Writing Your Family History & Interviewing Tips

Interview Questions

Three Reasons Why Interview Questions Are Important?

Albert Einstein’s quote sounds a lot better than “Rubbish In, Rubbish Out” but the basic premise is the same. As the family historian it is important to record and preserve family memories. It is also important that future generations have access to the whole gamut of stories from the perspective of all those who have memories to share.

1. The Right Interview Questions Find The Unrecorded Stories

Recorded Family History

As a family historian writing my family history has become just as important (if not more) as researching my family history. Whilst my immediate family acknowledge that my growing family tree is impressive I have the growing suspicion that unless the new ancestor has a story behind the “birth date/death date” he or she will remain an entry on the tree and nothing more. Criminal activity has been my main source of stories as my supply of living & willing relatives are thin on the ground.This was brought home to me with my pen portrait post of my card sharp Great Grandfather whose exploits resulted in a flurry of “views”! Unfortunately the rest of my ancestors appear to have been far too law abiding which leaves many unrecorded adventures yet to be discovered.

“Criminal activity has been my main source of stories as my supply of living & willing relatives are thin on the ground!”

Just Vicki

2. The Right Interview Questions Reveal The Interviewee

Interviews To Access Memories

This is the crux to the importance of asking the right question when you are interviewing a relative for your family tree. If you are fortunate enough to have an elderly relative willing to be interviewed you will obviously have access to their memories of an event or a deceased relative. What is not quite so obvious is that the right interview question will also reveal the sometimes unexpressed perspective of your interviewee. Asking, “Why” rather than “What or Who” is a simple technique to give the memory free rein to go where it pleases rather than fitting into the confines of the question.

Most writers of family history will have spent many hours of research before they branch out into interviewing family members for whom they may not be close to. What should have happened during the “research’ phase is the gathering of records, photographs and knowledge of the social history of the times. This is the toolbox that you will take with you to breach that gap. A pre-prepared questionnaire should be a back up to jog your own memory only. It may come across as an impersonal way to ask your interview questions when you are looking down at a piece of paper rather than showing your genuine, personal interest with facial expressions and eye to eye contact. If you do use a pre-prepared questionnaire remember a simple question, “Were you living in London during the Queen’s Coronation?” may tick the “Yes” box. But, ask the same question in a different way, Why do you remember the Queens’s Coronation?” may unlock a memory that could prove a “wall braker” for your family tree.

It won’t take long for you to realise that interviewing family members may often result in more than one interpretation of a family event. Family reunions are a breeding ground for a variety of stories all with the exact same starting point! The different versions of the same story are all the result of the differing perspective of the story tellers.

“Asking, “Why” rather than “What or Who” is a simple technique to give the memory free rein to go where it pleases rather than fitting into the confines of the question.”

Just Vicki

3. The Right Interview Questions Can Release Unexpected Memories

Interview Tip: Relax

The best interviews, i.e. the one that gives you the most information, are those in which both participants are relaxed and the setting informal. Speaking from experience, as soon as I’m asked to remember a specific date I worry I may get it “wrong” However, ask me in the context of an event and I can quickly work out the time by the ages of my children! The best interview tip I can give is not to hurry. Let the memories come in the flow of shared conversation where your own memories will act as a trigger for the person being interviewed. That’s why family reunions are a gold mine for anyone who is writing their family history. They fit the criteria perfectly!

Interviewing by questioning does not have to be confined to 1:1 situations. In group situations the memory triggers may come without you asking anything at all! It won’t take long and you will realise that interviewing family members as a group will result in more than one interpretation of a family event. Family reunions are a breeding ground for a variety of stories all with the exact same starting point! The different versions of the same story are all the result of the differing perspective of the story tellers. Imagine the difference is the memories of an event in a large family with the eldest being 10 years older than the youngest.

Family reunions are a breeding ground for a variety of stories all with the exact same starting point!

Just Vicki

If you have had experience of interviewing a family relative I’d love to hear how it went. Please leave a comment if you would like to share it.

Just Vicki

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