Writing Tip

interview-1674583_1280Interviewing Experts

After my post on consulting experts if you can’t get first-hand experience, I thought it might be helpful to provide guidelines on how to conduct a face-to-face interview for anyone, but especially teens, who have never done one before.  If the expert is already a friend, you might not have to be so formal.

1. Research — Do research on your topic to figure out if you need to do an interview, and if so,  with whom.  If the answer to your questions can be found in reliable written sources, use those.  If your questions are more technical and complicated, seek an expert.  I read about the basics rules for police searches and surveillances, but I asked a retired police chief more complicated questions, like how police officers get a judge to issue a search warrant.

2. Write down all your questions.

3. Take notes during the interview.

4. Ask follow up questions — Ask questions to clarify points or get more detailed information.

5. Review your notes — As soon as you can, review your notes.  The interview will still be fresh in your mind, and you can add information you did not have time to put down during the interview.

Here are some additional guidelines, which are true of any kind of interview.interview-1018333_1280

1. Arrive 5-10 minutes early for your appointment.

2. Dress professionally — You don’t have to be formal, but dress like you consider the interview a business appointment.

3. Watch the time — Don’t run over your allotted time.  If you don’t have all your questions answered by the end, ask for a short extension or permission to call back with follow-up questions.

4. Send a thank-you note – A hand-written is especially meaningful.

Writing Tip

white-male-1871367_1280Finding More of the Real

If you can’t get first-hand experience with something, consult an expert on the subject in person  I find such an interview much more informative than just reading a book on a topic.

Because I got to know an alpaca farmer, I learned what a remarkable anaimals alpacas are.  Listening to people talk about their jobs piques my interest in a way that reading about the same jobs may not.

As an introvert, though, I find approaching strangers difficult, and that is made even more so when I want to consult them about something I wish to write about.  I am an  unpublished author.  Why would they want to talk to me?

I faced this dilemma when I realized I needed to talk to someone about police procedures for my book because I was basing my plot points on what I had seen on TV.  A retired police chief was a member of my church.  It seemed natural to ask him, but I did it with a hammering heart and dry mouth.

He couldn’t have been nicer.  He answered my questions for well over an hour.  I wanted to know how a police officer would break up a bar fight involving a large number of people.  I also asked about search warrants and surveillance.  Not only did I gain a ton of useful information for my book, making it much more authentic, but I also gained a huge appreciation for how complicated police work is.

Try to find experts when you need them.  Explain exactly what you need to know from them.  Most people enjoy sharing their expertise.  And if you find an expert who is unwilling, approach another one.  The knowledge you gain is worth the risk.  And you may make a friend in the process.


Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageFinding the Real in the Routine

In my last post, I wrote that writers should seek real experiences when it’s relatively safe and practical.  But if you have a job, or a family, or school, or a tight budget, or all of the above, you may think you can’t break out of your daily routine.

First, don’t dismiss your daily routine.  You may have a rich source of inspriation there if you look at it objectively, as if you were studying someone else’s life

I worked in public libraries for over ten years.  That first-hand experience will give my writing authenticity if I use a public library as a setting.  It gave me an idea for the set-up for a mystery.  A regular patron of a public library commits suicide.  A librarian who served this patron is suspicious because she knows the man came in the day before his suicide and checked out books he had specially ordered from another library.  If he was planning to kill himself, why would he bother to check out library books?Placeholder Image

Second, you can make small changes to your routine that may lead to big inspirations. On your way home from work or school, take a different route.  I went to visit my parents over the holidays and drove around my hometown, looking at Christmas lights.  I deliberately took roads I didn’t remember ever driving on before.  And I found some very creepy settings I didn’t even know existed in my little hometown.

It can be very hard to break from your routine.  I discovered that when I took an unknown route home from a store.  I had a lot do to and I didn’t know how long this new route might take.  I had to fight against a very strong instinct to get home NOW.  I was so programmed to get my work done quickly and efficiently that I felt uncomfortable taking extra time to do something different.

Take the time to make small changes.  You can’t tell what you might discover.

Writing Tip

img_6759The Risk of the Real

I had some very interesting conversations with the elementary kids I teach in a reading group.  We were discussing The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Even thought it is a drab little bird, the nightingale is considered the most marvelous thing in the Chinese empire.  When the Emperor finally hears the nigthingale sing, he is moved to tears and orders the bird to live in the palace and be available to sing whenever he wants it to.

Then the Emperor is given a gift of a mechanical nightingale, covered in jewels and singing from a cylinder in its chest.  The Emperor tries to get the birds to sing a duet, but the fake bird can’t work with the real bird because it only knows one song.  While the mechanical bird sings alone, the real one leaves.  But everyone at the court agreees that the mechanical bird is better and better to look at.

Eventually the fake bird wears out, and no one can fix it.  And it takes the real bird to save the Emperor from Death.nypl-digitalcollections-510d47d9-708e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-w

I asked the kids, before the real nightingale saves the Emperor, which bird was better. All the kids, over twenty of them, said the real bird was better but had a difficult time describing how.  They almost all agreed that a living thing is better than a fake copy.  One girl gave the best explanation when she said the real bird could do more, invent new songs, do things on its own.

But with the ability to do more on its own, the real bird is more risky.  It might not want to perform when the Emperor wants it to.  It might not sing the song he wants.  And it left when it felt like it.

In this age when we can have any number of experiences from the safety of our digital devices, we writers must risk the real.  Of course, some experiences can only and should only be researched — such as describing a running gun battle through dark city streets.  But I should at least venture out into a city at night, preferably the city where my gun battle is set.  If I am going to write about a character who loves horses, I need to learn how to ride and care for them.  If I am writing about a knitting group, I need to join one.  If I am writing historical fiction, I need to visit the locations I am writing about.

Risking the real means giving up the control that the digital experience offers.  I may look foolish as I try to learn a new skill.  Or I may sound like a clueless novice when learning from experts. Or I may actually get hurt. But I owe it to my readers and myself to experience what I write about as thoroughly as is practically possible, so I can convey that experience honestly and accurately, especially to those readers who will never have a chance at the same experience.

I learned things about horses and the people who work with them the two years I took riding lessons that I never could have learned from reading about the subject.  I also learned what it takes to heal from a fall from a galloping horse.

The risk is worth the real.

To learn more about the version of The Nightingale shown above, click here.

Writing Tip

img_6754Resolutions for the New Year

With the beginning of the new year come resolutions.  I never make resolutions, either because I don’t think I will keep them or because I will forget them.  But I think making some about writing will be helpful.

Writing every day is critical to developing my skill.  Keeping up a blog has given structure to my writing, and I think, improved it.  Forcing myself to meet deadlines has provided a discipline to my writing I didn’t realize I needed.

I also keep a paper journal of family life, which I often forget to do daily.  I am hoping now that by posting my resolution to write in my journal daily, I will be able to stick with it.  I am also going to try my hand at guest blogging, if I can find anyone interested in inviting me.

So set writing goals for yourself that push, slightly, your skills.  You don’t want to make the goals so difficult or unreasonable that you give up.

Whatever your goals are — keep writing.  Write a journal, write a blog, write fiction, write nonfiction, write poetry, but WRITE!  Something is always better than nothing.


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