Jason Collins and Writing With Realism

Jason Collins’ announcement today in Sports Illustrated — the first active male pro athlete in one of the major US leagues to come out of the closet — is historic. It also highlights an interesting challenge I had when I was first developing Exeter and the characters — specifically, Dan Reilly.

If you’ve read any of the books, you know Dan is gay. He also was a football player, and in the mid-1990s, he was both openly gay and playing high school football. Dan’s just a year or so older than Jason Collins. Massachusetts is a fairly progressive state, but that’s so unusual as to be implausible, at least on the face of it.  Frankly, if I’d consciously built the character that way… Well, I probably wouldn’t have.

The original story I was trying to tell in what was supposed to be the first book had Dan as a main character, but not THE main character. Ellie was the main character, and at the time it takes place, she’s just moved to Exeter and ended a longtime relationship. I didn’t want readers thinking she and Dan were going to get together. And I read enough fanfiction to know that it often doesn’t matter what the author intends — readers will have their own opinions about character pairings. So I started thinking about the characters and my options.

I knew a lot about Dan at that point, but not his family. (Liz was not yet his cousin — she wasn’t even a townie.) Realistically, there were two options for putting him off-limits. He had to be happily married. Or he had to be gay. (As it turned out, he was both.) I first thought married. But I knew Dan well enough at that point to know that if he was married to a woman, he’d have a few kids by now. And I knew that wasn’t right. So I wondered if he was gay. It took about 30 seconds for me to realize that was the case — it was the missing piece that made the character come alive. Chris came to life later.

But that left me with an interesting dilemma, because I already had the football background in there. I knew enough about his personality to know that hiding something that big wasn’t in character. So then I had to figure out what would make a high school football player come out and play football — and make pretty much everybody else accept that. There’s been some commentary — and Collins himself alluded to it in his essay — making the point that Collins can come out in part because he is such a tough, ferocious player. He defies any stereotype. How does a high school kid get that rep? How did Dan earn enough respect that he could have plausibly done this?

I also knew at this point that the Irish mob was in Exeter. That ended up being the answer. Dan had taken on the mob and won — he’d earned respect from enough people that he wasn’t going to lose it by coming out. Today, a young, gay football player doesn’t need such an extreme situation. But this was in the early 1990s, more than 20 years ago. It had to be an extraordinary set of circumstances. The marsh mess also ended up explaining a great deal more about several other characters, things I hadn’t fully grappled with at that point.

Dan only exists in my head. Jason Collins is the man who actually took this step to come out while playing. I’m hoping what he sees going forward is as positive as the initial reactions. The fact that it took until 2013 for any male pro athlete in a major sport to do so, though, reminds me of why a fictional character had to face down the Irish mob to do something similar in 1991.

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Novel sneak peek coming this week

I’m going to be a bit of a tease today, but I’m hoping you won’t mind. Because chaos at my newspaper job kept pushing back the release date of the first Exeter novel, “All That Is Necessary,” I often get “When is it coming out?” questions.

The book is coming out in January, exact dates to come later this year. But as a thank you for those who have been patiently waiting, the first chapter will be available later this week for free download. Just enough to whet you appetite for the latest adventures of the Exeter crew. There’s a new character you haven’t yet met, plus a chance to catch up with several who appeared in Thrown Out. I’ll post the link this weekend, but if you aren’t sure you’ll remember to check back and want me to send the link directly to you, please leave a note in comments.

Story Cubes Challenge Entry: Into the Future

Two days to go before the first Story Cubes Challenge week ends and I’ve got my ficlet.

Cubes: Hanging, yelling/shouting, pushing, thought bubble, padlock, turning, arrow/pointer, dancing, question mark

Hanging, shouting, pushing, thought bubble, padlock, turn arrow, arrow, dancing, question markInto The Future

“Do I have to dance?” Dan frowned. “Because listening to music is fine. It’s just…” He tapped a calloused finger on the silhouette of the couple dancing on the poster sitting on the table. “I don’t dance.”

“Don’t listen to him, Chris. He’s a great dancer.” Liz grinned, her smile wide across her face. “Better than Evan.” She smirked as her husband crossed his arms.

“Hey,” Evan said. “I haven’t stepped on your toes since high school dances.” He tugged one of Liz’s blonde curls.

Chris watched the three old friends banter and tried to take Dan’s comment at face value. He wouldn’t ask Dan to dance anyway, not in public. That was … It wasn’t worth it. Even after almost two years, he wasn’t sure how much longer this would last, not with grad school ending after next semester. Grief from a bunch of bigots wouldn’t help. But Dan’s reaction was … odd. He debated which question to ask first. “Liz, how do you know how well your cousin dances?”

“He must have danced with every girl at the prom senior year,” she said.

