Conducting the Research Interview, from Start to Finish

Please help me welcome award-winning writer and new Kensington author, Kristina McMorris. Her fictional work has garnered nearly twenty national literary awards and two nominations for the highly coveted Golden Heart®. A proud member of several literary organizations including RWA® and Rose City Romance Writers, Kristina looks forward to the release of her debut novel in February 2011 from Kensington Books!

Aside from being an historical author who spends just as much time doing intense research as writing her actual books, she's also been a weekly TV host for nearly a dozen years of her life, requiring her giving countless interviews. Check out her website for more details.

by Kristina McMorris
If the mere mention of the word "interview" has you breaking out in hives from dreaded anticipation, you're not alone. Unless your day job entails working in HR, an interview typically carries the sense that we're about to be examined and judged—most likely for something we consider vital. A job interview. A college entrance interview. A scholarship interview. Even a media interview.

Well, folks, when it comes to interviewing someone for research purposes, rest assured that, as a writer, this is YOUR turn to run the show. To best avoid all that nervousness we're accustomed to, however, the key is being fully prepared to conduct the interview like a pro. And today, I'm happy to share some tips I've learned in order to do just that.

As a WWII novelist, interviews have become a necessity to ensure that my world building rings true. Initially stemming from fear of receiving death threats from WWII experts (and yes, fanatics) for getting my facts wrong, I've conducted interviews that include WWII infantrymen and airmen, Japanese-American internment survivors, Military Intelligence Service vets (secret wartime interrogators and code breakers), legendary baseball players, museum directors, star violinists, and the list goes on and on.

And let me tell you, once you find your comfort zone and build confidence in the interview process, you'll gain so much more information than you ever imagined possible, and you'll wonder why you ever dreaded an activity brimming with such enjoyment and information. So, without further ado, here are ten tips to help the Katie Couric in you emerge:

The more prepared you are, the more confidence you'll have. And just as importantly, you'll know which questions to ask, saving both you and your interviewee time.

Type your list of questions beforehand, in a logical/related order of progression, leaving space between each for answers. Also, create an area at the top of the page for the interviewee's name and contact info to make your life easier when organizing afterward. If you type your answers on the computer while chatting with the person, be sure to hit save on a regular basis! If this step adds stress, take notes by hand and type them in later.

Google the subject you're covering to find direct contacts. Look for museums, historical societies, archivists, librarians, chat rooms, related organizations, and articles featuring experts (which can easily lead to contacting them through a website). In other words, start with approaching people who, indicated by their trade, most likely WANT to talk about their subject.

If they can't answer your questions, ask them if they can refer you to someone who can; this gives you a nice "inside" referral to then utilize in your email to the next person. And as we all know, referrals make a difference in any industry.

We're all busy today. The world seems to be spinning faster than ever before. So don't be surprised if someone you contact doesn't respond. I typically follow up once, and will let it go if I still don't hear back. So long as your approach is professional, chances are high it's not about you; it's just the challenge of juggling busy lives (or perhaps THEY'RE the ones who are nervous about an interview!). Thus, when possible, I like to contact three experts in whichever field I'm researching. Out of three, I'm almost certain to receive at least one positive response. And that person quite often can suggest others for you.

Whatever you do, don't give up! Get the information you need to make your book sparkle. Also, it's wise to save your correspondence, so there's never a question of when/who to contact.

Since most people (even many of my war vet buddies) have internet access, I've found that emailing is a very calm, efficient, approachable way to make initial contact, and even conduct a full interview when the questions are very detailed or, on the flipside, when there are only a few quick questions.

As for my usual initial emails, here is an example of one I used recently, producing successful results:

Dear Mr. XXX,
As an historical novelist, I'm writing to you in hopes that you'd be willing to answer a few questions regarding the USC baseball program in the '40s. XXX XXX referred me to you and claimed you'd be a wonderful source of information.

Please let me know if I may email you some questions, or set up a phone interview, should your schedule allow.

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you!

Kind regards,

Kristina McMorris

So they responded with "Yes, I'd be happy to answer some questions." Now what?

