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Giving Your Character Observational Intelligence

A journalist uses long-honed skills to write investigative fiction.

Key points

  • Lori Foster Duffy is a former investigative reporter who now writes a crime fiction series.
  • A vigilant perspective can highlight the complexities of human situations.
  • Experience and imagination give veracity to investigative instincts.
With permision from L. Duffy Foster
With permision from L. Duffy Foster

Lori Duffy Foster knows the job of an investigative journalist. She used to be one. Now she’s writing a taut crime fiction series that features Lisa Jamison, who has a nose for stories. In Never Broken, for example, when a stranger hides out in her car one day, she hears enough from him to bull her way into a shocking human trafficking situation that puts her and her friends and colleagues in grave danger. But the lives of many helpless people depend on Lisa’s ability to figure out where they’re being held captive.

This is the second novel in the series. I was interested in how Duffy Foster created a sense of what psychologist Maria Konnikova calls “reflective alertness” when she poses Sherlock Holmes as an example of investigative inquisitiveness. Konnikova thinks most of us, by default, have lazy thinking habits, generally more reactive than proactive. That means we’re not great observers unless we make an effort. So, how would an author develop a character with a more Holmesian cognitive attunement? I put these questions to Duffy Foster.

Tell me something about your experience as an investigative reporter.

I began my career as a regional reporter, covering crime and courts in the rural counties east of Syracuse, NY. It was both fascinating and emotionally draining. With only a few police in such large land areas and fire departments that were all volunteer, I sometimes arrived at the scenes before the first responders. It was often heartbreaking and sometimes frightening.

I learned a lot about the mindsets of victims and their families and about the emotional trauma police, firefighters, and ambulance crews endure. I also got to follow through on criminal cases, from the incident to the arrest to a conviction and beyond. I came to know the criminals—their backgrounds and their motivations—which has been extremely helpful in writing fiction.

In the city, crime coverage was different. I focused on following leads and learning about police procedure. I quickly learned that most crime is not random and that most criminals are not bad people. In the end, we are all much more complex.

How did you set about creating your primary character, and how do you get to know her? How did you build in a way for readers to engage with her and maybe even be haunted by her after they've finished the story?

Lisa Jamison, the protagonist in my series, began developing in my mind long before I knew I would write a novel. The seed for her character came from a pregnant 15-year-old I met while covering a fire and was further nurtured by two single moms I worked with at the newspaper. She shares my journalism ethics and values, and we were both on our own at young ages—Lisa at 15 and me at 17—but that is where the similarities between us end. The variety of influences made her unique. I had to get to know her as she interacted in the novel and faced new and different situations. That took a lot of empathy. I think her credibility comes from that empathy, from putting myself in her mindset and trying to understand her motivations.

And what about the significance of keen observational skills for her type of work?

Lisa Jamison avoids stereotypes, probably because of her own experience as a homeless runaway teen. She makes no assumptions about people, so observational skills are critical to her work. She’s not intimidated by difference or power, and she is driven by an innate sense of justice. She is focused and motivated, both by her passion for journalism and her love for her daughter.

With permision from Level Best Books
With permision from Level Best Books

Considering that our brain is wired for story-telling structure, how do you prepare to write a piece of fiction?

For me, writing is visual. I see the story in my mind, and I feel it in all its dimensions. I use words to paint it so others can access that vision or that story. The struggle is in finding the right words, the words that evoke the specific feeling or image. I often close my eyes and visualize scenes before I write. I try to feel and experience them as well.

Do you have any tricks for readers who hope to become writers for sustaining the writing process?

I often tell aspiring writers to see and perceive the world differently when they are able. Instead of describing the color of water, describe the light reflecting from it. Imagine the people you meet in different clothes, in different situations. Imagine your own life if you’d been born elsewhere, into a different financial situation or with a different family structure. Would you still be you? These are things we can do when we are not sitting at laptops, ways that we can continue writing in our minds. Exercises like these can make us more productive when we sit down to write.


Cron, L. (2012. Wired for story. Ten Speed Press.

Duffy Foster, L. (2022). Never Broken. Level Best Books.

Konnikova, M. (2013). Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes. New York, NY: Viking.

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