Gathering the Fragments: Using Personal Sources

Decide what type of a “book” you want to write, your audience, the purpose for writing your family history, and your deadline. That will determine the content and style. Meanwhile, read as many biographies/memoirs/family histories as you can find.

Let the subjects/sources know what your intentions are and where they stand in the process as soon as possible.

Obtain permissions right away and file in a safe place. (For interviews, photographs, letters, journals, etc.–the writer, photographer, or heir has the rights.)

Try to be organized. Keep names, addresses, dates, letters written and received, notes from telephone calls. Since the project may last several years, you may end up duplicating efforts. Be sure to record where you found “nothing,” too, so as not to find it again!

To add detail to your family narrative, consider all sorts of artifacts as source material.

Family photographs
Family Bibles
Birth, baptism, wedding certificates
Land deeds
Inheritance records
Cookbooks and recipe files
Grandfather’s pocket watch
Great-grandmother’s soup tureen
Jewelry boxes
Quilts, afghans, doilies
School yearbooks
Church records
Report cards
Music–records, sheet music
Old clothing–wedding dresses and suits, baptismal gowns
Old books, newspapers, magazines
Military mementos
Budgets, canceled checks, income tax returns
Old greeting cards
Christmas decorations
Antique furniture
Hobby collections

Conduct interviews that will form the basis of your family history narrative.

Setting Up the Interview

A. Be sure to call or write the person you want to interview to ask permission and to see whether he or she is willing to take part in your project. Explain the purpose of the interview and what you plan to do with the information gathered. The best interviews occur when people have a little time to prepare and think.

  1. Before you begin the interview, ask the person to sign a simple form granting you permission to use the information that you glean from the interview. If you ever decide to publish what you have written, you will legally need this before anything can be printed. It would also be a good time to receive written permission to use letters, photographs, and any other personal materials that you may use in your narrative.
  2. Decide whether you will allow the person to edit what you write. Many editors believe that the writer should have total control, but, depending on the situation, the interviewee is often more open and confidential when he or she knows that you will not write something that would cause conflict or embarassment. Usually, you can write the questionable material in such a manner that the interviewee will be comfortable with the way you present it.

Recording the Interview

Decide whether you want to use a tape or video recorder or just take notes.

  1. A tape recorder guarantees accuracy, allows you to observe details (like gestures, facial expressions, appearance, and surroundings), and concentrate on listening attentively during the interview.
  2. If you use a tape recorder, test it in advance, bring twice as many blank tapes as you think you will need, have the tapes numbered and lettered beforehand, and introduce each new tape with the date, your name, and the name of the interviewee. If the recorder is battery operated, put in new batteries and have extras, just in case.
  3. Always bring a notepad and two pens. Even when using a tape recorder, you should keep track of what general subjects are discussed on each side of each tape for easier retrieval of material.
  4. Find a quiet, secluded place for the interview if possible. Avoid locations with interfering background noises. Try to interview the subject alone to avoid interruptions and self-consciousness. Place the recorder as inconspicuously as possible–far enough away so that it does not constantly remind the interviewee of its presence but close enough so you will know when the tape has ended and can quickly change tapes.
  5. Most people, after the initial, typical nervousness and self-consciousness, will forget the tape recorder and relax. So will you! If they don’t, turn it off and take notes. As soon as possible after the interview, rewrite your notes, adding information from the interview that you were not able to take down but can still remember. Don’t wait to do it later!

Conducting the Interview

Before the interview, prepare a brief list of questions to ask to help you remember the key points you want to cover. Don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions encourage storytelling. Use the stories you are being told to generate new questions.

  1. Think of the interview as a conversation to achieve more intimacy. Often different emotions will surface; be understanding and respect their feelings.
  2. Ease into the interview with some simple background questions to put the person at ease: birthplace and date, important dates, children’s names, places that they have lived. Then, perhaps, unless you have a specific time or event in mind that you want to discuss, ask the person what is most important in his or her life and start there.
  3. Don’t try to cover too long of a time period in that person’s life. The interview will be too general, and you will never hear the details or captivating stories behind the basic facts and dates. If you intend to cover a person’s entire life, plan on conducting several interviews.
  4. Move from “when” questions to “what” questions to “why” questions.
  5. Use silences constructively, to give you time to take a few notes and for the person to think ands reflect. If you don’t jump in, they will likely go on to tell you more details. Rescue the interviewee with another question, however, if the silence becomes awkward.
  6. Don’t interrupt. Listen attentively and don’t let your mind wander.
  7. Provide feedback. Be genuinely interested–smile, laugh, nod, or show empathy depending on the subject. Eye contact is important.
  8. Use photographs, scrapbooks, yearbooks, maps, diaries, letters, memorabilia, family heirlooms, etc. as memory enhancers. Collect as many as possible, being aware that what you have borrowed is irreplaceable. Have them copied as quickly as possible and return the originals to the interviewee. If they are given to you to keep, don’t argue but accept and treasure them.
  9. Be flexible. Your list of questions is only a starting point. Don’t worry if you only ask a few of the questions you brought to the interview.
  10. When the interview is finished, ask your interviewee if there is anything else that he or she would like to add.
  11. Bring a camera. Take photographs person you are interviewing (one of you together, if possible), the surroundings, and even of other pictures and documents.
  12. You will probably need to talk to the person again to fill in gaps or add details, so discuss how the person would like to conduct further questions–by phone, e-mail, letter, or in person.
  13. Thank them profusely– a hug is always nice!



Works Consulted
Atkinson, Robert. The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey, 1995.

Dixon, Jean T. Family Focused: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Your Autobiography and Family History. Wendover, NV: Mount Olympus Publishing, 1997.

Gerard, Philip. Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1996.

Polking, Kirk. Writing Family Histories and Memoirs. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1995.

Spence, Linda. Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History. Athens, GA: Swallow Press, 1997.

Zimmerman, William. How To Tape Instant oral Biographies. New York: Guarionex Press,1979.

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