On Research: writing what you know (or find out)

Tell me if I told you this story before (that’s a frequent request I’ve begun making of friends, family, and students if I tell a tale one too many times)…


I first became truly obsessed with the sport of soccer during the 1994 World Cup, when I saw the US beat Columbia due in part to an unfortunate own goal by the late great Andrés Escobar. I have been a #USMNT fan then and forever since, although there’s some other club teams I support as well.

That’s been a while ago; Eric Wynalda was a forward for that team, and now he’s a TV and radio pundit looking to run for the US Soccer Federation presidency.

Some years after that, as my love for the sport grew, I began thinking of maybe setting a story in the world of soccer, especially in Europe where the big leagues were, such as the Premier League and Serie A. There was one problem, however; I didn’t know anything about them.

So, that’s where the research comes in.

I’ve often been accused of being one of those people who knows a little something (or a lot of something) about anything you can think of. At the beginning of my fandom for soccer, I knew about Pele, Maradona, the fact there had once been a North American Soccer League (the first one, not the second) in the US that went bust years ago. But that was it. I had no idea about the transfer market, promotion and relegation, the history of soccer in Europe. When I played this one soccer game 10 years ago, I had no idea what they were talking about when they started showing me game schedules for the UEFA Champions League.

But I started reading up on the sport, both in books and online. I read more than a few selections of fiction, like David Peace’s The Dammed United. And I started watching more and more soccer matches. By about a couple of years ago, I felt confident enough to truly start thinking about writing a story based in the soccer world.

“Well, that’s touching,” you might say. “I appreciate those guys like David Foster Wallace who actually go to accounting school to brush up on IRS issues before writing The Pale King. But I’ve got a life? How much is too much?”

Ah, well, that’s what I found myself running into this week. Although some of the writing carnage was my direct fault of being lazy (I’ll post it right after I finish writing this), another part of it was realizing I had written myself into a research hole.

To summarize: My soccer project takes place in Texas. I originally decided to base the book in a fictional Austin suburb and a fictional college in Corpus Christi. My main character’s father is a football (gridiron) coach. I had originally thought my MC would go to a school separate from his dad because of the tension between them, but I realized that didn’t make sense, both from a story standpoint and wanting to keep the character list from mushrooming when it didn’t need to. So I took care of that, but then realized that why would my MC’s family live in Austin when the college is in CC and it’s over three hours to get there by car?

That’s when I had the idea to base everything in Austin and have the MC’s father coach the University of Texas. And that’s when I froze, fam. You should have seen me online with a dozen tabs open from pages on UT’s web site, with maps, academic information, athletic information. I was considering writing about a school that’s famous throughout Texas and the nation. Richard Linklater made Austin a character in his film Slacker, and he’s one of the best film directors there is. I lived in Texas for a few years, but I’ve never been on campus. And I’m planning on trying to make it sound credible?

Eventually, I turned to the Internet for an answer to my dilemma. The majority of advice said it’s easier to plan a vague fictional location than a real life one that its residents care about. The same thing for universities, especially since they can be really sensitive to anything that might put them in a bad light.

So, this is what I decided: The hometown of my MC, where he grew up, is now a fictional north Dallas suburb that remains one of the few enclaves around Dallas resisting cultural diversity. It will keep the old name, however, that was inspired by a few Austin suburbs. The college is a fictional one in a nearby north Dallas suburb, inspired by but in no way derived from colleges such as SMU and University of Houston. I now have a fairly nice and tidy setting for this book.

As for whether I should use the name of an actual Premier League club – I think that’s a conversation that I’ll have later.

Research is great and essential for making your book sound realistic. But it shouldn’t get in the way of you telling the story.


[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Today’s pic comes from Jurgen Vantomme, and you can check his web site out here.] I discovered his work in the blog In Bed With Maradona.

3 thoughts on “On Research: writing what you know (or find out)

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