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Write Your Family History – 50 Questions You Must Ask Parents Or Grandparents Before They Die
No one expected it.
While climbing into her hot tub, my healthy 87-year-old mother-in-law slipped, fell, and broke a rib. He started bleeding internally, which 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 stories and discovered some amazing facts. He was a semi-professional baseball player, an accomplished watercolor painter, and a United States Marine. As marketing director for Kaiser and later Del Monte, he worked on national advertising campaigns with the megastars of the 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, then in a living room interview a few months later.
We transcribed the audio files from the recordings, added images, and then uploaded the whole package to a new free website that helps people write great personal and family stories. (See resource section below). Gene’s family and friends can view his story and add comments or photos if they wish. The profile we created together 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 simple as taking the 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 compiled my experience into three key tips and 50 most productive questions you can use for success.
Success Tip 1: Preparation before the interview is important
To get the most out of your family history, be as prepared as possible.
. Tell the subject of the interview who will see it and how it will be used · Prepare your questions in advance · Reserve a quiet moment and a place where there are no distractions
· It is a good idea to use an audio or video recorder; test all equipment carefully before starting
· It is often helpful to use a tape or digital recorder and transcribe the dictation
· Photos, memorabilia or other visual aids are good memory tricks. Ask your target to prepare in advance
· Listen attentively and gently; ask clarifying questions
· Don’t try to force the topic into something they are uncomfortable discussing
Success tip 2: Be flexible and creative
When I started doing life story interviews, it seemed like people would spend 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 periods in their lives. For many it is childhood. For many men it is World War II, Korea or Vietnam. Decisive moments arise like finding nuggets of gold in a bed. Be sensitive to these crucial moments and periods. Listen especially carefully and ask questions. Often a deeper portrait of the individual emerges, filled with rich experiences, values, beliefs and complex layers. If you are not conducting the interview in one sitting, set a date when the discussion can be continued 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 about their lives. The family historian has two challenges. The first is to capture stories in a structured, logical way. The second is to make sure the stories are as complete as possible, with facts (names, dates, places), fully fleshed out characters, a plot, and maybe even a finale. The website GreatLifeStories divides the experience of life into 12 “chapters” that follow the progression of many lives. On the website, each chapter contains 10 to 25 questions. (Below I have selected 50 questions that usually get the best results). Do not worry; you don’t have to ask them all. In fact, after one or two questions, you may not need to ask anymore – the interview takes on a life of its own.
The main goal is to make sure you cover as many chapter headings as possible. The chapter titles are logical and somewhat chronological: Getting Started, School Days, Going to Work, Romance and Marriage, and so on. You can also add your own numbers. The 12-chapter system is a great way to organize both an interview and the writing of a life story, video or audio recording.
CHAPTER 1: In the beginning
1. What were your parents’ and grandparents’ full names, dates of birth, places of birth?
2. What were your parents’ occupations?
3. How many children were there in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
4. What was your childhood like in general?
5. What one or two stories do you remember most clearly from your childhood?
6. Do you have any particularly happy, funny, sad, or educational lessons you learned growing up?
CHAPTER 2: In your neighborhood
1. What was it like where you grew up?
2. Describe your most important friendships
3. Where and how did “news from your neighborhood” usually travel?
CHAPTER 3 School days
1. Remember to record the names and dates of attendance of grammar, college, college, trade or technical institutions
2. What are your earliest memories of school days?
3. Do you have any teachers or subjects that you particularly liked or disliked?
4. What did you learn in the first years of school, what would you like to pass on to the next generation?
5. Do you do 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?
4. Did you leave? Stop? get promoted? Get fired?
5. Have you ever been unemployed for a long time? If you answered, how have you handled it?
CHAPTER 5 Romance and marriage
1. What do you remember about your first date?
2. How did you know you were really in love?
3. Tell me how you “figured out” the question or how it was presented to you.
4. Tell me about your wedding ceremony. What year? Where? How many attended? Honeymoon?
5. Tell me about starting a family.
6. Were you married more than once? How often?
CHAPTER 6: Leisure and travel
1. What were the most memorable family vacations or trips you can remember?
2. What leisure activities do you participate in?
3. What are your greatest achievements in this field?
CHAPTER 7: Places of Worship
1. Do you follow any religious tradition?
2. If so, what and what is it like?
3. Have you ever changed your faith?
4. What role do your beliefs play in your current life?
5. What would you tell your children about your faith?
CHAPTER 8 War and Peace
1. Were you a volunteer, conscientious objector or conscientious objector?
2. If you didn’t serve, what do you remember on the home front during the war?
3. What key moments do you remember from your service?
4. What would you tell today’s young soldiers, sailors and airmen?
CHAPTER 9 Triumph and Tragedy
1. What were the happiest and most fulfilling times of your life?
2. Any sad, tragic or difficult times you would like to share, such as losing a loved one, job or something you care about?
3. What lifelong lessons did you learn from these difficult times? Happy times?
4. Were there moments that you remember as real breakthroughs in some area of your life?
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 during your life that you would like to share with the younger generation?
2. Sometimes people repeat aphorisms like “honesty is the best policy”. If they do, be sure to ask how they learned that life lesson.
CHAPTER 11: Funnybones
1. What were your family’s favorite jokes or pranks?
2. Who is or was a family comedian? “A straight man?
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 objects or places that show special gratitude to those you love? What are they? What are their stories?
Finally, it’s always a good idea to ask an open-ended question like, “Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to comment on?” You are often surprised and delighted by the answers!
For more tips on recording valuable family history, visit www.GreatLifeStories.com
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