Like it or not, research is part of a writer’s job. We have a duty to our story to make sure we’re getting the details right. It’s a duty to our readers, as well. You will never know what knowledge your reader is coming to your book with, and you don’t want them to be distracted from your story because of factual errors.
As writers, we might think that simply doing a few searches online and using our imaginations is enough, but there’s no substitute for doing an interview someone with knowledge in your area of interest, whether through vigorous study or life experience. Maybe it’s just my journalist side talking, but I don’t think that there’s anything that can replace a first-hand account when it comes to learning about events, eras or cultures that you’re not familiar with.
How do I decide when a formal interview is necessary?
Interviews should never be your first course of action. Make sure that you’ve spent at least a week researching your before interviewing someone. Neither of you wants to spend the time it takes to do an interview for information you could have found on your own.
(If you need help with starting your research, read “How to Cut the Crap and Research Your Novel Efficiently” from Kristen @ She’s Novel.)
Of course, if you’re close to someone who knows a lot about a particular subject, it might be a lot easier to simply pick their brain whenever you have a specific question instead of digging around on google to find reliable sources. Even though this might be a more informal form of interviewing, it’s still good manners to make sure they’re comfortable with answering your questions, and to make sure to thank them in a meaningful way for their help.
So you’ve done some thorough background research, but you’re still a little fuzzy on some aspects of your topic or missing that last little bit of information you need to complete your vision. None of your friends are interested in your topic, and you know that this piece of information is vital for your story. It’s time to start planning your interview, my friend! To make the first few steps easier, I’ve even and made you an awesome Pre-Interview Worksheet!
What are you trying to learn more about? Make sure that you have a specific focus to guide you through choosing an source and crafting your questions. It maybe be helpful to write out a mission statement to keep at the top of all of your documents relating to your interview.
Let’s look at an example based on research for my currently untitled WIP:
EXAMPLE ONE: I want to find out more about the culture of Native Americans.
Thoughts: This is a great start for figuring out research topics, but “culture” and “Native Americans” are both extremely broad terms. Remember that your goal is to augment research you already have so that you can make your interview short and focused on finding out exactly what you need to know. This mission statement will also be used when you contact your source, who will probably be more willing to answer your questions if they know exactly what you’re looking for.
EXAMPLE TWO: I want to learn about how Native Americans in the Great Plains Area conducted warfare on other tribes.
Thoughts: This is a huge leap forward from our first example. We’re looking at a much narrower area of information now. Still, the Great Plains is a huge area, and there are many different tribes that reside there. Warfare is a pretty specific term, but you should have already done research on this topic, so try to find a way to exclude what you already know.
EXAMPLE THREE: I want to learn more about the training and treatment of warriors in the Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho tribes.
Thoughts: I think this is a great statement! It might be a good idea to add in a time frame, but overall, it is very specific to what your needs are!
One you have your mission statement, make sure you write it somewhere you can consistently refer back to as you move forward.
(If you’re also writing about a culture you’re not familiar with, check out “How to Write Diverse Characters” from Kaitlin @ Ink & Quills)
There are several ways to find a good source, but each requires you to be willing to do a little background research. If you already have someone in mind, feel free to skip to the next step, or stay here and come up with some back-up plans in case that fall through.
Dig through your Network
A great way to start finding potential sources is by asking around your network. Is there another author you know who had to research a similar topic? Reach out and ask them for advice or direction. Try posting your mission statement to Twitter or Facebook and see if anyone can point you in the right direction.
Look Back at Your Research
Look at the authors or contributors to the books and articles that you’ve read. What are their qualifications? What resources did they consult? Try seeing if they have any contact information available.
Type your topic into google and see what comes up. This might seem like the easiest options, but you need to make sure that you verify anything that people post on the internet.
Is there a University or College near you? Try checking out their website to see if they have a department that might be able to answer some of your questions. If there’s an event going on that relates to your topics, look into the guest speakers and the event coordinators.
Pick the Right Source for the Job
For the most part, there’s going to be a particular person that stands out to you right away as your best option, even if you have a lot of people to choose from. If there’s a few, try considering each option’s proximity to your location and their connection to your subject. Make sure to refer back to your mission statement as you’re going through each candidate.
You probably have already jotted down some ideas for interview questions over the course of your research, and that’s a really great start. Now, the trick is to make sure these questions are going to get the information that we really want to know. Writing good questions can be a lot trickier than you think it is, but I’ve got some great pointer to make sure you stay on the right track.
EXAMPLE ONE: Did the Arapahoe participate in many wars?
Thoughts: This is a close-ended question because it only requires a yes or no answer. While your source might go into more detail, you might also just get a single-word answer. This is also a question that you probably would be able to find answers to on the internet.
EXAMPLE TWO: Who did the Arapahoe consider allies?
Thoughts: This question is a little more open ended, but is still pretty basic in terms of the knowledge needed to answer it. Remember, you’ve done a lot of research to get to this point, so you want to make sure to getting to the things you really need to know. Even at this stage in your research, try throwing your questions at search engines to see what you come up with.
EXAMPLE THREE: How were Arapaho warriors viewed by their allies, the Cheyenne?
