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The Interviewer's Emergency Toolkit
by Kathleen Ewing

We've all heard tales of the fledgling writer who happened to be at the right spot at the right time and nailed the crucial interview that sparked a career in journalism. The element of luck may have been on the writer's side, but he wouldn't have gotten the story if he hadn't been prepared.

Whether freelancer, novelist or poet, every serious writer should have an emergency toolbox tucked away in the car, truck or saddlebag for just such a chance event. This is the toolbox I have used for years and have found to be most useful to my interviewing style.

  • A reporter's spiral notepad - Produced by Ampad, the long, narrow pages encourage brief notes, just the ticket for capturing the impromptu interview on the move, such as recruiting comments from a member of a movie premiere audience, seeking an evaluation from a seminar attendee during intermission or shadowing a sporting competitor between events.

  • A stiff-backed spiral project planner notebook - Ampad also makes an excellent notebook. The right hand side of each page has a large lined block perfect for taking notes on site, while the narrow strip on the left is ideal for adding notes as you think of them at a later time.

  • Two mechanical pencils - Why two pencils? So you will have a back-up in case one self-destructs in the middle of an interview. Gel or ballpoint pens are too unreliable in the dust and the climate extremes of heat and freezing to which they are subject during storage in a vehicle. The sturdy Twist Erase by Pentel is my personal favorite. I recommend a pencil with 0.9 mm lead rather than the more delicate 0.5 or 0.7. Remember, you're going to be writing fast and furious in this unplanned event and you don't want to keep breaking lead and distracting your interview subject by continually interrupting the train of thought to click your pencil.

  • A disposable digital color camera - Many publications won't consider an article unless you have photos or other illustrations. Add to the odds of turning your impromptu interview into cash by carrying a camera. If your camera doesn't come in a sealed, moisture-proof foil pouch, keep it in a cloth bag, so it doesn't collect dust on the lens. No plastic bags, please. In some climates plastic will condense moisture, which can ruin a camera or cloud the lens at the very least.

  • Lens cloth - Any time you expect to use a camera, you should have on hand a good lens cloth. A horse snorts to clear its nostrils, a swimmer creates an expected wake during a dive or a pigeon flies over with exceptional aim and your shots can all be ruined. Keep a dry lens cloth in a plastic bag to keep out the dust.

  • A miniature voice recorder - This is an optional item and depends upon your level of experience as well as your personal preference. I never carry a recorder because I find my subject is less guarded in what he says if I'm not recording him. There have been times when it might have come in handy in capturing an unusual turn of phrase or a precise quotation that I missed. If you use a recorder, make sure you carry extra batteries and cassettes, if it uses them.

  • Two or three SASE's - Of course, you should carry a supply of your business cards in your toolbox, but what about a self-addressed stamped envelope? If your source has documentation that you would like to have her send you, will she be more likely to send it if she can do so at no expense to her? You bet. Print some envelopes and slap on those "Forever" stamps if you can find them. If not, remember to keep your postage updated or simply toss a few 1-cent stamps into your toolbox as a safety measure in case of a postage increase.

  • Ten basic questions - The types of questions you ask are directly related to your topic, but you should have a good generic set that you have drilled yourself on until they become second nature. Mine are simple and can be altered to suit the interview.

    1. How long have you been doing this? (Whatever it is they do that brought them to your attention.)
    2. Why did you start doing it?
    3. What education/training did you need?
    4. What is the best/most exciting part of what you do?
    5. What is the worst/least glamorous part of what you do?
    6. What effect has the economy had on what you do?
    7. How has this activity changed since you started?
    8. What plans do you have for the future?
    9. What advice do you have for others starting out in this activity?
    10. Is there anything we haven't discussed that you would like to mention?

There you have it. Like any emergency toolbox, this one won't do you any good if you leave it lying on top of your filing cabinet. To be available when lightning strikes in the form of a noteworthy event, this set of essential tools must be a permanent fixture in whatever vehicle or alternative mode of transportation you use most often. Create your toolbox now. Practice using all the tools. Capture the big story when it pops up unexpectedly. Who knows? By being prepared, you, too, might lock up the big assignment that drives your career to unexpected levels of success.

© Copyright 2009, Kathleen Ewing

Kathleen Ewing is an award-winning freelance writer headquartered in Central Arizonas high country. Among her credits are feature articles for Art Calendar, American Falconry, Bend of the River, TrailBlazer and Hobby Farms magazines. Visit her blog at www.rodeowriter.blogspot.com

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