Friday, June 28, 2013

How to Get a Research Interview and How to Handle It

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

On Tuesday, I talked about writing what you know, especially in regards to hard topics. I LOVED reading all your comments.

So, what if you are compelled, for whatever very good reason, to write about a topic that you've not experienced? The answer is research interviews. Because internet and book research won't be enough for a story like this. If you've decided to dig deep and write something hard and powerful, you want to do some hard and powerful research. Wikipedia isn't going to cut it. Here are some things to consider:

1. Be prepared. Know your plot and your characters. Somewhat, anyway. This will help you know what information you're looking for and what questions to ask. I like to write out a list of questions in advance. I also like to take a digital recorder. That way I don't have to try and write down everything so fast. Always ask permission before recording a conversation.

2. Go there. If you're writing about a place, go there. If it's a place you can experience, buy a ticket and experience it. Take tons of notes and pictures. Get into your main character's head, find experiences for him, then experience them yourself.

3. Talk to people who live there or work there or go to school there. As them what it's like. Consider your character's world and life situation, then find the right people to ask. If you're writing about a businessman, talk to some businessmen. If you're writing about the homeless, then find yourself some homeless people to speak with. Offer to buy them lunch and listen to their stories.

4. Practice patience. If you've asked someone to take time out of their day to talk to you, let them take the reins of the conversation. I mean, if you're talking with a homeless person, they likely haven't really talked to someone in a long time. They might have a lot to say. Be patient and listen. Be a blessing to their day, not a burden.

5. Don't get greedy. If you say, "Could I have five minutes of your time to ask a few questions?" then watch your clock and only take five minutes. If the person is going on past that, remind them of the time. If he is happy to keep talking, that's fine. You could also ask your source if you could call or email some follow-up questions. If you do this, try not to take advantage. Only ask questions you can't get the answer to elsewhere. And don't email daily for the rest of your life. ;-)

Also, many professional authors pay professional sources. How much are you asking of your source? If you only have a few questions, a thank you and the offer of a free book is usually enough incentive. But if you want someone to read your manuscript for overall feedback, consider offering to pay them for their time.

6. When you're done talking, say, "Thank you." And write down their name so that you can thank them in the acknowledgements of the book. You might also offer to mail them a book if you know it will be published soon. You don't have to put every person you speak with in your acknowledgements, but if you spent a lot of time with a source and he or she helped you in a significant way, it doesn't hurt to thank them in the book. Such a gesture might thrill them, but it might also create a lifelong reader.

Any questions? Is there a location or topic that has always been on your heart to write about? If so, what? 

51 comments:

  1. I am writing about a girl whose father died in the Twin Towers. Thankfully, I didn't have to go through that, nor do I know anyone who had to. I think that it is an important subject, the Twin Towers, because I feel as if so many people have forgotten. (not that I want them to live their whole lives miserable and bitter, but they should remember what we are fighting for). So that is what I am writing about right now... Would people be willing to talk about that though? I feel like people who did lose someone... It is just so painful for them and they don't want to talk about it.
    Thank you for the post! Interesting things to think about! :)

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    1. Naomi, you've probably already thought of this, but there are quite a few Twin Tower memoirs. In fact, at the last used book sale I went to I picked up one called "Thunder Dog" about a blind man and his seeing eye dog at ground zero. Haven't read it yet, but I know there are plenty similar books out there. Good luck with your story!

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    2. Thank you! I hadn't thought of that... There is also a book called Beyond The Ashes. (I think that is the name of it...) Written by one of the pilot's wife. I have only read a liitle, but maybe I should try to read it again... :-)

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    3. Thunder Dog! I read that one. I enjoyed it. :)

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    4. I think there are people who'd talk about it. It might be challenging to find them, though. You could start by posting on the GTW Facebook page that you're looking for survivors or family members to interview and see if anyone knows someone. It's a small world, after all. ;-)

      And, Naomi, that's a great idea! Lisa Beamer wrote one too. It's called Let's Roll!

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    5. Thank you! :-) I am glad you think that it is a good idea.
      I don't have Facebook, but maybe eventually...
      Thank you again!

