Preserving family stories in writing has become a national pastime. What better place to jump into the process than a family event–whether it’s a reunion of the whole clan or a get-together with a few uncles and aunts. Reminiscences from relatives will be invaluable as you to write your family stories.
Anyone can succeed at writing interesting and meaningful stories by following a few basic steps. Among these is interviewing. As a family historian, you must always ascertain the reliability of the information you already have. You must also seek new details and background material to round out your stories. Reunions rate especially well on both of these tasks; scattered relatives, each of whom has a piece of the family history to share, are in one place at one time. It’s an opportunity not to be missed!
When it comes down to it, people love to tell their stories. The family historian’s job is to ask the right questions to get to the heart of the story.
Here are five simple guidelines to streamline the process for would-be lifewriters:
1. Determine ahead of time what questions to ask. Make two lists. One of everything you know and need to doublecheck about your stories and the other of everything you still don’t know but should. Referring to your lists later will help you steer meandering conversations back on course. Before ending any exchange, check your lists to see if you have answers to all your questions. Allow for questions you didn’t think of by asking, “What else do you remember?”
2. Ask your questions of the right person. Not everyone at your reunion or family event is equally knowledgeable or insightful. Aunt Louise, for instance, talks endlessly and never gets to the point. Instead, interview Aunt Beth who has a sharp memory and always has meaningful observations. Don’t dismiss anyone too quickly, however. An articulate in-law, for instance, may have experiences of immigration or of working life that are similar to your family’s and can provide background information that fills in the gaps. Interviews can include more than one relative, too. Contact your folks before the reunion so they can be thinking about their stories. And ask them to bring photos to talk about!
3. During the interview, take clear and comprehensive notes and, if possible, use a recording device or software. It is frustrating to lose important details because you can’t recall them. Keep in mind that all mechanical devices are subject to failure so take notes even if you use a device or software. Note taking also keeps you active–the passivity of taping can dull your focus.
Recording sometimes intimidates people who see it is as somehow official. Set the recorder where you want it and tell the person you are just testing. Register two minutes of chitchat. If it works, reset the device and continue chitchatting. Then seamlessly flow into the interview. Your “Nervous Nellie” will remain at ease and may be surprised that the recording is already done.
4. Don’t rush the information gathering process. Silence is often the sound of a person thinking, sorting out memories, or arriving at new definitions of an experience. Allow for thinking time. If your relative seems blocked, repeat her last words as a question. Your Uncle Bob says, “Those were difficult times.” Allow for his pause, then ask, “Why were those difficult times?” Silence on your part, even an awkwardly-long silence, can prompt the subject to say more.
5. Write a first draft as soon as possible. Time will dull the vivid memory you have of the conversation. If you write soon after the interview, you’ll remember the details that make the story come live, details that may elude you later.
Oh, yes–enjoy the kudos you’ll get at next year’s reunion when your family reads the wonderful stories they have told and you have written. And be prepared for the flood of stories that’ll then come your way!