In all of my novels, athletics/exercise is a part of the protagonist’s life. I think that’s because I believe that we, humans, are both body and mind, and wherever possible one of these shouldn’t be neglected in favor of the other. So in The F Words Cole is a cross-country runner. Because I never ran cross-country, I had to learn something about it as I was writing the book. And research is almost always fun.
To learn more about cross-country running for The F Words, I read articles on the sport — general articles explaining what it is and how cross-country meets are scored, what the courses are like. The scoring fascinated me. Each high school cross-country team has seven runners. Each runner receives points equal to the place position of his or her finish. If Cole was the fourth runner to cross the finish line, he would receive four points. The points of the first five runners on each team are added up. In a meet, the team with the lowest total number wins: its runners scored better over-all positions than did those of any other team at the meet.
As I said, I was fascinated by this information — because it immediately became clear to me that, Wow: the members of a cross-country team really have to think in terms of personal best and team best. They have to figure out a way to finish as high in the scoring as they can. At the same time, they have to think about helping their teammates score high, too. Maybe talking to a teammate during the race (in short breaths or grunts, I assume). Maybe finding an opening through which two of them can slip at once.
In The F Words Cole starts out protesting injustice alone. He gains nothing from this. Then his best friend Felipe wants to run for class president. Treva, the new student, steps into the picture and urges that they work together. That’s when Cole realizes the three of them are a team.
Felipe looks around, then motions for Treva and me to step closer.
“We run them on a random loop,” he says, “so nobody knows when the photo they’re in will come up. They’ll be watching all day long, looking for themselves!”
“Brilliantamente!” says Treva, giving Felipe a high-five.
“Brilliante,” he corrects.
The three of us look at each other. We each give a small nod.
We’re a team.
A battle team.
After I realized the connection between cross-country scoring and the importance of teamwork in The F Words, I continued to learn more about the sport. I watched two documentaries on high school coaches and cross-country teams. These were very interesting to me because I got to see tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders racing together on a team, meet after meet — and this was the situation Cole would be in.
In addition to the documentaries, I also watched many YouTube videos. Watching these allowed me to see and hear what the athletes said, how they looked while warming up, while running, how exhausted they got, how the race changed during a downpour, and how large the crowds (mostly family and friends) were. Research is more fun with You Tube videos to watch!
After watching YouTube videos of high school cross-country running and after reading articles on the subject, the other thing I did was ask a friend whose son had run cross-country in high school to read a draft of The F Words and tell me what rang true and what didn’t. Some of the things I had to correct were how the runners got to the meet (school bus? family car?) and what usually happened after the entire meet was done.
Sharon Johnson was, as always, generous with her knowledge, and she also asked her son, Luke Johnson, certain questions about the scenes I had depicted. One of the things that both Luke and Sharon told me was that there’s a lot of snot-expectorating in cross-country. Gross! But fun to work that into the novel.
Before The F Words was ready for me to send out to editors, six or seven different people read and critiqued it. Based on their remarks, they all liked the cross-country running scenes. So I’m glad that my various kinds of research helped make the scenes work. And, cross-country running was a fun subject to learn more about.
What was most important to me about developing Cole athletically is that his interaction with his coach and teammates helps show what kind of person he is, and his determination at cross-country is part of his character. It carries over into other aspects of his life, and certainly into other aspects of the plot.