Research and Observation

Amy Tan

Lesson time 22:58 min

Get Amy’s tips on how to conduct research and find inspiration in observing the world around you.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Don’t Dig Too Deep • Research Sources • Draw From Your Personal Observations • Meditate on Life • Keep a Journal • Get Brutally Honest • Serendipity in Research


[MUSIC PLAYING] AMY TAN: I love research. I think many writers do, and we all agree one of the dangers of research is doing too much of it. We're obsessed about the subjects that we write about, and that means that we are happy to go into sources of material and learn more about the periphery of information that we might need to know including the facts. We have to get the facts right. So if I'm writing about, say, Shanghai in 1910, I need to go there to, for example, know what kinds of stores were on particular streets. There things that may have been referenced to me before, but I just need to be sure because those names have also changed over time. So that's an example of how detailed you would have to be. But the danger is you can keep doing this ad nauseam. It's part of the joy of writing, but you're going to lose time doing it. So one of the things that I remember happened that was a point of being absolutely ridiculous in the amount of research, I needed to know what a courtesan house looked like. What was the furniture? It happened to be Western furniture. What was the style of the rooms and how it was laid out? Sumptuous Victorian. And then I wanted to know what were the bathrooms like. What about toilets? Where did people relieve themselves? Now we're getting really ridiculous here. Found that out. Then I said to myself what about toilet paper. And that's when I-- I found that out-- and I said to myself later where am I going to reference toilet paper? And so this is the kind of research you can end up doing. What you have to do, though, is put down what do I need to know and where am I going off into a little detour, or is this If you have a deadline, you cannot afford to do that. And yet you have to say to yourself at the same time when you occupy a world, a fictional world, you do want to make it as real as possible. I mean, you ask about those things you would need in a real place, and it enriches your life because you are fully there. But don't get too consumed by research because you lose time in writing, especially when every single page offers you opportunities for research. Just word of advice. Don't go looking for when toilet paper was invented. You don't need it. [MUSIC PLAYING] There are many places you can go for research, for example, the internet. That's an obvious one. That is why we often fall into the pitfall of too much research. It's so easy to access. But if you want to know more about, say, the mindset of people at a particular time, I actually think it's good to read a novel, a novel of manners maybe, you know, that would be the equivalent of a Jane Austen novel but set in that period of whatever country you were writing about. You get to see what social class and social manners are and what you might need to include in your novel. I read fictional accounts of courtesan houses, for example, when I was writing using this setting. It was fictio...

About the Instructor

Amy Tan was 33 before she first explored her voice as a fiction author. A few years later, her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Now she’s showing you her approach to the challenges and joy of self-discovery through writing. Learn how to craft compelling beginnings and endings, find your voice, and embrace your emotional memory to bring powerful narratives to life.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Amy Tan

The celebrated author shares her approach to voice, story, and the craft of bringing narratives to life from beginning to end.

Explore the Class
Sign Up