I then ask if I may schedule a time that works for me to call them. Unless they tell you otherwise, you should always be the one calling them, not the other way around. And be sure to be punctual.

If the interview is in person, you could offer to buy them a coffee and snack at Starbuck's in their part of town (or wherever is convenient for them). Should you like to tape record the interview, now would be a good chance to ask if they're comfortable with that, so no one is surprised come interview time.

Also, whether in person or over the phone, it's helpful if you can give them an estimate as to how long the interview will take, so neither of you will feel rushed. You should have a general idea of how long it will take based on your prepared list of questions; still, some interviewees love to ramble (and there are plenty of gems that can be found in that rambling), so pad yourself with time just in case.

First off, I thank them for their time, let them know I have a list of questions for them, but if at any time they need to leave/go that they shouldn't be afraid to tell me (this relieves pressure from both sides). If possible and appropriate, I then offer one ice breaking question or conversation starter (e.g. (if they're from Madison, WI) "I see that you live near my husband's family. How long have you lived in Madison?" People typically love talking about their hometown, their alma matter, their kids, etc.

In turn, they might very well ask you a related question. ("Oh, where does his family live in Wisconsin?") And now, voila, you're having a conversation—versus a pressured interview for both of you—and you're ready to ease into your interrogation.

Aside from asking at least one question, the key to a great interview (just ask Barbara Walters) is......ready for it?.....LISTENING. I would venture to guess that your closest friends tend to be, and not by coincidence, great listeners. We love it when people take time to show us how interesting we are, and that we have something of value to say. This is the crux of an interview. Listen to them. And I mean, really listen. You'll be amazed at how many fabulous questions you'll come up with on the spot (keep a blank page handy) that you hadn't predicted, based solely on the information they end up providing.

On that note, don't be afraid to detour from your preplanned questions. And once that spontaneous tangent has run its course, it's okay to ask them to wait a moment while you scan your questions, since they likely covered some of your other inquiries. Just know, unless you run a tight, rigid interview (and what fun is that?), you're often going to hop around a bit. Though sometimes challenging, this should be expected. So don't worry if you don't get answers to every question during the first interview. That's what follow up is all about.

Do your best to stick with the estimated time frame you had provided them. If the entire scheduled hour is over and you only have a few questions left, let them know you'd love to ask a couple more but would be happy to email or call another time if that's more convenient for them. Chances are good they'll say, "Oh, it's okay, I have time now if you'd like to ask more."

If you happen to have a lot more questions, ask if you could schedule another interview. This will also give you time to review the answers they gave you, and to form new ones.

Congratulations! You did it. You came, you saw, you got your answers.

Now, even if you've covered all the questions, you'll very likely think of more later. So, just to be safe, I ALWAYS thank them for their time, and ask if I may contact them later should any other questions arise. This leaves the door open, and you won't feel bad contacting them again.

I send every interviewee a thank you by email, card, or even a small gift if warranted. Putting them in the acknowledgments section of your book is obviously a great way to show appreciation, as well as sending them a complimentary copy of the book. For interviewees or researchers who went above and beyond, I've sent a small box of truffles on a few occasions, and even a floral arrangement. No matter how small or large the token, what's most important is to merely show your gratitude. While this seems a basic golden rule, sadly it's one that has too quickly faded from our society—so keep it alive, and your interviewees will be delighted they helped you out!

Family Relationships Blog Day

"Today I'm participating in a mass blogging! WOW! Women On Writing has gathered a group of blogging buddies to write about family relationships. Why family relationships? We're celebrating the release of Therese Walsh's debut novel today. The Last Will of Moira Leahy, (Random House, October 13, 2009) is about a mysterious journey that helps a woman learn more about herself and her twin, whom she lost when they were teenagers. Visit The Muffin ( to read what Therese has to say about family relationships and view the list of all my blogging buddies. And make sure you visit Therese's website ( to find out more about the author."

I decided to participate in this group blog celebration because I've heard a lot of buzz about Therese's new book, have heard she's a delightful person, and because I love her story of perseverence.

