Today, I’m letting Lisa Hall-Wilson guest post again for me, because she has a really wonderful lesson to share. Few things can pull a reader out of a story like us—the writer—bungling the details. I know I once tossed a book in a drawer because the heroine put “the safety on” a revolver.
It annoyed me.
It was a small but important detail the author could have gotten right had she done a little homework and asked the right people some simple questions. And, since the rest of her story involved action and guns and my husband is on a military shooting team, I assumed the rest of the story would probably just have me yelling, “WTH? NO!”
Details can make or break a story, but what can we do to make sure we are getting our facts straight? Lisa is here to help.
Take it away, Lisa!
Getting Details Wrong Annoys Readers!
One of the most overlooked items in a writer’s toolbox is conducting interviews. Doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, articles, novels or blogging, being able to ask for and run a successful interview is an essential skill.
We don’t have to be that pushy reporter shoving a hand-held recorder in people’s faces. Being polite and professional will go a long way. I wrote a post over at the BookShelf Muse on how to ask for an interview so make sure you check that out.
Sure, sure – I get how interviews are important for journalists. But I write fiction.
OK – do you have a professional in your novel, the protagonist say, who has a job you’ve never done? One novelist wrote a series of novels about a group of adopted siblings: one was a hostage negotiator, another a fireman, another a cop, another a pediatrician, another a crime scene investigator. Do you really think this author had worked all those jobs? How did she know so much about each one?
She interviewed people!
We can’t learn everything from Google or a book. We can’t. We need anecdotes, first-person been there stories, someone to debunk the Hollywood stereotypes. Nothing pulls you in like the tiny details unique to that profession or situation, and nothing is more annoying than when an author gets those details wrong.
We want to get it right, and that means talking to people who have actually done that job!
You don’t get it. I’m a writer. I spend half the day working up the courage to tweet or post a status on Facebook. I can’t interview anyone.
That attitude isn’t going to cut it. Chin up – pen out. This is part of the job. Successful novelists interview people when researching a novel. Whether they’re researching a profession, or need advice on a particular scene, readers trust you (the author) to get the details right.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll have friends, friends of friends, family, or acquaintances you can reach out to. Certainly, even as a journalist, my job is a lot easier when I can pick from the low-hanging fruit as it were. Those I already know or have access to.
Interviewing is a skill we can learn. The first couple of times may be intimidating, but being prepared goes a long way. Running a good interview doesn’t require talent as much as it requires practice, preparation, and dose of courage.
As a freelance journalist, I’ve interviewed best-selling authors, JUNO-winning musicians, comedians, drug addicts, a celebrity fashion designer, former prostitutes, police officers, firefighters, pastors, and people with a great story to tell. The one thing all these sources had in common was a desire to make sure I got the details right.
“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Stephen King
I have a romantic suspense novel collecting dust on a shelf. In one scene I needed to set a fire in an old farmhouse to trap my two protagonists in the upper storey, but I needed the arsonist to get away clean and there couldn’t be any proof it was arson. So, what did I do?
I interviewed a firefighter.
Now, the key to these interviews is to present the source (the interviewee) with the planned scenario – like the one above. This way you get the benefit of their experience. You put too many filters on the situation and they’ll just tell you what you want to hear instead of what will make the scene pop with realism. He gave me an incredibly creative answer I couldn’t have come up with in a million years – whereas – he’d seen it done.
He also let me feel his hands. Hey – don’t laugh. I was working on a romance novel where the main protagonist was a firefighter. In a romance novel the feel of a man’s hands is an important detail. I imagined a fireman’s hands would be rough from hauling hoses and swinging axes, etc. But nope – they were very smooth, like a mechanic’s hand. The details make such a huge difference!
And… I’ve never been back to that fire hall. LOL
Have you interviewed someone for your novel, or your blog? What’s the most intimidating part of asking for an interview? Trying to figure out who to ask, or how to ask, I’ll hang around all day to answer questions.
I hope this post was super helpful for you. I know that many experts are eager to help writers get the facts straight. I’ve been working with a P.I. who was formerly undercover for the ATF for the details on my novel. It can surprise you how many professionals are willing to assist if you just ask.
