Just ask

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Paula’s Post #77 –  Dateline, London.

Checking in from London City Airport, waiting for a departing flight for Stockholm.

If you’ve followed our 5writers blog, you’ll know my favourite place for power writing is the many international airport departure lounges I’ve frequented since we first started this blog in September 2012. Free wi fi and I’m set. It’s all I need.

I’ve just discovered London City Airport, a great alternative to Gatwick or Heathrow for quick hops to the continent. Free wi fi too. Only problem is they don’t call the flights, which in our case led to a rather perilous 7 minutes when I temporarily misplaced my husband once our flight had been posted as ‘boarding’, only to discover he’d become metaphorically ‘lost’ in a bookstore.

Anyway, something about travelling incites my creative muse, too, because while I admit I sometimes struggle to find something interesting and relevant to contribute to our 5writers blog, this never seems to be the case when I’m writing from the departure lounge.

I’ve just checked my email and see that my fellow 5writers are all abuzz about registering once again for the excellent Surrey International Writers’ Conference, set for October 2014. If you’ve followed our 5writers journey, you’ll know that this is the common link, the place where we all originally met.

For me, it is also the place where I’ve picked up some of the best tips on the art and craft of writing.  I hope you’ll check out the conference website and consider registering:

siwc.ca

I’m most grateful to SIWC for the wonderful presenters who’ve shared a thing or two about research. With a degree in International Affairs, a minor in History, and two Law degrees behind me, I’m no stranger to research. But I’m not talking just about the kind of research that comes from books. For any writer, one of the best and perhaps most overlooked skill is ‘people skills’. Specifically, the skill of interviewing people to acquire much needed information to embark on writing your novel.

Now, I admit I have a wee leg up here, too.

As a retired Crown Prosecutor, (the Canadian equivalent of the US Assistant District Attorney), I not only had the opportunity during my career for an inside glimpse inside the world of ‘Crime and Punishment’,  I also learned some very good interviewing skills.

Decades ago, as young law students, we practiced artificial ‘simulated’ interviews with our fellow students acting the part of pretend ‘clients’. Looking back now, I laugh as I remember how we were carefully coached to ask open-ended, non-leading questions, as opposed to the kind of pointed, direct, focused questions we tried out in practice sessions for ‘cross-examination’. But to be truthful, although these sessions had their flaws, they at least gave us a rudimentary understanding of the benefits and pitfalls of asking the right and wrong question.

Nothing though prepared me for the real life adventure of conducting interviews of witnesses in criminal prosecutions. Let me give you an idea of the crazy process that exists in the Canadian Judicial System (and I suspect, the US system and likely the English system  as well). A just-hired prosecutor, fresh out of law school is lucky if he or she receives a week’s training, ‘shadowing’ a more senior colleague before being ‘thrown’ to the wolves’ and assigned a courtroom and trials of one’s own.

Scary, right?

Being assigned a courtroom means you are responsible for all the minor matters set in that courtroom on any given day. Shopliftings, Thefts, Common Assaults… all yours baby. If a more serious or technical matter is scheduled to be tried on the same day, such as an Impaired Driving case causing injury or a Robbery, it is generally assigned to a more senior colleague as a ‘special assignment’, which means they get more notice of the case and can schedule advance interviews of the witnesses, rather than the usual half hour allotted to interview every witness, in every case, the morning before court.

Seriously. This is how it works.

On any given day, we young prosecutors might find anywhere from 2 or 15 witnesses waiting to be interviewed for the three or four trials we are expected to prepare for that court day. Of course, many of these witnesses don’t show at all, or turn up late. Invariably, they don’t all arrive at once.

In cosmopolitan Vancouver, they also don’t always speck English.

That means one also needs to coordinate the interview with the availability of an interpreter: Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Polish, or Swahili, all are available, assuming the person who set up the trial remembered to book an interpreter to be notified for the interview and the trial.

Now, as you can imagine, simply communicating is not the only problem.

Not all witnesses are ‘willing’ to spend time with the Prosecutor before court, going over their witness statement to the police. Some are frightened. Some are ignorant of the process of law and misunderstand what is going on. Some are more likely to have been on the other side of ‘the law’ on occasion, and plain reluctant to do anything to assist the crown prosecution service, or even be seen as cooperating.

Some lie.

Some try to be too helpful, making up things they think we want to hear. Some barely can express themselves in their own language, much less English. Most interpreters are excellent, but can you guess how many times I’ve listened to a witness speak for about 3 minutes in Vietnamese, or Farsi, or Tagalog, or Cantonese, gesticulating wildly all the time, only to have the interpreter turn to me and say “she says no”.

