Better Interview Questions

By Ben Baker

Writing the story is only part of the process. You have to get information first.

If you interview enough people, sooner or later you will come across someone who replies to everything in monosyllables, grunts, and short sentences that give you the very barest minimum of facts. No matter how good your initial questions are, in order to get into the subject and really bring out details, you will have to have great follow up questions to draw information out of the subject.

A few notes about the following list: Not all questions are suitable for all interviews. Some questions refer to jobs, some refer to activities like hobbies. Some questions can be used for either. In most cases the word “field” is used to represent profession, activity, hobby, etc. Some questions don’t have anything to do with an activity; they just seek personal information. This is not an unabridged list. A good interviewer will find launching points for questions which could not possibly be anticipated.

Without further ado, here is a list of common interview questions (Q) with some follow-up (F) questions that will help you get more if your subject doesn’t give you a lot of information.

Q – Who are your inspirations or heroes?

F – Why do they inspire you?

F – What makes them heroic in your eyes?

F – What effect do they have on you?

F – When did you first learn about them?

F – Who told you about them?

F – What have learned about them since first learning of them?

F – How have you applied what you learned from them?

F – How can other people see your heroes/inspirations in you?

F – What do you do to be more like your heroes/inspirations?

Q – Married?

If “yes,” then:

F – How did you and spouse meet?

F – How long married?

F – What first attracted you to your spouse?

F – Does your spouse help in your field? If yes, then how?

F – Do you help your spouse in spouse’ field? If yes, then how?

F – Children? Grandkids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do you want to see your children do the same thing? Why or why not?

If “no,” then:

F – Ever been married?

F – Ever been engaged?

F – Ever wanted to be married?

F – Kids?

F – Want to have kids?

F – Do/Would you want to see your children do the same thing? Why/Why not?

(Note – if the person is biologically incapable of having kids, ask about adoption.)

Q – Are you involved in your community where you live?

F – What do you do?

F – Anything you’d like to do in your community which you have not yet done? Why?

Q – Where would you most like to visit?

F – Have you been there? If yes, what was the best part of it? If no, then will you ever go?

F – If you go back, what would you do that you haven’t done?

F – What makes it a good place to visit?

F – If you recommended this place to someone who’s never been there, what should they do first?

F – What surprised you about this place?

Q – Have any hobbies?

F – How did you get started in the hobby?

F – Why do you keep doing it?

F – What have learned through your hobby?

F – Why would other people enjoy doing it?

F – What’s a good way to get started in the hobby?

(NOTE: If possible, ask to see the person’s hobby. This could be the picture you need for the article, the person and hobby)

Q – Where did you grow up?

F – Did you move around a lot? If yes, how did this affect you? If no, how did the stability of living in one place all your life affect you?

F – What did you enjoy most about where you grew up?

Q – Are there any political or social issues you feel passionately about? (If you can’t get a story’s worth of information out of this line of questioning, you have GOT to be interviewing a corpse!)

F – Why are these things important to you?

F – What do you for these causes?

F – How can someone else get involved in these issues?

F – How much of your time do these causes take up?

F – Have you ever considered taking on these causes as a full-time occupation?

F – What would you most like to do that could further these causes?

Q – Do you have a nickname?

F – How’d you get it?

F – Do you like it?

F – Ever given someone else a nickname?

F – Did they like it?

Q – What is your favorite (book, movie or play, quote, poem, website, type of food or individual dish, music genre, song, band or individual musician, perfume, clothing style or designer, etc.)?

F – Why?

F – What drew you to this?

F – Where can other people find this?

Q – Why do you do what you do? (e.g., Why do you write? Work on cars? Race horses? Fish? Run marathons? Annoy politicians?)

F – How did you get started?

F – Who helped you get started?

F – How did they help you?

F – If you couldn’t do this, what would you do?

F – Why?

F – Would you be as happy?

F – Would you recommend (what the person does) to someone else?

F – Why?

F – What do they need to do to be successful at (whatever the person does)?

With these next follow-ups, you made need to insert some detailed specifics.

F – What would you change about (whatever the person does)?

