Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 14 comments
I'm a big advocate of talking to real people as part of your routine research for novel writing. Internet research and books can be a good starting place, but these sources can't provide the rich details you need to make certain careers or time periods or phenomenon come alive on the page. You need to tap into eyewitness sources and draw on the experiences and expertise of real people who are intimately familiar with these things.
By George Armstrong, FEMA Library, via Wikimedia Commons

I talk in THIS post about making connections with experts (hint: they are often closer than you think). Today, I'd like to share some very basic tips about how to conduct an interview. These skills are sadly not taught much outside of journalism programs these days.

How to conduct a fiction research interview


  • Begin by breaking the ice. Explain the kind of fiction you write and why you sought out this person’s help. A little flattery can warm up your subject, as can mentioning a mutual friend or acquaintance. 
  • Get the person’s permission to record the conversation, and clarify how you plan to use the information—as background or to lend authenticity to characters, setting, and plot. Many subjects are far more relaxed if they know they aren’t going to be directly cited and/or quoted like in a news story. 
  • Move on to an open-ended inquiry that gets the source talking about his or her favorite subject. 
  • Be sure to ask your most important question early on. If your interviewee is time pressed, they might end up cutting the interview short.
  • Get in the habit of asking basic follow up questions to garner more detailed responses. “Why is that?” or “What do you mean?” can keep the person talking. 
  • Don’t be afraid to ask what might feel like naive questions. Even if you’ve done your homework, there are bound to be new ideas and terms that come up that you’re unfamiliar with. No one person can know know everything. Usually your source will be glad to fill in your knowledge gaps.
  • You might need to keep circling back to a topic if the interviewee hasn’t adequately addressed it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the person is being evasive. Some people need to warm up when discussing a topic, or they’ll respond better if you reword a question. “I’m having trouble understanding what you meant by ____” or “could we go back to ____?” are gentle segues that won’t feel like a police interrogation.
  • Endure awkward silences; they can be beneficial, as counterintuitive as that might sound. When a subject gives you a generic or rehearsed answer, don’t rush to keep the flow going by chattering away and zipping on to the next question. Instead, simply sit quietly and wait. Most of the time, your interviewee will sense you are anticipating more response and will oblige by volunteering more information.
  • Give the subject an opportunity to sum up, or do a final fill-in. Ask, “Is there anything else you think I should know that I didn’t ask about?” 
  • Get permission to e-mail follow-up questions to them, or to a colleague or subordinate. Don’t assume this person can give you all the time in the world. 
  • Express your gratitude for their time and expertise. Follow up with written thanks, even if by e-mail or text message.

Helpful Resource: Garrett, Annette. Interviewing: Its Principles and Methods. New York: Family Association of America, 1982.

Does interviewing as part of your research excite or intimidate you? Why?

14 comments:

  1. Though I don't interview people for research, it is a form of interviewing when I ask the librarian about the stocking of my books, when I ask the world heritage site if I may undertake another book signing there, and all your suggestions are helpful.

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    1. I've found that talking to experts can save a lot of time over reading or trying to hunt down information online.

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    1. It's a bit passive, unless you're actually posting questions on the person's wall from time to time. I have had some good success doing e-mail exchange interviews, though. Shy types might like trying that first.

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  3. Finding and approaching someone intimidates the heck out of me but once I get into the interview, I enjoy it.

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    1. Good for you! I think far too many authors are scared to try, when it's really fun and energizing to talk to someone about something they are passionate about.

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  4. This is seriously a wonderful post! Your tips are spot on. I began writing by freelancing stories on child athletes - this, nonfiction. I never really thought of using those same techniques with my fiction writing. Thx!

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    1. Glad this inspired you! Robert McKee's book Story (written for screenwriters, but very useful for fiction also) has made me particularly passionate about doing lots of research. It's food for your creativity that will fuel better plots, characters, settings and themes.

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  5. I like the "awkward silence" advice. If we are patient, people open up...even with just regular conversation (not just research).

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    1. Indeed. I think this is something people who do counseling do regularly, showing they are quick to listen, slow to speak. That gives the other space to dig a little deeper.

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  6. Talking to people who actually do the job or have the life experience you want to include in your story is great. I see this as a huge time commitment--nothing new here, but it is a way to gather current information. Excellent tips.

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    1. Not every story detail needs expert corroboration, but for really central things, talking to an expert will actually save you time over indirect research sources. A ten minute conversation can be loads more fruitful than hours looking a websites.

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  7. Thanks so much for this post, Laurel. I've had a story idea for years about a kid who wants to be a detective, and I was thinking about how much I'd love to interview a local detective about his/her work. I'm bookmarking this for when I get around to doing that. :) Thanks!

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    1. Cool. I hope you're able to pursue the idea. It sounds like a fun project to work on.

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