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Write Your Family History – 50 Questions You Must Ask Parents Or Grandparents Before They Die
No one expected this.
While climbing into his hot tub, my healthy 87-year-old father-in-law slipped, fell and broke a rib. He started bleeding internally which doctors could not stop. Within two weeks, Jean was gone.
Fortunately, we took the time a few months ago to record Gene’s life story and discovered some surprising facts. He was a semi-pro baseball player, an accomplished watercolorist, and a US Marine. As a marketing executive for Kaiser and later Del Monte, he worked on national advertising campaigns with the mega-stars of his day, including Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Stan Musial, Lloyd Bridges and others.
We recorded Jean’s life story on two occasions: once at a small family dinner, then a few months later during a living room interview.
We transcribed the audio files of the recordings, added pictures, and then uploaded the whole package to a new free web site that helps people write great personal and family stories. (See Resources section, below). Gene’s family and friends can view their story and add comments or photos if they wish. The character we created with Gene is a celebration of his life. It’s also a direct, meaningful connection to his daughters and their grandchildren. Anyone can create a life story for themselves or a loved one. It’s as easy 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 boiled down my experience into three key tips and the 50 most productive questions you can use for success.
Success Tip #1: Pre-interview preparation is important
To get the most out of your family history session, be as prepared as possible.
. Explain the purpose of the interview, who will see it and how it will be used · Prepare your questions in advance · Set aside a quiet time and place free of distractions
It’s 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, souvenirs or other visual aids are memory joggers. Ask your subject to do some preparation in advance
Listen carefully and gently; Ask clarifying questions
· Don’t try to force a topic that they feel uncomfortable discussing
Success Tip #2: Be flexible and creative
When I first started doing life story interviews, it seemed as if people spent most of their time talking about their early days. As I gained more experience, I realized that most people have one, two, or possibly three defining moments in their lives. For many it is childhood. For many men, it’s WWII, Korea or Vietnam. Decisive moments look like finding gold nuggets in the stream. Be sensitive to these defining moments and episodes. Listen more carefully and ask questions. Often a deeper portrait of a person emerges, with rich experiences, values, beliefs and layers of complexity. If you don’t complete the interview in one sitting, set a date to resume 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 their life stories. There are two challenges for the family historian. The first thing is to write down the story in a structured, logical way. Another thing is to make sure that the stories are as complete as possible and contain facts (names, dates, places), fully drawn characters, a story line and perhaps an ending. The GreatLifeStories web site divides life experiences into 12 “chapters” that follow the progression of several lifetimes. On the website, each chapter has 10 to 25 questions. (Below, I’ve selected 50 questions that usually get the best results). Don’t worry; You don’t have to ask them all. In fact, after a question or two, you don’t need to ask anymore – the interview takes on a life of its own.
The most important goal is to make sure you cover as many chapter topics as possible. The chapter headings are logical and somewhat chronological: Beginnings, School Days, Going 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 conduct both an interview, as well as 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 there in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
4. In general, how was your childhood?
5. What one or two things from your childhood do you remember most vividly?
6. Did you learn any particularly happy, funny, sad, or instructive lessons while growing up?
Chapter 2: Your Neighbors
1. What was it like where you grew up?
2. Describe your most important friendship
3. Where and how does the “news from your neighborhood” flow?
Chapter 3 School Days
1. Be sure to capture the names and dates of grammar, high, colleges, trade or technical schools
2. What are your earliest memories of school days?
3. Are there any teachers or subjects that you particularly like or dislike?
4. What did you learn in the first years of school that you want to pass on to the next generation?
5. Are you involved in sports, music, drama or other extracurricular activities?
Chapter 4: Get to 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 quit? leave? Get promoted? Get fired?
5. Were you out of work for a long time? If so, how did you handle it?
Chapter 5 Romance and Marriage
1. What do you remember about your first date?
2. How do you know you’re really in love?
3. Tell me how you “popped the question,” or how it popped for you.
4. Tell me about your wedding ceremony. what year where? How many were present? Honeymoon?
5. Tell me about starting your family.
6. Were you married more than once? how many times
Chapter 6: Leisure and Travel
1. What were the most memorable family vacations or trips you can remember?
2. What leisure time activities are you involved in?
3. What is your greatest achievement in this field?
Chapter 7: Places of Worship
1. Do you follow any religious tradition?
2. If so which, and how is it?
3. Have you ever changed your faith?
4. What role do your beliefs play in your life today?
5. What will you tell your children about your faith?
Chapter 8 War and Peace
1. Were you a volunteer, drafted, or conscientious objector?
2. If you did not serve, what do you remember about being on the home front during the war?
3. What important moments do you remember about your ministry?
4. What would you say to today’s young soldiers, sailors and airmen?
Chapter 9 Triumph and Tragedy
1. What was the happiest, most fulfilling time of your life?
2. Would you like to share a sad, sad or difficult event like losing a loved one, a job or something you care about?
3. What lifelong lessons did you learn from this difficult time? Happy times?
4. Were there any moments in your life that you remember as true successes?
5. If you could do one thing differently in your life, what would it be?
Chapter 10 Words of Wisdom
1. What have you learned in your life that you would like to share with the younger generation?
2. People will sometimes repeat words like “honesty is the best policy”. If they do, be sure to ask how they learned that life lesson.
Chapter 11: Funnybones
1. What was your family’s favorite joke or prank?
2. Who is or was the family comedian? A “straight” guy?
3. What is the funniest family story you remember?
Chapter 12 Thank you
1. What are you most grateful for in your life?
2. How have you taught your children to be grateful?
3. Are there things or places that show special gratitude for those you love? what are they What are their stories?
In closing, it’s always a good idea to ask an open-ended question such as: “Is there anything I didn’t ask that you would comment on?” You will often be surprised and delighted by the answers!
For more tips on how to capture precious family history, visit www.GreatLifeStories.com
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