Sunday, March 16, 2014

INTERVIEWING EXPERTS

I am part of a writers' critique group and one thing that comes up fairly frequently is doubt bordering on terror about talking to "experts" while doing research for a novel.  Do any of you have this problem?   Those who interview comfortably can possibly can add experiences and ideas to this blog.

I had an "in" on interviewing because, for ten years, I was a broadcast journalist, and conducted many interviews for my fifteen minute program, "Arkansas Corner Community News."  People being interviewed for publication on air were cooperative, possibly because they wanted their work or their department to be seen in the best light by the public. I suspect that's part of what gave me easy access.

Talking to experts while writing a novel felt different, and, I admit, initially I was hesitant. Would they consider me a nuisance and decline?  We do see in the newspapers and sometimes hear on radio or TV that people have declined interviews or simply didn't respond to queries  What would my experiences be?

My first interview was over the phone with an expert at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.  (Well, why not start at the top?)  I needed information for A VALLEY TO DIE FOR, my first mystery novel, on possible Smithsonian interest in the discovery of ancient pictographs in a cave in the Ozarks. (We have evidence that humans were here ten thousand years ago.)  Of course the "discovery" by my protagonist, Carrie McCrite, was fiction, but the nice expert on such things at the Smithsonian was willing, even eager, to help me over the phone. She told me in detail how they would react to such a discovery, and, as a result, the Smithsonian appears in the novel.

Since then I have talked with a long list of experts on a huge variety of topics, and I imagine many of you have, too. Some experts were regional or local, others affiliated nationally including agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI.  The interview with an FBI agent for A TREASURE TO DIE FOR was, if not the most daunting, at least the most unique. While doing research in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where TREASURE was set, I needed to sort out law enforcement duties in Hot Springs National Park. (Who does what about crimes in our national parks?)  I spoke with park rangers and local police, but learned I needed to fill in the "third leg," the FBI. There is an agent stationed in Hot Springs. I phoned him and was granted an interview. He gave me instructions about reaching his office and, with my husband driving, we headed out to find him. Was I a bit uneasy? You bet!  The FBI?  EEEK!

We drove by the building several times because it looked vacant. But finally realized that had to be it. My husband drove into the attached parking garage. Very dark. Echoing? Actually, yes. Two cars parked there.  (And this was a week day.)  I left my husband sitting in the car and walked across acres of concrete to the dimly lit building door, found an elevator, punched the floor number the agent had mentioned. Not a human in sight. Up I went, and, when the elevator door opened, I looked out onto total blackness. Oops. Maybe I hit the wrong button. I tried again, and, this time, there was a bit of light showing under a door down a dark hall.  I ventured forth.

No lettering on the door, but I knocked. The door was opened by a tall man in a dark suit, and I was invited into a very small, bleak room painted Dentist Office Green. I sat in a scarred wooden chair across an ancient metal desk from the agent. And learned what I needed to know. Was he friendly?  Yes. Did he answer my questions readily? Yes. Did I leave the building very quickly after he escorted me to the elevator? You betcha!

I still feel kinda sorry for that man. Was he new and stuck in a small, ugly office in an empty building? Had he messed up on a case somehow and been sent to this agency?  To me, of course, Hot Springs is far from a backwater. It's a lively, active spa and tourist attraction with thousands of yearly visitors. But I found at least one corner of Hot Springs National Park that was none of the above, and met a man who must have been one of the most cordial FBI agents in the bureau.

Otherwise I have found overwhelming cooperation and enthusiasm among all those I have interviewed, no matter how "high up" in the employment scale they might be. I have, I know, sometimes asked what they must have seen as dumb questions. But, one and all, they have helped me, and even, at times, gotten involved in my story ideas to the extent that they almost seemed to be writing their own parts. I still consider some of them long-term friends. THANK GOODNESS FOR THE EXPERTS!

3 comments:

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Sometimes an agent is assigned to a small place when they've displeased the higher-ups. Except for a police chief, I've never sat down and interviewed any "big" experts--I've done ride-alongs, interviewed police officers, Native Americans, but I tend to rely and write about things I know about, can find out easily, and have experienced. Belonging to Public Safety Writers Association has helped a lot too because I know a lot of members who are in all areas of law enforcement and emailing them with questions is easy and they readily answer and even give me great ideas. Good post, anxious to hear what others have done.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is a very useful reminder about interviewing. I too begin an interview feeling like I must be pestering them, wasting their time, but in most cases the person I've called is very willing to explain how certain equipment works, how tests are done, the lines of authority, etc. It's a great relief.

Radine Trees Nehring said...

Marilyn, I, too, try to rely mostly on details I am familiar with, but, somehow, during work on every novel, have ended up needing to talk to someone "special." Part of the need to visit police departments in every location I choose stems from the fact I have found they can differ widely in procedure and other aspects. (I just ordered another Rocky Bluff story I don't have, MURDER IN THE WORST DEGREE.)

Susan, it continues to be a pleasant to learn how friendly and willing every person I ask for an interview is.