Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Expert Witnesses:
Choosing and Interviewing Subjects

By Christa M. Miller
Christa M. Miller

 "Write what you know" might be the most often-provided, yet least understood, advice writers receive. How can a dockworker write a medical story, or a housewife a police procedural? Of the appropriate answers, none of them involves becoming a doctor or a detective.

First, you can pick up biographies, manuals, memoirs, textbooks, trade magazines, and other professional publications that provide details of a field you want to write about. Reading fiction in your desired genre also helps. But perhaps the closest you can get to a profession without being in it is to interview its professionals. Asking questions to get someone's thoughts about her everyday routine, emotions and problems, and exceptional memories is a great way to get authentic plot and character material for your story. So how do you get to this point? Where do you start, when, and with whom?

When I decided to write police procedural stories and articles, I realized my police cadet experience in a medium-sized New England town wasn't enough. For one thing, it'd been nearly ten years; for another, as much as I'd witnessed, there was much more I hadn't. Because books reiterated much of what I already knew, I decided to interview.

Before calling anyone, I made sure I plotted and characterized my story as best I could. I got specific enough to know what information I'd need, but left my plans open to change. I made a list of questions, ranging from basic ones that set the tone for both story and interview to complex questions.

I then made a list of the people I needed to contact, breaking it down according to plot and character needs. Using my former contacts and the Internet, I identified officers I used to know who could answer my questions about patrol, detective work, and command. I initially contacted them via letter explaining who I was and what I needed, and I included a business card with contact information. I made sure to call within 10 days if I didn't hear back. It wasn't long before I got my first interview, then the second.

What did I learn from my experiences? First, work only with interviewees you feel comfortable with. I figured my high comfort level with police officers would make interviews easy, and in most cases that was true. But I forgot they'd view me as "media," which many people -- not just cops -- are wary of. So although I achieved an instant rapport with some people, others were defensive to the point of being cryptic. Because you, like me, might need to ask tough questions about ethics, criminal conduct, or other controversial issues, you need someone who won't be offended when you bring these up. When you're making contacts, play the field -- don't rely on a subject simply because she's the first one you contacted.

Also keep in mind that many workplaces have policies prohibiting employees from talking to media. If a potential interviewee mentions such a policy (or just his personal preference), respect his wishes. Ask him to refer you to his supervisor or public information officer. Clearly explain your needs and offer, in writing if necessary, to keep interviewees and/or their workplaces anonymous. Remember that when you're asking about a specific event, or legal or medical matters, you still might not get what you need. At this point, think about seeking a more neutral interviewee, or changing the situation you want to use.

A comfortable venue is as important as a comfortable host. Again, don't go where you aren't comfortable. I once interviewed a detective, at his choosing, in his department's interview/interrogation room. This seemed sensible, because the room afforded privacy as well as a videocamera. Half an hour into the interview, though, I became acutely aware of the room's small size and stuffy atmosphere. Fortunately I was able to joke about "interview room psychology" -- and learned never to use one again! I've also done interviews in police cruisers and on a flight line, one-on-one and with groups.

Be flexible. During my interview of one school resource officer, he got a call about a truant student possibly in trouble downtown. He asked if I wanted to ride along, and I agreed. He got his student, and I got important insight to his job. The moral of the story is that some of your best material will come from completely spontaneous situations. How well you adapt often determines the quality of the material you get -- and thus possibly the success of your story.

Your story is dynamic, and so should be your research process. As you draft your story, you'll change both characters and plot, so it's important to maintain ties -- over the long term, if necessary -- with your interviewees. You'll probably find that answers you couldn't start without lead to other questions later on, or even become irrelevant.

Finally, I learned that as important as realism is, it shouldn't mean artistic-license cancellation. Even in the real world, anything is possible. Much happens outside the bounds of policy, standard operating procedure, or other rational constructs. So instead of "realistic," think more in terms of "plausible." The best science fiction isn't realistic -- the stories' technology or worlds don't exist -- but it is plausible, because the writers have done their homework. And don't forget that well-crafted characters and plot often do much of the work of making a scenario "plausible."

Finding and working with interview subjects can be a lot of fun. Interviewing helps you establish contacts for future projects, whether you work with the same interviewees or they refer you elsewhere. Remember that everyone you meet is a potential interviewee, be it the firefighter who rescues your cat or your religious adviser. And those on whom you make a good impression might just help your cause in ways you never thought of. Be professional. Know your needs. Be flexible. And have fun!


Copyright 2001 Christa M. Miller

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer based in Waterboro, Maine.