Research vs. Observation: What's Your Preference?

Publish date:

This excerpt comes from Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass.

Writing 21st Century Fiction

Do you research your novels to the point of obsession, or do you not research at all?

Historical novelists are research junkies. Coming-of-age novelists mostly rely on memory. The majority of fiction writers fall somewhere in between: They study just enough so that their settings are accurate and their characters’ occupations feel real. The rest is write what you know.

There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that heavily researched novels
can be lacking observation of the ordinary. Conversely, realistic novels are frequently too ordinary to be fascinating.

To create high impact [fiction], it’s necessary to both observe people as they are and to discover through research that which readers could not possibly know about them and their world. Don’t you love learning new stuff as you read? Don’t you also love it when you totally recognize the characters with whom you’re spending time?

Research means not just getting the setting details right. It means getting
the people right. Have you met a character who was shot with a bullet but wasn’t psychologically changed? Ever run across a protagonist who adapted to his handicap, special gift, or paranormal ability with no trouble whatsoever? Those are failures of research.

Failure to observe people as they are results in overly familiar characters, actions, and emotions; that is, stereotypes, predictable events, and hackneyed prose. It’s a paradox. When you write what you think you should, it doesn’t feel wholly real. When you write from life, characters become quirky and unique.

There’s another dimension of research that’s often overlooked: working out the logic of one’s story events. Just as science-fiction writers work out the logic of their speculative worlds, all novelists need to determine whether the events in their story could really happen in the way that they’re written. If you’re an oncologist, novels probably are spoiled for you when the author screws up the details of chemotherapy. As a kid I was a competitive sailor. In novels that involve sailing vessels, I can always tell when authors are faking it. (The word “rope” is a dead giveaway; sailors don’t use it.) Sometimes the logic to be worked out is even simpler than that.

If you’re naturally an observer, undertake some research to make your story distinctively detailed and imaginatively rich. If you’re a dedicated researcher, get your nose out of the books and notice people. It’s what you uniquely observe about them that will make your characters real. Whichever type you are, make sure that what happens in your story is psychologically authentic and factually credible. While you can’t fool all of the readers all of the time, it’s a good idea to fool most of them as much as you can.

Buy it now!


The “Secret Sauce” Necessary to Succeed at a 30-Day Writing Challenge

In this article, author and writing coach Nina Amir lays out her top tips to master your mindset and complete a 30-day writing challenge.


Crashing Into New Worlds: Writing About the Unfamiliar

Award-winning crime author Stephanie Kane explains how she builds characters unlike herself and navigates their worlds to create vivid and realistic stories.


Plot Twist Story Prompts: Without a Trace

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave without a trace.


Vintage WD: The Truth about True Crime

In this article from July 2000, true crime novelist and former New York Times correspondent Lisa Beth Pulitzer shares with us some key insights for breaking into the true crime genre.


New Agent Alert: Barb Roose of Books & Such Literary Management

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Barb Roose of Books & Such Literary Management) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Evoking Emotion in Fiction: Seven Pragmatic Ways to Make Readers Give a Damn

Evoking emotion on the page begins with the man or woman at the keyboard. Dustin Grinnell serves up seven straightforward tactics for writing tear-jerking stories that make your readers empathize with your characters.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 546

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a spooky poem.


Learn Better World-Building Strategies Through World of Warcraft and the New Shadowlands Expansion

WD editor and fantasy writer Moriah Richard shares five unique ways in which writers can use World of Warcraft to better build their worlds—without playing the game.