‘They wouldn’t be sweating once they were in cardiac arrest, even if it was a cocaine overdose,’ the lady across from me said. She stopped to think. ‘With a heroin overdose they might be sweaty once they’ve been resuscitated and trying to get back to normal, but it would be unlikely that two people in the same group would take such different drugs, one is such an upper and the other a downer. On coke, they’d be excitable and energetic, and if their heart was racing too fast they might end up in cardiac arrest.’
I thought for a moment. ‘So if I delete the bit about being sweaty once he’s unconscious and on the floor, and add in a line about the man being loud and obnoxious before he ends up collapsing?’
Admittedly, it wasn’t a typical conversation to be having over breakfast. Our waitress gave us raised eyebrows as she overheard snippets about drug overdoses and drowning. Not me – I was fascinated and kept asking more questions, madly writing notes as we went.
I was interviewing Writing WA Literati Tammie Bullard, who is both a paramedic and a writer, and who had kindly agreed to help me with some of the technical questions I had for my current work in progress. My story has six main characters and most of them have careers in fields that I know precisely nothing about. It’s fine to depend upon Google and a fertile imagination for a first draft, but now I’m working on my second draft I knew I really needed some authentic detail.
I love the solitude of being a writer, of needing to rely on no one except myself. It’s probably one of the reasons I have pursued writing for so long, rather than seek more traditional work. I like people – they fascinate me. I like to study them and write about them. But I like to stay a step back.
There are some times though, when you need to step forward and ask for help, and this was one of those times. My paramedic character has a number of key scenes in the story, and it’s imperative I get them right. Initially I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook, asking fellow writers how I would go about finding a paramedic willing to help me. It wasn’t long before I had lots of great offers of help, but when I reached out to Tammie, I knew instantly I had made the right decision.
Over Eggs Benedict we discussed everything from terminology to staffing to career progression and medical events. She taught me how a call would come through to the depot, and the fact that it was called a ‘depot’ and not ‘station’ as I had written 23 times and subsequently needed to change.
Tammie isn’t the first expert I’ve interviewed for this book. I had the good fortune of speaking with chef Stephen Clarke last month about what it is like to run a fine dining restaurant and also Dr Kelly Shepherd on life as a botanist and being a PhD scholar. I am incredibly grateful to each of them for giving their time and expertise to add detail to what must seem like a rather eclectic group of characters.
Here are some lessons I have learned about interviewing experts for your novel:
- Be prepared. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge so make sure you have your questions ready to go. If you are cold-calling them, they might be ready to chat then and there, if you email them, they might be willing to meet the following day.
- Only ask about what you can’t find online. Do your research in advance both on your interviewee and the topic in general. Gather as much information as you can and then frame your questions around the gaps in your knowledge – or to confirm with them what you have discovered online. Don’t walk in saying ‘tell me everything’ – it wastes everyone’s time.
- Know your non-negotiables. What specific information must you get? Do you have a particular scene you need advice on, or do you need background information before you start writing. Make sure you get the main pieces of information you need before you hang up/leave.
- Let them talk. Apart from getting your non-negotiables, let your expert talk, don’t interrupt with too many questions or your own stories. You will learn all sorts of details that will add colour and authenticity to your story. Even if you have a list of specific questions, make sure you ask ‘is there anything else you think I should know?’ Don’t feel obliged to fill silences with more questions – sometimes people just need a moment to think.
- As they talk, listen for emotive words that describe the environment they work in. Jot down lingo and jargon (ask them later what it means), how they label and describe things. For example, when interviewing Stephen, I noticed everyone called him ‘Chef’ and not his actual name. It’s a sign of respect and something I now use to effect in my novel.
- If possible, visit them at work. When interviewing Dr Shepherd we wandered around the UWA campus and she pointed out the buildings where my character would work. She also showed me things like the glasshouses and taxonomic garden hidden in the middle of campus, which will add authentic detail, and in the case of the garden, a clue to the dramatic end of the story.
- Get permission for follow-up. If things go well, you might want to contact them again with follow-up questions or to read over a specific scene. Make sure they have your full name, phone and email in case they need to get in contact later.
- Get it down quickly. Make a decision if you want to record the interviews or just take notes (ask permission either way) and block out a period of time immediately after the interview so you can type up your notes straight away. Even if your notes are little more than dot points, you will find you remember a lot more than what you have written down, but keep in mind that will fade the longer you leave it.
- Keep a spreadsheet with the names and dates of interviews you have conducted, along with their contact details. Add to this anyone else who has assisted in any way during your writing. This makes it easier when it comes time to writing your acknowledgements.
What is your experience of interviewing experts for your novels and writing? What other tips can you share?