Wednesday, June 3

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, June 03, 2015 8 comments
Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from 
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?


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.


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?


  1. Good advice! I don't interview experts, but your tips are good for any situation! Thanks for stopping by my blog today!

    1. I never thought I would, but ended up finding all kinds of holes in my knowledge that expert friends helped fill--especially about medical things. The expert doesn't have to be someone intimidating, but could be a close friend with the right expertise, like the ICU nurse and family counselor who helped me.

  2. This is much needed advice! I need to know a lot of different things about lawyers/law for one of my WIPs and was actually slightly worried about the interviewing. This definitely gave it some light, thank you so much!

    1. My related post linked at the end will help you prepare also. And your family and friend network may be able to hook you up with a really nice attorney to ask questions. Good for you for being brave enough to get the best information from the source!

  3. Hmm, sounds like me preparing for a job interview :)

    1. What I have in mind is a journalistic one, though with fiction you never have to directly quote the person. That can be helpful with medical types especially who don't want to be legally liable for malpractice. Fiction interviews are low pressure, since there's only a pretend patient.

  4. Ooh, preparing questions and goals before is a great piece of advice. I'm a planner, so I'd never survive interviewing someone without doing that before. LOL

    1. Time can be precious for people who have the knowledge you need, so it pays to prepare.