Monday, June 24, 2013

Eliciting Details

I enjoy interviewing my ghostwriting clients to gather the material necessary to write their books. People say such surprising things, especially if you tell them, as I do, to be a blabbermouth and just say anything that pops into their heads. I tell them not to worry about wasting my time, I want to hear it all, even the dumb off-topic stuff. Interviews can go off in unforeseen directions, and some of the most colorful passages in books come from off-the-cuff remarks or the spontaneous, “Oh, that reminds me of a story …”

Nevertheless, I can’t just ask general, open-ended questions like “What was that like?” or “Describe your grandmother.” Because most people are not blabbermouths and general questions often give them a bad case of brain freeze. I will get answers like, “It was nice,” or “She was sweet.”

I must ask specific questions designed to elicit details. For instance, if I’m ghostwriting a memoir, I don’t ask my client the question, “What were you doing in 1985?” (Could you answer that question?) Let’s say my client is from Florida. I might ask him this question instead: “Do you remember the Florida citrus crop failure in 1985?” Even if he doesn’t remember the citrus crop disaster, he might have something to share about food prices in his lifetime, crop distribution or the grocery-store system in America, draw a comparison with what’s happening with food prices today, or remember when his wife angered him by switching his breakfast juice to apple instead of orange. Or it might bring up marginally related memories, such as his reaction to Anita Bryant, who was the Florida OJ spokesperson at the time, and her militant anti-gay crusade.

In other words I might get other stories, and these stories might illuminate something about him that would otherwise remain hidden.

When I ask specific questions, I will get specific answers. Details are what make a book come alive.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 40 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit


  1. Reminds me of questioning my kids when they were in pre-school. "What did you do today?" was useless. However, "What was your snack?" or "What did you do at the art table?" would get the ball rolling.

    Terry's Place

  2. I love this, Kim. Sounds like a great way to interview for newspaper or magazine articles, too.

    Another application would be to ask specific questions of our fictional characters. We think we know all about them, but it's quite possible to elicit some surprising answers when we ask our protagonist what she was doing when the tornado roared through town -- or the antagonist what his favorite television show was when he was a kid. Contrary to popular belief, writers don't know all there is to know about their characters. Sometimes they have to ask.

  3. Good point, Linda. Kim, I was wondering if you ever "prime the pump" by sharing a short anecdote of your own? This used to work well for me when I wrote feature articles. This takes self-control because you certainly don't want to take over the bulk of the conversation, but on the other hand, I found the results were much better when the interview subject dropped the sense that they were being interrogated, and instead felt that they were part of a conversation.


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