Wednesday, June 24, 2015

We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attack when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com
Wednesday, June 24, 2015 Laurel Garver
We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attack when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com

Monday, June 15, 2015

Every season comes with special challenges for writers. In summer, it's often kids home from school, friends and family visiting, and time away for family vacation that can destroy your writing routine.

But what if time away from the keyboard could be as useful to your craft as the hours of "butt in chair"? The hours you spend out in the world can indeed be a creative gift to you, putting you in new places with access to new experiences. In particular, you have wonderful access to the laboratory of human emotion. You just have to pay attention.

People-watching is the best way to gain an understanding of how real people express their feelings. Observe and record, and you'll never be at a loss for how to represent your characters in your fiction-- without resorting to tired cliches.

Do this haphazardly, however, and it won't be as useful an exercise. Organization is truly key.

With these issues in mind, I created a tool that writers of any genre can use to develop their own "emotions bible" in their own authorial voice. It is based on an exercise used by method actors: observing and journaling expression, gesture, carriage, stance, motion in order to better embody it on stage.

Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observational Journal contains over 200 pages of guided journaling exercises to help you record your observations of how real people express thirty nine different emotions. Once completed, the journal can serve as your go-to source for creating realistic dialogue and facial and body language that is uniquely yours.  You can use it again and again on any fiction project.

Tuck the journal in your bag and make use of any and every opportunity to observe emotion, whether you're stuck in line at the grocery store, waiting for your child at swim lessons, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, or lounging on the beach or at the pool. Watch your emotional vocabulary grow, you productivity soar, and your reliance on cliches fade away,

Add it on Goodreads
Purchase the paperback from CreateSpace / Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK)

Where will summer take you? How might your writing benefit from observation research?
Monday, June 15, 2015 Laurel Garver
Every season comes with special challenges for writers. In summer, it's often kids home from school, friends and family visiting, and time away for family vacation that can destroy your writing routine.

But what if time away from the keyboard could be as useful to your craft as the hours of "butt in chair"? The hours you spend out in the world can indeed be a creative gift to you, putting you in new places with access to new experiences. In particular, you have wonderful access to the laboratory of human emotion. You just have to pay attention.

People-watching is the best way to gain an understanding of how real people express their feelings. Observe and record, and you'll never be at a loss for how to represent your characters in your fiction-- without resorting to tired cliches.

Do this haphazardly, however, and it won't be as useful an exercise. Organization is truly key.

With these issues in mind, I created a tool that writers of any genre can use to develop their own "emotions bible" in their own authorial voice. It is based on an exercise used by method actors: observing and journaling expression, gesture, carriage, stance, motion in order to better embody it on stage.

Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observational Journal contains over 200 pages of guided journaling exercises to help you record your observations of how real people express thirty nine different emotions. Once completed, the journal can serve as your go-to source for creating realistic dialogue and facial and body language that is uniquely yours.  You can use it again and again on any fiction project.

Tuck the journal in your bag and make use of any and every opportunity to observe emotion, whether you're stuck in line at the grocery store, waiting for your child at swim lessons, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, or lounging on the beach or at the pool. Watch your emotional vocabulary grow, you productivity soar, and your reliance on cliches fade away,

Add it on Goodreads
Purchase the paperback from CreateSpace / Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK)

Where will summer take you? How might your writing benefit from observation research?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also a lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?
Wednesday, June 10, 2015 Laurel Garver
While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also a lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com 
You've found the perfect expert to chat with about a topic that's integral to your novel's plot or your protagonist's characterization. Once you get your expert to agree to meet, what should you do next?

Prepare!

Here's a checklist to help you make the most of your interview with any expert.

(Not convinced interviewing is useful? Check out my posts "The Limits of Google Research" and "Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction")

Research the topic

Spend some time reading up a bit on the topic you hope to ask your expert about. This will help you get a rudimentary grasp of key concepts and enable you to focus your questions most effectively.

Prepare your goals ahead of time

It’s helpful to have a general purpose planned ahead—-a sense of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you develop the most relevant questions and keep you on topic. But don’t hold so tightly to your preconceptions about an interviewee’s knowledge base that you miss the opportunity to get great insider information you had no idea existed.