I had many ideas running around my head to write about today, but am choosing to write about my son, Trevor, because today is his birthday. He's 14.

Trevor is first and foremost a skater, as in skate boarder. He took up skating  a few years ago, probably around the same age I was when I decided to be an author when I grew up. Day in and day out, he's skating. If it's raining, he skates in the garage. If he can get a ride, he skates at one of the local outdoor skateparks. And if I or my husband can swing it with our work schedules, he'll skate at his favorite indoor skatepark, about an hour away in Seattle. The little dude probably clocks at least 4 hours a day. Every day. Including weekends. Even when he's sick. He goes through boards every four weeks. Shoes every six.

You might say he's obsessed. That's what some of his friends say. He says he's just focused. He has a goal--he wants to be a pro skater. He doesn't ever want to have a "stupid, boring job" (like his parents, I suppose :), he wants to skate for a living. His short-term goal is to get sponsored by a couple of local shops/parks. He knows exactly where he's going and what it'll take to get there. So, yeah. He might be a bit obsessed, but maybe that's a good thing. Skating is his passion. Nothing gets in the way of that. Even homework (but did I mention he's a mostly straight-A student?).

I think that we, as writers, can learn a lesson here. Is writing your passion? If not, maybe you shouldn't be doing it. This industry is just too damn hard if this isn't your life's passion. If it IS your passion, are you doing everything you can to make your dream a reality? Are you writing every single day, rain or shine, in sickness and in health? Do you have long term and short term goals? If not, why not?

Trevor doesn't get up each morning and try to figure out when he's going to skate. He just does it. Every free moment. Everything else gets squeezed around skating. We should do the same with our writing. Fit it in. Whenever and wherever we can. Just do it.

I'm really proud of my little dude. I honestly believe he's going to achieve all his goals...and then some. Because he's not waiting for his dreams to come to him, he's going after them. I think we should do the same.

LATER THIS WEEK: Check back to read what award-winning writer and new Kensington author Kristina McMorris has to say about interviewing for us shy, introverted types.

Pitching With Confidence

Please welcome our guest this week, Jeannie Lin. Not only did she just win the 2009 Golden Heart® award for historical romance, she also sold to Harlequin Mills & Boon. She writes sweeping historical romances set in Tang Dynasty China. After finishing two manuscripts, she queried and pitched like crazy for nearly a year before signing with an agent. Her winning and selling manuscript, Butterfly Swords, is her second manuscript. Learn more about her at

When I’m writing something like this, I sound so confident like I have no fear and this is all so easy. But that’s not me at all! I’m the shy girl, the girl that people come up to and say, “Why are you so quiet?” as if that will help me come out of my shell. My hands shake every time I’ve pitched. My toes feel numb and my stomach goes all swirly.

How do I get through it then? I remember that I want this bad! I remember that I know my story like the back of my hand and that it deserves a chance. I remember that confidence can be faked.

I also remember these three things:

1. Agents and editors will usually request.

2. Don’t think of it as a pitch. Think of it as a job interview.

3. The worst thing you can do when pitching is to try to tell your story (according to Michael Hague)

Agents and Editors Will Usually Request If they represent or publish what you write, they’ll usually ask for at least a partial. Some people are disappointed when they find this out because it means they shouldn’t be overjoyed by a request, but I think of it as a huge relief. This is your foot in the door. You can wow them with your writing, which is what you’d need to do anyway, right?

Just by the fact that you’re pitching indicates a certain level of seriousness about publishing that a query letter can’t necessarily convey. Your submission will now have the magical words “Requested” on it. But your job is not done. You still want to make a good impression so that when the submission arrives, it’s the one the agent/editor opens first and WANTS to fall in love with. Which leads me to my second point.

Think of the Pitch as a Job Interview  In a job interview, you have two goals. You want to make a good impression and show that you’re someone who would be great to work with, but you also want to find out whether you want the job. So instead of you quivering before that all powerful agent, think of it as a chance for them to get to know you and for you to find out about them as well.

