- Preserve Your Family History by Writing
Your Family Stories
By LeAnn R. Ralph
"Everyone has a story to tell." It seems like a clichebut
it's true. After working as a newspaper reporter for more than
eight years, I know that everyone does, indeed, have a story
But even before I started working
as a journalist, I knew that life experiences make interesting
stories. Consider my parents.
My mother was the daughter of Norwegian
immigrants, and her grandfather homesteaded our dairy farm in
Wisconsin in the late 1800s. My father was the son of German
and Scottish immigrants. When Dad was a little boy, his parents
worked as cooks in a lumber camp in northern Wisconsin. As I
was growing up, Mom and Dad would tell stories about their own
childhoods. When Mom was a little girl, the whole family would
sleep in the screen porch on hot summer nights. Indians also
used to stop at our farm, and gypsies would camp nearby during
the summer. When Dad was a little boy, he enjoyed spending time
at the lumber camp kitchen because all of the cooks knew that
little boys needed special treats during the day: a piece of
Key-Lime pie, a slice of chocolate cake, or a couple of extra-large
sugar cookies. When Dad wasn't staying with his parents at the
lumber camp, he lived with his grandmother, a tiny tough-as-nails
German woman who owned a German shepherd named Happy.
Unfortunately, I never wrote
down any of those stories, and I never asked Mom and Dad to sit
down with a tape recorder and tell those stories. My mother died
in 1985 at the age of 68, and my father passed away in 1992 at
the age of 78. The majority of their stories, except for the
few that I remember, are lost forever. Your family stories do
not have to share the same fate.
Here are some tips for writing
your family stories:
* Decide which person you want
to interview first (Grandma or Grandpa, Mom or Dad, Aunt or Uncle),
and then tell that person about your plan to write a collection
of family stories and ask for permission to conduct an interview.
* Set a formal date and time
for the interview. This will give your interviewee an opportunity
to mentally prepare and to remember various stories that he or
she would like to talk about.
* Provide a list of questions
several days or weeks before the interview. This will also give
your interviewee time to remember various stories.
* Focus on a single subject or
event in your list of questionsschool, holidays (Christmas,
Thanksgiving, Fourth of July), birthdays, seasons (spring, summer,
winter, fall)the list is endless.
* Ask open-ended questions and
not "yes or no" questions. "How did you get to
school?" is better than "Did you walk to school when
you were growing up?"
* Use a tape recorder to record
the interview. Taping the interview will help you gather details
that you might miss if you are only taking notes.
* Chat about something else for
a while if the person you are interviewing seems nervous at the
prospect of being tape-recorded. Your interviewee will soon relax
and won't even notice the tape recorder. And once you start the
interview, you will find that one subject will lead to another
and one question will lead to another.
* Transcribe the tape and write
up your notes after you have finished the interview. This, in
itself, will provide a fine record of the stories that are told
"in their own words." And you will be in good company--Studs
Terkel's oral history books are written that way, and they are
fascinating to read. Terkel's books include Division Street (1967),
Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), The Good War (1984), The Great
Divide (1988), and RACE (1992).
* After you have finished all
of your interviews and have written down the stories, print the
stories from your computer and put them into a three-ring binder.
Make multiple copies and give them to family members as gifts.
Or you might want to consider publishing the stories POD (print-on-demand).
There are many POD companies, and for a price that starts out
at a couple of hundred dollars, you can publish the stories as
a trade paperback. To find POD companies, conduct an Internet
search with the keywords, "print-on-demand."
Here are some examples of
questions to help you get started with your interviews:
- 1. Where did you go to school
when you were growing up?
- 2. Tell me about any amusing
or unusual incidents that happened on your way to or from school.
- 3. What kinds of clothes did
- 4. How many students were in
your class? How many students were in the whole school? How many
- 5. What was your favorite subject?
- 6. What was your least-favorite
- 7. Who was your favorite teacher?
- 8. Who was your least-favorite
- 9. Tell me about your best friend.
- 10. Tell me about your happiest
moments in school. What was your best accomplishment?
- 11. Tell me about your worst
moments in school. Did you learn anything from your worst moments?
- 12. What advice would you give
to students who are in school today?