched and Jed caught him by one arm.

“Someone’s wasted. You need help getting back?”

“Naw, ’m’fine. But don’t cut out on us like that, boy. I love ya, man!”

Jed watched fondly as Bud stumbled off into the night, then hoofed it to his dorm room.

Time for videogames.

Buy Link for Sex, Love, and Videogames:

http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=6757

 

How to reach CJane Elliott:

E-mail: cjaneelliott@gmail.com

Website: http://www.cjaneelliott.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CJaneElliott

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cjane.elliott

 

Contest:

Answer the question below for a chance to win any book from my backlist of novels and novellas.

Late teens and early twenties is the time when people start to figure themselves out, often breaking away from their family’s idea of them, or going outside of their childhood comfort zones. Jed and Charlie did all of these in Sex, Love, and Videogames. Now for the question:

What was one of your first experiences in your late teens or early twenties where you stepped beyond your childhood comfort zone and started to be an adult? And was it fun or was it depressing?

 

9 Responses to “When Characters Surprise the Writer with CJane Elliott”

  1. H.B. says:

    I think my first experience that made me uncomfortable was staying out really late for a class in Uni. Up to that point I always like to be somewhere in doors that I wouldn’t leave for the rest of the night or with a group of people I know. I had neither that night and walking around a kind of empty building was scary as was the 5-6 block walk home with very few street lights.

  2. CJane Elliott says:

    Hi H.B.! Thanks for sharing that memory. Scary, huh? When I think of some of the things I did as a young adult, I shudder now.

  3. CJane Elliott says:

    I’m working today so won’t be able to respond to your comments right away, but do leave them. I’m curious to hear your experiences. I’ll check back in later. Thanks, everyone!

  4. Sara says:

    I moved 1000 miles away from home to study when I was 19. I left late in August and didn’t return home until Christmas that year. My parents had spoiled me and I had never had to wash my own clothes or made anything but boiling pasta. And where I went to university students live on their own (dorm/mini apartments with a shared kitchen, but your own student/bedroom and bath). During that first semester I lived on pasta, then I realized you can have too much pasta and if I wanted to eat something else I had to learn how to cook. So I learned. I also learned how to balance my economy, so I didn’t have to eat just noodles at the end of the month. Guess I quickly turned into a boring old 19-year old.

    It wasn’t scary exactly, but even though my parents were only a phone call away (and these were the days before cellphones) it felt strange being on your own on a daily basis.

  5. Trix says:

    Grad school was tough…it was at the same campus I’d loved as an undergrad, with teachers I’d known, so I expected it to be a bonus year of happiness. Instead, everything was different. It was a new department, and I kind of felt like they didn’t know what to do with me, plus my advisor undermined my confidence at times. There were some fun moments in between, though, and in the end I did get some use out of it, critical-thinking skills-wise.

  6. CJane Elliott says:

    Sara, I was smiling reading your story! I also learned to cook out of survival when I went away to college. I enjoyed the freedom but I also loved going back home and having Mom cook for me.

  7. CJane Elliott says:

    Trix, that’s interesting how different graduate school was for you compared to undergrad. Glad you survived it!

  8. april says:

    I lost my high school sweetheart to a car accident. I started dating a friend that we had both known for years but was really not for me. I learned to listen to my instincts, he was controlling and demanding and a complete lier. I left him 3 yrs later with my 1 yr old daughter. To make a long story short, she moved back with him at 12 and never
    We have not seen her since.

    She is 26 now and in the military, we are on Facebook but rarely message or post to each other.

  9. CJane Elliott says:

    April, all of that sounds tough. Sometimes being an adult is hard. I’m glad you listened to your instincts and got out of that relationship, though.

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