Almost every pitch I’ve done has been a conversation. The agent/editor will ask questions about your projects, but they’re also very open to answering questions and giving suggestions. In the end, the actual book I was pitching was definitely the centerpoint of the conversation, but it wasn’t the only point of pitching.

The Worst Thing You Can Do Is Tell Your Story Michael Hague said that in Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and it’s a good motto to remember.

Before I’d ever pitched, I saw people writing long summaries that they would memorize. I was scared to death! After researching and doing a few pitches myself, I realized that the agent doesn’t want a summary of your entire story crammed into five minutes. They want to know the hook and the premise. They want to get enough flavor to pique their interest. After that, it’s the writing that will sell the book.

So if you’re not supposed to tell your story, what do you say? Here are some guidelines that have helped me.

Putting The Pitch Together  I’m going to stick to the pitch appointment as opposed to the art of the elevator pitch or what I prefer to call the cocktail pitch.

First, do not start telling your story from start to finish. Do not start explaining who your characters are and why they’re there and how you came up with the idea. Of course, you may in the course of the pitch be asked to expand and that’s fine, but from the moment you open your mouth, you want to boil down your pitch to the marketable elements. You want to immediately set up a picture in the editor or agent’s head of where your story fits on the shelf and what’s the hook that makes it marketable.

1. Be very specific about the details up front: genre, word count, title.
Most importantly, do not be wishy-washy on genre! You may think that your book doesn’t quite fit into a specific category, but do not lead with that uncertainty. It makes the editor or agent uncertain. Remember you’re not trying to explain exactly what your story is with all of its nuances. You’re trying to position it in the market. Look the editor in the eye and say something like, “It’s a romantic suspense with paranormal elements” instead of “Well, it’s a mystery, but it’s also got vampires and werewolves even though it’s not focused on the paranormal.”

Here was my pitch for my unusual premise:

“Butterfly Swords is a historical romance set in the Tang Dynasty. It also has an alternative history twist that brings medieval warriors from Europe into 8th century China.”

 2. Marketable elements
Common plots or premises - These are the elements that are easy to recognize. They can be common or popular elements within a sub-genre.

Examples: secret baby stories, arranged marriages, vampires, shifters, Navy Seals, private investigators, etc.

High concept - This is a trope or a description that immediately describes your story in few words. Often this is a comparison to a classic and timeless story, but that’s not always necessary to be high concept. People have used X meets Y such as “Buffy the Vampire slayer meets Regency England”, but that’s not always necessary either.

Examples: An ordinary boy finds out he’s a wizard. A Romeo and Juliet story between two rival gangs. The Wizard of Oz told from the perspective of the Wicked Witch.
Comparable Titles - You may not want to risk comparing yourself, but you should know who else does something similar to what you write. It shows you’ve done your homework and they may end up asking to get a better idea of the project you’re describing.

 3. The pitch - Hero, Heroine and Conflict
 There are many different formulas for pitching and they all can work. I find Hero, Heroine and Conflict is a good one for romance. Jessica Faust points out that within that framework, the conflict has to be something besides the romance, because the romance is a given. Also within the initial pitch, you should have “The Hook”. (Ah, the magical word. More later.)

a. Who’s the heroine?

b. Who’s the hero?

c. What’s the inciting incident the kick starts the story and brings them together?

d. What’s the conflict?

4. Hook
The hook is what makes your story unique. Having a high concept hook that is easy to visualize can help, but don’t feel that it’s necessary. You want to highlight what makes your story different from everything else out there. Really take the time to identify this and push it in your pitch.

Sample Pitch--Here’s what my pitch sort of sounds like. This is a recreation of my pitch because I’ve never had it written down and it sounds rough on purpose.

Butterfly Swords is a 90,000 word historical romance set in the Tang Dynasty. It has an alternative history twist which brings medieval swordsmen from Europe across the Silk Road into 8th century China.

Ai Li is a princess who's running from an arranged marriage armed with her butterfly swords. She's discovered her husband-to-be is plotting against the throne. Ryam is a western swordsman who rushes into a gang of bandits to save her when she gets attacked. As the two of them try to return to the palace, of course they start falling for each other. But she's a princess and he's a barbarian. So they have to challenge a powerful warlord as well as the Emperor in order to be together.

