Q & A: Research and interviewing
The idea of interviewing people is terrifying. That’s why I’m not a journalist.
I’ve always wanted to be a fiction writer. But as you know, everyone tells us to pick a backup career. My backup was journalism. I minored in media studies in college and managed through the journalism class without having to do any real reporting. It was clear, even then, that I wouldn’t go down that route.
When my roommate and I got entry-level positions at The Roanoke Times, we were excited that someone had recently been promoted from our department to the news department. Having a chance is exciting. And a year later, it was exciting to see my roommate make the leap to news as we’d hoped. However, when it was my turn to be promoted, I went into advertising.
Not all fiction writers are introverts, but a lot of us are. But don’t get confused, we’re not always introverts. Someone can appear to be an extrovert and not be. We all have a little of both, to varying degrees, within us. There are times I’m outgoing and there are also times when I don’t want to talk to anyone, especially strangers. It’s that last part that makes it hard to interview people.
Fiction writing feels safe for us introverts. It’s all made up in our heads after all. People are used to suspending disbelief when watching movies or reading books because they know it’s fiction. A lot of times we can fudge the truth a bit, make up what we don’t know.
However, there’s a limit to how much people are willing to let go. Depending on our story, and how realistic we want it to be, there could be a time when we have to do more than fudge it. We have to do research and possibly do interviews so we can get it right.
Since I’m not a natural at this, I invited my former roommate to give us her tips and tricks.
Q & A
Q: Shawna, thank you for coming on today. I appreciate your insight. For starters, would you please give us a little background on your experience?
A: Sure! I spent just over 10 years as a reporter for The Roanoke Times, both in its main Roanoke office and in its Christiansburg bureau. When I left the newspaper, I worked as a freelance writer for several years. I served as the higher education writer for Roanoke Business magazine and wrote parenting articles for a web-based company.
Q: Obviously, your expertise is in journalism and true stories. How did you find stories?
A: Much of my writing was assigned by editors. I spent a great deal of my time at The Roanoke Times as a police and courts reporter so my stories often were reactive. A crime would happen, I would cover it, and that could generate several other stories: Reaction, community impact, resulting court cases. Many ideas came from tips; especially when I covered crime, police and citizens alike were good sources for ideas. My favorite way to find ideas was just from talking to people. If you give people a chance, they often have a lot to say.
Q: How could a fiction writer find ideas? What are good resources? How do you suggest approaching this?
A: Someone once told me, “A writer who doesn’t read is like a shitter who doesn’t eat.” I think reading is one of the best ways to find ideas for fiction writing. The more ideas you hear, the more your brain will come up with. I feel like many people have lots of original ideas; they just don’t know how to harvest them or don’t think they will be worthwhile. I’m one of those people. I’m not a fiction writer, though I have many ideas for stories. I’m just not sure how to approach them.
Q: Other than interviews, what other methods of research did you do? What’s available for free?
A: My articles often included a lot of background info, so I depended on articles that had already been published in The Roanoke Times and our staff librarian. Both were invaluable resources to be able to find the information I needed on deadline. When writing about something that had happened, I had to be careful to consider all angles. Each person involved is likely going to tell a slightly different tale – in some cases, an extremely different tale. An editor used to tell us, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Try to get as many different viewpoints as you can. Reputable websites and calls to people in a particular field were great resources for my magazines and online articles. Often one call will lead you to three more people to talk to.
Q: You did a lot of networking. I can see this as being useful to both nonfiction and fiction writers. Any tips on how to get started networking and how to keep it going?
A: It sounds simple, but I tried to be kind and open to everyone. I don’t think this would apply to fiction writers, but I encountered plenty of people who were distrusting of reporters and I had a hard time overcoming that with some people.
Q: I remember you talking about how hard it was to go up to people on one of their hardest days and interview them. Most of us won’t be in the same situation, but it’s still daunting. How do you handle this?
A: Again, I tried to be kind and open, and sensitive. In the case of a death, for example, I would tell family members right off that I was sorry to be approaching them at such a difficult time, but that I wanted to tell people about their loved one. Another simple thing is that if I was in someone’s home and they offered me a drink, I would always accept. Somehow that helped to relax people.
Q: Do you have any special ways to approach someone when asking for an interview?
A: Not really. I always considered it a favor they were doing me when granting me an interview, and I approached it that way.
Q: When you were a court reporter, you told me how hard it was to see the victim’s family sitting in the courtroom having to watch certain testimony. How do you write honestly and remain respectful?
A: That is so hard. I would try to approach them to let them know who I am and what I would be writing and ask if they wanted to talk with me. I was always told that my loyalty as a reporter was to the reader, but I felt equally loyal to the person whose story I was telling. I would try to consider how they would feel when reading my writing.
Q: Do you have any last thoughts and advice on writing, either fiction or nonfiction?
A: Write! Write in a journal, write random thoughts, write about things you see. Your words and ideas are worthwhile. I think the hardest thing is getting started. Eventually, an idea will take hold.
Shawna, thank you for your time today.
As Shawna said, reading is key. Be an insatiable reader. Read everything you can, fiction and nonfiction, newspapers and magazines. Think of yourself as training to be on Jeopardy. You never know what tiny nugget will inspire a story or find itself useful in a description.
More and more I’m seeing resources dedicated to helping writers, like Adam Richardson’s Writer’s Detective Bureau. In one of his episodes, he suggests writers call their local police department and ask if someone would be willing to talk with them. Also, some police departments have citizen police academy classes that you can take to learn more about department policies. Those could be a good resource.
And finally, if you find yourself in that awkward position of having to call or interview someone, be humble and rely heavily on integrity and empathy. Simply being a good human being goes a long way.
I’m sure everyone goes about research and interviewing a little differently. What tips and tricks have worked for you?