Your Guide To The Family History Interview

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15 Feb 2019

YOUR GUIDE TO THE FAMILY HISTORY INTERVIEW

So, you’ve decided to write a family history book but are not quite sure where to start. Or, maybe you are ghostwriting an autobiography for someone else.

Either way, you’ll want to be sure to include all of the best family stories. If you rely on just your own memory, or that of your subject, specific details can get a little fuzzy.

This is where it pays to interview other family members. Chances are, they will remember those extra details and  might even be able to tell you stories that have never been heard before.

But where should you start? And what questions should you ask?

Here is a list of some great questions to get the conversation started. Interviews can frequently last for several hours, so we always recommend recording your interviews with either video or audio, so that you can go back and review the answers at a later time.

It’s also a good idea to have your questions printed out and in front of you during your interview. For easy access to our list of questions, just download this pdf.


Life Events – Childhood

  • When were you born?
    • What day of the week was it?
    •  Did your parents tell you anything about the day you were born?
  • Where were you born?
  • What name were you given at birth?
    • How was this name chosen?
    • Were you named after anyone?
  • What’s your first, most vivid memory?
    • How old were you?
  • Where did you grow up?
    • What was your home like?
    • How many bedrooms/bathrooms did it have?
    • What was your bedroom like?
  • Can you describe the neighborhood you grew up in?
    • Any specific cultural/language influences in your family or neighborhood?
  • How did your family earn money?
    • Did both of your parents work?
  • What kinds of things did your family spend money on?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?          
    • What are their names?
    • When were they born?
    • Were you close?
    • What types of things did you do together? 
    • What memories do you have of each of them from when you were growing up?
  • What were you like as a child?
    • What were some of your favorite foods?
    • What did you do for fun?
    • What were your favorite toys or games?
    • Did you ever have a secret place or a favorite hiding spot?
  • Who were your best friends growing up (in elementary, junior high, and high school)?
  • What kind of clothes did you wear?
  • Did you get an allowance?
    • How much?
    • Did you spend it right away, or save it?
    • What did you buy?
    • What responsibilities did you have at home when you were young?
  • What kind of school did you go to (in elementary, junior high, and high school)?
    • Were you a good student?
    • What was your favorite subject?
    • Least favorite?
    • Who were some of your favorite teachers and why?
  • Did you have any heroes or role models when you were a child?
  • How did you spend your summer holidays?
    • What were your favorite summer activities?
    • What are some of your favorite memories about summers growing up?
  • How did your family celebrate holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July)?  
    • Did lots of relatives get together?
    • What traditions did you have year after year?
    • What food was served?
    • What was the best gift you remember receiving as a child?
  • What did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What big world events do you remember from the time you were growing up?
    • What do you remember about those events?
  • What inventions do you most remember?
  • What’s different about growing up today from when you were growing up?
  • When you were a teenager, what did you do for fun?
    • Did you have a favorite spot to “hang out”?
    • What time did you have to be home at night?
    • Did you ever get into any trouble? 
    • Did you ever do anything that you should have gotten in trouble for…but you were never caught?
  • Who was your best friend as a teenager/young adult?        
    • What did you do together?
  • Did you date in high school? 
    • What was it like? 
    • Where did you go? 
    • Were you chaperoned and, if so, by whom? 
    • Any significant romantic moments or dates you remember?
  • Did you go to the prom?
    • With whom did you go? 
  • Did you belong to any groups in school or did you participate in any extracurricular activities or sports?
  • As a young adult, did you have any significant hobbies or interests outside of school?
    • Were you in any clubs or societies? 
  • Were there any particular phrases or styles that were popular when you were a teenager?
    • What did you like to wear?
    • How did your parents feel about the way you talked and what you wore?
  • When did you learn how to drive?
    • Who taught you?
    • What was your first car like?
  • When did you graduate from high school?
    • What was your graduation ceremony like?
    • Did you earn any important honors or medals in school?
    • What dreams and goals did you have for your life when you graduated?
  • Did you apply to college? 
    • What colleges did you apply to/get into? 
    • If you went to college, what was your major? 
    • What was college like?
    • Where did you live while in college?
    • Who were your friends in college?
    • What are some of your best (or worst) college memories?