I deliver it very conversationally. The sentences are very short, not run on. I don't like to memorize or drop into what I call blurb-speak because I know I get very nervous and I'll forget. I know it's not flashy, but it's what I can deliver while shaking. I rarely get to the end of this pitch before the agent/editor interrupts for questions or (hopefully) to request!

I found that if you're missing something the agent really wants to know, they'll simply ask about it. You don't need to make the pitch super detailed. It is important to have an end to your pitch planned so you don't just trail off and there's an awkward silence when they don't know if you're finished or not.

Though I’ve never said these out loud, here were the marketable elements I was trying to get out in the pitch:

Stranger in a strange land

Culture clash - hero and heroine from two different worlds

Swordfights and action

Exotic setting

High concept hook: East meets West

Jeannie’s Quick and Dirty Pitch Essentials:

1. Dress professionally. When you look around a pitch room, you can almost tell who’s in it to win it. You want the agents to think the same thing when they see you after a long day of taking pitches.

2. Show up early to the pitch room to check in and get comfortable. If you’ve never done it before, you may pitch in a small meeting room or a giant conference hall. The pitch session moderators will check you in and line you up outside before leading you into the room.

3. Don’t read your pitch if you can help it. It’s okay to be nervous, it’s not okay to be robotic and monotone which can happen when people read or memorize. Remember you want to sound personable and dynamic. People tend to write long flowery pitches, but the agent/editor will glaze over the details if you ramble on. Speak in short succinct sentences that you can remember. Don’t lose the details in complicated verbiage. Of course, if you’re too nervous and need to read, please do! No one wants anyone to be uncomfortable during the pitch session.

4. Finish early to leave time for conversation. Your pitch should really be around 1-2 minutes long. See, a lot easier than planning to speak for five or ten minutes, right?

5. Have at least one question up your sleeve to ask them. This is where it helps if you’ve looked up some recent blog they’ve done or done your homework on their authors. Some fallback questions I’ve used: Ask about their agency/publishing line, clients, history, etc. Where do they see your book fitting in the market? How would they suggest you position your book?

6. Be ready to speak about another project. Agents will commonly ask what else you’re working on, so have that backup ready to go.

7. When you get a request, get the details! Find out if they want it snail mail or e-mail, how many pages, and whether they want a synopsis. Do they want you to send to a special address or put something particular in the subject or on the envelope? Write down these details because you’ll forget and then feel like a ditz later. Trust me, I speak from experience.

8. Finally, before you pitch to an agent or editor, say it out loud to somebody to iron out the jitters. Remember, don’t be so concerned about memorizing it word for word. Just practice in front of supportive people so you can be aware of what sort of questions will come up. I was blessed to be invited to a practice session before I pitched at Nationals for the very first time. At the pitching party, I was able to learn from more experienced writers about what to focus on when pitching. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I wanted to give back by doing this post.

I know I couldn’t cover it all so I’ll be hanging around to answer questions. And if you’d like to throw your pitch out there, maybe we can all help out.

Enjoy the conference and good luck pitching!

For the list of my pitching resources and links, visit my blog and click on the “Coffee Talk: Pitching” tab. Blog:

While we're talking conferences...

I just read a very interesting blog--5 Steps to Better Conference Networking--if you want to check it out. It's written by another shy writer.

Don't forget to check back tomorrow (Wednesday, Oct 7) to learn how to pitch your story with confidence.

Shy Is As Shy Does

Please welcome fellow shy writer, Annette McCleave. A 2008 Golden Heart winner for Best Paranormal Romance, her debut novel, DRAWN INTO DARKNESS, released last month to rave reviews.

When Becky mentioned she was planning to start a blog dedicated to the needs of the Shy Writer, I hit the reply hit button and responded almost right away, volunteering to participate. Because if there’s one thing I understand, it’s being shy. I am a severe shy person. I constantly have to force myself to interact with other people. Not because I don’t enjoy being with people—no, as those who get to know me can attest, if I feel comfortable with you, I’ll talk your ear off. You’ll never get me to go home.

