3 Tips When Approaching Someone for an Interview

Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

One of my writing students wants to do a series of biographies. So we’ve been discussing how to approach the people in question for interviews. Whether you want to write a biography of someone who is still alive or need to interview a park ranger about bobcats, here are three tips to help you score.

1st Do Your Research

Doing an interview is a way to supplement other research. It is not a short cut. Because of this, you need to first do all of the research that you can without doing the interview. This means that you should have read all the articles, sites and books before you ask for an interview.

It doesn’t matter if you want to interview a sports figure and are approaching her or her trainer. Do your research first.

It May Be Hard to Get a Yes

No one has to give you an interview. In fact, they have every right to say no. Can’t do your piece without this particular interview? Than you might not be writing it. Some people are just too busy to squeeze you in.

Others just won’t see why they should do it. They might see you as an intruder.

When I worked on my master’s thesis, I interviewed members of the local Chinese and Taiwanese community. Look at my picture. I am neither Chinese or Taiwanese. My thesis advisor helped me land my first interview and it was a tough one. The plan was for each interview to take 30 minutes. Maybe I would have to do two or even three with a single person. I met with this person for hours over the course of two months. But I did it. And this person got me in to see absolutely everyone else I needed to see.

First, I had to pay my dues.

Identify Yourself

When you are writing for children, let people know that this is what you are doing. I’ve had people hesitate to say yes right up until I identify myself as a children’s writer. I’m not trying to stir something up. I just want to teach children about geology . . . Akal Teke horses . . . white-tailed deer. When I let them know who I am and specifically what I am writing, doing an interview becomes more appealing.

An interview is a great way to gather information. Be prepared to show your interview subject that you respect them and aren’t using them as a shortcut. No one likes to feel used.


Free Maps: Maps of Exploration from the Library of Congress

I can’t tell you why.  All I know is that I have a thing for maps.  Historic, modern, with or without political boundaries.  It doesn’t really matter.  If I see a map, I’m going to take a look.

So it really isn’t very surprising that when I saw this blog post from the Library of Congress, I did a happy dance.  The title of the post? Free to Use and Reuse: Maps of Discovery and Exploration.

For those of you who don’t already know about this page, the library has made various items from their digital collection available for people to download and use for free.  My favorite Map of Discovery and Exploration?  California as an island.  Apparently fake news isn’t a new thing!

Other categories on this page include Posters of World War I, Veterans, Baseball Cards, Cats and Dogs.  For the most part, these digital offerings consist of visuals – photographs, postcards, posters, maps, letters, etc.  But there is one section of movies – Public Domain Films from the National Film Registry.

What are you going to find?  First I spotted a black and white image of two children.  Little did I know that I was clicking on “Duck and Cover,” a piece of Civil Defense . . . media?  Frankly, my first inclination is to call it propaganda.  There’ s also a western with Roy Rogers, an ethnographic film shot in Bali in 1951, and a Popeye cartoon from 1936.

Writing something set in the past?  Whether you are working on fact or fiction, it would be worthwhile to check out the holdings at the Library of Congress.  After all, primary sources can be a window onto past events. You might even be able to find something in this section that you could use to publicize your work.



Research: Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary sources are eye-witness accounts.  If you are reading the words of an eye-witness, listening to a tape, or checking out photographs or artifacts, these are all primary sources.  You can find primary sources in museums and archives.

But you can also find primary sources in print.  Diaries, letters and even articles written by the researcher who collected the data (see scholarly journals and National Geographic) are primary sources.  This is true even if the published collection of letters lists an editor or the published diary includes a translator.

How is this possible?

Primary sources are uninterrupted.  A good translator isn’t interpreting the text of a letter or journal, but simply making it available to those who read a language different from the original document.  An editor who selects which letters go into a print publication is not altering the letters’ content.  There is no interpretation. Because of this even excerpts are considered primary sources.

I have recently been told that some people say that translations and published letters that list an editor are considered secondary.  To be certain, I googled it.  First I searched “translations primary sources.”  Then I searched “translations not primary sources.”  Everything I found, I’ll provide a brief selection below, so that translations, edited collections and excerpts are all primary.

What if your editor says, “No, I don’t include those as primary sources.  You have to see the entire letter or read the diary in the original Italian”? Fine.  Then I would try to find a different source.  Or I just wouldn’t list it as a primary source.  In all truth, most often I just include a bibliography.  I don’t generally divide it between primary and secondary.

Here are the sources I mentioned:

The Harvard Library Research Guide section, “Knowing a Primary Source When You See One.

The research guide for The University of Wisconsin – Madison library system.

A PDF research guide created by the Saint Mary’s University Twin Cities Campus Library.

If any of you know of a source that says translations, excerpts and published collected works are not primary, please let me know!


How-to Write like a Spook

spookI’m not sure what I was expecting from the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications, 8th Edition (2011).  Certainly the organization that calls their training base “Camp Swampy” or “The Farm” would come up with something . . . creepy but interesting.

Seriously, it’s just a style guide.  Think the Chicago Manual of Style with a somewhat less attractive cover.

That said, the organization obviously recognizes the importance of clear writing from research, to slant, to the actual scripting of the manuscript.

“The depth of our knowledge, the strength of our thinking, and the power of our words will ensure that our customers, from policymakers to operations officers, continue to rely on the Directorate of Intelligence.”

Wow.  Customers.  Maybe it is a little creepy after all.

Check it out here to see Agency protocal when writing indefinite numbers, foreign terms, and more.  An excellent resource if your protagonist inadvertently intercepts information meant for someone who may, or may not, be up to something.



Primary Materials

Terracotta horse. Artist unknown. Gift to museum by Mrs CE Andrews, 1932

Do you write about art? Then here is a listing that you need to check out.

