Write Your Family History: 50 Questions to Ask Your Parents or Grandparents Before They Die
Nobody expected it.
While getting into his hot tub, my healthy 87 year old father-in-law slipped and fell and broke a rib. He started internal bleeding that the doctors couldn’t stop. Within two weeks, Gene was gone.
Fortunately, we had taken the time a few months earlier to record Gene’s life story and discovered some surprising facts. He was a semi-professional baseball player, an accomplished watercolorist, and a U.S. Marine. As a marketing executive for Kaiser and later Del Monte, he worked on national ad campaigns with megastars of his day, including Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Stan Musial, Lloyd Bridges and others.
We recorded Gene’s life story twice: once at a small family dinner and then during a living room interview a few months later.
We transcribe the audio files from the recordings, add images, and then upload the entire package to a new free website that helps people write great personal and family stories. (See the resources section, below.) Gene’s family and friends can view Gene’s story and add comments or photos if they wish. The profile we co-created with Gene is a celebration of his life. It is also a direct and meaningful connection with her daughters and her grandchildren. Anyone can create a life story for themselves or a loved one. It’s as simple as setting aside some time and listening carefully.
I have helped hundreds of people in the US, Canada, and Mexico capture their life stories. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, I’ve distilled my experience into three key tips and the 50 most productive questions you can use to succeed.
Success tip #1: Pre-interview preparation is key
To get the most out of your family history session, be as prepared as possible.
. Inform the subject of the purpose of the interview, who will see it, and how it will be used Prepare your questions in advance Reserve a quiet time and place with no interruptions
· It is a good idea to use a voice or video recorder; test all equipment thoroughly before starting
It is often helpful to use a tape or digital recorder and transcribe the dictation
Photos, mementos, or other visual aids are great for jogging your memory. Ask your subject to prepare something in advance.
· Listen attentively and gently; ask clarifying questions
Don’t try to force the subject to do something they don’t feel comfortable arguing about.
Success Tip #2: Be flexible and creative
When I started doing life story interviews, it seemed like people spent most of their time talking about their early days. As I gained more experience, I began to realize that most people have one, two or possibly three key defining moments in their lives. For many, it is childhood. For many men, it is World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Decisive moments emerge like finding a gold nugget in a river bed. Be sensitive to these defining moments and episodes. Listen very carefully and ask questions. A deeper portrait of an individual often emerges, loaded with rich experiences, values, beliefs, and layers of complexity. If you don’t complete the interview in one sitting, set a date to pick up your conversation later.
Success Tip #3: Organize Life Stories into Chapters
Most people (yes, even the shy ones) love to be the center of attention and share stories of their lives. There are two challenges for a family historian. The first is to capture the stories in a logical and structured way. The second is to make sure the stories are as complete as possible, containing facts (names, dates, places), fully drawn characters, a plot, and maybe even an ending. The GreatLifeStories website divides the life experience into 12 “chapters” that follow the progression of many lifetimes. On the website, each chapter contains between 10 and 25 questions. (Below, I’ve selected the 50 questions that typically get the best results.) Don’t worry; you don’t have to ask everyone. In fact, after one or two questions, you may not have to ask any more: the interview takes on a life of its own.
The most important goal is to make sure you cover as many chapter titles as possible. The chapter titles are logical and somewhat chronological in order: Beginnings, School Days, Off to Work, Romance and Marriage, and so on. Feel free to add your own chapters as well. The 12-chapter system is a great way to organize both your interview and life story writing, video, or audio recording.
CHAPTER 1: In the Beginning
1. What were the full names, dates of birth, places of birth of your parents and grandparents?
2. What were your parents’ occupations?
3. How many children were in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
4. In general terms, how was your childhood?
5. What one or two stories do you remember most clearly about your childhood?
6. Are there any particularly happy, funny, sad, or instructive lessons you learned growing up?
CHAPTER 2: In your neighborhood
1. What was the place where you grew up like?
2. Describe your most important friendships
3. Where and how did “your neighborhood news” normally flow?
CHAPTER 3 School days
1. Be sure to capture names and dates of attendance at elementary, high school, college, trade, or technical schools.
2. What are your memories of the first day of school?
3. Is there a teacher or subject that you particularly liked or disliked?
4. What did you learn in those first years of school that you would like to pass on to the next generation?
5. Did you participate in sports, music, drama, or other extracurricular activities?
CHAPTER 4: Outside of work
1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
2. What was your first job and how did you get it?
3. What was your first boss like? What did you learn from him or her?
4. Did you leave? Quit? Be promoted? Be fired?
5. Have you ever been out of work for a long time? If so, how did you handle it?
CHAPTER 5 Romance and Marriage
1. What do you remember from your first date?
2. How did you know you were really in love?
3. Tell me how you “asked the question” or how it was put to you.
4. Tell me about your wedding ceremony. what year? Where? How many attended? Honeymoon?
5. Tell me about how to form your family.
6. Have you been married more than once? How often?
CHAPTER 6: Leisure and Travel
1. What were the most memorable family vacations or trips that you remember?
2. What free time activities do you do?
3. What are your greatest achievements in this field?
CHAPTER 7: Places of Worship
1. Do you follow any religious tradition?
2. If so, which one and how is it?
3. Have you ever changed your faith?
4. What role do your beliefs play in your life today?
5. What would you tell your children about your faith?
CHAPTER 8 War and Peace
1. Were you a volunteer, conscript or conscientious objector?
2. If you did not serve, what do you remember about being on the home front during the war?
3. What key moments do you remember from your service?
4. What would you say to today’s young soldiers, sailors and airmen?
CHAPTER 9 Triumph and Tragedy
1. What were the most joyous and rewarding moments of your life?
2. Any sad, tragic, or difficult times you’d like to share, such as the loss of a loved one, a job, or something that mattered to you?
3. What lifelong lessons did you learn from these difficult times? Happy times?
4. Were there any moments that you remember as real breakthroughs in any area of your life?
5. If you could do something different in your life, what would it be?
CHAPTER 10 Words of Wisdom
1. What have you learned throughout your life that you would like to share with the younger generation?
2. People sometimes repeat aphorisms like “honesty is the best policy.” If they do, be sure to ask how they learned that life lesson.
CHAPTER 11: funny bones
1. What were your family’s favorite jokes or pranks?
2. Who is/was the comedian in the family? “Straight man?
3. What is the funniest family story you remember?
CHAPTER 12 Thanks
1. What are you most grateful for in your life?
2. How have you taught your children to be thankful?
3. Are there elements or places that mark a special gratitude for those you love? What are they? What are their stories?
To wrap up, it’s always a good idea to ask an open-ended question like, “Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to discuss?” You will often be surprised and delighted by the answers!
For many more tips on capturing valuable family history, visit www.GreatLifeStories.com