On the worst occasion I can remember, I once was scheduled to see 23 witnesses in 25 minutes.  I’d been a Crown Prosecutor for just under four weeks. Fortunately, about 18 of the witnesses were police officers, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP. Unfortunately, many of them were so new they’d never given evidence in court.

I lined them up in a corridor, handed them all their pages from the Report to Crown Counsel (the official ‘police report’ prepared when charges are recommended by the police) and told them to read their bit again, and their notes, and that I’d get back to them before I called them to give evidence. (I hoped). I then went on to the next one, and so on down the line, until I had them all sorted. With minutes to go, I started on the civilian witnesses, whom of course, I’d never laid eyes on before, but just decided to start with the cops first and try to find time to interview the civilians at the morning break. Cool under pressure. Not really, but what can you do, bluffing is an excellent skill to learn.

Admittedly, this is an extreme case of being overwhelmed by witnesses. But it well illustrates how quickly I was forced to hone my interviewing skills. This ‘ordeal by trial’ prepared me for many awkward occasions when I had to pick up a trial at the last minute. Incredibly, you’d be surprised to learn how frequently this occurs. You carefully prepare for your spousal assault trial, scheduling advance interviews with the now reluctant battered wife (or sometimes husband) weeks in advance. On the trial date, not unexpectedly, she is a no-show. They’ve made up and she no longer wants to testify. What do you do? Without the ‘victim’ you have no case. You can either seek an adjournment of the trial and try to get the missing witness to court by cajoling or threat (sometimes even the very real threat of a material witness warrant to have them arrested) or you can ‘stay’ the prosecution, effectively putting it at an end to the case unlikely to ever be revived. Hard choices, but ones that are made everyday in any busy criminal court.

But wait a minute. What happens to that valuable court time? Either way, the scheduled trial, (set for two hours), is not going ahead. But the Judge is there waiting, a prosecutor is there (you), and just like airplanes waiting to land, in other courtrooms, where three or four minor trials may be scheduled, trials are waiting to ‘get on’.  You find yourself walking out of your courtroom and back down the corridor to your office, only to be met by the familiar figures of the trial coordinator and your supervisor.

Guess what?

Your getting some new cases. Cases with reports you’ve never read. With witness statements you’ve never read. With criminal records you’ve never perused.

You’re starting at zero and the trial is starting in 5 minutes.

Seriously, this is how it works.

Hopefully, you’ve got great colleagues and they’ve tabbed the witness statements with yellow stickies. Highlighted a copy of the Report to Crown Counsel with a yellow highlighter, illuminated all the important bits. Hopefully the witnesses are ready, willing and able to testify (police witnesses are usually like wind-up dolls, put them up there on the stand and they just talk, talk talk. But if you’ve got any issue of police misconduct, watch out).

Now, usually if you get a ‘golf job’ as we used to call these orphan files prepared by another prosecutor, the Judge will be understanding. He’ll know you’ve never read the damn thing and are introducing yourself to the witnesses in the corridor outside court. He’ll know you’re doing you’re best to get a handle on the facts and familiarize yourself with the evidence.

Usually.

But, just as you might imagine, sometimes judges are cantankerous. A good number of them were once prosecutors too. They’ve walked in your shoes. Invariably, they don’t have much sympathy for your plight. Just get on with it.

But that’s enough reminiscing about the good old days. I wanted to tell you about this crazy world of mine because it illustrates how I’ve been one of the lucky ones. I learned to interview witnesses under the toughest of circumstances. (I’ve even had to have them arrested and put them in a jail cell, and have the sheriffs take me down  to the cells so I can get one last crack at some kind of cooperation, before throwing them on the stand).

As you can imagine, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. At least my public skin. Find me at home later, after a particularly hard day and it’s another story. The kind of hard day’s night when only a gin and tonic, hot bath and three pounds of high test, extra cream, fettucine Alfredo will do. Pass the parmesan please.

But it is experiences like this that have made me a good interviewer. Experiences that have also made me fearless. I’m not afraid to ask.

Anything.

Anything I need to know to move forward with my research. I’m one of the ‘lucky ones’.

We writers are often an introspective lot. Some might call us ‘introverted’. Let’s face it. We all spend a lot of time living inside our heads, talking to our “imaginary friends”. The heroes and villains that fill a good portion of our subconscious. But sometimes, this can be a mistake. Sometimes, we just have to get out there and ‘just ask’ some questions.

