Accuracy and detail can bring your writing to life, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, and sometimes the best way to gain knowledge is to seek a source who’s an expert in the field. These tips can help you find and contact the right people to interview.
Whether you’re writing a romance story set during the Civil War, a futuristic adventure featuring AI, or a nonfiction examination of European political cartoons, thoroughly researching your subject matter can be a necessary part of your writing endeavor.
Internet resources like Wikipedia and Khan Academy are great places to start when it comes to gathering knowledge, but there’s nothing like human-to-human interaction with the right people to help you collect the information, nuance, and context you need to make your writing informed and effective.
I’d estimate that I’ve conducted over a thousand interviews with musicians, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, inventors, historians, writers, professors, activists, politicians, and more in my career. I know first-hand that interviews, done right, often give you amazing and unexpected information that can fuel your writing like nothing else.
If you’re not a seasoned interviewer, it can be easy to dismiss the exercise as “just a conversation” — and in some ways, that is an accurate assessment — but there are deeper undercurrents at play before, during, and after any such interaction. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years that can help you conduct a successful and productive interview.
Identify your sources
Let’s say you’re writing a novel where precious gems play a key role and you want to find out more about how they go from minerals in the ground to expensive objects for sale. Where do you begin?
When you’re seeking out experts to talk to, personal connections are a great place to start. Do you have family or friends who work in industries like mining or gems and jewelry? Start with outreach to them.
Next, consider contacting professors at a local college or university, or experts at a local museum. Academics and scholars are often easy to identify as their contact information is generally available via institutional websites. I’ve found that such experts, as a rule, have the experience and wisdom to really help you go deep into your topic. Plus, they tend to be articulate and professional and are often quite happy to share their knowledge with those who display genuine interest.
Another approach is to simply find a local jewelry store and ask to speak with the owner or manager. People working in these capacities have likely never been interviewed as research for a book and may well be flattered by the invitation. That said, if you get pushback or aggression in response to your inquiry, move on — in this context, it’s not worth anyone’s time to pursue a source who does not want to be interviewed.
Local businesses do not exist in a vacuum, and trade associations sponsored by the gem and jewelry industry would also be a great target; an Internet search of the keywords “gems and jewelry trade association America” quickly yielded promising results. After finding a trade or professional organization that seems interesting and legit, contact their press or public relations department, explain that you’re looking for someone to interview as research for your book, and see how they can help. I’ve had very good experiences with trade associations and other professional organizations hooking me up with quality interviewees.
Finally, search online for news articles related to your subject. Did you love that editorial published last month on the long-term ecological ramifications of diamond mining? See if you can contact the author and request time to connect.
Hone your pitch
Once you’ve identified one or several parties to try to interview, it’s time to make contact. If you’re pinging a stranger and requesting a conversation, be sure to be considerate, respectful, and clear about what you are asking for — and why.
In terms of our fictitious gems and jewels example, I did a little research and found an article in The Independent that featured interesting quotes from Dr. Jeffrey Post, real-life curator of the Smithsonian’s National Gem and Mineral Collection. Clearly, Dr. Post is an expert in the field and a worthy potential interviewee to help me perform research for my imaginary book. If I were to write a pitch email to Dr. Post, I would likely include the following elements:
- A simple and polite greeting.
- A brief introduction of myself, saying that I’m a writer living in New York City.
- Some indication of how I became familiar with him and his work — in this case, the Independent article — and some brief positive words about why his quotes, background, research, etc. resonate with me.
- A very brief description of my book-in-progress, emphasizing that gems and geology play a key role.
- An affirmation that I want my book to be as scientifically accurate as possible and, to that end, a request to connect with him as part of my research, either on the phone or in person.
- An indication of how much time I’d like to have; for busy, accomplished interviewees, I’ve found that requesting 20 minutes can be a sweet spot, where you know that you will have adequate time for at least some sort of substantive conversation, but hopefully not scare off your potential interviewee with a time request that is more than he or she is comfortable promising. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that conversations that are initially slated for 20 minutes often end up stretching, quite happily, into far longer discussions.
- An invitation to get back to me with any questions.
- A warm “thank you.”
Would such a note get an enthusiastic “yes” in response? All I can say is that this flavor of approach — customized in length, tone, and content to fit each individual pitch — has served me well on numerous occasions.
As a side note, if you want to initially approach a potential interviewee by phone instead of email, feel free, but be cautious. I’ve found that cold calls are often met with a stunned silence and don’t convert easily into successful interviews. Generally, interviewees need time to process all of the information in your request and consider if it’s something they want to be involved in — not to mention doing an Internet search on you to get a sense of who they’d be speaking with. Following up with a phone call if you don’t hear back is fine, but I almost always recommend email for initial outreach.
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