Helpful Tips for Capturing Family Stories

Sulley asleep on the desk

My writing helper

When I sit down to write in the early mornings and late evenings, I have help. My fur-faced child (and yes, he is our one and only child) is my almost constant companion. You may remember him from the video I posted back in October, where you can hear his delicate snores (cough cough) as he slept on my arm between me and my keyboard.  This is how he looks most mornings.  Taking a sun bath via the lamp on my desk in the office where I write.  He’s not a real fan of early mornings.

He loves to help.  He helps me in the kitchen when I cook, willing to take care of spills or to make sure I walk in crooked lines around him while navigating between counter, stove and refrigerator.  He helps me sleep, making sure my feet are covered and warm all night long.  And he helps me read, always willing to lend a paw to hold a page in my current book open as he sits on my lap.

So in honor of lending a helping paw, I thought I’d offer some help for those who might be interested in working on family history during the upcoming spring and summer months.  This information was originally part of an article I wrote for our “Help for the Home” series, which focused on tips to gather and keep family and personal records.

Capturing Family Stories ~ Interviewing Your Relatives

Oral histories are a wonderful way to capture information about your family and to preserve stories for future generations.  However, many people are hesitant to interview a family member, or they draw a blank about the best way to accomplish the task.  Here are some tips to make the experience a pleasant one:

  • Have a plan The best interviews provide information not found in traditional sources or records.  Focus on a specific event or place; one person’s life history, occupation, or skills; ethnic cultures and customs; or other topics that are unique or at risk of disappearing.
  • Do your research Develop questions ahead of time, but be flexible, too.  Use your questions as a guide, but be aware that answers may lead you into other areas that you never thought to ask questions about.
  • Ask the right questions While the interview should include basic facts on who, where, and when, the best answers come from questions designed around why, how, and what.  For example, in addition to asking “When did you get married?” be sure to ask questions like “What was your wedding day like?”  These kinds of open-ended questions lead to thoughtful and personal answers that include feelings and motivations in addition to basic facts.
  • Etiquette counts Open the interview by stating the date, place, and the full names of the people involved.  Start with basic facts -name, birth date, parents- then ask something you know the person is comfortable talking about, such as a favorite story you’ve heard them tell in the past.  Save the harder, more reflective questions for later in the interview.  Also, be a good listener, but try not to interrupt the answer.  Instead, jot a note and ask follow-up questions.
  • Record the interview Voices and expressions tell more than words, so capturing your interviews on audio and/or video is important.  Choose the best method to produce good, clear recordings.  Be prepared with extra batteries, tapes or other storage devices, electrical/extension cords, microphones, and anything else your recording equipment might need.  Also, be sure to take a minute and test the equipment before you start.
  • Get comfortable Find a quiet area where there will be no interruptions.  Make sure everyone is comfortably settled and has water or something to drink available.  The interview should run no more than on or two hours at a time, as it is quite tiring for you and especially for the person you are interviewing.  Put them at ease – assure them there are no wrong answers, and that it’s okay not to answer questions they don’t want to answer.
  • Relax and have fun Bring out a photo album and have them talk about the pictures.  Listen to a favorite song or bring out a treasured object.  Have the kids contribute questions or help conduct part of the interview.  For that matter, interview the kids, too!
  • Get it in writing There are two important things to get in writing.  The first is an interview agreement form, even for family history projects.  Have the person sign the form, giving permission to interview.  This document is necessary if you plan to publish or distribute any part of the interview in any form.  If you plan to donate the items to a local historical society of archive, they will need those forms for their records.  Also, getting the information recorded is critical, but a good secondary step is to transcribe the interview in written form as well.  Again, this will be helpful if you plan to use or to donate the materials at a later time.  It also provides an additional copy of the materials should something happen to the audio or video recording.
  • Get creative So what can you do with all this new and wonderful information?  You can use the material to write family histories, caption photograph albums, create a family documentary, celebrate a birthday or anniversary, or whatever great and creative ideas you may have.

Hopefully these tips will help you capture a piece or two of your family history!

[Note: This post is #8 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge. Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]


Filed under April A-to-Z Challenge, Archives, History

4 responses to “Helpful Tips for Capturing Family Stories

  1. What a wonderful entry. I chose to write about journaling for today’s entry, so this was right up my alley. Enjoyed the tips and information you gave us. Thanks!

    • Hi Janet!

      Thanks so much for dropping by and for your comment! I hadn’t heard of Pinterest before reading about it on your post, and I can’t wait to give it a try!

      Hope you’re enjoying the A-to-Z-challenge!

  2. I love family history. It makes me sad that I waited so long to get so much of it done because now my grandparents’ generation is almost completely gone and my parents know so little about the family. Sadness.

    Visiting from the A to Z Challenge.

  3. Hi Karen,

    Oh, I understand how you feel! I was just talking with a friend the other day commenting that while I “hear” my mom’s voice in my head occasionally, I don’t have an actual recording of her voice. And how wonderful that would be to have!

    Yes, the stories that people keep inside of them are amazing things, even when they don’t think so. Sometimes, too, the hardest part is just getting the conversation started.

    Thanks for dropping by! Hope you’re enjoying the A to Z Challenge!


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