A Step-by-Step Guide to Conducting the Research Interview

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Image courtesy IMMages via DeviantArt.com.

One of the most valuable methods of research for writing a novel can be the in-person interview. Experts in a particular field or people who have personally experienced something related to your story can not only answer questions put directly to them, they can provide experiential, sensory and other details it might be impossible to gain any other way.

When I talk to other writers about conducting interviews as part of their research, many express trepidation or outright intimidation at the prospect. This is understandable. First of all, many of us in this profession are introverts, and asking forthright, sometimes intimate questions of people we’ve just met falls outside of our comfort zone. Second, the people we seek to interview are often busy professionals, sometimes holding positions of high status. How can we approach them with any expectation of receiving their time, particularly if we’re unpublished, unknown writers?

The answer is to choose carefully the people you approach and to act professionally and with confidence–even if it’s an act at first. Don’t know where to start? No problem. Here is an 18-step process (yes, 18!) for interviewing people for your novel.

  1. Do your pre-research. Read. Read more. Read history, memoir, articles, sometimes fiction. Watch documentaries. Learn everything you can via various media. Let’s say you’re writing about a murder investigation. You won’t want to open an interview with the detective assigned to a murder case with, “So, what’s it like being a detective?” This vague question is not a valuable use of the detective’s time, and she won’t appreciate it. Learn everything you can on your own first.
  2. Draw up your list of target interviewees. Decide how many and which people you need, and prioritize them. If you need to speak to a general surgeon, begin there. You will probably find someone without too much difficulty. If you need to speak to someone who was a member of Solidarity in Poland in the early ‘80s and was detained without charge during the imposition of martial law, you’re probably going to have a tougher time. But don’t let that challenge dissuade you (see next point).
  3. Be a detective. If your targets are hard to find (the Polish example), sensitive (relatives of people who have died or survivors of tragedies), or people not inclined to talk to the public (people who work with private or secret information, such as some psychiatrists and government officials), you may need to dig quite deep. Comb through every network you can think of: alumni lists, civic organizations, fellow school parents who may know people.
  4. Write a professionally worded email to each person you want to interview. Introduce yourself and your project, offering just enough detail to catch your potential interviewee’s interest and show him how he is relevant. Tell him specifically how he might provide critical information for your book. Don’t go on at length; you’re also showing him that you understand his time is limited. Include a few points from your own biography; keep it to a sentence or two. End with any pertinent travel details—i.e., you’re going to be in his city the week of June 1—and an expression of how grateful you would be if he could meet with you during your time frame. Tell him you will follow up in a week with a phone call, but also provide your phone number and email address in case he’d prefer to get back to you.
  5. How to respond – If you get a positive reception: great! Be as flexible as possible regarding when and where your interviewee wants to meet. You’re a night owl but she wants to meet at 6:00 a.m. before she goes running? You’ll be there at 6:00. And offer to buy breakfast if you have the means. (If writing is your profession, it’s a tax-deductible business expense.)
  6. If you get a negative reception: that’s okay. [Read more…]
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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.

The Un-Con Begins Tomorrow! (Plus, How to Un-Con on Your Own, Even If You Can’t Make It to Salem)

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The first Writer Unboxed Un-Conference begins tomorrow! (Applause, shouts of joy, cheers, hugs, panicked rummaging through clothing when you realize you have nothing to wear.)

The Un-Con promises to be unlike other writing conferences. It focuses on the writing part of being writer—developing our craft, building our inner strength, and actually writing and telling stories. There will be networking, yes, but no pitching, no marketing lessons, no sliding copies of your manuscripts to agents under bathroom stall dividers. (Please, please, don’t do that.)

In other words, the Un-Con will be Un-Conventional. We’ll spend a week sharpening our literal and metaphoric pencils and deepening our writing skills. That might mean finally understanding a specific element like voice, or acquiring new writing-life skills, like strategies for how to write through difficult times. Or perhaps we’ll just soak up every word Donald Maass says, regardless of topic. No matter our approach, we should come away from Salem next weekend better writers than we are today—assuming we apply what we’ve learned.

But what if you can’t make it to the Un-Con in person? Don’t worry; you can Un-Con on your own. First, you can follow what’s happening at the conference in real time on Twitter by following the hashtag #WUUnCon throughout the week. Second, we’ll try to post recaps and materials from the conference here at Writer Unboxed later in the year.

Third, you don’t need to be at the Un-Con to shake up your writing practice and try something new. As the dark hours of the day grow longer and people retreat into their caves against the cold and the wind (at least that’s how it works where I live in northern New England), the timing is perfect to consider what new element you can introduce into your writing, or how you can experiment. How can you wake yourself up when the whole world—or at least the northern hemisphere—is about to curl into itself and go to sleep? [Read more…]

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.

Imagining Beyond One’s Own Experience, or What the Fiction Writer Calls “Going to Work”

writers_pen_nib_imagine_charm_necklace_by_jayelknight-d6povj0It’s not often that one hears a statement that is both undeniably true and contradictory to the nature of everything we do. But at a reception this past spring, I heard such a statement.