Here, if the person says nothing, you may need to dip deeper into the subject. Ask about particulars. Referring back to the main question which spawned these follow-ups, you’d as a writer if he enjoys editing, research, writer’s block, finding a market for the work, the pay for the work. With cars, you might ask if the person enjoys having to dispose of used oil, getting greasy, scraping knuckles in hard-to-get-at places. With horses you might ask about the work which goes into horses, shoveling manure, brushing hide, filing hooves, buying feed, vet bills. If the person fishes, ask about the cost of maintaining a boat, lures, other fishermen, cleaning and cooking fish, driving to places to fish. On marathons you could ask about entry fees, cost of running shoes, the kind of surfaces the person runs over, running in different kinds of weather, trying to break through a pack, the Wall. Annoying politicians is my personal hobby and the only thing I’d change about it is having more time to annoy them.

F – Why would you change it?

F – How would changing that affect what you do?

F – Does that change make sense and really need to be done?

F – Why or why not?

Q – Is there anyone in (whatever the person does) you admire? (NOTE: This series could have been addressed in the first set, but there’s no guarantee it was so addressed. A hero may not be the same as someone who is admired.)

F – Why?

F – What do you admire most about that person?

F – Do you know this person?

F – Has this person had any influence on you?

F – Has this person ever given you advice?

F – What was the advice?

F – Was it good advice?

F – If so did you take the advice? Why or why not?

F – How did you apply the advice?

F – Is it good advice for anyone interested in (whatever that person does)?

Q – How have things changed?

F – Have any of the changes surprised you?

F – Were there any changes you expected?

F – How have you incorporated the changes?

F – Were the changes good or bad?

F – Why?

F – If you could, would you change it back? Why or why not?

F – What does the future hold?

Q – What sets you apart from the competition?

F – Have you learned anything from the competition?

F – What do you think the competition has learned from you?

Q – What training do you have?

F – Have you ever taught classes/seminars in your field? If so, where?

F – How often do you go to seminars/classes?

F – Have you ever wanted to be a professional teacher in this field? Why or why not?

F – Where is the best place to go to learn about your field?

F – Did your training prepare you for everything you’ve had to deal with? If not, what didn’t it cover? How did you handle it?

F – Do you need formal training for the work?

F – If you could tell people entering this field about something school did not teach them, what would it be?

Q – What honors have you received?

F – How did you feel about receiving the award(s)?

F – Have you ever recommended someone else for honors?

F – Have you ever delivered honors to someone else?

F – Are honors important? Why?

F – If you didn’t have the chance to receive honors, would you continue to do what you do?

Q – Are you involved in any of the field’s groups and associations?

F – What are they?

F – Any you would like to join but haven’t? If so what are they? Why haven’t you joined?

F – What group(s) would you recommend to a beginner? Why?

F – Have the group(s) helped you? How?

F – Have you made significant contributions to the group(s)? What?

F – How has your contribution affected things?

F – If you could make a lasting contribution, what would it be

Ben Baker has been a writer for longer than he wants to think about. He’s interviewed people ranging from garbage truck drivers to world-famous celebrities and he still can’t remember every question he needs to ask. You can find Ben Baker’s books on Amazon, and he blogs at Pork Brains And Milk Gravy.

Research: Setting Your Historical Romance

By Tina St. John

In late 1994, I quit my full-time job to try my hand at writing a novel. Yes, it was an enormous risk, and yes, I have a very understanding and supportive husband. Naively, I expected to complete my book by year’s end — never mind that said book consisted of less than fifty pages of a pre-Civil War time-travel idea that was going nowhere fast. Around Christmas, I had made no real progress and I began to panic. The story wasn’t coming together at all. Even worse, I was bored to death of it. How was I going to break the news to my husband that I had nothing to show for my four months of “full-time writing” at home?

I was in my car, pondering my immediate and utter failure as a novelist when I was hit with a sudden, blinding flash of inspiration. An old U2 song came on the radio, and, like a scene from a movie, I watched as a new story began to unfold before my eyes. Well, maybe not an entire story, but rather, a scene. A very compelling scene of a young boy fleeing from a band of armed men on horseback. He was beaten, crying, and running for his life. It was so vivid, so emotional, I just knew I had to write it. The only problem was, the scene was, without question, medieval. A subject about which I knew nothing. Where to begin?

