When researching your novel, fractured story, or online fiction, you may want to ask a subject matter expert (SME) for direct insights into the world you’re writing about, or the reality-based pieces of the world you’re making up. This is easier and a lot more fun than you think. (If you’d like to know how to do online or book research, see my previous post.)

 

I am really fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview some amazing people for both my fiction and my non-fiction work. I’ve talked to a Nobel prize laureate, first responders, a former Marine wounded in action in Fallujah, world-class scientific researchers, the former VP of marketing at a major motion picture studio, a teen who went from obese to healthy weight, and many more. These are some of the most rewarding interactions in my career—I’ve been entrusted to basically dig around with these people through their psyches, which is a kind of cognitively intimate experience usually reserved for years-long friendships (or therapy, which is not as fun)—and I want you to be able to have some of this, too.

 

Here is how you do it, including setting it up and what to actually do.

 

  1. Know why you want to interview someone. This doesn’t need to be some kind of deep reason: it could be that you can’t find the information you need. Or it could be simply that having a one-on-one conversation with someone will turn up more information of a different type than what you can find online. See, facts can be found easily: if you want to know what year people first set foot on the moon, you can find that out. But if you want to know what it feels like to step on lunar dirt, like how squishy it is, and whether space boots are made for people with high arches, or how long it takes for a fart to dissipate inside of a space suit, chances are, you’ll need to find an astronaut to talk to. Those little details are harder to find out—and they’re precisely the details that make fiction come alive, so you’ve got to have them!
  2. Identify your SME. If you’re lucky, this is a friend, or a friend of a friend. If not, you’ll need to poke around online to find out who you can ask. I find that my LinkedIn network and local universities are great mines for people who are willing to talk to me. University professors and researchers are fantastic SMEs, and since the press uses them routinely, they’re by and large used to being called out of the blue to lend an informed point of view to other work. In my article on how to research, I explained how I selected the right interview candidate from among a few dozen academic profiles for a new piece I’m writing: I picked the guy whose profile picture was a candid shot of him smiling, rather than a staged photo shoot deal. This is my new criteria, because this guy turned out to be the most social and friendly person I could have asked for, who was totally game for helping me lend the necessary credibility to a fantastical story world.
  3. Preliminary research. Figure out what it is you want to ask the SME. Write down some preliminary questions. You don’t need this to be a military protocol, just a road map that you can share with the SME ahead of time.
  4. When possible, set up the interview in person. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of it, especially if you don’t know the SME already.
  5. Send your SME an email of introduction that explains what you’d like to do and includes your preliminary questions. Propose some times for the interview and ask the SME to let you know of a different time if none of those work. Offer to buy the SME lunch, a cup of coffee, or a beer in exchange for their time, which will make the interview pleasant for the SME. Also, this is very important: tell the SME you need 20 – 30 minutes of their time. If he or she is a big talker—and who isn’t, when they’re in the position of sharing their expertise?—they will probably go longer, so you’ll need to allow an hour and a half on your own calendar. But asking for 20 – 30 minutes lets the SME know you are respectful of their time, and a small chunk of time is easier for the SME to commit to.
  6. Project the image of “artistic, but professional.” Be organized, brush your hair and teeth, and arrive/call the SME on time wearing clothes without coffee stains. I don’t mind showing my eccentricity a little bit, but I want the SME to have the confidence that their insights are being entrusted to someone who has enough on the ball to make good on them.
  7. Bring to the interview (or have by your phone) something to take notes with. A laptop makes a good impression, or a tablet if you don’t mind the absence of a perceptible keyboard. A clean paper notepad and pen will also do just fine; remove any rumpled sheets or sheets with pre-existing notes.
  8. If you’re going to record the interview, get the SME’s permission. This is very important because laws about this vary from state to state, and from state to state depend on whether it’s the state law of residence of the interviewer or interviewee, or the location of the interview, that you have to follow, so the easiest way for me to give advice is to say you have to get the SME’s permission. Ask permission when you confirm the interview time, and ask permission again before you start the recording, and then confirm the permission with the speaker’s name when you start recording, like this: “I’m going to start recording now with your permission. When I start, I’ll ask you to confirm that this is OK. Ready?” Then start recording, and say “Today is ____, 20__, and I’m recording Professor McGillicuddy with her permission; Professor McGillicuddy, is that right?”
  9. …But consider whether recording is really necessary. You’re not doing investigative journalism, so exact quotes aren’t needed. You need notes on real-life details. If you can type or take notes quickly, the recording, which later has to be fast-forwarded and rewound through, or else transcribed (there are services and apps for this; I’ve never used them because, since I write really fast and rarely interview people for more than an hour, I hardly ever record, although this is not professionally advisable), becomes more trouble than it’s worth. Also—and here is a big disadvantage of recording—people who aren’t used to being recorded may clam up once they know they’re being recorded. I used to work as a freelance writer, and it was more important that I got their words verbatim than it is an SME for your fiction piece, so handwritten notes should do the trick for your purposes.
  10. If it’s apropos and you’re meeting in person, request the SME trot out some memorabilia. Old photos, trophies, family heirlooms—those will get the SME to really let loose and talk. Plus, it’s fun to look at this kind of thing (at least, I find it fun).
  11. Shhhh. Listen, rather than interjecting or arguing. Right now, it’s your interviewee’s moment. Your story is where you will get to do all the talking.
  12. Use the magic word. This is the biggest, most important tip I can give you. (My dad read this somewhere; I don’t know where.) It works at parties, too, and in awkward social situations. You need to use the magic word to get your interviewee talking, and the magic word is…“how.” We all know open-ended questions lead to longer answers than close-ended questions. But among open-ended questions, those that start with “how” are king. They ask about a process, and so the answer is naturally long. And “why” questions may give you the same answer, but provoke a defensive response. So, after a few warm-up questions to get your interviewee settled, use the magic word.
  13. No matter how focused you are on concrete facts, dig around for the emotion under all of the information. Questions like “tell me about the time you knew you first wanted to be an astronaut,” or “how did you go from being a kid living on the streets of Caracas to playing MLB?” or “what do you miss most about the house that burned down?” are going to get you really far. Hold them for later in the interview, after your SME is warmed up and comfortable enough to open up emotionally.
  14. Follow up afterwards. Send a thank-you note, add the SME to your LinkedIn network, and just generally be nice. If you didn’t get a chance to buy the SME a cup of coffee, send a bottle of wine. Later, when you have something to publish, include your SME in the acknowledgments.