Best-selling New York Times’ authors often acknowledge their experts who have pedigrees like “Head of the FBI” or “Los Angeles Police Department Forensic Expert” or “the Medical Examiner of Cook County.” You probably won’t see those experts in my own book acknowledgements. I tend to stay closer to home, and, face it—those people aren’t exactly in my contact list. Since I began writing mysteries, I’ve been astonished by the amount of information at my fingertips from experts right here in this area or from students I’ve taught in past years.
My Very Simple Method
When I decided to interview people, I put together a method I use with each of my books. I always have questions written out ahead of time, I follow up with questions that occur from the interviewee’s answers, and I exchange contact information with them so I can send additional questions. I end up with far more information than I can use, and that’s good.
I discovered quickly that people are excited to talk about what they do for a living. While I approached my first interview with deep-set nervousness, I found that I shouldn’t have worried. I needed to talk to a coroner about gun wounds, autopsies, and blood spatter. I hadn’t come across those subjects when I taught English at Monmouth High School. (Perhaps I should consider that a blessing, right?) I called Bill Underwood, the Warren County Coroner at that time. He was fabulous. He not only answered my questions over coffee at a local restaurant, he also loaned me books and answered follow-up questions that I needed later while writing my very first mystery. And bonus—he didn’t tell me once how stupid I was about corpses.
That was the start of several professional relationships with people who have been glad to help me understand better. Underwood’s information was added to that of Bill Feithen, Monmouth Chief of Police, and the local fire chief at the time, John Cratty, who explained the psychology of arsonists. Stan Jenks, CEO at Security Savings, untangled bank policies—several times—for my second mystery. Jay Melton, former principal at Monmouth-Roseville High School, helped me with changes in teacher evaluation for my latest mystery. Most recently, I talked to Chuck Fry about furniture-making. Yes, those diverse topics fit in my books. These experts all helped me with good humor and patience.
Mining People You Met in Your Past
I have absolutely no problem ruthlessly seeking out former students for information. I had a fantastic experience a few months ago interviewing Monmouth native, Tammy Wolbers. She is a vice-president of the Bank of New York Mellon on Wall Street. To think a former MHS student is working on Wall Street—I am so impressed! When I began my current work-in-progress, I searched my mind for someone living in New York City since I planned to begin my new book in that location. I found that I needed to know something about subways, Midtown, and neighborhoods. Enter Tammy.
I interviewed her for several hours at Seagram’s Brew Coffee House when she was home. Since then, we emailed several times, and she sent me a map of New York City and its neighborhoods; several subway brochures with times, train numbers, and locations; and a video on YouTube that proved very helpful in describing the Christmas atmosphere at Bryant Park near the library. In this internet age, a writer can have information at her finger tips with just the push of a computer key and former students who didn’t flunk her class, don’t hate her if they did, and are currently in helpful prime information positions.
I am still astonished when I think of the wealth of information we have right here in our area. It’s a matter of sitting back and figuring out who knows what. If that doesn’t work, I start asking others to think about who they know that might know about a topic like early 1940s big band music. Every day I come across new questions when plotting a book, and I am grateful to the people who have the expertise and are willing to help.
First published in the Monmouth Review Atlas, and republished here with their permission.
So true! Most people enjoy sharing their knowledge. I learned that as a freelance writer, and now as an author. Good post as always.
I have enjoyed your author interviews in First Draft. Aren’t they fun? Lourdes likes to have us every other issue. Mine with Charlaine Harris was fun as I had to read from each, distinct series. Didn’t think I liked the urban fantasy ones, but I fell in love Midnight, Texas and her characters who lived there. Beth
Hi, Beth, I love reading your interviews in First Draft. The one with Charlaine Harris was wonderful since I didn’t know a lot about her. Because she won an amazing award at the Malice Domestic conference, the interview was very timely. I think perhaps we writers end up with way too much material from interviews because we are so curious about everything. I often have five pages of interview notes, and I only use a few items of information in a single scene.
Good points, Susan! We have what we need near at hand, just have to go get it.
Thanks, Kaye. In the small town Midwest, we work on a smaller scale, indeed.
Hi Susan, Excellent post! Thanks for reminding us not to overlook who and what is available in our hometown. 🙂
Thanks for reading, Joanne.