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!


  1. Kristina, thanks so much for this great post. I'm sure it will help many of us for whom this kind of thing does not come easy.


  2. Kristina,
    Thank you so much, that was a very interesting post. My novel from TWRP, The Trouble With Playboys, is set against a background of the 2nd World War, also, and I used interviews, mainly with my mother and aunties, but I had access to letters from my father who wrote to my mother when he was away at the war,and he also told us a few stories of his war time experiences when we were kids, and as you say,there is nothing like first hand information.


  3. Hi Kristina,

    If you ever need a fighter pilot's view of WWII my father is still alive (at 87). He was a fighter pilot in the Pacific Theater of the War.

    Carolina Montague

  4. Very useful information, Kristina...I'll definitely keep it in mind when I need to interview someone. :)

  5. Hi ladies! Thanks for stopping by!

    Cari - Glad you found the information helpful. :)

    Margaret - Congrats on your WWII release! I'll definitely have to check out your book; don't you just looove that era?! The day my grandmother shared some of my late grandfather's wartime courtship letters with me is when I came up with my story, and consequently got the crazy notion to write fiction. Thank goodness for those letters. I'm sure your father's letters are just as precious!

    Carolina - I will most certainly be taking you up on your generous offer. My second book (wip) features an airman in the Pacific. Thanks so much! Can't wait to chat!

    Becky - Thanks so much for having me, sweetheart! Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

  6. Kristina, thanks so much for the great article. I've gotten several emails from people who read this but didn't post, so I think you helped a lot of people. I know you helped ME (and it's all about me, right?).


  7. Hi Kristina,
    I think your interview was made for me! I am desperately nervous about conducting interviews. I too am currently writing a story set in WW11 and I'm finding the research a little daunting. I conducted the first interview the other day, shaking all the way. I'll definitely keep your post and refer to it for next time.

    Jana Richards

  8. Becky - Thanks for having me! It was my pleasure to share the info. (And of course it's all about you, as it should be. Duh.) :)

    Jana - I'm delighted it helped. Good luck with the WWII story. I'm certainly pulling for you! Please keep me updated.