Recently I came across an online discussion about reaching out to experts when we authors need to learn more about a topic. I was amazed at how many people assumed that they have to pay someone for information. That has never been my experience.
In my research on the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), I came across an article about the work done by a professor who reviewed the original environmental assessment. According to the author there were numerous points that “raised red flags.” Seriously? I can’t quote that. My editor will want to know what things. So I did the only thing I could.
I went online and searched for the professor’s name. I knew her university so I was able to verify that I had found the right person. I simply used the contact form on her website, identifying myself as a children’s nonfiction author writing on the DAPL. I included a link to my Amazon Author page so that she could see what I do and then I waited. In less than two days she e-mailed me back with her cell phone number.
The vast majority of people I contact, especially if they are faculty, researchers or park rangers are happy to share what they know. They’re excited at the thought of educating young readers. And, especially when the topic is difficult or controversial, they want to make sure that the information being circulated is accurate.
I have had some people react with a certain amount of suspicion if they think that I’m a journalist. Nope — children’s writer. Nonfiction writer. Once they understand that, they usually perk right up.
Reach out to those who are experts in your field. They can help you replace skewed information with accurate fact. They may even tell you about something so new you won’t find it in any other print source. All you have to do is find an expert who is willing to share.
Last month, Peggy Archer invited me to be the Missouri SCBWI PAL author for February. At about the same time, I was asked to write a blog post for Alive Now. Both requests involved answering four interview questions; in each case, I was provided with a list of questions and got to choose which ones to answer. Before I could make my choices, I had to decide what I wanted to do with each interview.
I was pleasently surprised that the Alive Now choices included questions about both my writing life and my faith journey. I can talk about writing all day long, but I find talking about my faith life difficult. Still, it seemed strange to choose only questions about writing. Lucky for me that our pastor had recently discussed creativity and faith. Before his sermon, I knew how creativity impacted my writing but he clarified how it also gives life to my faith. Thanks to Pastor Sean, I chose questions that illustrated how important non-writing creativity is to both my faith and my writing.
Sometimes when you answer interview questions, it pays to start with something surprising and that’s what I did for the Missouri SCBWI interview. I feel like I’m the only children’s writer on the planet who didn’t grow up wanting to write. As much as I loved to read, being a writer never crossed my mind. When I decided to pursue this as a career, I may have thought it came out of the blue. Not, Mom. She was relieved that I had finally figured it out. Because I was a late bloomer, my family didn’t encourage my writing so much as my curiosity.
All interview questions are not created equal. Before you decide which ones to answer, give them some thought. An interview is a lot like an article. Once you know what you want your readers, or listeners, to get out of it, you are ready to proceed.
I’m working on a new nonfiction topic and, as usual, I’ve picked a tough one. I say as usual because this is the second project I’ve done that features a large number of different animals. Last time it included octopus, flounder, bittern, zorilla and jaguar. This time, I’ve researched house flies, white-tailed deer, bull frogs and rats.
The problem with all of this animal research is trying to find accurate biology on either pest animals or game animals. Scientists research exotics but things closer to home aren’t as “sexy” and don’t draw as much attention. A lot of the information that I do find is anecdotal or what I lovingly call folksy. I need science with real research. I know that’s narrow minded of me but it seems to make my editors happy.
Sometimes I think I have enough information until I try to write. As I try to describe whatever process, I just can’t pull it together. That’s when I know I don’t have enough information. What to do?
- Do another search. Usually I’ve refined my knowledge and can come up with better key words by now but that doesn’t always mean that I can find additional articles. Still, I try.
- Look for a name. Whether I’ve found 2 articles or 10, if my knowledge is incomplete, I need to find more. I pull up the most helpful article and look for a name. Who wrote the article? Who did this person interview?
- Send an e-mail. If the author of the helpful article was the expert, that’s who I e-mail. If not, I look for people they might have interviewed. In my e-mail, I introduce myself as a children’s writer. “I’m not sure I understand this and I want to make sure that I don’t mislead my readers.”
- Wait. Once I’ve sent out the e-mail, it’s time to work on something else. If I haven’t heard from anyone in two or three days, I look for another person to contact but I’m always amazed by the number of busy researchers who want to teach kids about their topic.
Going to the experts is the best way for me to find the information that I need to create a clear explanation picture for my readers. Experts always know more than they’ve written. Fortunately, they are often more than willing to share.