Life Events – Adulthood

  • How did you decide what you wanted to do with your life?
    • How do you feel about that choice?
  • What was your first job?
    • What did you like or not like about it?
  • What job did you do (or have you done) most of your life?
    • What did you like most about it? Least?
  • What were all of the jobs you had in your lifetime, and what did you like/dislike about each? 
    • Any interesting work-related stories or lessons?
  • What was one (or some) of the biggest adventures you had as an adult? 
    • Did you go on any exciting trips? 
    • Did you ever have a time when you felt you were in danger? 
    • Any time you got into trouble (or thought you might get into trouble and got lucky)?
    • What is the most beautiful place you have ever visited and what was it like?
  • How did you meet your spouse?
    • Was it love at first sight?
    • What did you like about him/her?
    • How long did you date before getting engaged?
    • How and when did you get engaged?
  • When did you get married?
    • How old were you?
    • Where did you get married?
    • What was your wedding like?
    • Where did you go on your honeymoon? 
    • Any good honeymoon stories?
  • What was the first big purchase you made with your spouse?
  • What was your first home? 
    • Any stories about buying your first home? 
    • Any other significant moves in your life?
  • What makes your spouse special or unique?
    • How did you know that he/she was “the one”?
  • How many children do you have?
    • What are their names?
      • How did you choose their names?   
    • When were they born?
    • Do you have any stories about the day each was born or significant stories about their first days?
    • What’s your favorite story about each of your children?
    • What is something funny or embarrassing one of your children said at an early age that you’ll never forget?
  • What family traditions did you try to establish?
    • Were these new traditions, or were they passed down from your (or your spouse’s) childhood?
    • What do you remember about holiday celebrations?
    • Is there one holiday memory that stands out for you?
  • Did you take family vacations?
    • How frequently did you travel?
    • What’s the most memorable family vacation you took?
  • How did you feel about raising your children?
    • What was the best part?
    • The hardest part?
  • What makes you proud of your children?
  • How is each of your children similar to or different from you and your spouse?

Identity

  • Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
    • How did these hobbies start?
  • Whom do you trust and depend on?
  • What things are most important to you now? Why?
  • Have you ever had any nicknames as a child or as an adult?
    • Where did they come from?
  • In what ways are you and your mother similar?
    • In what was are you unalike?
  • In what ways are you and your father similar?
    • In what was are you unalike?
  • Do you feel you’re like any of your grandparents?
    • Which grandparents?
    • In what ways are you like them?
  • How are your children like you? Unlike you?
  • What do you think are your best qualities? Your worst?
  • Which do you think you have the most of: talent, intelligence, education, or persistence?
    • How has it helped you in your life?
  • Do you have any special sayings or expressions?
  • What’s your favorite book and why? What’s your favorite movie and why?
    •  Have these changed since you were a young adult?  Why?
  • Who are three people in history you admire most and why?
  • What have been the three biggest news events during your lifetime and why?
  • If you could have three wishes, what would they be?
  • If you won $1 million tomorrow, what would you do with the money?
  • What’s the highest honor you’ve ever received?
  • What’s the most memorable phone call you’ve ever received?
  • What’s the best compliment you ever received?
  • What kinds of things do you enjoy most now?
    • When you were a younger adult?
    • A child?
  • What frightened you when you were a younger adult?
    • A child?
  • What is your most prized physical possession? Why?
  • What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted but still don’t have?
  • What unexpected/random knowledge or skills do you have that people might not expect of you?


Life Interview Questions – The Present, Life Lessons, and Legacies

  • Do you feel differently about yourself now from how you felt when you were younger?
    • In what way(s)?
  • In what ways do you think you have stayed the same throughout life?
    • In what ways have you changed?
  • When you were younger, did you have any expectations about what your life would be like? 
    • Has your life turned out that way? 
  • What do you remember about your 20s? 30s? 40s? 50s? 60s?
    • What events stand out in your mind?
    • How was each age different from the one before it?
    • Were there any birthdays (or ages) that you were less than enthusiastic about? Why?
    • If you could go back to any age, which age would it be and why?
  • How do you feel now about growing old?
    • What’s the hardest thing about growing older?
    • The best thing?
  • How is the world different now from when you were a child?
  • Did you have any expectations at points in your life about what growing older would be like for you?
    • How should a person prepare for old age?
    • Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
  • What would you like your children and grandchildren to remember about you?
  • What do you look forward to now?
  • Is there anything you have thrown away in your life, that you wish you hadn’t?
    • What was it, and why do you wish you had not thrown it out?
  • What have you held on to that’s important?
    • Why is it important to you?
  • What “junk” have you held on to over the years?
    • Why have you held on to it?
  • Over time, how have you changed the way you look at life/people?
    • In what way(s)?
  • What’s your most cherished family tradition?
    • Why does it mean so much to you?
  • What have you liked best about your life so far?
    • What’s your happiest or proudest moment?
  • What do you feel have been the important successes in your life?
  • What have been your biggest frustrations?
  • What’s the most difficult thing that ever happened to you?
    • How did you deal with it?
  • What do you think the turning points have been in your life?
    • What were you like then?
  • Are there times of your life that you remember more vividly than others?
    • Why do you think that these moments are so memorable?
  • What have been the most influential experiences in your life?
    • How did those experiences help shape you into the person you are today?
  • Describe a person or situation from your childhood that had a profound effect on the way you look at life.
    • In what way did they affect you and your life?
  • If you were writing the story of your life, how would you divide it into chapters?
  • What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were young?
  • What advice did your grandparents or parents give you that you remember best?
  • Do you have a philosophy of life?
    • What’s your best piece of advice for living a good life?
    • How do you define a “good life” or a “successful life”?
    • Do you think a person needs to first overcome serious setbacks or challenges to be truly successful?
  • In what way is it important to know your limitations in your life or career?
  • If you had the power to solve one and only one problem in the world, what would it be and why?
  • What do you see as your place or purpose in life?
    • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • If you could write a message to each of your children and grandchildren and put it in a time capsule for them to read 20 years from now, what would you write to each?
  • How would you like to be remembered, or what would you like to be remembered for?

