If you want to be a writer, you really need to talk to someone

(Note: Because this is indeed a re-post from last year, I have prepared myself for a good flogging. And not the kind E.L. James would give after dressing me up as a flying monkey from the Wizard of Oz. I have no one to blame but myself for this shortcoming, which I’d like to clarify has nothing to do with flying monkeys — and everything to do with one of those late-night fire calls that has left my brain like that of… well… a flying monkey. I hope you’ll forgive me, My Pretties. Pay no attention to that man snoring behind the curtain…)

image Yes, it’s true: Friday is finally here! And so is Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, both of which are awaited for with equal amounts of anticipation! Just like French toast and mustard; your favorite TV show and a power outage; or a great hair day and tornado warning. Why so much anticipation? Because this weekly feature on writing, culled from my 15 years as a columnist, has been referred to by Consumer Reports as “worth every penny, unless it’s Canadian.”

That’s right. Many of today’s most influential writers got their start right HERE. Or at least in this general vicinity, somewhere on the planet. The Master of Horror® Stephen King put it this way:

“Each week, he offers an oyster with a pearl inside. And each week I say to myself, ‘shuck it.'”

But enough accolades! Let’s get to this week’s NWOW, brought to you by yesterday’s coffee and today’s deadline.

Regardless of what you may think after reading one of my columns, one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had as a writer didn’t take place at the keyboard.

It actually occurred in a beauty parlor.

The woman I was interviewing was sitting under a hair dryer throughout our conversation, which meant we had to raise our voices the entire time. Naturally, this drew more than a few stares from other patrons getting perms, waxes and pedicures. While I’m sure some of the stares had to do with the fact we were practically yelling for 40 minutes, I think it had more to do with the nature of our conversation: The woman, named KK, was sharing her experiences as a homicide detective.

A lot of it wasn’t pretty. But it was raw, real and included the kinds of details you can’t get from reading about things. The smells, physical evidence, procedures that aren’t “by the book” but utilized and recognized by working detectives — all of it was there, presented from the source during one of the most surreal conversations I’ve ever had. It’s where I learned about pattern lividity, and how, in one case, the deep bruising of a Lone Star belt buckle was uncovered using ultraviolet light. Within hours, they had confiscated the belt from the suspect’s home and matched it with the bruise found on the body of his nine-year-old stepson.

I said it wasn’t pretty.

So why was I there at that beauty shop? I mean aside from my need for a mani-pedi? I was getting background for a mystery novel. Although I knew my characters and had completed an outline, I needed the kind of details that not only add realism and plausibility, but are so compelling they can sometimes take your story in directions you hadn’t thought about. Even as a humor columnist, I use this same approach. The only difference is that most of my conversations are with myself. But you probably guessed that.

The point is, whether you’re a novelist or columnist, your research should include talking with people:

1) Whenever your piece includes something you aren’t an expert on
2) Whenever possible

For a lot of writers, talking with people is like needing a cavity filled; you know it has to be done, you’re sure it will be painful, and you’d be willing to fill it yourself with wood putty. But writing about characters in a way that’s believable, and constructing a story that feels as if it follows a natural sequence of events — through conversation, observation and consequence — requires a working knowledge of your fictional world and those who inhabit it. To do that, you have to talk to people who live there.

As always, begin with the research and educate yourself as much as possible about the subject you’re fleshing out. Not only will this give you a better idea of the kinds of questions you need to be asking, it will keep you from wasting time asking about the obvious. Remember: In most cases you’ll only have one opportunity to speak with these people, so make the most of it by being prepared. They will appreciate it, and you will get more out of them if they see you’ve taken the time to cover the basics. If you’re interviewing a chef, you don’t want to waste time asking the correct temperature for meat sauce; you want to know the secret recipe.

When it comes to the actual interview, here are a few tips I’ve learned based on trial, error and forgetting batteries for my recorder:

1) Let them pick the interview location. You want them to be comfortable and in their element. That’s where they will have their best recollections and be more apt to reveal details. Although my interview with KK was in a beauty shop, it was her choice — and in a place she frequented. Plus it allowed me to get a much-needed trim. Which had nothing to do with the interview, but I’m just saying…

2) Use a small recording device and avoid a pad and pen. There are several reasons for this, aside from the fact that I can’t read my own writing. Eye contact is important during an interview — for you and your subject. Making eye contact with the person you’re interviewing encourages them and, at the same time, fosters a conversational approach. Again, make them comfortable and they will reveal more. For you, not having your eyes buried in a notepad allows you to observe body language and facial expressions — things that will come back to you when you begin writing. They also provide you with visual cues that can help lead the interview into different directions. Do they suddenly look uncomfortable? It may be time to take a different tact — or maybe dig deeper. You’ll know when you see it, but can’t if you’re looking into a notebook.