Need more help? Lisa is offering some upcoming classes and she is an AMAZING instructor, so I hope you take advantage of these courses you can take from the comfort of HOME.
How To Get Them Talking: Learn To Interview Like A Journalist
Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, articles, or blogging, take your writing to the next level by interviewing experts, professionals, or people who have already been there and done that. Learn from a journalist on how to get the interview, craft questions, get a source talking, how to ask the hard questions without offending, and best practices. This online course is June 20th at 7:30PM-9PM EST. $30
Steering Through The Winds of Facebook Change
A course requested by my writer friends. In two 90minute live webinars learn what your Facebook page can and can’t do for you, and best practices to grow your platform the WANA way to endure almost any change Zuck dreams up. We’ll cover the 12 areas every page owner should focus on, best practices for driving traffic to your website and for better edge rank, and receive a list of resources to help you when you’re on your own. This class is June 15th and 22nd – $60. Get 20% off this class with the code “Lisa20”
I interviewed a guy who had been stationed in Iraq for info about a character in an upcoming book. He was very happy to meet with me and answer questions. I was a little nervous that I might step on touchy subjects, but nothing I asked seemed to rattle him; he was very gracious and answered all my questions plus filling in with more info in areas where I obviously didn’t have a clue! The interview was extremely helpful. Now all I have to do is write the damn book!
I’ve done interviews too, and they do help give details! My main series is a time travel, so some interviews are hard to do, LOL. But for my latest, a time travel to medieval Wales, I contacted my local SCA chapter and went to some of their meetings and fights and asked questions about what it was like to wear chainmail, etc. They even let me put on a hauberk. I got so many great details I never would’ve known if I hadn’t done this…
I had the most marvellous time over the weekend, at an SCA fair – spending time interviewing a mediaeval moneyer, and a Bronze Age bronze-smith – a fantastic resource to tap! I was surprised when both of them wanted to be paid in coffee 😀
Good stuff. I actually did my first series of interviews with real people at a March Against Monsanto rally on the 25th to make a short documentary for the event organizer. I don’t have any fear of talking to random strangers, but the presentation of the questions was tricky. I had to interview the people before the on-camera interview. I even got to interview the only local tv journalist present. I have been fighting against becoming a journalist because my heart is in fiction, but the opportunities keep popping up. This blog helped me see that I can fuse the two (fiction/journalism). Duh. 🙂 Thanks for the enlightenment!
You know, in retrospect this is pretty obvious, but I still don’t really know how I would go about it.
For example, in my apocalypse novel one of the most important characters is an ambulance driver who gets kidnapped by a pack of radical survivalists and forced to be their medic. An interview with an actual ambulance driver would probably help my character immensely, but where do I find one to interview? I don’t even know anyone who works in a hospital, never mind SPECIFICALLY an ambulance driver, and so far as I know I don’t have any connections that could put me in contact with one…would I seriously just, like…wander into a hospital and ask to speak with someone? That just doesn’t seem right to me somehow.
Facebook! lol As a journalist – 90% of my sources come from Facebook. I put out a call to my online community and there’s always somebody who knows somebody. People love the idea of helping a writer. My s-i-l is an air ambulance paramedic, so that’s not quite what you’re looking for. But I do know, in Canada at least, the driver is just a paramedic. All the paramedics in the land ambulance must be able to drive it, the duty just typically falls to the lowest seniority guy/girl on the bus. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
Hmmm…a good idea, for sure. I HAVE been attempting to expand my “writer friends” circle, and Facebook is surely as good a tool as any to help in that. Thanks for the tip! My manuscript thanks you as well! 😀
Great timing on this! Thank you. For my book Human Slices, I wanted to create a male character who was a glass blower, but I wasn’t quite sure that was really his artistic passion. I was waffling between glass blower and a score of other options. Then in a casual conversation at a bar with some friends, I found out that one of these friends had actually studied glass blowing in art school. Synchronicity score! Character clarity and a resource all at once.