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  2. This was very interesting. I've pretty much always written about things I know about. Of course there are situations where I need to research, but it's usually nothing major. I'm learning to branch out more, these days, so that may change. Good advice for future reference. :)

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    1. Ha, just noticed I said pretty much the same thing, Ashley! xD

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    2. Lol. Great writers write alike... Wait. What? ;)

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  3. This is so helpful, Ms. Williamson! I'm lazy and I don't really like research unless it's a spontaneous "I'm curious" thing, so I try to stick with writing what I know...but that'll probably change someday. So thank you! :)

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  4. I realize now I definitely need to talk to a boat restorer or mechanic before I try for a final-ish draft of Anomaly. In the mean time, I've been using forums on boat repair. Most of the questions I needed to ask have already been answered there! :)

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  5. If I ever go back a do a final draft of my WIP in a few years (I'm nowhere near publishable yet) then I want to try to find some paranormal investigators to talk to. At the moment, as its more of a honing-my-skill project than an I'm-going-to-publish-this-book project, I've only been watching thousands of ghost hunting shows (which I love anyway, so research handy been much of a chore for me). The great thing is I don't have to get everything right, because my MC is only related to an investigator, not a qualified one, so des supposed to make mistakes ;)

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    1. Sounds like an intriguing subject, Hannah! I hope you find your contact when you're ready to get more info!

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  6. Interviewing people is so much fun! (Scary too if you don't know the person before hand, but after you start talking it gets better.) I write historical fiction and for my Post WWII novel (set in Poland) I had the privileged of interviewing a veteran who worked with German youth after the war and the daughter of a Polish soldier/German POW. Such amazing people to have the privileged of talking to!

    For those interested in more details about researching, there's a handy little reference book called "Searching: A Research Guide for Writers."

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    1. Thanks for that reference, Leah! And bravo for interviewing that man! Even if you're scared, you're almost always thankful you did it in the end, huh?

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  7. I remember reading The Pact by Jodi Picoult. I looked her up and she was describing researching for the book. She went to trials and observed. She interviewed the guards at a prison and some police officers. Overall her story was so accurate but it did make me very emotional.

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    1. Nice. Yeah, it can be hard work, but that can really help the book in amazing ways.

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  8. I'm writing about a home schooler (like me) who has to go to public school (not like me),so I should probably do some research... Lol. I'm lazy.

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    1. You're going to have to go to school! Will your local public school let you take one class? Ours does. We have some homeschooled girls in our youth group who take choir at the high school. And I think one is taking a math class too.

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    2. But I saw the girls in the crowd at a pep assembly for homecoming, and I remembered thinking that was probably a fun experience for them to see.

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  9. Interviewing people intimidates me. ALOT. Fortunately, I write fantasy, so I don't really have to worry about interviews. (Couldn't find anybody who's fought a dragon, anyway. XD) I think that I should get out of my shell and try to interview some kids who go to high school, though, so that way I can see my MC's normal life better.

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    1. You can do it, Catsi! I did do an interview for my fantasy novel. I found some people who answered to the call of "medieval doctors, anyone?" And they really helped me develop my scenes where Vrell does first aid-type stuff.

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  10. Wow! From reading this post it seems like whenever I start writing a book. I skip every thimg. I never really thought much of interviewing and it beimg a part of the writing process. With me though I get ideas and.instantly start writing a story I never finish also being original can be problemsome. Its hard not to start off original then change ur style of writing to ur fav author ...

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    1. I know how you feel! Sometimes I feel like my writing process is so off!

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    2. There are times where I simply write, knowing I'll have to do some research and come back and stick it in during the edits. But there are other times where I can't write the scene if I don't research first, like the entire next Spencer book. He's going to visit colleges to get recruited, he hopes, to play NCAA basketball. And I didn't know how any of that worked. So I spent two weeks researching it. But it makes the story so interesting now.

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  11. I'm writing about gypsies. Is that tough research or what?

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    1. LOL! Might need to find some history books on the subject, though I think there are still people out there who live that way. Don't know how you'd find them, though. They don't likely have computers...

