How to use all 7 types when writing your family history
All 7 types of family history questions below are tools for getting information you need to write your family history through a family history interview. Knowing which order to ask them and which questions work best with certain people can be really helpful when writing your family history.
- How do you phrase your questions?
- Do you plan the questions ahead of time?
- Are you writing them down?
- Do you include follow up questions to have ready?
- Is the person you’re talking with receptive to the type of question you’re asking?
I remember asking one of my grandparents a series of questions like these:
- “Where did you grow up?”
- “Where did you go to school?”
- “Did you have any pets?”
Can you guess what kind of answers they gave me??
Yep – I got one or two word ANSWERS. I would have done better handing them a piece of paper that they could fill out on their own – like a fill-in-the-blank style quiz. That way I’d have had their answers in their own handwriting.
I remember it was a boring and dull interaction that didn’t take very long because both of us were ready to move on. I was searching for STORIES and all I got was ANSWERS. The silence in between where I asked the question and they gave me an answer was the most exciting part of the interview only because I started to sweat a little.
Not just a Q&A session
Interviewing your relative shouldn’t be JUST about questions and answers. That just takes the fun right out of it. It should also be an experience to share WITH them. You’re searching for the stories that get to their heart and leave a legacy of their life.
How Do You Know If You’re Getting to Their Heart?
If you’re getting to their heart, or into the heart of the story, you’ll hear it in their voice. You’ll see the emotion on their face.
Hearing AND seeing them tell a story, with laughing or with tears, will help you write and develop their story in a more profound way.
You might not use all 7 of these question types in one interview, but you’ll definitely use more than 1.
Think about the person you are going to be talking with and imagine which questions will work best with their personality. Keep in mind what you already know about their personal history.
The 7 types of family history questions to ask relatives when writing about family history
1) Do You Remember?
“Do you remember?” questions are one way to start a Q&A dialogue. They don’t have to be too personal and can really be break the ice.
- Do you remember where you were when JFK was shot?
- Do you remember chocolate soda pop?
- Do you remember when gasoline was 75 cents a gallon?
- Do you remember your first day of school?
- Do you remember the first music video you ever watched?
Those questions fall into two categories:
- Do you remember [SOMETHING IN THE WORLD AROUND YOU]?
- Do You remember [SOMETHING IN YOUR OWN LIFE]?
Your goal is for your relative to recall an event/person/thing from their own world or the world at large which defines something about who they are or the world they grew up in.
Historic world events make great “Do You Remember” questions. These questions get a conversation started without requiring your relative to reveal anything too personal about themselves. Topics for these questions can be about world history, government, and politics. More lighthearted topics can range from the world of fashion, to sports highlights, or musical songs or groups.
When you ask them if they remember something from their own personal life, for example, their first memory of high school, the answer will most likely give you enough details for a follow up question. This can lead to the next type of question, the “Tell me About” question.
2) Tell Me About?
These questions tell the person you’re interviewing that you’re really interested in what they have to say. They also require you to have some preliminary information about an important detail in the person’s life. It can be a small or large detail, something they did, something they saw, something they experienced, etc. You may even learn something about them from an answer they gave you to another type of question that you just asked them.
All you may need to say is, “tell me MORE about that”.
Overall, these questions prompt the person to tell you all they can about whatever snippet of their life you want to know more about. For example, when you say “tell me about the time you broke you arm” the person can start the story where they want and add details as they wish.
3) What’s Your Favorite?
These questions are great for breaking the ice. If you’re not very familiar with the relative you are interviewing, this type of question can bring lightness and fun into your interview. The answers will also give you ideas for more follow-up questions.
There is an assortment of “What’s Your Favorite?” type questions at PairedLife.com (170 to be exact). Print, or use them to help come up with some of your own.
4) Feelings questions
No matter what question you ask or what the answer is, you can always follow up their answer with “How did that make you feel”?
For example, you may ask your relative where they grew up, the year, and other factual details about who they are. That’s when following up with a question about their emotions will help develop the answers they give you into an interesting story or memoir. For example, they may tell you where they grew up. Your follow up could be, “You grew up on a farm in during the Great Depression- how did that make you feel?”
5) If Questions
These questions are usually presented as hypothetical ideas. The IF question gets your relative to think about their life and imagine how a certain part of their life could have been different.
“IF” question examples:
- If you would have ____________________________
- If you had never ______________________________
- If you could change one thing _______________
- If you could go back __________________________
These questions are based on a hypothetical scenario. They aren’t meant to elicit facts. They’re meant to add meat to the story you’re writing. Your relatives’ feelings about their life and the events that shaped them as a person will be more clear to you by their answer to these types of questions.
Be careful with these types of questions. Strong feelings may surface. When the interview gets emotionally heavy, quickly turn to another type of question.
6) Yes or No Questions
These are also known as closed questions. Yes and no can be good or bad. Asking too many of these types of questions can be unproductive. They’re great when used naturally, so scatter them throughout your interview.
Yes and No questions are excellent for:
- Breaking the ice
- Keeping the conversation flowing
- Clarifying their answers and comments
- Confirming details
Want to avoid asking too many “YES and NO” questions? I have the perfect solution to get your interview off to a great start – “Oral History Prompts and Family History Questions” You can print my list of more than 30 interesting prompt questions or sign up on this page for my newsletter email and have them delivered straight to your inbox.
7) Information Seeking Questions
Aka Fact Seeking Questions. Answers to these types of questions are usually found when we’re doing our genealogy research. These are the WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHEN, WHERE, HOW questions. You may already have the answers to these questions before you interview your relative.
These types of questions are like starting blocks for a runner. They’re great for the start, but they won’t get you to the finish line. It’s nice to ask them for the facts and let them answer in their own words. This can work great if your relative is a talkative person. Instead of getting a short answer, you might get a little extra.
If you know from your aunt’s birth certificate that she was born in a particular county you can still ask her where she was born. Instead of telling you what county she was born in, she might tell you the name of the township she was born in. You may not have known that had you not asked the question. This can lead you into a “Tell Me More” type question or a Feelings question. It is always worth asking fact seeking questions, even if you think you already have the answer.
Getting results from your family history questions
Some people respond better with one type of question over another. (Think older person vs. younger person. Or easygoing person vs. a crotchety person.) Your relative will let you know right away which direction you should go with your questioning style. Having different types of questions prepared in advance will keep your family history interview moving along nicely.
Using these 7 types of family history questions in your interview will assist you in gathering personal history facts along with the stories that you’re dying to hear. You’ll create a beautiful written history about one of your relatives with these well-prepared interview questions. Writing their personal history will be easier for you when you present your interview questions in a mutually interesting and organized way.
Keep on writing!