Most people love to talk about what they do, which is a good thing because, as authors, we’re likely to need information all the way through the alphabet from archeologists to zoo keepers, with a heavy emphasis on first responders—police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians—and people throughout the justice system.
It’s a Google/e-mail/linked world out there. I’m a big fan of using e-mail exchanges in place of in-person interviews. Having an e-mail conversation gives the person being interviewed more freedom as to when and how to answer questions.
Often reaching an expert is as simple as looking up contact information on their web site and sending an e-mail. The subject line I use is Writer Needs Information. I send a short message saying that for my current work in progress I need information about raising ducks and geese, the prison system in Tennessee, how an arson investigation is conducted or whatever my particular bugbear is at the moment. Would they be willing to answer a few question via e-mail?
Under my signature I put my a link to my website. If they have any question that I’m on the up and up, they can always go to my website to check me out.
I’ve found university faculty to be wonderful, often overlooked, resources. Administrative Assistants are as helpful as resource librarians. I’ve written many e-mails to AAs, explaining what I need and asking them to forward the message to whomever in their department might be knowledgable in that area.
Sometimes nothing beats talking to people face-to-face.
Save time by going to the right person. Call or e-mail first to find out the name and address of the best person to contact to request an interview.
Write them a letter or e-mail asking three to five specific questions. Avoid shotgun phrases like “I don’t know anything about archeology, and I’m hoping you can tell me everything you know.”
At the end of the letter, ask for an 30-minute interview. Some interviews pan out, some don’t. You’ll know in 30 minutes if you’ve found a gold mine or not. If you’ve hit the mother load, ask for a second, longer interview. Keep in mind that many of the people you interview get paid, sometimes big bucks, for sharing their time, so even a 30-minute interview is a gift.
Establish a clear understanding of protocol. At the beginning of the interview, ask if it is all right to record the conversation. Ask if you need to get permission from anyone to use the material that will be discussed; and, if you do, how do you get that permission?
Avoid giving your interviewee a plot summary or a lengthy discussion about the characters you love. They are technical consultants, not editors. It’s okay to lay out a simple overview, such as, “An FBI agent is found dead in a downtown hotel. The office he works out of is in another state; he was on vacation at the time he died. Whose responsibility is it to investigate his death, the local police or the FBI?”
Avoid putting the person on the spot with questions like, “Do you think my plot will work?” You’re the author, you’ll make it work. What you really want to know is “If this happened in real life, what would your response be?”
When you’re fortunate enough to find an interested person, build on the relationship. What can they do for you? More interviews. A tour of where they work. Opening doors for you, like arranging for you to see something the public usually doesn’t see. E-mail correspondence. Reading some chapters for accuracy. Recommending books, journals, web sites that might be helpful. A good contact can do this and more.
What can you do for them? Give them a chance to explain how challenging and interesting their work is. Let them tell their stories. Value their contributions.
After the interviews
Send a thank-you note. As the book progresses, send an occasional a follow-up note or e-mail to let the person know how the writing is going. If you decide to not go ahead with the book, let them know this, too, and thank them for what they contributed to the project.
Include them in the book’s acknowledgments. Ask if they wish to be mentioned by name or not. If they made a significant contribution, send them a copy of the book when it come out.
Above all, keep a grateful heart. One of the perks of writing is the wonderful people who help us along the way.
Quote for the week
The way I work, the interview never becomes larger than the person being interviewed.
~Ken Burns, American director and documentary film producer
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