And lastly:

3) Use your list of questions sparingly. I think of them as icebreakers — something to get the conversation going or refer to if there’s a lull or dead end. Just like a great book reads well when it feels “unscripted,” the same applies to a good interview. Think of it this way: Want to tour the country? Stay on the main highway. Want to get away from the tourists and see the real America? Take the back roads and be spontaneous. That’s where you’ll find the people and places you’ll remember most.

And so will your readers.

Assuming they can hear you over the hair dryer…

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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37 thoughts on “If you want to be a writer, you really need to talk to someone

  1. “The point is, whether you’re a novelist or columnist, your research should include talking with people…”

    Wait…you mean real people? The unwashed masses yearning to be free? Have you met the people?? People are nuts! They sit under hair dryers and talk about their homicide adventures…..and those are the normal ones!

  2. I can see that is very basic and yet so, so important Ned. Thank you for this. I’m new enough to your blog that I haven’t seen any of these posts before, so you can sleep with a smile. I will be writing more at some point and it is good to know this stuff. I read a lot and it is so obvious to me as a reader when an author has done this or is a subject matter expert (in business they are called sme’s). Some of my favorite authors are Kathy Reichs, Linda Fairstein and John Grisham – all of whom have actually done the jobs that they describe on their novels. I find the feeling of authenticity in the details is enthralling. I have become a sme in a few areas over my lifetime and when I watch a program or read a book in these areas, I know in the first few minutes if the author has done their homework or have actually done the job they are writing about. Anything less and I get bored easily and either switch channels or discard the book.

    Thanks again for this post Ned – you are obviously a writing sme and your technique and explanations are invaluable to me. Happy Dreams! (And I hope everyone ended up OK in your call out last night.)

    • John Grisham is one of my absolute favorites, for the very reasons you mentioned, Paul. I’m really glad my suggestions are helpful, and appreciate your kind wishesssszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

  3. I get the concept of talking to people for research, but I think when you’re talking to a homicide detective, it may not be a bad idea to have your attorney present. 🙂

    • Not when I do it.

      That said, I tend to think of writing as something in more broad terms that includes all forms, including non-fictional journalism and history, etc. Storytelling, to me, is more about a good yarn.

  4. Awesome advice Mr Ned and all advice that I intend to take as I speak with people about my book. 🙂 Very timely advice indeed.
    Now stop snoring, your upsetting the dog. 🙂

  5. Very helpful! Especially as I look into expanding beyond what I’m writing right now. In fact, listening and talking to other people should help with dialogue, right? That seems to be the real deal breaker when I attempt fiction…well, that and the gratuitous love scenes (YUCK!)
    Thank you, Ned! Always a pleasure!

    • You’ll be amazed how how many times those conversations lead to ideas and character development you hadn’t thought of.

      Just so we’re clear, I’m not referring to sex scenes. Much…

        • I actually do have a few, one of which is a private eye named Shane McPhearson. He actually started out as a short story character in a piece I wrote years ago about a high schooler who has a degenerative disease. He decides to ask the meanest person in his school (Shane McPhearson) to help him commit suicide. Years later, when I wrote my murder mystery, I incorporated that into one of the layers of Shane’s troubled past.

          Yeah, not everything I’ve written has been humorous 😉

            • No, it’s not in print yet. I’m hoping it’ll be my “ace-in-the-hole” at some point. I have a trilogy sketched out and it all takes place in Seattle, which Is the one big city I’d actually consider living in. Part time 😉

              By the way, thanks for the nod in your last piece, Michelle. What a neat idea for a post theme! I’m looking forward to your next trip down the highway.

              Be well and enjoy the down time. I know it’s hard to be sedentary with your energy level, but time like this at home is a gift no matter how it arrived. I’m sure your husband and kiddos are enjoying having you home for the next few weeks 😉

              • Some of my favorite books are set in the Pacific NW (“The Shack” and “Wild”). Yours will be a natural next! Best wishes…I admire anyone with an attention span long enough to write a full novel.
                Your surgery article was one of the first I read…and it fit so perfectly!
                Have a great week, Brian, er, Ned…I’m hoping to get caught up on all my reading.

  6. Funny, but I can relate to this 100%…well, it’s not like I ever had a conversation with a CSI cast member in a beauty parlor, but the more I hang out with people, the more inspiration I get.

  7. It was for this very reason I have taken one course in Forensic Sciences & already signed up for another (witnesses this time). I want to write a mystery but I want to know my facts & not just the kinds of things you see on CSI.

    • That’s so great to hear. You will gain so much from that experience that will make its way into your descriptions and give your voice credibility. There’s a terrific book that I recommend for anyone writing a mystery. It actually came out many years ago and was written by Barbara Norville called “Writing the Modern Mystery.”

      I learned so much from that book about every aspect of writing a mystery novel. I highly recommend it!

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