I see this frequently when I read the work of fellow writers struggling to find an authentic voice for their protagonists. For characters caught up in crimes and misdemeanours. Invariably, the scenes they’re crafting require them to put themselves inside the heads of a detective or fast talking lawyer. I’ve seen my fellow writers struggle here. Just as I would struggle if I were trying to put myself into the head (and into the world) of a Doctor or Physio, an EMT or even a banker or advertising executive.

Obviously, I don’t know much about their worlds. But guess what? I’m not afraid to ask.

Neither are my 5writer colleagues.

Although I’m the only lawyer in the group, they’ve all come to writing from pasts that have toughened their hides too. And made them good interviewers. I recall that last year about this time, my 5writer colleague Helga found herself conveniently ensconced on a cruise ship for about 10 days, happily aboard the same ship as a retired FBI agent. Now, would that be an opportunity you’d squander, out of reticence or shyness?

I sincerely hope not.

In my humble opinion, most people are, by human nature, generous with their time. If they have special expertise, and no restrictions on sharing it (such as an oath of secrecy, or concerns of breach of confidentiality) they will happily share with you what they have learned. Sometimes, it helps to re-live a happy time in their life. Sometimes, it reminds them of how much they have learned and can share with others. Sometimes, it is just therapeutic, unburdening oneself of the crap one’s been through in life. Whatever, in my experience, people are generous with their time and don’t mind sharing special knowledge and expertise.

So why, I ask, would you try to make it all up?

Why would you risk ‘getting it wrong’? Creating an imaginary world so lacking in any authenticity that readers may find your efforts amateurish or even laughable.

Instead, ‘Just Ask’.

Everyone.

Start with your writing colleagues. Ask them if they know a cop or a lawyer or a doctor who might be willing to provide some insights. Ask your friends and your family. Ask your co-workers. You’d be surprised what six degrees of separation can turn up.

I have the perfect illustration of this simple concept. Once, I had it in my head that I wanted to write a novel about a bright but unlucky young prosecutor, who had the misfortune to make a small mistake. A deadly mistake. A mistake that released a suspected terrorist back on the streets. On the very first day on the job. A good story line. One that would take my intrepid heroine eventually to the conflict torn poppy fields of Afghanistan.

Now, I hope you can see the problem straight up. While I knew lots about the hapless existence of inexperienced young prosecutors, I didn’t know two shakes about the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the war waging there, except from the news and some books I’d read.

I knew this wasn’t enough. But how to start?

Well, in one of those incredible coincidences, I happened to be working with some community health workers at the time. One day, over lunch, we were chatting about non-work things like writing and knitting and holidays and I admitted I was trying to write a novel set in Afghanistan. My co-worker across the table looked up at me with a peculiar expression on her face and said:

“Well, you’d have no way of knowing this, but it just so happens that my ex-husband is the defence attache in Kabul”.

She very kindly put me in touch with him, and he very kindly put me in touch with a wonderful officer in the RCMP who was stationed for very many months in Afghanistan. My ‘source’ with boots on the ground proved invaluable. Over the next several months, he helped me with logistical issues, background information and provided special expertise about weaponry and equipment, (including the very helpful reminder that Sat phones don’t work in caves). He never shared anything he was not permitted to share, but he proved immensely valuable in helping me create an authentic setting.

I am still in touch with my ’source’, and although I never got to the point that I felt that novel of Afghanistan was ready to submit to agents and editors, it wasn’t because it was plagued with a lack of technical authenticity. Rather, I just didn’t think the protagonist I created was strong enough to carry the book. But, that’s a different problem, one I’m still grappling with to this day, but that’s the subject for another blog post.

But that happy coincidence of finding my ‘Afghanistan’ source has made me even more fearless about sharing what I’m working on and what I need help with. I don’t know how many times I’ve started a sentence with ‘You don’t happen to know anyone who works as a _________ (fill in the blank here). If you’re writing a scene with a librarian, talk to a librarian. If you’re writing a scene with a fireman or an arson investigator, interview some firemen or retired firemen). Don’t be shy. They’re all out there: cowboys, proctologists, private investigators, insurance salespeople, bankers, bakers, bikers…

Well, you get the idea. All you’ve got to do is ‘just ask’.

PS: I dashed off this post from the London Airport. Somewhere over the North Sea I suddenly was gripped by the uncomfortable thought that I may have actually posted on this topic before. At first, I was crestfallen, determined to double check all my past posts to find out if I was, as aging persons sometimes do, starting to repeat myself. By the time we touched down in Stockholm though, I decided ‘what the heck’. From the time we started this blog, we’ve picked up quite a few new followers. Even if I did post something similar before, I’m sure we’ve many new readers who may not have seen my original post. So, since I’m posting from the land of limited Wi Fi, I think I’ll fly with it for now, with apologies for those that might have heard some of these stories before. 