In addition, I recently worked up the courage to request an interview with actor Austin Pendleton for a film blog post I was doing. I was terribly nervous since I’ve loved him as an actor ever since I first saw him in What’s Up, Doc? when I was young. The lesson I learned is that even a celebrity with a stretched schedule (Pendleton was just finishing directing and getting ready to direct and star in an off-Broadway premiere) would be incredibly gracious and kind enough to make time for a writer…and he even helped me stay calm during the interview process:)
Great advice. i was hoping i could just use the Google. I’m not looking forward to one of the interviews I need to do as its going to require I go to a kosher slaughterhouse and I’m terrified I’ll go vegetarian afterwards and I hate vegetables and am allergic to dairy.
But I do know that the details drive me crazy when someone gets them wrong. So I have to make sure I’m getting them wrong.
Our local chapter of ROSA (Romance writers Organisation of South Africa) hosts guest speakers from a variety of different fields, giving authors the opportunity to interview people without the ‘pressure’ of doing it one-on-one. The crime scene cleaner even brought pictures along – and who would have thought an anaesthetist would have such good stories to tell?!
And interview the elderly while you still can. Before my great-grandmother passed away I interviewed her about her childhood. She had journeyed to Oregon on the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon–to hear that first hand account and the nitty-gritty details was a amazing and I’m so glad I can carry that with me even after she’s gone.
Thank you thank you thank you!! Those little detail make or break a story! I have put down or not reviewed several books because despite all that was good in the story they had made mistakes in details- job, place, language etc and it pulled me out.
Awesome advice! I’ve totally done this. In my case, for my WIP, the experts are the native Irish. Once, when my family were at Busch Gardens, I happened to catch the Irish lilt from another family. I absolutely interviewed them about current Irish culture. But I didn’t want to take away from their vacation, so I got their email and finished up the interveiw that way. 😀 They were such a sweet family!
This is great! Thanks!
As you pointed out, it can be nerve wracking for us introverted writers to do interviews. I needed to interview a paramedic for my WIP and there was no way I was walking into a local fire station to ask for help. So, I asked some online connections and got hooked up with a paramedic who did a voice chat with me online. Which was much easier for me than a face-to-face.
I too found a P.I. to interview. He started as a friend of a friend and became a good friend in his own right. He even offered to beta read the book he helped me with when it was done, which you can bet I took him up on!
I got the warm fuzzies when Lisa mentioned feeling the firefighter’s hands. I think I need to go interview some firefighters, even though I’m not writing about one at the moment. You never know when you’re going to need to describe a firefighter’s biceps, right?
As a locksmith, I run across of a lot of scenes in fiction where it is clear that the writer has no real understanding of how locks and other security systems work. (Movies are even worse.) I would be happy to be interviewed, or read over sections of a WIP and critique the technical sections, I’ve just never been sure how to let writers know I’m available for that.
Maybe we should create a WANA resource list of some sort? Have expertise/experience you’re willing to share – here’s a list sort of thing. Hmmm…something to noodle. Thanks for the comment.
One of my favorite things about participating in NaNoWriMo is picking the brains of others in the NaNo Tips & Strategies forums (http://www.nanowrimo.org/en/forum_categories/148). The MC in my first NaNo worked at Barnes & Noble – I had a half dozen people chime with info about shifts (Could she get Black Friday off?) and wages (Could she support herself on just her base salary?), plus some other helpful tidbits. Having another similar resource that was available beyond November would be very cool.
I have been on writer’s internet groups since the days of Usenet, and I can’t count the number of times someone said it would be a great idea to set up a list of writers who were willing to share their specialized expertise, but somehow it never gets off the ground. If you do put together such a list, I would be happy to put myself down for security questions.
Good idea. And you can put me on it as a resource.
I created a public group on WANATribe for this. If you’re willing to be a source, add your name and preferred contact info. I’ll post it on Facebook too. http://wanatribe.com/group/experts-sources-professionals
Same here when it’s technical aspects of firearms, ballistics, and tactics. Same thing with aviation. More than happy to help someone with a wip and get it right. which reminds me, I need to get a practice tumbler and some picks to freshen up my skills.
Although my book is a fantasy this still holds true. Living through an experience and having firsthand knowledge is best, finding someone who has lived through what your character is going through is almost just as good. I might never find anyone who has fought a dragon, but I’m sure there is someone out there who has come close!