A small group of us were discussing the life of the author in whose honor the reception was being held. This author, who had written both a memoir and a novel, had been separated from his family at the age of twelve and forced to become a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

“My son is twelve,” I said. “I try to think of my own son in those shoes…” My voice trailed off as I began to conjure images of my American, middle-class, twelve-year-old son suddenly, violently, torn from me and the rest of our family, forced to survive in lawlessness, impelled to run for his life, left with no choice but to kill and to maim. The effort quickly formed a universe of horrific thoughts in my head that immediately made me want to leave the reception, go home to my son and hold him tightly to me.

“You can’t,” said a man in the group, taking advantage of my external silence.

I faced him. “I try to imagine–”

“You can’t. You can’t know what that’s like unless you’ve been through it. We can’t imagine what that feels like.”

True enough. I can’t. No one can know those acts, that life, for certain, without having been there. I would never presume to write that author’s story.

Yet…

I can imagine something else. I can imagine another person, say, a twelve-year-old child who suffers a terrible loss—maybe she loses her parents in a car crash. Maybe her sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time in Gaza this month. Maybe her brother was a heroin addict and she herself is teetering on the brink, finding herself between “friends” and opportunities to take her life in directions she doesn’t even understand. Or maybe I am fascinated by an ancient culture I’ve heard about in some place I traveled, a native Central American people, and I’m willing to put in the effort to learn about that culture and develop characters. A young protagonist, perhaps, pushed by a traumatic event into a non-traditional role in her culture, challenged in her need to develop into something she’s not. I’m starting to see her already.

None of these specific circumstances have happened to me. But I have the tools to write them if I so desire. [Read more…]

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.

When We’re Forced to Work Outside Our Own Writing Boxes

keep-calm-and-keep-writing-with-logoI write best in big chunks of time. I need four or five hours together to become fully immersed in the world where my characters live. I don’t know why I work this way, but I do. It’s the kind of fiction writer I am.

It’s unfortunate, then, that my life right now won’t permit me to write this way. I have a couple of part-time jobs. I have a couple of kids, ages twelve and nine (otherwise known as the “drive me” years). One parent recently passed away and left me with probably a year’s worth of responsibilities, and my other parent requires time and attention. I also have pets, doctors’ appointments, things that break and need fixing, meals that need to be cooked, shopping that needs to get done, a house that needs to be cleaned (okay, so I don’t do a lot of that)–you know, the stuff we all have.

All of this means that my schedule is packed from the moment I awake until the moment I go to sleep. And it frequently changes with little notice. In other words, the four-to-five-hour block of writing time just does not happen.

After struggling for a long while–and failing–to find big blocks of writing time, I finally admitted that something had to change. When I whined about discussed this dilemma with writer friends and mentors, I received some excellent advice to help me restructure my writing:

Make appointments with my characters. Writer Catherine Elcik suggested blocking out appointments with my characters on my calendar just as I would with real people. I use iCal on my laptop and iPhone, and now anyone who looks can see I’ve frequently got time marked off for “meetings” with people who just happen to share my primary characters’ names. I also print the calendar out each week and tape it to my desk. I can’t say I always make every appointment, but having my characters visibly waiting for me, tapping their toes right where I can see them, has kept me more on target than in the past. When life events forced me to stop writing for a while (see below), I found I really missed this structure and it was the first thing I brought back when I returned to the keyboard.

Treat each scene like a short story. It’s funny: I don’t need huge blocks of time to work on essays or stories. But the novel is a different creature. “OH MY GOD THIS BOOK IS KILLING ME,” seems to be the novelist’s mantra. Why do we writers psych ourselves out so much? Our own blog mama, Therese Walsh, suggested that if I found myself freaking out over the amount of work I had to do, I should try taking it one scene at a time and telling myself that scene is a story. [Read more…]

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.

The Art of Learning One’s Art: Class & Critique

Ballet_silhouete_by_fripturiciOnce upon a few decades ago, I was a ballet dancer. I wasn’t a ballerina in the true sense of the word. I wasn’t a full member of a company. But I was an apprentice to a professional company for a couple of years. I got paid when I performed, I rehearsed with the company, and I took class with the company dancers at every opportunity before beginning my two or three advanced student classes each day.

Every day began the same way for every dancer associated with the company, from the most accomplished principal dancer at the pinnacle of his career to the newest, bottom-of-the-rung apprentice: we stretched our muscles on our own, and then we took a class.

What was the point of this daily commencement? To warm up our bodies for the day’s work, yes. But we also took class to learn. All of us hoped that in that first class of the day, we would receive corrections from the teacher. We sought corrections on body placement at the barre and hoped for critique of our performances of quickly memorized combinations “in the center.”

No one was above this treatment. Sometimes there might be a principal dancer who preferred to warm up before a performance on her own. Always people disliked some teachers and preferred others. But everyone, even the most seasoned dancers, recognized the value of studying with someone he or she respected. Everyone understood the ongoing value of receiving technical and artistic critique—of taking class.

Do you see where this is going?

I’ve heard examples lately of writers who express lack of interest or even disdain for classes and critiques. The reasons for this vary, [Read more…]

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About Tracy Hahn-Burkett

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her sixth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel.