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 How can we approach them with any expectation of receiving their time, particularly if we’re unpublished, unknown writers?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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- If you get a negative reception: that’s okay. [Read more…]