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  12. I've been on Youtube listening to...accents. If I'm going to write about different countries, I want to know how people "sound" too. It's very interesting. ;) Good advice as always, Jill! I've never talked to anyone "in person" for research though. I'm kind of shy to attempt it (heh) plus I'm not sure where I would find people. How do you go about finding "sources" to ask questions to?

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    1. I've done that, Cait! YouTube is a great place to do research.

      To find people, I almost always post to the writers email loops I'm a part of. You could do this with the GTW Facebook page. I post questions to my own professional writers group loops: I recently posted: "Anyone been to a Hollywood movie premiere or know someone who has? I need to interview someone!" And I'm always amazed how much help I find.

      If you're serious about writing long term, it's worth the annual fee to join some professional writing organizations.

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  13. What I've recently decided to do is interview my family members about their past experiences, you know first day of high school or something. Talking to your grandma's could really help for Historical Fiction. ; )
    I began to write down the questions but haven't started yet. And since it's people I'm already comfortable with, it helps a lot and prepares me for future interviews.

    (MJ)

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  14. I write fantasyish stuff. The setting is semi-based off of my hometown and the surrounding areas but I would really like to be able to get a feel for some of the old castles around the world. Unfortunately I can't afford to drop everything and go to Europe. :( Seeing something is not the same as experiencing it but I guess it will have to do.

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    1. You could look up tours of castles on YouTube. It's not the same, but you can learn a lot that way. You might start by researching online the names of famous castles that you'd like to visit, then you could type that name into YouTube, for example, type in "Tour of Chateau Chaumont" and see what comes up.

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  15. Hey guys, I have a question only writers can answer. I know, it's really, off-topic, but this is the most recent post, so...
    I was talking to my mom about my WIP, and I mentioned something about not wanting to put romance in my story, because I don't exactly approve of teen dating, but Destiny and Pierre aren't co-operating. Now she thinks I'm silly for saying that my characters have a mind and will of their own.
    This is kind of a double question. What do I say to my mom about my characters, and how do I let Pierre and Destiny have their way without compromising my own beliefs on guy/girl relationships as teenagers? And do any of your characters get a mind of their own? Or is it just a Catsi's-being-ridiculous thing?
    Oh, that was three questions. :)

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    1. See below -- phone posted it as a separate comment :/ sorry!

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    2. Oh, it's totally not a Catsi's-being-ridiculous thing. Or maybe we're BOTH being ridiculous. There was this one girl (Tula) in my story who was supposed to die (the tree she was hiding in burned down) but the villain went behind my back and saved her. But it turned out so well! My MC now has so much more to deal with, like guilt that she thought Tula died, and now she has to confront Tula and... it got really intense. And I finished the first draft!!! I've never finished ANYTHING before.

      But with the dating... I don't like teen dating either. And neither do my parents. If two people start dating in a book then they won't let me finish it. So... I guess this doesn't really help. :/

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    3. I don't think it is a Catsi-being-ridiculous thing either. I realized that I kind of have this issue in one of my stories too...
      Maybe what you could do is have them start dating, but then have them suffer some from it. (whether it be, they were punished, or their friendship started to end...) or they could keep their feelings a secret from each other- if it isn't too late- and you could write a sequel when they are older and it would be ok.
      I agree with you on teen dating!:)
      One thing about historical books is, people did date and get married when they were younger. :)
      I don't know if that helped at all... Hope so, and enjoy writing! :-)

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    4. Maybe we're all being ridiculous... We're Wridiculous Writers! Yeah, I'm really hyper right now. :)
      Katelyn, Tula is an awesome name. Love it. You're story sounds so awesome... Sigh. I will come up with good plots someday!
      Naomi, I decided that they aren't going to date in my books at all, they both make a promise to each other to wait until they are older and then they can get married or something. Assuming the world doesn't end by then. XD The world almost ends in all of my stories.
      Thank you guys for all of your help! I love this place!