Although my protagonist stars in a humorous mystery series, the details still need to be correct. It was easy interviewing the local head of homicide but when I moved the action to Hawaii for my latest book, I was a nervous wreck. I contacted the Hawaii police and met with the head of the department. I ran all my scenarios by him and was gratified I was right on in most situations. He also came up with a wonderful idea I would never have thought of, and said he’d never had so much fun dealing with a murder! It was the highlight of my trip to Hawaii!
As a mental health professional, I am astounded by how little people seem to know about the illnesses they portray in writing. Double this for the system–treatments, medications, and commitments especially. I’m no expert, but damn, everybody thinks it’s still 1950 and we’re tossing people in ‘asylums’ on Haldol for teh rest of their lives.
So not true. Anyway, I agree–do your research and interview.
I agree that you need to get the details right. I have been thrown out of a story because of it, but I don’t understand this statement –
” I know I once tossed a book in a drawer because the heroine put “the safety on” a revolver.”
I have own revolvers, some have safeties some don’t. Might want to check that detail.
I think many handguns and pistols have safeties, but I didn’t think an old-fashioned six shooter, perfect for Russuan Roulette and gunfights, had one. Hmmmm…I’m interested to hear what caliber revolver has a safety.
I often research subjects on the internet but have never done an interview. Thanks for this great tip.
I did an interesting interview many many years ago. My hero owned a stud farm and I knew nothing about it so I managed to get an interview with a stud farmer simply by writing to him. He told me that his mares were sent away for covering, and me, in my innocence, asked him what covering meant. Well, he didn’t actually blush but he didn’t look me in the eye, and said, “Well, er, mating.” It made my day to see such a successful businessman feel uncomfortable.
You had me at ‘JUNO award’. (Yay Canada!)
This is very timely because i’m considering (and have set up questions) for interviews on my blog pertaining to my passion in architecture. I finally realized that while I have an ‘in’ with 2 people who have already consented, I needed a more formalized approach. Love the link to your other post about how to ask! Thanks for the great tips.
Woot! I was afraid no one would understand how big a deal that was. The JUNOS in Canada are our equivalent to the American Grammy awards. I can’t talk about all of those interviews because some haven’t gone to print yet, but super fun getting to interview people you hear on the radio! 😀 Working on securing another one that’s super awesome BIG! Can’t talk about that either, but when I told my son his eyes got all big – “That’s cool.” lol You know you’ve made it when…
Glad the posts were helpful.
I went to the JUNOs in Vancouver a few years back, when Russell Peters hosted. It was a hoot. Awesome gig! And congrats!
Great article, and so true. Even when you’re reading a book you don’t really notice some minor details until you know it’s wrong.
Though, you say a fire fighters hands are smooth like a mechanic – I don’t know any fire fighters but my Dad is a mechanic and his hands are rough and cracked.
Been a long time since I’ve done an interview, but when I come across someone interesting I try to get them to tell about an expereinec in their life. Human nature is to offer an incident that the person has repeated so many times that they’ve worked it to their best advantage. So, the truth is there, but it’s the individual’s perception of that truth, and that says a lot about the person – what bothers them or makes them happy.
As an aside to this, one of the ‘technical’ details that gets abused is the silencer on a weapon. In the movies or books, firing the gun creates a soft phut sound, so you can use a silencer to sneak in somewhere and take out the security without alarming your target. Truth is, the silencer masks the explosion only a little bit, but not enough to keep anyone from realizing it’s a gun shot. And it’s not that quiet.
Since I learned that, I have to laugh each time a character uses that. Sadly, it destroys the credibility of the piece, even if it is fiction. Yes, it is a plot device and most people don’t know the truth, so I guess I ought to shut up and just enjoy the piece for its entertainment value.
not entirely true, some silencers do mask the sound so well you have to be close to hear a thing. MP5SD series weapons are incredibly quiet, you can never make weapon totally silent, but depending on the number of baffles and the type of weapon it can be made pretty quiet for CQC operations where surprise is as important as speed and violence of action. ,
I have a hard time discovering the right ones to ask & then nerves set in & I’m scared to try. Good post.
When I need details, I use Library of Congress. They are very good at sending information and or how to find more information.
My character development is FICTION or made up so interviews of someone similar can help but not as necessary.
