How do you interview people for fiction?

Interviewing people for fiction is a lot more fun than interviewing them for a specific magazine article or news piece because you can let them talk forever. Whatever they share with you might be a possible gem for your book. Here are some of my tips for interviewing people for fiction:

1. Reassure them that whatever they share will be fictionalized and they won’t be identified. You are interviewing them so that you get it right. People are eager to help you. Everyone hates mistakes in fiction, especially when it’s something you care about.

2. If you’ve already written your story and you just need to fact-check, then go through your list of questions. Otherwise, if you’re trying to figure out what it’s like to be something, like a policeman, a scuba diver, a video gamer, a modern-day slave, a Moldovan, start more general.

3. Ask them to tell you about the first time they did something. Those memories are often the most vivid.

4. Listen carefully and plan follow-up questions to get more details about whatever they are describing.

5. Do not interrupt, for any reason. Wait to ask your follow-up questions until they are quiet. They will keep talking and then they’ll share something amazing. I recently had a high school student who interviewed me. Best interview ever. He was too shy to interrupt, (or he was incredibly good) and I just blabbed on.

6. Keep it like a conversation. Laugh. Encourage without interrupting. Examples: Uh huh, Yes? Really? Hmm.

7. Record it if they will let you – just the audio, not video. This makes most people uncomfortable and they’ll share less.

8. If they won’t let you record, don’t scribble notes the whole time. That’s distracting. Trust that you will remember the gems. Write key words, main details, while they talk. Then, afterward, write for as long as you can about what they told you.

9. Location: coffee shops and restaurants are nice because you can drink coffee together, but choose one that’s dead. Booths are great. If they’re worried people will hear, they won’t share much. Go to their house if they’ll let you. You’ll get a ton of details to include in your fiction if you do. Don’t invite them to your house. They will usually be less comfortable, unless, of course, you’re already good friends.

10. Thank them profusely and ask them if there’s anyone else they think you should talk to. Afterward, send them a thank you note and include them in your acknowledgments when you’re published.

For Romancing the Book, I wrote a guest post on how I interviewed people for TRAFFICKED:

Romancing the Book: The Art of the Interview

One thought on “How do you interview people for fiction?

  1. I enjoyed your column. Interesting and common-sensical. So far in my writing life, I have published only non-fiction. I, too, wrote a how-to piece on interviewing, using tips I had learned from a long career in sales. The article was published in three different publications over the years. I pasted a link here if you’re interested in reading it sometime.

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