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Interviewing for Family History Writers - 4 Important Tips

Interviewing is an important skill for the life storywriter, no matter what the size of your family memory project. You will want to do plenty of it as you build the research you need to write your family stories. How will you begin?

1. Establish Trust with Simple Questions

You want to establish trust and empathy with your interview subject, so small talk at the beginning of an interview is not necessarily a waste of time. You may want to ask a few simple questions, such as date and place of birth, and chat about those answers to put your subject at ease.

2. Follow Up with Open-Ended Questions

The important thing to remember with interviewing is to ask questions which are as open-ended as possible - questions which require much more than a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, but which encourage the person to begin telling a story. For example, instead of asking "Where did you live when you were a teenager?" - try re-phrasing the question as "Take me on a walk around the house you lived in when you were fifteen." You will find that you get an array of extra detail instead of a sparse response.

Once we have asked the simple questions, I move into questions like these:

What did your parents tell you about their lives?

Tell me what you remember about the place where you grew up?

Take me on an imaginary walk around your home when you were a child.

Describe your family gatherings.
Tell me about religious observances in your family.

Who was your biggest influence? Who did you admire and why?

Who made you laugh? Who made you feel important and why?

3. Listen Attentively

The aim is to get momentum going, to establish a natural rhythm in conversation. Once you've started the interview rolling, except for an occasional question to keep it rolling or steer it in the right direction, the most efficient thing you can do is listen attentively.

4. Add Unique Questions to Wrap Up

The very best questions are the ones you make up as you go along, which are specific to the individual you are interviewing. These will be determined by the person's responses to those basic questions you ask. Make a note as you are interviewing and return to these at the earliest possible opportunity or ask them in a wrap-up interview.

Before you know itBusiness Management Articles, interviewing will become second nature to you and you will have collected a treasure-trove of material for your unique family memory book!

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Carol M. Upton is a writer and personal historian whose work has appeared in The Vancouver Sun and Province, The Coast Reporter, The Cup of Comfort Cookbook, The Change Agent and several trade publications. Carol owns a business called Recollections and offers a free consultation and a free monthly newsletter called Living Legends, for those who want assistance in telling their family stories. Visit Carol at

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