Develop questions

The best questions are open-ended, conversation starters that encourage expansive answers. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?”  Try the Starburst technique discussed in THIS post, paired with your research, to develop questions that will get you the information you need.

Keep in mind that short questions are better than long, multi-part ones. The latter are likely to cause the interviewee to only partially answer.

Overprepare

It’s a good idea to prepare roughly twice as many questions as you expect to need, just in case the interviewee is a quick talker or claims ignorance about a topic (or refers you elsewhere for an answer). Having too many questions will also to give you added confidence that you’ll never be at a loss for topics.

Organize your questions from most important to least so that if the interview is cut short due to an interruption, you’ll get the most essential answers first.

Find a good location

Avoid noisy coffee shops (unless you’re interviewing the shop owner or a barista). Try instead to interview in a place that has some relevance to your story or your subject, like their home, workplace or place where they use their expertise. You’ll gain a further sense of context, and your expert will likely feel more comfortable (and open) in a familiar place.

Test your equipment

It’s a good idea to make an audio recording. Your notes are never going to be 100 percent accurate. Neither is your memory. And recording frees you up to have a more natural conversation. If anything the subject says raises questions you hadn’t thought of, you’re more able to follow up than if you’re busy scribbling everything the person says.

That said, be sure to rehearse with your recording device before you meet up with your interviewee. Figure out how close the mic needs to be to pick up both voices, and ensure the device has adequate power or batteries to last the entire time.

(Ready to go? Tips on conducting fiction interviews are available HERE)

What kind of expertise would help you with your current project?
Wednesday, June 03, 2015 Laurel Garver
Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com 
You've found the perfect expert to chat with about a topic that's integral to your novel's plot or your protagonist's characterization. Once you get your expert to agree to meet, what should you do next?

Prepare!

Here's a checklist to help you make the most of your interview with any expert.

(Not convinced interviewing is useful? Check out my posts "The Limits of Google Research" and "Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction")

Research the topic

Spend some time reading up a bit on the topic you hope to ask your expert about. This will help you get a rudimentary grasp of key concepts and enable you to focus your questions most effectively.

Prepare your goals ahead of time

It’s helpful to have a general purpose planned ahead—-a sense of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you develop the most relevant questions and keep you on topic. But don’t hold so tightly to your preconceptions about an interviewee’s knowledge base that you miss the opportunity to get great insider information you had no idea existed.

Develop questions

The best questions are open-ended, conversation starters that encourage expansive answers. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?”  Try the Starburst technique discussed in THIS post, paired with your research, to develop questions that will get you the information you need.

Keep in mind that short questions are better than long, multi-part ones. The latter are likely to cause the interviewee to only partially answer.

Overprepare

It’s a good idea to prepare roughly twice as many questions as you expect to need, just in case the interviewee is a quick talker or claims ignorance about a topic (or refers you elsewhere for an answer). Having too many questions will also to give you added confidence that you’ll never be at a loss for topics.

Organize your questions from most important to least so that if the interview is cut short due to an interruption, you’ll get the most essential answers first.

Find a good location

Avoid noisy coffee shops (unless you’re interviewing the shop owner or a barista). Try instead to interview in a place that has some relevance to your story or your subject, like their home, workplace or place where they use their expertise. You’ll gain a further sense of context, and your expert will likely feel more comfortable (and open) in a familiar place.

Test your equipment

It’s a good idea to make an audio recording. Your notes are never going to be 100 percent accurate. Neither is your memory. And recording frees you up to have a more natural conversation. If anything the subject says raises questions you hadn’t thought of, you’re more able to follow up than if you’re busy scribbling everything the person says.

That said, be sure to rehearse with your recording device before you meet up with your interviewee. Figure out how close the mic needs to be to pick up both voices, and ensure the device has adequate power or batteries to last the entire time.

(Ready to go? Tips on conducting fiction interviews are available HERE)

What kind of expertise would help you with your current project?