Interviewing for writers – part 1

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Paula’s Post #103

If you read my post of last week (Channeling your inner Columbo) you’ll know that my post this week is about interviewing for writers. You’ll also know that I’ve promised a few surprises for my series ‘The Sheriff’.

(Note: to be strictly correct, one more accurately refers to such law enforcement professionals as ‘Deputy Sheriff’ or ‘Retired Deputy Sheriff’, since, technically, there is almost always only one Sheriff in office and those who work below are referred to as ‘Deputies’. But having put that out there, in the interests of readability, I’m just going to use the term ‘Sheriff’ if that’s okay with you).

So… let’s backtrack a bit. My advice to my writing group: if you are going to be a writer, you must learn to interview.

No ifs, ands or buts.

Why?

Because, if nothing else, it is unwise, arrogant, asinine, cowardly, awkward and/or just plain stupid to just ‘make stuff up’ instead of conducting actual field research in the subject matter of your novel.

Is that blunt enough?

I’m not telling you what to write. As far as I’m concerned, you can decide to ‘vary’ from what is ‘correct’ and ‘accurate’ as much as you wish (which you’ll probably want to do if you are writing a dystopian fantasy, like Divergent). But how can you deviate from the norm if you don’t know what that is in the first place?

And what if you are writing a police procedural, a thriller or even a cozy? How do you deviate from the norm if you don’t know what that is in the first place?

Open any “foreword” (or more commonly “afterword”) to a novel and read the acknowledgements. Somewhere, tucked amidst the many ‘thank yous’ to loving and supportive spouses, children and unwalked dogs, I bet you also discover some very special ‘thank yous’ to those experts kind enough to provide insight, technical expertise, background information and assistance to a legion of grateful, struggling authors: scientists, physicians, priests, physicists, musicians and morticians… all have contributed their skill and knowledge to the literary arts.

Who amongst you can point to a single mystery writer who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to interview a cop?

Unless, of course you just happen to be an active or retired law enforcement professional in your own right, such as Joseph Wambaugh or Sean Slater. But even then, I bet even police officer-novelists relish the opportunity to chat with colleagues from different jurisdiction or specialties.

How about you?

Wouldn’t you like to get the details right for your next crime novel?

In this regard, I’m fortunate. As a former prosecutor (Canadian Crown Counsel) I know some pretty good police officers, including the aforementioned Sean Slater, super hero and one of our founding critique group members.

Still, most of my contacts are in Canada. Since I’ve been down in the sunny California desert for the past several weeks, I’ve been cut off from ‘the usual sources’. Besides, I know enough to know field operations, investigative techniques and local conditions may well be quite different here in California than in beautiful British Columbia.

So I was excited when my tennis friend, a retired Deputy Sheriff from a large metropolitan area in California, kindly agreed to sit for an interview for this series of posts.

Step one for me? Brush up on Interviewing Do’s and Don’ts:

1) Etiquette: Emily Post has this one covered:

What does etiquette mean to you? To us, it means treating people with consideration, respect, and honesty. It means being aware of how our actions affect those around us. Why? To help us build successful relationships.

Show up, be on time, be polite. Be mindful of how much time you are taking out of someone’s busy schedule. Be appreciative of the ‘gift of time’. I’m sure you learned all of this in Kindergarten.

2. Preparation: You are literate, skilled, intuitive and informed. You are a warrior writer. You have the ability to prepare fully for your interview by first learning as much as possible from publicly available source material on the internet and elsewhere (thank you Wikipedia, if for no other reason than allowing us to be disabused of any misconceptions and inaccuracies, later). Be realistic here: You don’t need to have learned Dutch or memorized the manual for an X26 Taser, but a basic understanding of what’s on a police officer’s utility belt is certainly helpful.

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3. Format: Familiarize yourself with basic interviewing techniques, including the difference between the use of ‘open-ended’ and ‘close-ended’ questions. More on this later, but trust me, understanding this distinction is crucial to becoming an effective interviewer.

4. Goals: What question(s) must you absolutely ensure are answered? What is important to you? Plan and you will not leave disappointed and empty handed. Prepare a list and some memory aids.

5. Record your interview: I write fast. I take notes. Lots of notes. I type fast, too, (as you likely do too, if you are a writer). If you do not, ask your subject if they would mind if you recorded the conversation (yes, this makes some people nervous). It will be up to you to explain what your intentions are and why failing memory and hearing make recording helpful. If you have concerns about accuracy, ask if your subject will agree to later read your notes (or better yet passages of your book) to ensure factual accuracy.

5. Special subjects: Interviewing a cop may sound ‘unnerving’ (though perhaps not as much so as the other way around). But if you count a couple of police officers amongst your circle of acquaintances, you’ll know they’re not quite as strange and exotic as one might think. Certainly no more so than a Platypus or Tasmanian She-Devil. Set aside prejudices and pre-conceived notions and I think you’ll be surprised to find out how much they are just like you or me. And here, of course, I’m not just talking about police officers. Try to stay open-minded and flexible you may be surprised where the conversation takes you.

So, how do you picture a deputy sheriff when you hear those words? Go on, don’t be shy. Someone like this, perhaps?

Sheriff

Well, perhaps now is the time for some surprises of my own:

1) My friend “the Sheriff” is female;

2) My friend “the Sheriff” is a grandmother;

3) My friend “the Sheriff” has an amazing story to tell.

Check back for the next week’s instalment of:

“Interviewing for writers – part 2”

to find out more.

7 thoughts on “Interviewing for writers – part 1

  1. Ha! Joe’s post and yours go together for me. I’ve always had a fear of interviewing other “important” people. I need to break out of my office….

    • Those ‘important people’ are on your paddling team, at the coffee shop, on your son’s ultimate frisbee team… In other words, their just like you. Oh, and if any of our followers needs some inside advice on injuries, rehab and Physios, maybe we can send them to you?

    • You’ll get there, – practice on your friends, family neighbours… Strangers on the bus! Just let your curiosity run wild and ask away! You’ll be surprised all the cool things you may learn that can be squirrels away for future reference or that may present as a ‘trigger’ for a new story idea!

  2. I think the last time I interviewed anyone was for an undergraduate English paper, and I’d rather not think about how many years ago that was! 🙂 Excellent tips for conducting an interview, and I’m looking forward to what your expert has to say!

    • Thanks JM, I’d hoped to get a post up this week but am on an epic 2500 kilometre journey from North to south in an over-loaded car on a quest for “pet-friendly” hotels. So far, not as relaxing and as conducive to writing as I’d envisioned. Had a new post 3/4 drafted when the Internet crashed before it had auto-saved, leaving me back at proverbial square one. I’ll take another stab at it this weekend!

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