Nobody expected it.
While stepping into his hot tub, my healthy 87-year-old father-in-law slipped, fell, and broke a rib. He began to suffer internal bleeding that the doctors could not stop. In two weeks, Gene was gone.
Fortunately, a few months earlier we had taken the time to record Gene’s life story and discovered some amazing facts. He was a semi-professional baseball player, an excellent watercolorist, and a US Marine.As a marketing executive for Kaiser and later Del Monte, he worked on national ad campaigns with mega-stars of his day, such as Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Stan Musial, Lloyd Bridges and others.
We recorded Gene’s life story twice: once at a small family dinner, then during an interview in the living room a few months later.
We transcribe the audio files of the recordings, add images, and then upload the entire package to a new free website that helps people write great personal and family stories. (See the resources section below). Gene’s family and friends can view his story and add comments or photos if they wish. The profile we co-created with Gene is a celebration of his life. It is also a direct and meaningful connection to your daughters and grandchildren. Anyone can create a life story for themselves or a loved one. It’s as simple 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 have summarized my experience in three key tips and the 50 most productive questions you can use to be successful.
Success tip n. 1: Pre-interview preparation is key
To get the most out of your family history session, be as prepared as possible.
. Inform the subject of the purpose of the interview, who will see it and how it will be used Prepare your questions in advance Reserve a quiet time and a place free from interruptions
· It is a good idea to use a voice or video recorder; test all equipment thoroughly before starting
It is often helpful to use a tape recorder or digital recorder and transcribe the dictation.
Photos, memories, or other visual aids are great for boosting memory. Ask your subject to prepare some in advance
· Listen carefully and softly; ask clarification questions
Don’t try to force the subject to do something that they feel uncomfortable discussing
Success tip n. # 2: be flexible and creative
When I started doing life story interviews, it seemed like people spent 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 moments in their lives. For many, it is childhood. For many men, it is World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. The decisive moments arise like finding a gold nugget in a river bed. Be sensitive to these defining moments and episodes. Listen carefully and ask questions. A deeper portrait of an individual often emerges, laden with rich experiences, values, beliefs, and layers of complexity. If you don’t complete the interview in one sitting, set a date to resume the conversation later.
Success tip n. 3: organize life stories into chapters
Most people (yes, even the shy ones) love to be the center of attention and share stories from their lives. There are two challenges for a family historian. The first is to capture the stories in a structured and logical way. The second is to make sure the stories are as complete as possible and contain facts (names, dates, places), fully drawn characters, a story, and maybe even an ending. The GreatLifeStories website divides the life experience into 12 “chapters” that follow the progression of many lives. On the website, each chapter contains between 10 and 25 questions. (I’ve selected the 50 questions that usually get the best results below.) Do not worry; you don’t have to ask everyone. In fact, after a question or two, you may not have to do more – the interview takes on a life of its own.
The most important goal is to make sure you cover as many chapter titles as possible. The chapter titles are logical and somewhat chronological in order: beginnings, school days, holidays, romance and marriage, etc. Feel free to add your own chapters as well. The 12-chapter system is a great way to organize both your interview and life story writing, video, or audio recording.
CHAPTER 1: In the Beginning
1. What were the full names of your parents and grandparents, dates of birth, places of birth?
2. What were your parents’ occupations?
3. How many children were in your family? Where were you in the lineup?
4. In general terms, how was your childhood?
5. What are the stories that you remember most clearly about your childhood?
6. Are there any particularly happy, funny, sad, or instructive lessons you learned growing up?
CHAPTER 2: In Your Neighborhood
1. What was the place where you grew up like?
2. Describe your most important friends.
3. Where and how did the “news from your neighborhood” flow?
CHAPTER 3 School Days
1. Be sure to capture the names and dates you attended from grammar, high school, college, trade, or technical schools.
2. What are your first memories of the school day?
3. Is there a teacher or subject that you especially liked or did not like?
4. What did you learn in those first years of school that you would like to pass on to the next generation?
5. Were you involved in sports, music, theater, or other extracurricular activities?
CHAPTER 4: On the way 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 leave? Let? Be promoted? Be 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 from your first date?
2. How did you know you were really in love?
3. Tell me how you “asked the question” or how they asked you.
4. Tell me about your wedding ceremony. What year? Where? How many attended? Honeymoon?
5. Tell me about starting your 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 life today?
5. What would you tell your children about their faith?
CHAPTER 8 War and Peace
1. Were you a volunteer, conscript, or conscientious objector?
2. If it didn’t work, what do you remember about being on the home front during the war?
3. What key moments do you remember about your service?
4. What would you say to the young soldiers, sailors, and airmen of today?
CHAPTER 9 Triumph and Tragedy
1. What were the happiest and most satisfying moments of your life?
2. Is there a sad, tragic, or difficult moment that you would like to share, such as losing a loved one, a job, or something that mattered to you?
3. What lifelong lessons did you learn from these difficult times? Happy times?
4. Were there moments that you remember as real breakthroughs in any area of your life?
5. If you could do something different in your life, what would it be?
CHAPTER 10 Words of Wisdom
1. What have you learned throughout your life that you would like to share with the younger generation?
2. People will sometimes 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 jokes?
2. Who is or was the comedian in the family? “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 thankful?
3. Are there items or places that mark a special thank you for your loved ones? What are they? What are their stories?
In closing, it is always a good idea to ask an open-ended question such as, “Is there anything you haven’t asked that you would like to discuss?” You will often be surprised and delighted with the answers!
For many more tips on how to capture valuable family history, visit www.GreatLifeStories.com