Dan just shrugged. “It wasn’t like any of the guys would dance with me,” he said. “Even Continue reading

Around Town: The Reilly House

Welcome to this week’s Around Town, a series of posts looking at places in Exeter that show up in the series — if not in Thrown Out, then in a future book. This week’s is a little long as we see the Reilly house change through the years as Kevin and Eileen’s family grows, then moves along.

1978

The Victorian is large for the family of four, but Kevin and Eileen hope to fill all the bedrooms before too many more years, and Eileen’s uncle was offering too good a deal for the young couple to refuse. They moved in from the apartment above Kevin’s parents in the triple-decker on the south side of town a few months ago, after Kevin finished the worst of the remodeling. They had hoped to be in before Danny was born, but replacing all the wiring and sealing over the old lead paint took longer than Kevin planned because his contracting business was starting to pick up as Reilly Construction’s reputation for quality, affordable work spread.

Danny has the small bedroom next to Kevin and Eileen’s room on the second floor, the one they knew from the beginning would be the baby room. Continue reading

Meet the Characters: Dan Reilly

As announced last week, here’s the first installment in the weekly Meet the Characters series. Exeter Ledger editor Carl “CJ” Jenkins is interviewing various town residents for a series of profiles in the Ledger and is sharing them with you every Monday. Format for the profiles is lifted from a fairly popular feature in my local newspaper. Also, watch on Thursdays for the About Town series on places in Exeter.

Dan Reilly

Dan Reilly’s a familiar sight around town as he and the other two-thirds of Reilly and Sons handle most of the small contracting jobs in Exeter. An Exeter native, Reilly was a star running back for Exeter High the year the Eagles won the league title and played in the CMass Division II Super Bowl back in 1996. He also ran track, and you can still catch him down at the Park Street Elementary fields on summer nights playing slow-pitch softball.

We caught up with Reilly while he was repairing the Simmons Shoes storefront downtown, which was damaged when a car went off the road last week and smashed into the building.

Full name: Daniel William Reilly. The William is after my godfather, Uncle Billy, my mom’s brother, who was killed in the line of duty when I was a teenager.

Family: Are you sure you have room for all this? My husband, Chris Kimmett, who’s a music instructor up at the college. My parents, Kevin and Eileen Reilly. I’ve got five sisters: Colleen is older than me, and the others — Bridget, Maggie, Brie and Katie — are younger. My brother Mike’s the baby of the family — he just turned 21. Plus a couple of brothers-in-law and nine nieces and nephews. Oh, and Liz and Evan. You have to go back four generations to the first Reillys in Exeter to figure out how Liz and I are related, but we grew up together and she’s married to my best friend, so she’s like another sister, except mostly less annoying. Mostly. Their kids call me Uncle Dan.

Childhood ambition: I wanted to play for the Patriots when I was really little, even though they were bad then. But mostly I wanted to do what I’m doing now: working with my dad at Reilly and Sons, building and repairing things. Continue reading

Story Cubes Challenge Round 9: Now What?

This isn’t truly a Story Cubes Challenge entry because my cubes are at home, but I woke up this morning with some Thanksgiving football plot bunnies hopping madly in my head. If you’re not from Massachusetts, the annual high school Thanksgiving Day rivalry game is hotly contested and a huge town tradition for most schools. Exeter is no different. If you’ve read Thrown Out, this is set the Thanksgiving before. 

Now What?

Thanksgiving Day, 2000

Dan pulled on his coat and left his apartment, shivering a little as the cold air hit his face. He pulled his good gloves from the pockets as he walked across the lawn to the house. The kitchen door was open, and Mom and Maggie were already cooking.

“Brie,” he called, and heard feet thumping down the front stairs. Continue reading

Book 2 Test Drive

I’ve been working on Book 2 in the Exeter series for the past several weeks, and it’s grown from a novella telling about that summer mentioned in Bones of the Past to a bigger, deeper novel about a summer that changed Dan’s life.

To corral the rabid plot bunnies that have been hopping through my brain, I’ve been fiddling with back-jacket copy to keep the subplots from taking over. As part of that, I’m throwing it out there for you to read and let me know what you think. Does it sound like something you’d pick up if you read that on the shelf or Amazon page? Why? Why not? (And if what you read doesn’t sound like the characters you know in Thrown Out, well, there’s a reason this summer was so important in Dan’s life and in Exeter’s past…)

Book 2: Dan Reilly is the most popular guy in school, star running back for the football team. His favorite cousin Liz is the other end of the social ladder and they both go along with that in public. To hide this from new friend Evan, he agrees to explore the forbidden marsh. Now the South Boston mob is after Dan’s family and nobody in town wants anything to do with him — except Liz and a few adults willing to risk fighting back. Dan has to fight the corrupt police chief, the people he thought were his friends and himself to keep his hometown from being torn apart.

I’m looking forward to hearing what you think in comments! And be brutally honest, please!