“Do you really think this author had worked all those jobs? How did she know so much about each one?” I agree that it could help, but I look at it in a sense that I created a character that will do the job based on the created character. Sure the technology or tools used could need research, but the actual thinking and reacting, I would like done by my created character. It includes romance.
My enemies doing containment to discourage or to minimize my success will use it against me that I did not interview, but I prefer to create and develop the character from FICTION. I will interview a fictional character I also made up; I might include it in a novel: interviews from a made up character based on my imagination.
It reminds of International Politics. Who will be our experts, like they are the only experts? I write fictional characters. My experts and professionals are fiction. But I like what you are doing. Others may need to interview. Dustin Hoffman did the movie.
I wrote a scene about a house that burned to the ground and then interviewed by father-in-law about it to be sure I got it right. He’s a retired fireman. There were a few key details that I missed. I was so glad that I asked him.
It really is important to ask someone who has experience with something, so a reader doesn’t throw the book in a drawer and forget it about it! Thanks, Lisa and Kristen!
thanks for the post, there are times I end up with to few details due to lack of Knowledge or far to much like describing how a Claymore mine works, for example LOL. Ive never really interviewed any one for details outside of casual conversation. I will have to start using the interview which would provide far more information.
I hadn’t thought about this, thanks for the tips.
I’ve interviewed Geologists, Juvenile Court Judges, Cops, an Electrician and even a Lacrosse player for novels I’ve written. I enjoy talking to people about their professions. They usually like doing so, too.
I love your tips and plan on bookmarking this post for future reference.
Thanks so much Kristen and Lisa!!
Have a wonderful evening 🙂
I haven’t done any interviews yet, but I will be soon, as I’m going to do a ride along in a police car, f and ask questions about how they deal with missing people and cold cases. The research and ride along is for my current novel. You article was very timely and helpful Thank you for reminding us a writers that details are important.
A common premise among editors, which I read on blogs and comments and chats, they are simply looking for a good story. Editors are trying to please the majority of readers, which are buying books from a publishing house. Writing a good story would work for self-publishers also. If interviewing someone helps in writing the good story, interview someone. I expect the criticism. What next, the person I interviewed was not up to par. He did not have a PHD as a fireman or IVY experts were available. I do not play golf. It is expected, to be criticized.
I interviewed a police officer (via phone) in order to get details on rankings on the force. Also have a friend who’s an RN and I’ve asked her about wounds and broken bones. I hate not getting the facts right – and I know what you mean about being thrown out of a story if there’s a glaring mistake (even if it’s just glaring in my eyes!)
I admit it: This is one of the things I know I need to do, but I avoid like the plague. The idea of cold-calling for an interview makes me sweat, which is crazy because I used to set things up all the time for former bosses when I worked as an assistant. I cold-called for them constantly. Thanks for the heads-up, Lisa! You’re pushing me out of my comfort zone, just where I need to be to get the story right.
I’ve asked a few questions around for stories before but never anything that structured. It sounds like a lot of fun; I love listening to people’s stories.
This is a good strategy to follow. Most people are more than happy to be interviewed – it makes them feel important. If you happy to run across one of the exceptions then try someone else (We’re writers, we brush off rejection, right?)
This also reminds me how the Society for Creative Anachronism started. A bunch of fantasy authors who wrote stories about heroes swinging their swords all day wondered if that was realistic. So they cobbled together “relatively safe” versions of the weapons and started fighting each other. There are SCA branches around the world and you should be able to find one that would let you strap on some borrowed armor and check it out for yourself.
I became a freelance writer to improve my skills. Interviewing is just one aspect of what I learned. Specifically, I learned people like to talk about what they do. Show real curiosity and interest and people will spill their souls and share secrets. The tricks of the trade, any trade , are easy to find if you ask a proud propagator of that activity.
I needed to know about an herb farm and shop. i also needed to know what would grow in south GA. I googled one in Ga and called the woman asked her questions. I learned so much and it was easier than googling . Plus, she told me if I get published, she would stock my book! So, I have that going for me.
I wouldn’t hesitate to call anyone. I think most people would like it.
Thank you for reminding us how important this is to do! I pinned it at: