Reporting for fiction: where to find original detail

Reporting for fiction: 
where to find original detail

Katherine Derbyshire

© 2001, Katherine Derbyshire

In this age of the Internet, it’s reasonable to believe that all the background information any writer could ever need is out there, somewhere. Given patience and a good reference librarian, writers should never lack for facts to add color to their worlds.

It’s a comforting illusion, but it isn’t true. The original details that make fictional worlds come to life can’t (always? be found in books. No matter how much time you spend researching mortar composition and the compressive strength of brick, you’ll never understand the satisfaction the bricklayer feels as a wall climbs steadily upward.

Unless you ask. As a reporter, I’ve found that people love to talk about themselves and their work. Give them half a chance, and they’ll gladly share all the funny anecdotes and obscure trivia that their friends and family don’t want to hear anymore. The problem, usually, is figuring out how to get out of the conversation once you have all the information you need. To preserve as much of your time for writing as you can, make sure you know whom you want to talk to and what you need to know before you pick up the phone.

Whom to talk to

Selecting an interview subject is subtler than it seems. After all, if you want to know about heart disease, you try to set up an interview with the chief cardiologist at the nearest hospital, right?

Not necessarily. Dr. Cardiologist can certainly tell you about the latest treatments, but you can usually get that from other sources. Unless he’s had a heart attack himself, though, he can’t tell you about the crushing chest pain or the fear. On the other hand, a heart attack survivor can’t necessarily tell you about the moment when a surgically repaired heart starts pumping on its own again. Decide what you need to know as precisely as you can.

How to find them

Next, you can decide who has the information you need. Identify the type of person you need to talk to—heart surgeons, heart attack survivors, or families of survivors? Then think about ways to get in touch with specific individual people.

If you’re planning to portray a specific job title in a more or less positive light, your job is easy. Simply call a local organization that hires that job title, ask for the public relations office, and explain what you want. Be sure to explain that you’re working on a novel and won’t be quoting anyone directly, and show that you’ve done your homework by having a list of specific questions ready. There’s an excellent chance that the PR person will know exactly whom you should talk to, and will even help you set up the interview.

If your portrayal is going to be mostly negative, or if the person or information is more obscure, you’ll need to be more creative. The details will depend on what you’re trying to find, but a few general principles may help you get started.

First, look at organized groups dealing with the subject you’re after. A local athletic club might help you get in touch with marathon runners. A local university’s anthropology or materials science department could help you find people who are duplicating traditional bronze smiths’ methods. If you can’t find an exact match, find an organization that’s close.

Second, network as much as you can. Ask your own doctor to help you find a talkative cardiologist. Ask your neighbor who runs if he knows any marathoners. Ask the museum where you volunteer to put you in touch with the curator for Central American bronzes.

Remember, though, that networking is about relationships. Don’t drop your neighbor like a dirty sweat sock if he can’t help you. Stay and talk about running. Listen. You may get useful background information anyway. More important, you’ll make a friend and help smooth the path for the next curious writer who comes along.

Finally, always explain what you’re looking for and why. Detailed questions make it easier for other people to help you. An expert might suggest completely different answers to your plot problem, saving you hours of research. Explain you’re working on a novel, and people won’t be disappointed when a story about them isn’t in the local paper the next week.

How to conduct the interview

Anyway, say you’ve found an archaeologist who’s built a replica of a West Mexican bronze forge. He’s thrilled that you’re interested in his work, and he’d love to talk to you. Now what?

If you’re geographically close to your interview subject, try to set up a face-to-face meeting. A visit to his workplace or home would be ideal, allowing you to see whatever it is he’s explaining. Even a chat over coffee (which you pay for, by the way) lets you see his eyes light up or his face get tight. You’ll get a much better sense of the emotional content of the situation in a personal interview.

Second, remember to be prepared and have a list of questions. You don’t need to be an expert, but the more background you have the more smoothly the conversation will go. If you already know why bronze is easier to make than steel, you’ll be able to move on to the similarities between West Mexican and Peruvian bronzes. The more knowledge you have, the more interest you’ll be able to project, and the more enthusiasm you’ll get in return.

Third, set a time limit, and always stick to it. Respect the value of the other person’s time, and they’ll be much more helpful if you need to call them again. If the conversation is going wonderfully well, you can always schedule a second appointment.

Finally, send a thank you note. If you promised a copy of the story or book, send it as well, even if it doesn’t come out for three years. If you promised to introduce the West Mexican archaeologist to your neighbor who runs, do so.

What to do with all the material

If you’ve followed all of my advice so far, you now have fifteen pages of notes on West Mexican bronze forging, including three paragraphs describing the smell of molten metal and the sound of hammers striking a stone anvil. All of which gets cut down to two sentences in the scene where your hero gets his armor mended.

That’s okay. As with any world building, the details add depth and color even if they don’t appear on the page. You needed all fifteen pages of notes to know exactly which two sentences to include.

Even better, you have now done more than enough research for a non-fiction article about bronze working. It might appear in Archaeology, or Smithsonian, or the house magazine of your subject’s university, or all three.

Selling non-fiction is much too involved a subject to go into here. In general, there is more demand for article-length non-fiction than for story-length fiction, and rates are generally much better. Writer’s Market caters primarily to non-fiction writers and is an excellent place to start.

When repurposing an interview in this way, however, you must contact your subject and explain that you also want to use the material in an article. Many people will say things off the record that they will not repeat for publication. If you publicly embarrass your subject, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll get sued. You might lose, too, because you lied about the purpose of the interview. At best, responsible editors will blackball you, your source will spread the word, and future interviews will be more difficult to arrange. You won’t get much sympathy from other writers, either. That kind of unethical behavior poisons the well for everyone.  Many thousands of words have been written about reporting and interviewing. This article is just a sample, but I hope it’s enough to help you make your stories come alive.