Conducting Informational Interviews for Story Research

sara-letourneau

Recently I hit a roadblock with my current manuscript. It wasn’t a typical “writer’s block,” though. Rather, I made an inspired decision first: My protagonist’s father would be the owner / manager of a home remodeling company. (I blame my love of home improvement TV shows for this!) Then came the stumble: Apart from those TV shows, which focus on the “external” aspects of construction and remodeling, I had no idea what’s involved in running such a business.

That’s when I realized, in order to get the information I needed, I’d have to talk to owners of home remodeling companies.

Yes, I freaked out at first. But it wasn’t the only instance where I interviewed people for this manuscript. (The story also involves characters of diverse backgrounds and/or struggling with mental illness.) Then again, informational interviews aren’t unheard of in the creative writing world. Authors, bloggers, and even poets turn to this journalistic form of research when books, articles, and documentaries aren’t enough. And when we find the right people, the knowledge they share with us can be invaluable.

So how should writers pursue these kinds of interviews? What should we do during the exchange so that the interviewee feels comfortable and respected? And, how should we demonstrate our gratitude for the other person’s time and generosity? Here are pointers for before, during, and after the interview that can make an initially intimidating experience more enjoyable and rewarding for everyone involved. These tips apply to all types of interviews, from in-person conversations to phone / video calls and email interviews.

Before the Interview

Brainstorm your questions. It’s important to confirm what you already know about the topic and what you need to learn before contacting potential interviewees. First, spend some time reviewing how the topic plays into the story. Then, develop a list of questions, paying close attention to how you word them. You don’t need to sound like an expert (that’s why you’re pursuing these interviews, after all!), but you should phrase the questions respectfully and use appropriate terminology you’re familiar with.

Use your network to generate a list of contacts. Start by asking friends, relatives, and colleagues if they know someone who’s knowledgeable about the topic. Even better, if one of your contacts has the right experience, ask if they would feel comfortable answering your questions. And if you need to broaden your search further, try posting a “call for help” on Facebook or Twitter, or use Google or LinkedIn to find professionals or experts and their contact information. You’ll be less likely to get an interview without the help or name of a mutual friend, but that won’t make it impossible. For example, I talked to friends who struggled with anxiety or depression for my mental health interviews, but I landed an interview with a local home remodeling contractor through a cold call.

Prepare talking points in advance. Before reaching out to these contacts, write down bullet points (or complete sentences, if you prefer) to help you remember what to say. Include a brief introduction of yourself, the name of the mutual friend who referred you to that contact, and why you’re contacting them. (So, yes, plan on saying that you’re a writer and why you need their help with research for your story.) That way, the other person will better understand how they can help you, and you’ll be more confident in delivering your pitch.

“Sweeten the deal.” When making these inquiries, offer something of potential value to your contact. It can be a mention in the novel’s acknowledgements, paying for the contact’s coffee or lunch (if you’re meeting them in person), or something else that’s appropriate. Not only will it show that you take yourself and your writing seriously, but it will also serve as a gesture of your appreciation for the other person’s time and knowledge. Plus, it could be the one detail that persuades your contact to say “yes.”

Be gracious and courageous. It’s easy to expect “no” from a potential interviewee (or to not hear back from them at all). But the only way you’ll guarantee you don’t land an informational interview is if you give up. So if one of your contacts turns down your inquiry, do your best to remain pleasant and thank them for their time, then move on to the next person on your list.

During the Interview

Maintain a professional appearance and attitude. The information you’re about to glean will help make your story more authentic, so treat the interview – and the interviewee – with the utmost respect. You can demonstrate this by dressing appropriately (think business casual) and speaking courteously in a calm, even tone. And regardless of how the interview will be conducted, ensure you arrive at the agreed-upon location, or are ready and waiting at your computer or with your phone, about 5 to 10 minutes early. This will also help you avoid the stress of last-minute rushing.

Be mindful of the interviewee’s time. Depending on everyone’s schedule, you might only have a short window (30 or 45 minutes) to talk to them. Do your best to stick to the planned timeframe, and prioritize your questions accordingly. Chances are that the interviewee will invite you to reach out them if you have more questions – and if they do, then follow up on that offer within a few days. As for email interviews, arrange for a target reply date that works for both you and the other person. And if the interviewee asks for more time, be flexible and honor their request.

Take notes and record the interview audio. No interviewer wants to lose their only copy of a transcript, or feel pressured into writing or typing quickly enough to capture every word. Play it safe by using an audio recording device as well as a notebook for writing (or a laptop, tablet, etc. for typing) short-hand notes. That way, you’ll have two copies of the precious interview and eliminate the stress of copying entire answers. Also, as a general courtesy, ask the interviewee if they’re OK with you recording the interview.

Pace yourself and the interviewee. No matter how much time you’ve scheduled for the interview, it’s important to not rush through it. Allow the interviewee to answer each question completely, and leave a brief silence as you finish your note-taking before moving on. This will help the both of you feel more relaxed and create an easy rapport between you.

After the Interview

Compile your notes and/or audio transcript. After interviewing the home remodeling contractor, I spent between 30 minutes to 1 hour for the next couple days listening to the recording and typing my handwritten notes and highlights from the audio. Doing this reinforced the facts I absorbed and created a single, convenient document I could later use as reference material.