Thoughts: This question is pretty good, especially because it augments your question with some of your own research by mentioning the Cheyenne. Using this tactic is a good way to show your source what you already know. Using a quote from something your source has written is also a great way to show them that you’ve taken the time to learn more about them and appreciate the work they’ve put in so far.
Step Four: Make First Contact
Once you’ve chosen your source, it’s time to reach out. This might be terrifying, but you can do it!
Find Contact Information
This should be a fairly easy step. If your source has a website, their contact info should be available. Try looking under their “About” or “Contact Me” page. Some of these sites may simply have a contact form for you to fill out, which is meant to protect your source’s privacy. If they don’t say which method is preferred, I’d recommend starting with e-mail.
Do Some Background Research
Find out what your source has published, and try to get a copy. Just like you want to do background research before even conducting an interview, looking into a source’s specific work ensures that you don’t come into the interview and look rude or lazy because you’re asking them questions you could have found out from looking at their work.
Contact Your Source
Alright, now it’s time to draft that E-Mail, or write up a quick script for that phone call. This e-mail should be pretty brief, but you want to make sure you have enough information to let your source know exactly what they’re getting into.
- Greet you source in a fairly formal manner
EXAMPLE: Hello Dr. Example
- Start by introducing yourself and your project, including the specific area you’re doing research for. Make sure that you are being 100% honest and upfront about what stage you’re at.
EXAMPLE: I’m Nicole Clark and I’m a working on writing a High Fantasy novel. I am hoping to partially base one of the major cultures in my world on Native American tribes from the Great Plains.
- Move on to how you came across this person, including information on your background research
EXAMPLE: I came across your name while reading Anna Ejemplo’s book Tribes of the Great Plains, and ended up reading your article, “Warriors of the Arapaho,” during the course of my research.
- (Now would be a good time to add in a compliment)
EXAMPLE: I really enjoyed your depiction of the daily life of an Arapaho warrior…
- And now it’s time to mention the interview, using your mission statement as a guide
EXAMPLE: Despite the research I’ve done, I would still like to know more about the training and treatment of warriors in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. I was wondering if you could help me by answering some questions I have.
- Finally, you’re going to start your terms, including the LENGTH and preferred METHOD of the interview, along with your availability for real time (non-email) communication.
EXAMPLE: If you’re interested, the interview would just be 5-6 questions. I can send to you via e-mail (preferred). I am also available from 6 PM – 10 PM most weeknights if you would rather interview via phone or video chat.
- Almost done! Make sure your last section is super professional to leave a good impression. A “thank you” can go a very long way, after all.
EXAMPLE: I hope to hear from you soon!
Thank you for your time,
The End Result
Hello Dr. Example,
I’m Nicole Clark and I’m a working on writing a High Fantasy novel. I am hoping to partially base one of the major cultures in my world on Native American tribes from the Great Plains. I came across your name while reading Anna Ejemplo’s book Tribes of the Great Plains, and ended up reading your article, “Warriors of the Arapaho,” during the course of my research. I really enjoyed your depiction of the daily life of an Arapaho warrior.
Despite the research I’ve done, I would still like to know more about the training and treatment of warriors in the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. I was wondering if you could help me by answering some questions I have.
If you’re interested, the interview would just be 5-6 questions that I can send to you via e-mail (preferred). I am also available from 6 PM – 10 PM most weeknights if you would rather interview via phone or video chat.
I hope to hear from you soon!
Thank you for your time,
QUICK TIP: Even if you are planning on conducting your interview via e-mail, don’t send your questions with your first contact. Why? It may seem as though you’re assuming that your interviewee is going to agree to the interview, and we all know what they say about assumptions.
While waiting for a response, make sure to go over your interview questions and tweak them as needed. Here’s a quick list of pointers to make sure that your questions are going to get you the information you need.
- Does each question help me achieve my goal?
- Have I tried researching this on my own?
- Are my questions open-ended?
- Are these questions I would feel comfortable answering if the roles were reversed?
- Are there any follow-up questions I might need to ask?
- Are these questions I feel comfortable asking?
If you are going to be saying your questions, practice saying them out loud and make sure you aren’t tripping over anything. Also, look up pronunciation for words you’ve never heard out loud, like Arapaho.
Hopefully, your source sends you a prompt and enthusiastic agreement. If they don’t, that’s okay too! You can still use your questions for the most part, and your source might even be able to direct you to someone else you may be more willing to answer your questions!
Once you find a source that is willing to meet with you, make sure that both of you have the details down. I’d recommend nailing down TIME, DATE, PLACE, and METHOD of interviewing as quickly as possible, focusing on what’s convenient for your source. If you’re conducting an e-mail interview, these might not apply so much, but any other form needs to make sure to explicitly agree on all four of these. Don’t forget about time zones for long distance interviews! If you’re going to be meeting during meal time or at a restaurant, offer to buy coffee or lunch to show your appreciation.
Tips to Prepare for Real-Time Interviews
- Ask your interviewee if they would like your questions in advance. While this is a big no-no in journalism, giving your source some time to think over their responses will ensure that you get solid information instead of awkward silences.
