Once, during a discussion with a fellow author (he was in his 40s) where upon discovering that he couldn’t cook, I asked, “Come on, not at all? Didn’t you ever watch your mom in the kitchen?”
His response shocked me. He said, “In my household, dinner consisted of two things: a can opener and a microwave.”
Days later, I was still thinking about it and imagining what it’d be like to live off of nuked canned food. It’s sad. As a kid, he never had the chance to discover or create a relationship with living growing fruits and vegetables in their unprocessed form, but instead ate things like canned pasta, tinned meats, fruits in syrup, and vegetables in brine.
This got me thinking: what if I had a YA character whose mom was like that? Perhaps it was a single income, single parent household and she worked long hours (night shift) to support her family so there was no time to learn how to cook? Okay, now how can I up the stakes?
What if my hero, Kevin – I’ll make him a talented athlete – thought he was eating better than his mom’s cooking, but in reality, it wasn’t much better? So I thought, what would be worse? Well, what if all he ate every day (meals and snacks) were energy bars, powdered energy drinks, and energy gels (all with artificial imitation flavours)? Themes were developing quickly and I knew I had something here I wanted to explore further. I know people whose diets consist of a lot of powdered protein. Hell, I’ve tried dehydrated/crusty or chalky/chewy protein bars and drinks that left a strange coating in my mouth. They’re disgusting. This was also when something called Soylent, a greyish-beige drink hit the market. It was known to be consumed by video gamers as it apparently meets all the nutritional daily requirements. I’ve never tried it and there’s no way you’ll get me to either.
So how do I take this YA character and his diet and make it worse? That’s when the opening chapter came to me: Kevin fails a gym class food diary assignment and to keep his grades up, so he can score a hockey scholarship, Coach makes him take the cooking component in Domestic Tech for extra credit.
The horror! He has to take a cooking class! If his friends knew about this, they’d tease him badly. So now Kevin’s got a secret.
At the same time I was thinking about this idea, I’d been watching and reading stories that happened to have overweight girls in them and they all seemed similar: depressed, bullied or the bully, comic relief, or abused. Where was the story about a confident girl who didn’t think she needed to lose weight in order to feel good about herself? #bodypositive
Then I wondered, what if Kevin’s got a second secret he’s keeping from his friends:
He likes big breasts, hips and thighs in a society that only reveres big breasts. Everywhere we look, Hollywood, corporations, books, music, fashion, etc., play a massive part in shaping society’s mindset. It’s a barrage of messages, particularly to young people, telling them what to think, act and feel. You won’t be cool unless you use a particular product or wear a certain piece of clothing (sold in X store with limited sizes), or look a certain way. And Hollywood? I was wondering the other day what would have happened in the romantic teen comedy SHE’S ALL THAT if the geeky (so called) “unattractive” artist Laney remained who she was and didn’t get the cliché makeover and it was Zach who had to change, and it ended with them as a couple, but Laney was exactly how she appeared in Act I.
At times, Kevin has a hard time expressing his feelings, finding the right words or trying to process what he’s experiencing, but that’s part of who he is and his quest to understand himself. Sure, it would have been more fun to have him spout poetry like other guys in YA romances, but that would ring false. Falling in love is new to him and knowing that Claire is unacceptable to his peers places his world on shaky ground. If Kevin were an adult with a wealth of experience, I’m sure the novel would go something like this: Shut your face, I’m in love with Claire, I don’t care what you think. The End. But it’s not.
Writing the scenes with Kevin and Claire were a lot of fun. I really dug their energy and positivity. I have no clue if I’ll ever write another romance, but I’m glad this one happened and I hope I get to experience this much joy in the future.