My first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, is coming out this November from Five Star Publishing. Notice the word "first" in that sentence. Over the past two years, I have had many "firsts" in writing this mystery. One of those was getting up my nerve to call and make an appointment to talk with experts whose professions involve crime, dead bodies, and fires. After all, I really didn't have a mystery published yet. At the time I needed their help, I was a retired English teacher dabbling in the world of crime. What did I know?
I'm lucky to live in a small town of 10,000 in west central Illinois, and my book takes place in just such a town. Talking with experts who deal with small town crime is much more helpful than speaking with someone, say, who works in urban areas. This made it a little less scary to call for that appointment. However, if you're a "big city" person, the same interview basics apply.
If you are contemplating expert inteviews, just keep in mind that the worst these experts can say is "no." However, none of mine did. People seem to love talking about their work, and it is always flattering when someone asks you for advice. So, screw up your courage and call or email. Then, once they've said "yes" and your legs have stopped shaking, start thinking about the interview. Perhaps my thoughts can help you with this process.
Preparation. In preparing for the interview, I try to remember I am a writer interviewing experts. So first I need to act in a professional manner. I do my homework by choosing the professionals I need and researching their credentials for experience and expertise.
Do I interview the expert while I am writing my novel or before the area where I need expert help? I've done both, and sometimes after I've written a scene, I take it to the interview and ask the expert if it is realistic. This was true, for example, when I wrote a scene about being in a fire. Fortunately, I've never been there, but the Fire Chief said I imagined it quite realistically.
I call early or email, and set the date, time, and place that will work for both of us. In the case of the Police Chief and Fire Chief, I met them at their offices. My coroner and I met at a local coffee shop (love living in a small town!) My police detective and I email, and we continue to do so every time I have a question. Also, I make sure to leave a contact number in case the designated interview falls through. After all, with these kinds of experts an emergency might develop quickly.
It's very important to go to the interview
with questions I want to ask so I won't waste their time or mine. Let's consider the Police Chief. First, I want to ask general questions. For example, I asked about cold case files. What might be in them? Would the contents be different in the 1960's compared to today? I also ask very specific questions about weapons, procedures, or criminal thinking. I asked about destroying the number on a gun. My questions might also verify plot points I've written or am thinking about. I asked my coroner about post mortem lab tests. Who orders them? Is there always an inquest? How has the law changed regarding inquests? I can also ask my expert if a particular plot twist or fact is possible or realistic. Often they have amazing stores of their own that are true but sound stranger than fiction.
The day of the interview, I arrive early. Believe me, you can cut down on anxiety if you plan to arrive early, covering all possibilities including traffic. I bring my questions with plenty of room to take
notes. I also like to take a small recorder, but I always ask the person being interviewed if he is fine with being recorded. Usually, he appreciates the fact that I am trying to be very accurate. I like recording an interview because if I'm writing down answers I'm not thinking as quickly about follow-up questions. I write down something I want to go back to or information I need to emphasize. I take brief notes but mostly I listen and think. Often my source will give me other resources--people I can interview that might be helpful. My coroner also loaned me books that explained crime scenes, procedures, and the condition of the victims' bodies in various kinds of deaths. Made for great, late-night reading.
Listen carefully during interviews. Many of the answers will lead you in new directions. Don't be afraid to throw in a question you hadn't intended to ask.
The last thing in the interview is an
exchange of business cards. I always ask the expert if I may call or email if another question comes up. Often I need to clarify one of his answers or my understanding of it. This works quite successfully.
After the interview, I type the information, along with my thoughts and reactions. I do this immediately while the ideas are fresh in my mind. I also generally write a "thank you" note or email to thank the expert for his time and help. If he has given me a great deal of help, I acknowledge him in my book.
Coming up next: A discussion of my interview with our local Police Chief, Bill Feithen.