Journalistic Method: Observation Techniques for Authors (Part 2)

Ronald E. Yates is an author of award-winning historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy.

How can the methods of reporting and writing practiced by professional journalists possibly benefit those who write fiction? After all, the rules of journalism demand that you shape your writing to your material, not the other way around.

The answer can be found in the fundamentals of the writer’s craft: Observation and Research. In journalism research is called reporting but learning how to “see” what is going on around you is the same for both the novelist and the journalist.

It’s called observation.

For the journalist precise observation is one of the keys to accurate reporting. For the writer of fiction seeing the world accurately not only allows you to create vivid descriptions that readers can believe, it can spur the imagination.

For the journalist, the most serious obstacles to accurate observation lie in the mental baggage we all carry—the preconception, the stereotype, the prejudice.

It’s the same for the novelist. The preconceived belief, the stereotype and the prejudgment distort our vision, leading us to see only what we expected to find, instead of what may really be in front of us. No human being can exorcise them, but all writers must learn to identify their mental baggage and check it at the door.

Unlike the journalist, however, authors of fiction can allow their biases to be expressed through the characters they create. The journalist must boil down an anecdote to its essentials, even if some participants or some quotes must be left out. It is dishonest to distort a scene or change quotes to make the anecdote funnier or more pertinent.

In fiction, that is not a problem. However, experienced writers will carefully observe and mentally record a scene so they can incorporate it their narrative. They may alter the scene or the quote or the anecdote to fit