Oh, and I’m now in the Sheraton Stockholm Club Lounge, chatting with a couple of nice guys from Dallas and Ottawa. Guess what, they’re software engineers, – does anyone have any questions for my new friends. I’d be happy to ask. 

14 thoughts on “Just ask

  1. Thanks Joe, after I posted this, I was afraid it was a case of ‘deja vu all over again’ (another post title I’ve used lately). But whether I just think I’ve told these stories before, or really have, I think the message is a good reminder to all of us of the many resources available for struggling writers. By the way, it is now a few minutes after midnight in Stockholm, and just now getting really dark – perfect for midnight blogging! You’d like it here, some of the people even look like extras from ‘Game of Thrones’ and they sell bow and arrows and armour in the Old Town section of the city.

  2. Well I hadn’t heard any of it before. Great post. And great advise, for life!
    Enjoy Stockholm – wonderful city, and if you’ve time I highly recommend the Vasa Museum.
    Alison

    • Hi Alison,
      Thanks for the comment and advice! Coincidentally, it was raining this morning in Stockholm, so we by chance headed for the Vasa Museum. Really enjoyed it and nice to find your affirmation that we made the right choice. Sun is out now and we are heading for a traditional restaurant named ‘Pelikan’. I think my husband John has his sights set on the pickled herring, but despite Helga’s comments below, I still have my misgivings (as she well knows).

      • If it’s anything like Dutch pickled herring I recommend at least a taste. Don’s son lives in Sweden so we’ve been many times and never tried the pickled herring there. But my favourite candy bar is pigalle, and my favourite ‘icy pole’ (Australian. Suddenly can’t remember the Canadian word for flavoured ice/icecream on a stick lol) is pigalin. Recommend both! 🙂
        Oh and I forgot to say I really enjoyed reading about the life of young prosecutors in Canada – fascinating. I can’t even imagine the pressure!

  3. No problem with deja vu! Loved to read about a day in the life of a rookie prosecutor. And you must revisit that novel about Afghanistan. About ‘just ask’ I would add, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’, especially if you are a writer and want to also know what it sounds like, feels like, and yes, tastes like. So, just in case one of your future novels takes place in Stockholm you better try pickled herring! Show us your sense of adventure! All par for the course.

    • Stockholm is beautiful (even with a little rain) but I must admit that for me, Swedish words, being on average twice as long as English words and with a tad more consonants are a bit of a challenge. I think writing a book with Swedish place names would be a daunting challenge. But I’ll try to keep my sense of adventure and at least try some Swedish craft beer, even if I don’t embrace your love for pickled herring!

  4. Wonderful post Paula – I think you really do your best work in airports. Travel seems to get you in a flow state! Love your reminiscences about the life of a young prosecutor – a very exotic milieu to most of us (which is probably why we get off on crime fiction).

    You’re right that you’re one of the lucky ones in your high comfort level with asking questions of anyone, and having the skills to do it well and with confidence. Some of that comes from your experience, but I think a lot more of it comes from your own persona. A lot of people, writers included (in fact we’re probably overrepresented), can blame fear of embarrassment for their reluctance to put themselves ‘out there’ and that can include a shyness about ‘bothering’ people with questions. Strangely this very common and deeply ingrained, and is not limited to people who lack confidence. Research shows that one of the most prevalent fears shared by all types of people is … public speaking. What? That sounds crazy. There are so many things we probably should be afraid of, but aren’t, this irrational fear of embarrassment seems a bit absurd. But there it is. I’m sure the psychiatrists could tell us why.

    Like you, I had to channel my inner chutzpah to make a living (I found tons of parallels in your post to my own professional challenges). However, though I got good at it, I never loved it. It was all acting, not the natural me. It was hard, stressful work. For years I was addicted to the adrenalin, but now I find I have to really push myself to play that role.

    So, for me, it’s not the fun part of writing – but you’re so right that it’s necessary. Thanks for the reminder. And the entertainment!

  5. Pingback: Shake it up! | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

  6. I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s
    both educative and interesting, and without a doubt, you have hit the nail on the head.
    The problem is an issue that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about.

    I am very happy that I came across this in my hunt for something concerning
    this.

    • We all have our different styles – I think it is the ‘frazzle’ that revs up my adrenalin – I’m at my worst when all is calm, serene and orderly, though wish it wasn’t so as I fear I would be far more likely to write better first drafts!

  7. Pingback: The one question every writer must ask: (aka – | 5 Writers 5 Novels 5 Months

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