Observation, the easiest way to do research

Over the last week or so I’ve been looking at various aspects of writing, and sharing my thoughts which I pulled together into my little book So You Want To Write. In my writing group this week our focus was on research and observation – I guess it’s a little  bit like the chicken and egg question… do you observe then research and then write? Or do you research then observe to add colour and detail and then write? I guess it’s different at different times and for different purposes but the end activity is always writing!


Observation is the easiest way to do research. Become a people watcher. Become aware of your surroundings and situation. Keep your eyes and ears open for the unusual, the intriguing, the something which might send your imagination racing. Store up what you see and hear either in your head, or in a notebook, log or diary… some people always carry one with them to jot down things which inspire them.

I shared an example (which I have posted here before) of how a simple observation over five or ten minutes, led to a character who led to a story which led to a book:

My head is full of people… the people I’m writing about, the people I’ve written about, odd people who are just wandering around looking for their story to be told, by me!
Where do my people come from?Let me give you an example; many years ago when we lived in Oldham I went to collect our car which had been serviced in a local garage. I went to the office to do the paper work and the man who dealt with me attracted my attention. He was pleasant and polite but rather restrained. I’m always quite chatty, and this man, although he responded briefly, did not make any effort to engage me in conversation, which I didn’t mind.
I had to wait for a few minutes while the car was finished so I sat and leafed through a magazine but I couldn’t help but glance at the man behind the counter. He was about well-built, about six foot tall, handsome in an ordinary not startling way, slightly receding thinning hair and a full moustache. What struck me about him, though, was an incredible air of sadness. He was staring out of the window across the Pennine Hills and he looked almost bereft; a mixture of yearning, loss, and quiet despair… or so my fanciful imagination decided. He was quite unaware of me looking at him, he seemed lost in a sort of reverie.
The door from the workshop banged open and another man came in. He was shorter, wiry, very dark almost blue-black hair, a lively and amused face, full of life and laughter. He and the quiet man were obviously friends as well as colleagues; just the way they chatted seemed to show that they were good mates and the sad man cheered up in his friend’s company. I collected my keys, collected my car and went home, but the sad-faced man remained in my thoughts. Why was he sad? The way the other had behaved was quite normal, not as if his friend had been recently bereaved or was suffering some present trauma… it was as if the quiet man, in times of repose, went somewhere else in his mind, to some other place and some other time which had not been a good experience for him.
Some months later this man had become David Sullivan and his story is revealed in ‘Flipside’.

Here is a link to Flipside so you can read the story of David Sullivan and discover why he is sad:


…and here is a link to So You Want To Write:



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