I’ve had three non-fiction books published in which I was working with other people’s stories, and I’m in the middle of a fourth right now. In addition, I’ve had at least a thousand articles and other short pieces published. In almost all of them, I wrote about things outside my own personal experience, and had to ask for quotes and information from others.
That’s been the case, too, with most of my fiction. The Internet’s bottomless well of information sometimes can’t supply what you need.
You, like the scared little boy at bedtime whose mother assured him that angels would guard him, may need someone “with skin on.”
Here is some of what I have learned about asking people questions for my writing:
1) The more famous the source, the longer lead time you need to give them. I’ve interviewed Rosa Parks, Ruth Bell Graham, Frank Abagnale, and other luminaries. If they’re famous, they’re busy. For a project I'm working on right now, I waited almost two months for Gary Sinese’s interview.
2) Be completely upfront (and humble) about what you intend to do with their comments and information. If you’re writing something on speculation (in other words, without a contract), say so when you are asking to speak to them.
3) Let the person decide the format – telephone conversation, in person (when and where) or email.
4) Ask permission before you record any interview, and get their permission on tape.
5) This is the best way to get interesting content: After you have asked the questions that get at the information you think you need (facts and figures, etc.), then ask what I call “quirky questions.” They include words like “surprising,” “unusual,” “frightening,” and other cues. Here are some (generic, to be personalized to your person):
What was the most surprising thing you learned from your experience?
Were you frightened? When?
What was the most unusual thing that happened?
What do you think that my readers would want to know, if you could give them a personal message?
If you could go back and give yourself advice at the age of your incident, what would you tell you?
What disappointed you?
What do you know about this situation that no one else knows?
Anything bizarre about this situation?
You get the idea! Now put your skin on and go gettum!