The Museuem of New Zealand has made over 30,000 images available online.  Over 14,000 images are available for non-commercial use as long as you attribute the image to the author.  Another 17,000 images are available for any use whatsoever.  This means that there are no copyright images.


The Now comes another 30,000 images from the Museum of New Zealand. On their blog, they write: “Today we are extremely happy to let you know about our latest development; over 30,000 images downloadable, for free, in the highest resolution we have them.” “Over 14,000 images are available under a Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND,” (which means you can make non-commercial use of these images, so long as you give attribution to the artist.) “But even better are the 17,000 images that are downloadable for any use, any use at all. These images have no known copyright restrictions.” Find more information on this open art initiative here. Or enter the collections right here.

Primary Research: Folklife Today

Not surprisingly, the Library of Congress has an amazing collection of primary materials ranging from photographs to musical recordings and artifacts of various kinds. For me, knowing what they have and what I might look for is tricky.  There is just so much.  One way that I find out about what they have is by reading their blogs and they’ve just added a new one.

Folklife Today is the blog of the American Folklife Center which documents traditional culture in the U.S.   Created in 1928, it is one of the largest archives of U.S and other ethnographic materials. The collection includes both visual and audio documentation of traditional art, cultural expression, and oral history including songs, stories, and other means of expression.

In addition to finding out what the Library has on a given topic, the first blog also points out changes in thinking about a topic.  The first post is about Halloween and includes information on what we thought then (in the 1980s) vs what we know now.

Read this blog regularly and you will learn not only what resources the library has, but you may also find yourself inspired to write something new.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some research on Samhain to do…


Writing Science

Library of CongressOne of the trickiest parts of writing science is finding your facts.  Where do you go to find the latest and greatest information on a topic?

One good place to start is the Library of Congress.  They have a wide variety of Reference Guides available to download.  One of the most recent is The Science of Taste, compiled in January of this year.  It includes references on the physiology of taste, flavor ingredients, the neurobiology and genetic variations.

Additional science reference guides include information  on various scientists, gardening, obesity and much more.  You can find the entire list at the Science Reference Guide page.

You can also find material in the form of video by checking out the listing of events sponsored by the Library of Congress.  If anything these topics are even more varied than the reference guides.  With just a quick glance, I spotted Mapping Water Use from Space with Martha Anderson, PhD.; Man Food Fire: The Evolution of Barbecue with Steven Raichlen, a winner of the several James Beard Awards; and My Winter in Greenland and Summer in Antarctica with Lora Koenig, PhD. about her study of the ice sheets.

Why not take advantage of the many wonderful resources the Library of Congress has to offer.  You may find yourself adding primary sources to your bibliography.


Michigan State University Digitizes Civil War Documents

Although Michigan was not the site of even a single Civil War battle or skirmish, numerous soldiers were from this state.  As a result, Michigan State University became the repository of a variety of letters, journals and musters and photographs.  The university has been digitizing these holdings and has made them available online.

Not only have they scanned or otherwise imaged the journals and letters, they have transcribed them as well.  The materials that I read through had the image and the transcription side by side.  You can check the original text yourself but you can also take advantage of their practice in reading sometimes faded or blotchy pages.

Click here to view a news video about this project.

Isn’t it marvelous when more primary materials become available online?


Is This Really What They Ate?

Darwin and some experimental Roman cooking collide in my kitchen.

Last Thursday, we had a snow day.  Scads and scads of glorious snow.  It also meant that Jared was home all day.  He played some video games, of course, but he also engaged in some experimental cooking.

He made a Roman pear souffle.  The recipe dates to approximately 35 AD.

It smelled really good and I’d like to say we adored it.  That’s what I’d like to say.  But the truth is that it was a little too interesting to love.  It combined pears, red wine and cumin.

Yep.  Interesting.  It left me wondering just how much our tastes have changed.  I doubt seriously that Roman cooks spent a great deal of time fixing things that no one wanted to eat.  Yet, none of us were thrilled with the results.  Clearly, we like very different things.

Part of the issue may be the unorthodox preparation methods.  Jared almost  decided to use my mixer.  Or the blender.  He couldn’t make up his mind.  Finally he decided to go with the level of technology that a Roman would have access too.  When I came into the kitchen, he was using the potato masher.  That wouldn’t have been my choice but then I looked at the directions.  They called it a souffle but looking at how they told you to prep it, custard probably would have been more accurate.

But I’ve also been wondering how much the ingredients may differ between then and now.  What first lead me to question this was a quote from Charles Darwin.  “The pear, though cultivated in classical times, appears, from Pliny’s description, to have been a fruit of very inferior quality . . . But the gardeners of the classical period, who cultivated the best pear they could procure, never thought what splendid fruit we should eat. . .” [Darwin, Charles (1998-03-01). On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (p. 19 and 20). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.]

If the pear of Darwin’s time has notably changed from that of the Romans,  how much more different is our pear?  Could that be part of the reason we were less than thrilled with this recipe?

What does all of this have to do with writing?  Whenever you write about a historic period, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you need to get a feel for their world.  Their foods?  I’m left wondering how accurate our attempts at their recipes truly are.

Just a little food for thought.


Historic Sources on the American Revolution

It isn’t often that a library digitizes an entire collection.  Part of the reason that Princeton University could do it with the Sid Lapidus ’59 Collection on Liberty and the American Revolution is that the collection contains 179 items — not inconsequential but not enormous either.

The collection consists of books, pamphlets, images and a map and includes Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Paines’ Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Common Sense, and Alexander Hamilton’s The Federalist. Skim the collection, search by format, author, topic or language.

Special thanks to Research Buzz for telling about this undertaking in her newsletter.