But meeting new people is difficult for me—I never know what to say, and when I finally get up the gumption to speak, I fear the words will spill out in a most ungraceful way. Unfortunately, the more nervous I am, the more likely it is that my worst imaginings will come true and I’ll stumble over my words or say something completely inane.

When I first decided to write, I thought being an author was perfect for my personality. I could stay at home, write my stories, and send out manuscripts by mail. I could ruminate over all my correspondence, think my thoughts through, and be deliberate. I could erase the stupid stuff before I hit SEND or put the letter in the mail.

But the more I got involved in the writing community, and the more I realized that the internet was taking down the barriers between people—making contact easier—the more I realized that even shy authors had to tread outside the walls of their homes and interact. It was easy to see the benefits—meeting other like-minded writers, making professional contacts that could result in a book contract, and eventually, if all went well, exchanging a few words with readers.

Oh, yes, I could see the benefits very easily.

But the worries about saying the wrong thing, speaking too fast, or blurting out nonsense were still there. They didn’t go away, despite believing my dream to be an author was worth pursuing at all costs.

So, here’s what I did:

1. Started slowly. I dipped my toes in. I got involved in my local writers’ group and volunteered. Just a simple job at first, something that allowed me to quietly get to know all the names and faces. I made some friends. Then I went to a few conferences. I hugged the walls and mostly listened, but I learned a lot and made more friends.

2. Put up a website. Creating a website was a relatively easy way for me to start getting my face out there. It didn’t feel too daring—especially when I looked at the traffic I drew.

3. Entered contests. This may not seem like an obvious way to interact, but it got my work in front of agents and editors. It also gave me a low-stress reason to correspond with fellow finalists by email (to congratulate them) and it introduced me to two fabulous groups of writers, the 2005 Golden Heart finalists (Wild Cards) and 2008 Golden Heart finalists (Pixie Chicks). I made even more friends.

4. Pitched. Whenever I had the opportunity, I pitched to an agent or editor in person. Why? Because this was a controlled situation I was able to prepare for, so I didn’t have to worry so much about saying something stupid. I met new industry people and grew my confidence.

5. Tested my comfort zone. Almost every social situation is hard for me. But I make myself get involved. Perhaps not as much as other people who are not shy, but more than my natural inclination would suggest. I push myself, just a little. I blog, I join groups, I go to cocktail parties, and I send out emails to perfect strangers (with good reason, of course). It’s not easy and I find every day a challenge. But the benefits I mentioned above have made it all worthwhile. Did I mention I’ve made some fantastic friends?

Every day is a step forward. I’ve already learned (from this blog!) that I can do some simple things to ease my journey—such as smile more. When I’m nervous, my face freezes up, and that makes it more difficult for friendly people to approach me. If I smile and let the real me sneak out from behind the fear, I’ll appear more welcoming, and they might even break the ice for me. Wow. I so need to try that. :-)

I wish you all the best with your own shy challenges. The good news is, even the severely shy can become published authors. I proved that when my 2008 Golden Heart winning manuscript was published in September as DRAWN INTO DARKNESS—another good reason to enter contests!

Thanks for stopping by today. Share one of your own ‘I stepped outside my comfort zone’ moments here on the blog ... and you could win a copy of my debut book. One commenter will be drawn at random.

Good luck!


Here's what critics have to say about Annette's new book, DRAWN INTO DARKNESS:

“Swords flash, spells are cast, and twist and turns come head-spinningly quickly…Readers will hope for sequels…”– Publisher’s Weekly

“4 1/2 stars …a fabulously entertaining tale of demons, angels and beings in between.”– RT Book Club

“A phenomenal debut! A refreshingly unique and vividly realized world with dark dangers and richly drawn characters.”– Sylvia Day, National bestselling author

Next week: Learn how to pitch with confidence, with 2009 Golden Heart winner Jeannie Lin--Wednesday, Oct. 7 (just in time for the Emerald City Conference, in Bellevue, WA)