- Make sure you have some method of recording the interview, and test it out TWO TO THREE TIMES before your interview is supposed to happen. Technology is evil and will royally screw you up. Recording an interview is super important for looking back on it later. If you’re using a recording device, figure out what its range is and how much background noise it can catch.
- Come up with one or two quick “throw away questions” to start the interview with. These questions don’t have to be particularly serious, but should be something that can easily segue into your more serious questions.
EXAMPLE: “How did you become so interested in Arapaho culture, Dr. Example?”
- Practice doing the actual interview on someone you know. If you can’t get them to take the whole thing seriously, just have them listen to you read the questions and critique you.
- Print out a copy of your questions with lots of space between them to write your notes down on.
Tips to Prepare for E-Mail Interviews
- Double check your spelling, grammar, and that your questions are numbered correctly. People WILL notice these things, and it will make you look like you don’t care. Try having a fresh pair or eyes look at them, or reading them out loud.
- Let your interviewee know they can contact you if they have any questions or concerns. This ensures that they will be comfortable asking you to clarify anything that is unclear to them.
- Make sure to have a thank you at the end! Yes, you will be thanking your source at least one more time after this one, but good manners will take you amazing places.
It’s time! All the prep that you’ve done up to this point has led to this moment! If you’re doing an e-mail interview, this part isn’t particularly nerve-wracking. Just hit send and go treat yourself while waiting for a response. If you’re doing another form of interview: it’s gonna be okay.
Keys to Rocking your Interview
- Make sure you look professional, especially if you’re meeting your source at or near their place of work. Not only will this give your source a great first impression of you, but looking good is a great confidence booster, even if you’re talking over the phone.
- Introduce yourself calmly and confidently, making sure to thank your source for taking the time to meet with you and answer your questions. This might be a good time to use your throw away questions while you’re getting settled in.
Choose a place without a lot of background noise and where you’re both comfortable. If you’re doing a long-distance interview, make sure that others in your house know to not disturb you so you don’t have a parent, roommate or significant other banging on your door in the middle of your interview.
- Ask permission to record the interview. This might seem a little strange, but recording people without permission is not okay, even in this situation. You don’t have to give a long-winded explanation.
EXAMPLE: “Is it okay if I record this so that I can look at it later? I don’t want to miss anything.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions if you need something clarified or they mention something that catches your interest, but keep the interview focused on your research and Mission Statement. Ask for spelling of terms you’re not familiar with so you can do more research on them later.
- Write down as much as you can so that you won’t constantly have to refer to your recording, which can quickly become a pain. If you feel yourself falling behind, start jotting down keyword. If nothing else, make sure to write down the time on the recording that you ask each question or places where you fall behind in your notetaking.
- Make sure you keep track of time and adhere to the agreed length of the interview to the best of your ability. If the two of you hit on something really interesting and are 100% comfortable extending the time, then do it! If you’re crunched for time, ask about e-mailing follow-up questions or setting up another interview.
- At the end of the interview, ask if there’s anything else they would recommend you look into, or just have anything else to add. For all you know, they might have been saving a great insight for a question you didn’t ask.
- Thank your source at the end of your interview as well, and let them know when to expect any follow up questions, making sure you give yourself a little bit of time to do some follow-up research as well.
- If you can, listen to the recording immediately after the interview to catch anything you missed. You can fast forward to your different timestamps and fill in some of the blanks in your notes.
You did it! You successfully prepped for and preformed an amazing interview! You have lots of new information you’re super excited to use and explore!
- Make sure to send your interviewee an e-mail thank you within 24 hours of the interview. You can tell them a little about how you’re going to use what you’ve learned, ask a few clarification question about their answers, and confirm the details of your next meeting if you have one. If you’re not planning on meeting again, ask if it would be okay for you to send them a few follow-up questions after you do a bit more researching.
- Make a back-up of your recording and save it to two different places. Type up your notes, and save them to two places as well. This way, even if something crashes, you’ll hopefully be able to save your information.
- Make a note somewhere you’ll refer back to about giving your source a thank you or special mention when the time comes to finally publish.
- Reflect on your interview and start writing up any follow up questions you might have, as well as brainstorming ways you could use the information in your story.
- Do some follow-up research, using your interviewee as a guideline. Make sure that you’re focusing on what you actually need to use in your novel, or else it might turn into procrastination for writing. You can’t say I didn’t warn you!
- If you still have questions after doing your follow-up research, and you think that your interviewee would be willing to answer, send them an e-mail. Just make sure it’s no more than 2-3 questions, and directly pertains to the information they shared in the interview.
Not only do you have a ton of new information you can use, but you also have some more motivation to get to the finish line: you went out of your way to talk to someone about this book.
If you do publish your book, make sure to include a thank you or special mention for your source, and to e-mail them the awesome news! Even if they don’t read your story, they will hopefully appreciate the gesture.
Links to More Information about Interviewing
30 Tips for Interviewing Like a Journalist from Spark Minute
Conducting Primary Research: Interviews from Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL)
General Guidelines for Conducting Research Interviews from the Free Management Library
Don’t forget to pick up your Pre-Interview Worksheet!
Have you thought about going any research of your own? Let me know in the comments below!