Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Interview Tip: Pick up the Phone

My earliest professional experience was as a journalist. I wrote two weekly columns and did human interest feature stories for regional publications and other feature stories for national publications. This was back before the Internet and easy access to information, so I did a lot of research at libraries - kudos to all the reference librarians who helped and to those who continue to help people.

In addition to that kind of research, I also did a lot of interviews, and I learned early in my career that most experts in one field or another are usually quite open to answering a writer's questions. Since I really enjoyed the interview process, it was easy for me to use interviews for research when I started writing fiction.

For Open Season, the first book in my mystery series, I interviewed several police officers to find out what it was like to work in a department that was shrouded in charges of racial discrimination. One officer in particular became the basis for the character of Angel. Having that real person to build from, made it easier to bring Angel to life. But the interview process worked for bit-players in the story, too.

At one point in the plotting I had to find out if piano wire could be dated or if it could be determined to have come from a particular piano. I had no idea how to find this information but decided to call a piano tuner. I found one listed in the yellow pages and made the call, connecting to a most interesting man. First thing he did was correct me. It's piano string, not wire.

When the conversation ended, I had the information I needed, as well as a lead to students at a nearby college who could tell me the elements of piano string. I also had a new character for the story and our conversation became a conversation between him and the detective Sarah:
She picked up the phone book and looked in the yellow pages for piano tuners, her finger stopping on an ad that boasted thirty years experience in the business. Propping the phone receiver between her ear and her shoulder, she dialed the number.
Experience counts.
“Good day.” A British accent clipped the words. “Precision Tuning.”
Sarah identified herself, then paused, not sure where to begin.
“How may I be of assistance to you, Detective?” The voice prompted.
“What can you tell me about piano wire?”
“They’re called strings.” The man chuckled. “But not to worry. Most people make that mistake.”
“Oh.” Sarah leaned back in her chair and put one foot on her desk. “Are they distinctive?”
“How do you mean?”
“From one piano to the next. Between a Grand and a Kimball, for instance.”
The man followed his one-word answer with the beginning of what Sarah suspected could be a lengthy explanation of how wood and craftsmanship creates the unique sound of each instrument. She used her next question to cut him off.
“How about age? Can you determine how old a string is?”
“That would be almost impossible. Strings have been made the same way for over a hundred years.”
“So a string from a piano made last year wouldn’t be any different from those in a fifty-year-old piano?”
“The old bass strings might be a little dull after so many years. But otherwise, no. The basic elements would be the same.”
Well, that was an abrupt dead end, Sarah thought, hanging up after thanking the man for his help. The only good thing to come out of it was that she could correct Roberts the next time he talked about the piano wire.
So the next time you need some facts for your story, don't hesitate to pick up the phone. Who knows, you might come up with more than just the facts, Ma'am.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten nice reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly. One Small Victory, is a top seller in the mystery bestseller list at the Amazon Kindle store. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. She will stop playing with her horse and work, honest.

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  1. I too have found that most people love the idea of contributing to novel research. I once spoke on the phone to the sheriff of Saline County, IL for 45 minutes and he was quite happy to answer my questions (must have ben a slow crime day, lol).

    But such calls can also become a whole new way to open yourself to rejection. It occurred to me that the roofs of various makes of cars might crumple differently when a person landed on one, and that a guy at an auto junkyard would know. He said, "I don't have time to answer stupid questions like this, lady!" Oh well.

    Heading to a candy factory to take a "research" tour right now, as a matter of fact. May have to purchase chocolate...

  2. It's a good tip, but hard for me. I was a journalist, too, and I loved writing, but dreaded having to pick up the phone! Now I write fiction :) yay for the internet!

  3. We all love to have a little attention ... I once had to interview a guy who was responsible for the design of gas and radiator caps for an auto manufacturer ... he was a very lonely dude and almost cried when I left.

  4. It's pretty easy these days to connect to "SMEs" (Subject Matter Experts) and can be fun too, e.g. Kathryn's tour of the candy factory...Wait for me!!

    Gaylene: I have a bit of phone phobia too, even though I am a former journalist!

    Christopher: touching story! That's part of the fun of researching, too, meeting new people.

  5. I interviewed (over the phone) a neonatologist when I wrote my first novel because I wanted to be "medically correct" in the scenes where premie twins appeared. The woman was an incredible wealth of information; she shared with me so much more than I had dared to hope for, including the practice of "kangarooing" to minimize some of the trauma of early birth. I couldn't write fast enough to get it all on paper, but the info was so good that I used some of it in my second book.

    Interviews are definitely a great resource and, as you mention, can significantly enhance characterization. Nice post, Maryann.

  6. I enjoyed this post very much! I love it when real life inspires fiction!

    The Write Soil

  7. I remember this from the book and wondered about the back-story. Cool!

  8. Enjoyed all the comments folks, I was without Internet yesterday so I was not able to check in. But reading the comments made me remember a time I interviewed an official with the FAA for a screenplay I was writing with a director in NY. The storyline involved an attempt to sabotage the system on one of then busiest days for air travel. When I asked the man how one would do that, he just gave me a look and said, "You really want me to tell you that?" We had to figure out something that sounded credible on our own. LOL

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