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    5. Wridiculous Writers, LOL!! And Tula is actually a place in Russia. We have a big wall map next to my laptop, so I'm constantly looking at it as I'm writing. :)
      And thanks for saying my story sounds awesome. I've been a little discouraged about all the stuff I have to add now that I'm editing, but that really helped!
      And the world almost ending sounds pretty exciting, too.

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  16. Well, try to explain to your mom that they really do "come alive", as it were, and maybe use her favourite book as an example? Ask her if she doesn't think a good character really feels like a real person, stuff like that, and hopefully she'll understand a little better, but I don't think anyone but a writer will ever REALLY get it (I wouldn't have before I started writing). About Pierre and Destiny, I definitely get how characters often take control of their own lives, and frankly, if they're refusing to co-operate with your ideas, I think this is a good sign -- it means they're strong and 3D and I think you should let them, or at least try their way out and see where it goes. It does get complicated when it goes against your reliefs though... Maybe they won't be "officially" dating, because one of them also thinks they're too young? Or they refuse to date for ages but then finally give in because they can't help themselves? Maybe they do date, but it's not a serious relationship. And don't worry, it's not a Catsi-being-ridiculous thing; this happens to me all the time. My main character went through a major personality change (luckily in the planning stage, before I'd started writing), changed the plot hugely and jumped out of a tree all of her own accord. Lol. Sometimes it's the spontaneous ideas that at first seem crazy that turn out to be the best :)

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    1. This is a reply to Catsi, by the way. Sorry, I dot know why it posted as a separate comment!

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    2. Thanks Hannah, I feel a lot better now. I'll see what I can do with explaining it to my mom. That's a good idea, using one of her favorite books as an example. Probably should read one first... *pulls Clive Cussler novel off shelf*
      I think I'll have them like each other, but they both agree to wait until they're older before they go anywhere with their feelings. I see now, if I don't let them have their way, it'll sound forced. And completely ruin my plot. :)
      Thanks again, Hannah!

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    3. You're welcome. I'm glad you and your characters found a compromise ;)

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  17. Hey,I was just looking through the archives and I saw one about coming up with a title. And when I looked at the comments someone said that their story was still called by their Mc's first name. Is... that a bad thing? Because that was where I got the title for my story. My full title is "Ayli-Ta Cormara; Bounty Hunter". I was hoping to make it into a series sort of about finding out who she is, and she would be finding different names for herself a lot, so the titles would just be her new name and status.

    I'm not really sure if that makes sense.

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    1. I think it sounds ok. If you write I series, though, I think you might want to try something different then putting her name in every single title. Maybe just calling it 'As a Bounty Hunter' or just plain 'Bounty Hunter'. That is just my two cents worth. :)

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    2. Thanks. That does make sense. I'm just sort of worried if I call it 'Bounty Hunter' that it will sound too much like Star Wars.

      BTW, my BFF's name is Naomi. Sadly, she's not a writer, but she encourages me and sometimes she'll draw pictures of my characters.

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    3. Lol, one of my stories is called Caden James Auburn right now. :)
      Katelyn, you could have the series title be Ayli-Ta Cormara, and then the book's title could be Bounty Hunter. It doesn't sound too Star Wars-ish, (not that there's anything wrong with Star Wars, of course! XD I like Star Wars.) I have a bounty hunter in my WIP, and he's definitely not Star Wars at all. You just have to make sure your writing isn't Star Wars like.
      Also, I have to draw my own character pictures. You are lucky.

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    4. Oh I love Star Wars too! There's this website called Wookeepedia and I'll go on there a lot and just study characters. And I'm trying to learn Huttese and Mando'a (Hutt and Mandalorian languages). It's not really going that well.

      I could never draw my own character pictures. Drawing is too tedious for me. The thing is, my Naomi really likes this one story I tried to write, and started drawing all the characters, and even made up some new ones. And then when I decided to quit, she was super bummed. But there was no way I was going to finish that thing! It was more that 40,000 words of NOTHING.

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    5. I think it is cool that your friends name is Naomi! I don't meet a lot of those...:)
      I don't draw my own pictures (stick figures wouldn't give you the whole picture...:)) sometimes I find a picture that I took for the title, though. :-)

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