My first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, is coming out this November from Five Star Publishing. I did mounds of research both for this book and the second one in progress. Experts in the field were my best resources when it came to getting accurate details. An English teacher and college professor until 2011, I really didn’t know much about bullet calibers, dead bodies, rigor mortis, or police procedure. While I could read about these online and in books, I found it very profitable to ask questions of experts.
My books take place in the small town of Endurance, Illinois (population 15,000). Because I live in a town of 10,000 in west central Illinois, my local experts are used to dealing with small town crime and police procedures. But would they talk to me? It’s a bit scary calling police chiefs, coroners, and detectives when you don’t actually have a book published. But I discovered that people are interested in talking about their work and they are flattered that you ask their opinion. Every person I consulted, from the Fire Chief down to a local historian, said “yes” to my suggestion that I interview them. Each of them helped me immensely.
Here are some suggestions I’ve learned from experience. I hope they help you if you are considering interviewing experts.
- Research your professionals for experience and expertise.
- Email or call, setting a date, time, and place that will work for both of you. Give them your contact number in case they have an emergency. I interviewed the police and fire chiefs at their offices and the local coroner in a coffee shop.
- Write questions in advance so you won’t waste their time or yours. But be flexible. During the interview they may say something that will cause you to ask a question you didn’t think of when you were preparing. General questions work: I asked the Police Chief about cold case files in general. Then I asked about the difference in the content of cold case files from the late 1960’s compared with today. Detailed questions also work. How to get the identification number off a gun was one of my questions. Often the experts have amazing stories that get your own creative juices going.
- I arrive early for the interview because anxiety is bred by last minute traffic problems or unexpected difficulties. I have my questions, plenty of paper for notes, and a recorder.
- I take a recorder because I want to be able to concentrate on what my expert is saying rather than writing too much. I do jot down thoughts I want to go back to or points of emphasis. I always ask them if they mind if I record them. No one turns me down and, frankly, they like the idea that I want to be accurate. I often ask follow-up questions that I didn’t think of earlier.
- Often my sources will give me contacts for other sources or even loan me books. The coroner loaned me a lovely book with photos of various kinds of deaths. It was great night time reading.
- When you finish the interview, exchange business cards and ask if you may email or call if you need to clarify something or if you forgot something you wanted to ask.
- Always thank the source and write a thank you email or note. If they have given you a great deal of help, acknowledge them in your book.
I hope these ideas will start you down a successful road when it comes to researching with expert sources. Don’t be afraid to call them. The worst thing they can say is “no,” and then you try someone else.