The Future

  • What is the best thing about your life now? 
    • What is currently your biggest challenge?
  • What do you hope to do or accomplish in the next five years?
    • How about the next 10 years?
  • What do you look forward to now?
  • If you could have three wishes, what would they be?
  • If you could travel into the future, would you rather see something that specifically relates to you or something that relates to the future of the country in general? Why?

Family History Questions

  • Tell me about your mother’s family and background. 
    • Where was she born?
    • How did she grow up? 
    • Where did she go to school? 
    • Did she ever work?  If so, what did she do?
  • What was your mother like? 
    • How do you think she should be remembered?
  • Can you tell me about your mother’s parents (your maternal grandparents)? 
    • What were their names?
    • When/where were they born?
    • What do you remember about them? 
    • Where did their family come from? 
    • How and where did they meet? 
    • Any interesting stories you remember about them? 
    • How/when did they die?
  • Tell me about your father’s family and background. 
    • Where was he born? 
    • How did he grow up? 
    • Where did he go to school?
    • What kind of work did he do? 
  • What was your father like? 
    • How do you think he should be remembered?
  • Can you tell me about your father’s parents (your paternal grandparents)? 
    • What were their names?
    • When/where were they born?
    • What do you remember about them? 
    • Where did their family come from?
    • How did they meet? 
    • Any interesting stories you remember about them? 
    • How/when did they die?
  • Where did your original surname originate?
    • Do you know the meaning of your family name? 
    • Are there stories about the origins of your family name?
  • How did your parents meet? 
    • Any interesting stories about their courtship or marriage?
    • Did your parents have a good marriage?
  • What was most important to your parents?
  • Growing up, were you particularly close with any aunts or uncles that you would like to talk about? 
  • What about cousins?
  • What is the funniest/most interesting/most memorable family story you can think of (about your parents or grandparents)?
  • What are some personality traits that are shared by the people in your family?
  • Does your family have any special heirlooms or treasured items that are passed down from generation to generation?
  • Do you own any special recipes from your family?  Or do you have any of your own that are particularly “famous”?

Questions about Specific Family Members

  • How are you related to __?
    • Are you (or were you) close?
  • How would you describe him/her physically?
  • How would you describe his/her personality?
  • What are some stories you remember about him/her? 
    • Are there any specific things or stories that stick out in your mind?
  • Did he/she teach you to do any particular thing?
    • If so, what did he/she teach you?
    • Was he/she a good teacher?
  • When do you remember seeing him/her happy?
    • What do you think makes him/her the happiest?
  • When do you remember seeing him/her sad?
    • What do you think has been his/her greatest heartbreak?
  • Does he/she have any hobbies or interests?
  • Does he/she have any unique talents?
  • What is (or was) his/her relationships with your parents like?
  • Does he/she have any expressions, sayings, or interesting ways of talking?
  • Does he/she have siblings?
    • How does he/she get along with his/her siblings?
    • How does he/she get along with the rest of the family? 
    • Who is he/she closest to in the family? 
    • Do you remember any family tension with anyone?
Author
Jennifer Rizzo 
Jennifer Rizzo is a Denver based writer with a background in Healthcare, International Tour Management, Genealogical Research, and a passion for travel and languages. She studied Spanish at the University of Guadalajara in Guadalajara, Mexico and also lived and studied in Ancona, Italy. After spending nearly a decade working in the health care field, Jennifer has a well-rounded knowledge of hospital functionality, medical terminology, and disease processes. She has extended work experience with government medical benefits as well as Social Security law, which has allowed her to fine-tune her ability to sort through large amounts of medical records, research, and data, and turn that information into well written reports and case briefs. Since joining The Writers for Hire, Jennifer has written on vast array of topics and has done many in-depth ancestry research and family history projects. She has worked as Project Manager for various client websites, family history books, and RFPs, as well as other projects. She enjoys working closely with clients, and loves any opportunity that allows her to indulge her creative side.

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