I always let potential subjects know who I am so that they know they are being approached by someone who is legit.
Because I write so much nonfiction, I do a lot of research and one of my favorite ways to research a topic is to do interviews. I enjoy doing interviews because I often find out something new, something that hasn’t made its way into print. I also get someone else’s take on things when I do an interview. Before I can do this, I need to let them know who I am. I usually e-mail people first and I always let them know:
1. Who I am. This includes not only my name but my website and blog in my signature. This way they can find out a bit about me and know that I am legit.
2. Who will publish the article. Often, when I contact someone, I already have a contract for the article. I let them know where the piece will appear and I word it so that they know this is on assignment.
3. The subject of the article as well as my questions. Yes, I e-mail them my questions from the start. This can help put people at ease when they see that my article on young adult novels isn’t an expose on sex or other hot button topics. It also gives them some time to noodle over possible answers. This doesn’t mean that I don’t ask additional questions as we talk but this helps them see where I am going.
4. That they can do it be e-mail. Some people have schedules that are even more bizarre than my own. They may want to help, but fitting in a phone call during daylight hours isn’t always an option. E-mail is actually preferred by many of the editors and agents I interview although it does make spontaneous additional questions a bit more difficult.
I always know something about my topic before I contact anyone for an interview but I always learn something valuable. Would interviews make your work stronger?
The sundew that now lives in my dining room.
While writing up one of my pieces for Education.com, I contacted the St. Louis Carnivorous Plant Society. I had been to one of their shows several years earlier and was convinced that they would be able to point me in the right direction for the information I needed.
Not only did Deborah S. help me find what I needed, she pointed out a mistake in my logic. “Venus Fly Traps won’t do well in a terrarium.” No way! How could that be true? I’d been doing my research. I’d seen the plant for sale in terrariums. Maybe so, but the more research I did showed me she was right. Although some stores sell them in terrariums, they need a period of winter dormancy that the other plants don’t need. That’s going to make things tough.
While I was finishing up this piece, I was also working on a piece on how to take photos to supplement your writing. I visited tons of photography web sites. Who to interview? I went with the highly scientific methodology of picking photographers whose work I loved. Enter one Jose Villa, wedding photographer. After he agreed to do an interview, I did a bit more reading and found that he has been named one of the top ten wedding photographers World Wide. World Wide. Intimidated much? Still, he gladly shared his time and expertise.
When you are writing something up, consult with the experts. Call them. E-mail them. Sure, it can be a little intimidating (top ten world wide!) but who else can better inform your writing than the pros? And, especially when you tell them you are writing for children or about writing for children, they are more than willing to share.
Because it can be so hard to find primary resources on certain topics, I always note primary material even if I don’t need that particular source at the time.
If you are working on a book or article that involves physics check out the Niels Bohr Library and Archives . This site includes transcriptions of over 3000 hours of interviews on the topics of quantum physics, nuclear physics, modern astrophysics and astronomy, laser science, space science and geophysics, science education and much more. While the majority of scientists are from the US there are also European scientists as well as a few from other countries.
Note: The library owns the copyright to all materials and you have to get their permission to quote from any of the transcripts.
Special thanks go to Research Buzz which is where I originally found out about this archives.
If you write children’s nonfiction, you’ll notice that certain publishers require primary sources. Whether you are writing about archaeology, genetics or physics, one of the best primary sources at your disposal is the interview.
Most of my how-to write articles are based on interviews with editors. The most important thing to remember is that you need to make the process easy for the person you want to interview. To do that, remember these 5 things.
- You are approaching an expert. Don’t use this person to teach you the basics. Interviewing shouldn’t be a research short cut. Before you approach someone for an interview, do your reading so that you know about the topic.
- You will make them more confident if your approach is polished. Be prepared. Write out your questions. Rehearse how you will introduce yourself and explain your goal.
- Be flexible. Some people will need to see your questions before they decide to be interviewed. Offer to e-mail your questions to them. Other people will want to do the interview then and there. Don’t call when you have only a moment to spare.
- Go with the flow. Don’t decide ahead of time that you want only phone interviews or that people must e-mail their responses back to you. Be ready to deal with both.
- Be gracious. Remember when someone takes your call, they may have been expecting someone else and you might have caught them in the middle of something. Always thank them for their time, even if they say no.
Many people are willing to share their expertise with you and your readers. Polish your approach and let them help you make your work sing!