I have dedicated a fair amount of time recently to studying the craft of writing. I haven't been looking at nonfiction novels filled with guidance about how to create the perfect fill-in-the-blank (character, plot, marketing strategy). I haven't been attending any lectures or going to any classes. I haven't even been reading anything on authors' websites to learn the tips straight from the masters.
I've been studying the old-fashioned way: by reading.
It occurred to me after I plotted out a recently finished novel using my Hero's Journey template, that I have the absolute best job-training research methods available to me. While professionals in other jobs have to read books about their profession or various traits necessary for good job skills (being a good manager, understanding which leadership methods work, and basic on-the-job manuals) I simply get to read.
It doesn't matter what type of fiction I read, so long as I take the time to notice the way the author has put together the elements. What made a character stand out? What made me want to keep turning pages long after my eyes had gotten blurry? What didn't work, dropping me out of the story and making me aware that I was reading black words on an off-white page rather than watching a movie unfold in my mind?
I've been reading mysteries and thrillers lately to understand tension and plot development. There's nothing quite like a mystery to emphasize how key it is to have a well-built storyline. One thing missing, and the reader either learns the killer's identity too soon, or is too confused to care to continue reading. It's a fine level of tension to maintain, a delicate balance of information distribution (including false leads). The same can be said about the suspense of thrillers, especially romantic thrillers. The pace has to fast enough to keep the action immediate, but there also needs to be balance of internal development to complete the character's internal conflict arc.
The key to this "research," of course, is paying attention. I've read thousands of books in my lifetime. I couldn't tell you why some of them worked and others didn't, because I wasn't paying attention—I was too caught up in the story. Sometimes that's how I want it. Reading is still a leisure activity, but that doesn't mean that I can't occasionally learn a thing or two while I'm at it.