Incorporate pertinent information into the story. If you’re inspired after transcribing the notes and audio, why not dive in and integrate your research into relevant scenes now? This might be more attractive if you plot your stories in advance and/or write your first drafts out of sequence. If you prefer writing scenes in order, you can certainly wait until you’re ready to do this.

Send a thank-you note. Whether you send an email or a handwritten note is personal preference. (My suggestion: Send a handwritten note if the interview was in person and the interviewee lives or works within driving distance, and an email in all other cases.) What matters more is that you share your gratitude for the interviewee’s time and generosity. So, in your thank-you, use your personal “writing voice” to ensure the message is genuine, and include one or two highlights from the interview (one thing you learned, a compliment on the interviewee’s friendliness or knowledgeability, etc.). Also, send the thank-you in a timely manner so that the interviewee receives it while the exchange is still fresh in their mind.

Add the interviewee to your book’s acknowledgements. This is the section where the author thanks their family, friends, agent, editor, and other people who were involved with the manuscript’s development. So it’s the perfect place to express your appreciation to the interviewee once again for their help. Plus, it never hurts to start writing that list early. 😉 You can also blog about your interview experience if the end result for the writing project won’t be a published book.

No matter how passionate you may be about your story, the thought of doing an informational interview for research can be nail-biting. But with a little common sense and a lot of determination, you can find people who will be willing to share their experience or area of expertise with you. And who knows? Maybe you’ll enjoy the actual interview more than you think you will. Just remember that these interviews will benefit your work as a writer – and that fact alone might be all the motivation you need to pursue them.

Have you ever conducted informational interviews for your writing projects? If so, what was the experience like? Also, what was the topic and the interviewee’s role or relationship with this topic?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA/New Adult magical realism manuscript. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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16 Responses to Conducting Informational Interviews for Story Research

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers and Readers 05-24-2018 | The Author Chronicles

  2. sjhigbee says:

    What a very useful post, Sara! I’ve never had to consider one of those informational interviews, so I haven’t actually thought through exactly how to go about this procedure. And now I don’t have to – thank you!

  3. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Thanks for another thorough post, Sara! Though my WIP involves Alien Nazis, Abominable Snowmen, and Fascist saboteurs and assassins and spies, none of whom seem eager to give interviews for some reason…

  4. E. Rawls says:

    This is a wonderful guideline on how to go about interviewing someone in a way that ensures both the interviewer and interviewee are happy. Planning ahead and being flexible are key.

    • Sara L. says:

      Yes, flexibility and lots of advance preparation are definitely key to a successful informational interview. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, E.!

  5. Excellent and helpful article. Thanks so much for your advice which I will use in the future

  6. Laurie Logan says:

    Really helpful information, thanks! I’m going to bookmark this post for future research interviews. ☺

  7. Great advice, Sara. I think one thing that we struggle with as writers is getting the nerve up to simply ASK for the interview. It’s easy for us to talk ourselves out of doing something because we come up with a ton of reasons why someone would say no, but honestly, most people are willing to talk about what they know if we do it the right way. 🙂 Sometimes getting out of our way and just pushing through to ask is the hardest part, but it’s worth it! 🙂

    • Sara L. says:

      Thank you so much, Angela. 🙂

      And yes, simply finding the courage to ask can be the biggest challenge. All kinds of fear-based thoughts were spinning through my head when I thought of doing my own interviews. “Nobody’s going to say ‘yes’.” “People are going to think I’m crazy – and maybe I am crazy.” “What if I sound like an idiot when I ask questions?” But I also knew that if I didn’t try to pursue these interviews, there was no way I could write certain scenes of the manuscript without making things up and risking an inaccurate portrayal – and I don’t want that happening in my stories. That determination to get things right is what pushed me to try in the end, and I’m glad it did.

  8. Brenda says:

    I’m working on my first mystery-fantasy and I need help with police procedure when a body is discovered unattended. Anyway, I was mentioning it to a neighbor and remembered that her husband had been a police detective. She said that he had helped another writer and would be glad to answer my questions. Win!!!! I was mentioning how I could thank him, and she said, “Just invite us over for wine one night.” Ha. We haven’t gotten together yet, but the article above has given me useful ideas of how to prepare for the interview. Thanks!

    • Sara L. says:

      AHHH!! That’s fantastic, Brenda! And wine after dinner works just as well for a thank-you gesture. 🙂 Good luck with your upcoming interview, and I hope this post helps you prepare for it! In fact, maybe send me an email via my website’s Contact page after it happens. I’d love to hear how it went!

  9. I wrote a nonfiction picture book years ago about weird plants, and I had to interview a lot of different experts. I was really nervous to approach these strangers and ask them for information. But I found that every single one of them was happy to help. People like to talk about their passions and areas of expertise, so I would say to keep that in mind if you’re waffling about contacting someone.

    Thanks for this, Sara. There’s so much to love about this post! People think that interviews are for nonfiction stories only, but we often need to talk to experts in the field to understand some of the topics in our fiction too.

    • Sara L. says:

      Oh, thank YOU, Becca! 🙂 And I agree, people usually are happy to help. That’s what I found with all of the interviews I’ve done so far for this manuscript. (It also helped that the home remodeling contractor was wonderfully friendly and talkative, and gave very in-depth answers to my questions!) And once you’ve done one informational interview, it gives you the courage to pursue others in the future. So it’s not only a great skill to add to your writer’s toolbox, but also an overall confidence-booster.

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