One thing that you will want to learn to do as a family historian is to talk to people, and you will talk to a lot of them let me tell you. Getting them to talk is not always the easiest. I have found that talking to family members that are interested in the family history will talk to you much more readily and openly than those who are not. As a person that loves the subject I personally can not talk about it enough. Having some good conversation starter questions will help you when you visit your relatives and might just open them up to sharing more with you.
Having some handy questions in front of you sometimes can be of value. For example, my father would not talk at all! I would ask him a question and his answer was usually, “I don’t remember.” He would stop by the house in the mornings and have coffee with me and I would find a way to ask him one question every day. I was able to extract a bit of information from him that way. I asked him things like…
Do you remember who your first teacher was?
He did remember, and that lead to where did he go to school, did he walk or did someone take him?
Most people LIKE to talk about themselves. If you have some handy questions available to get them started you will be surprised at the information they will share. It’s my opinion that when getting someone to share with you no detail is unimportant when it comes to preserving the history of a loved one. Questions help recall things people have been through, places they gone, trials they’ve endured, etc. It helps you to get an idea of what kind of personality the person has, their character, and the life they have lived. The smallest details make up the richness of the life they have lived. Something as simple as remembering the house they grew up in or what the wallpaper looked like can set off a flood of memories and perhaps help you to extract more information that you can imagine.
Long lives yield many treasures, pictures, keepsakes, property, and savings. One precious legacy that is often lost are the memories of people, places, and things that are what makes up the lives of those who have gone before you. How many times have you found yourself in wonder about your ancestors lives? How they traveled, what kind of games they played as children, what kind of problems they had to work out, how did they get along with others, what were their main struggles with parenting? I know I myself have been “wonder woman” about each and every ancestor I research. Even my own parents, whom I lived with for 17 years…did I really know them? Now that they are gone I realize that I did not, and it’s too late to ask. My mother did keep sporadic journals from which I learned some things about her, however she did not go into a lot of detail so you still wonder what caused her to feel the way she did in some areas. I myself kept journals for years. I will admit the last 20 years or so I have not been as diligent about it. With the internet there are so many new ways to document your life and history.
Facebook for example. Sometimes I simply HATE what Facebook has become, but it also has given me a way to follow nieces, and nephews and watch their children grow up in a way that never was possible when I was raising my children. I’ve thought of deleteing my Facebook account, but then I consider all the lost pictures and history of the years I’ve been there. If I were to die tomorrow…my descendants have a history they can look back on. Is Facebook the best way to document your life? Absolutely not, but we do it without even knowing it in that space. When my mom died my sister-in-law thought it best to delete my mothers account as unused accounts lead to hackers and spammers, but I must admit, I regret that we have lost her history.
Here are some good conversation starter questions that you can use to get the most out of your interviews with relatives.
You will absolutely want the facts.
Who where their parents?
Who were their grandparents?
Where were they born?
city, state, county, and hospital.
Where were they buried?
city, state, county, and hospital. and cemetery where they are buried.
What was the cause of death?
sometime this alone will generate a story.
What language did they speak?
If they were immigrants how did they travel?
What caused them to migrate?
Did they become citizens?
Who came with them?
Where did they settle?
Did they learn a new language?
Are they married, divorced, or widowed?
What maiden names are involved?
When were they married?
city, county, state, date, and kind of ceremony
What did they love about the person they married?
How did they know they were the “one”?
Where did they meet?
How many children did they have?
How many Grandkids?
What are their names?
How old are they?
be sure to get the facts on them if possible as dead people are easier to find than living ones.
What was their occupation?
What made them choose their occupation?
Were they happy with their decision?
What was their religion?
What made them choose that religion?
Did they grow up on a farm, in the city, or somewhere else?
Did they move?
Did they have a particularly important pet?
Where did they get their name?
Were they named after someone?
What kind of family traditions have been handed down?
Were you considered poor, rich, or middle class? Why?
Did you have to work for what you got or was it given to you?
Who handled the finances in the family?
Are their any family heirlooms that have been handed down?
Do you have any old family pictures to share?
You get the just of it. These questions generally will lead you to more and more questions and you will get to where they will come naturally to you after a while.Sometimes when interviewing it is good to have a video or recorder with you so that you don’t forget the stories that are told. Too many times I have wished afterwards that I had recorded my grandfather when he told his stories. I find it hard to remember them later, and you could never tell them in the same manner that he did. I hope this helps you in your search!