The Internet had not really taken shape yet then, so I started my search for information at my local library. I read encyclopedias and general histories on England — including children’s books — learning what I could on a cursory level about feudal society and life in the middle ages. After some investigation, I found a brief biography on King Stephen (1138-1153). It was said that while he reigned, God and His saints slept. Stephen’s noble barons ran wild in England, plundering and pillaging their neighbors, making war without consequence or reprimand. Based on that one observation, I knew I had found my perfect setting.

Once I determined where and when to set my book, I read voraciously within that period — everything from reference books and biographies to other historical romance novels set in my chosen era. I delved deeper into the history of the twelfth century, specializing and allowing my curiosity to lead me where it would. As I read, I started my own glossary of terms, jotting down period words and adding their definitions for easy reference. I photocopied costume etchings and made a binder for all of my notes and pictures. I collected reams of information and grabbed up every book I could find on medieval culture. I could have easily spent another year immersing myself in the history of England in the middle ages, but sooner or later, I knew I would have to start writing. The question was, how much of this fascinating information should I include?

You’ve probably heard reviewers criticize historical romance novels for either not enough history to make the story seem real, or too much history that overpowers the romance. While it really comes down to the author’s personal style, I believe the trick to a commercially successful romance novel is to keep your historical content somewhere between pretty “wallpaper” and the primary focus of your story. It should provide a foundation and a framework for your story, but never forget that your focus — and your reader’s focus — should be rooted on the characters and their budding romance. Resist the temptation to show off all that you have learned about your setting. Your knowledge of setting and timeframe will show in the detail you leave out, as much as it will show in the detail you choose to include.

Another temptation to resist is that of bending historical fact or people to suit your story. If you know King Richard was on crusade in 1191, don’t put him in England just so he can interact with your fictional characters. The same goes for historic battles. If you have to change a date or location of a well-known battle, then perhaps it’s not the right battle to include in your book.

On the flip side, there are some instances where a little harmless bending of facts can help make your story or scene clearer to the reader. For example, in my next book, Black Lion’s Bride, which is set in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, I have the English hero and Muslim heroine playing chess together. Chess, I discovered through my research, actually originated in Arabia (or China, depending on who you believe) and was brought to England and France by the crusaders in Richard’s army. What a fun and serendipitous fact! The game was called shatranj, but the board, the moves, and most of the pieces were similar to the later European chess. (For history buffs, the winning move in shatranj was called shah mat which meant “the king is dead.” This later became anglicized to “check mate” in European chess.) Rather than confuse readers with the Arabic names of the pieces, wherever possible I either described them, or gave them the more widely recognized European names. It’s a brief scene, and the chess game is used as background to the sexual tension between the characters, but thanks to historic fact and a little creative “massaging” of a detail or two, it’s got an historically authentic feel to it. (Plus I feel pretty darned clever for being able to weave it into the story!)

In addition to reference texts and biographies in researching your setting, don’t discount travel guides and other unconventional sources of information. I recently found my new favorite resource for settings while browsing my local B&N. Have you heard of the Knopf Travel Guide series? Even better than my old favorite, the DK Guides, the Knopf books are filled with full-color photographs and drawings on everything from regional flora and fauna, to geography, architecture, and clothing. There’s even a section on history, which will give you a nice starting place as you begin your study of your chosen setting.

While you’re digging for history for your book, don’t limit your research to politics and culture of your chosen timeframe and/or place. Read as much and as widely as you can, probing deeper into the fiber of your setting for greater texture and ideas. And keep an open mind– you never know what fascinating little surprises you might uncover in your investigation. You might even find the plot for your next book.

Which makes a nice segue into my next topic: Plotting!

Tina St. John’s medieval romances (Ballantine Books) have won numerous writing awards, including the National Readers’ Choice and the Booksellers Best. Her novel Black Lion’s Bride, sequel to 2002 RWA RITA Finalist, White Lion’s Lady, was a Featured Alternate Selection at Doubleday’s Rhapsody Bookclub. For more info on Tina’s books, or for links to more writing tips, see Tina St. John’s website. Tina St. John also writes under her best-selling pen name Lara Adrian.