The most important step in genealogy is the step I find the most difficult — talking to people. I blame being the last of 10 children for this deficiency — never being able to get a word in edgewise, but I honestly don’t know why I am so shy, or why the right words fail me. Two things save me from myself; a genuine desire to forge strong family bonds; and interview preparation.
First, identify who you need to interview and schedule an appointment. Then practice and prepare your questions. Write out a list of what you learn and it will be easier to come up with questions that will bring out those answers. Chances are, you will stray from your agenda, so be sure you know which questions are most important to you. If you are nervous, try practicing with someone who makes you comfortable. You may be surprised at the answers even from someone you know well.
Gather your supplies and make sure everything works well so you can record the interview without any glitches, like bad batteries or missing cords. Yes, I said record; you will probably need it later to understand what you just learned. I have one relative who switches who she is talking about in the middle of a story, so if I don’t have something to doublecheck later, I would later pair anecdotes to the wrong relative. It is hard to make good notes when you are hearing good stories.
Start with “easy” questions to get them talking. Maybe ask if there’s a story they always tell, or something funny from their childhood. If they stall right off the bat, be prepared. Maybe tell them (in brief) about something interesting you’ve learned from someone else or from your research. Don’t have any stories yet? Just talk about why you care about family history, and what you hope to learn. Bring a photo or document to start the conversation. Ask questions you think they know the answers to, “What was grandmom’s maiden name?” “Do you have any family birth certificates for you, your kids, parents or anyone?” Once you have the facts you want, the stories will come out easier.
The way you ask questions will determine how open your interviewees become. Try to ask questions that get the kind of answers you are looking for. “How did you feel when that happened?” “What did others say about that?” “Then what happened?” If you need to ask a question about spelling or other clarification, be sure to redirect the conversation back to the last thing your relative was talking about. Care enough to listen carefully.
Be sure to be aware of the body language you are seeing. Is your interviewee restless, reluctant or tiring? Know when to stop. As they say in the entertainment business – always leave them wanting more. There are a couple of questions that are good to finish with: “Is there anything I forgot to ask that you’d like to add?” And one that can be amazing: “Is there anything you’re surprised I didn’t ask?” The key is just to ask.
Columnist Nina Brawn of Dover-Foxcroft is a longtime genealogy researcher, speaker and teacher. Reader emails are welcome at email@example.com. Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at Cary Medical Center’s Chan Education Center at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.