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Biography Outline - Page 2

These are suggestions, tips and further questions contributed by other people. I gave credit to the person who sent the item, not necessarily to the original author. Genealogists being what they are (modest, kind, honest, good-looking, witty and gracious), everyone who contributed an item they heard elsewhere want me to make it clear they were just passing it on. There is a navigation bar to the rest of my web site at the bottom of the page. You can always click on Top in the navigation bars to get back here to the list of topics.

The items are:
Draw a map to help remember (Sally Hinderager).
Use a tape recorder (Sara Troxel).
Everyday things are important too (Sara Troxel).
Break the task down to smaller ones (Marv Burge).
Ten more questions to ask (Kenneth Johnson).
Use a Video Camera (Carla Johns).
Ask family members about each other (Jack).
Cars (Val McCown).
Family Sayings (Stephanie).
Take a Remembering Trip (Carla White).
Special questions for a nun (Ruthann Hula).
The Scent of Yesteryear (Dom Mattson).
The day you were born (Jolene Brown).
What did you want to be when you grew up?
What did you collect?
Further reading from professionals.

Draw a Map

Here's a tip I read a while back, although the title and author escape me. The author suggested sketching out a map of various neighborhoods of your life, starting with the first place you can remember living and the community surrounding it - to knock the cobwebs from your memories. I was raised on a farm, so I sketched a map of the home site. It is amazing what it brought to my mind. I think it would be a great tool when interviewing someone else.

Sent by Sally Hinderager from Blackleaf Creek Ranch, Montana.

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Use a Tape Recorder.

I'd been trying to think of a means to wheedle more information out of my Aunt Elaine without being annoying and these questions are a perfect way to do it. Now, I just need to send her a simple tape recorder and a box of tapes, along with a questionnaire. She doesn't even have to write the answers down, nor will she have to worry about anyone's long distance charges. I can enclose postage-paid envelopes for the taped responses.

Sent by Sara Troxel from Virginia. (Who also sent the next item.)

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Everyday things Are Important Too.

I have recently started an "everyday" sort of journal, in response to a wish of my own that someone had written down what the local customs were of any given era and place. Of course, no one does this, because "everyone knows what the customs are" .... at least until they change! I write simple stuff: gardening notes, weather, reminders to myself and stuff like that. I would love to have something like this from my grandmother or great grandmother .... or anyone further back!

Sent by Sara Troxel from Virginia

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Break the Task Down

The leader at a seminar I attended pointed out that while the task of writing a whole book seems monumental, you can break the task down. If you spent 15 to 20 minutes a day on it, by the end of a year you'd have accomplished quite a lot.

Sent by Marv Burge from Burke, Virginia.

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Ten More Questions

Tell me about the house you lived in, as a child. Where was it located? How many rooms did it have? What were the sleeping arrangements?

Who was in charge of putting the logs on in the morning? Did your mother do all the cooking or did the kids help? How were chores assigned? By age? By gender?

Tell me about the town you lived in. What was it like? Did you know everyone in town? Did your parents perform any civic duties besides voting? Did they attend city council meetings, hold any office etc. ?

Where did you have to go to get your mail? Where did you have to go to get the staples you needed for living? Did you buy clothes or did Grandma make them for you?

Tell me about the first home you lived in after your marriage. Where was it and what was it like? What did you like the most about it? What did you like the least?

Tell me about your travels.

What did you get in trouble for the most when you were a child? How were you punished? Did you feel that Grandma or Grandpa had any favorite children? Least favorites? Or did you feel that you were all treated equally?

What was the one thing that you learned as a child that you carry with you to this day?

What is the biggest problem facing our country today?

What time of the day do you like the best and why?

Sent by Kenneth Johnson.

[Ed. note: Kenneth sent these phrased for his aunt; substitute pronouns and family titles as needed.]

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Use a video camera.

Use a video camera! It captures their expressions, their style of speech, their funny quirks. Use a tripod or third party to run the camera, so that your interviewee won't be too distracted or self-conscious. I wish I had even 5 minutes of any of my own grandparents! Be sure to make a copy and send it to a sibling, cousin or safe deposit box, since accidents can and do happen. You can even transfer a copy to CD-ROM and play it on your computer (or get your kids involved since they might be better at the technical part than you are).

I should say that I was inspired by my friend Candy Calcaterra, who found 50-year old home movies from her grandparents' church and copied them to video.

Sent by Carla Johns from Derry, New Hampshire.

[Ed Note: Sometimes interviews are easier if the subject has something to do with his/her hands. Consider filming, and asking open-ended questions, while Grandma knits, bakes a pie or gardens. Have Grandpa show you the cabinet he built with his hands, or the 1927 Ford he restored from the ground up.]

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Ask family members about each other.

When asking other relatives about the family, people should ask for their opinions about other family members. For example, when talking to great-aunt Sally, ask her about her immediate and immediate-extended (cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) family: Who was the funniest? Who was the best cook? The worst cook? Who was tallest or shortest, bald, hairy, fat, skinny? Who had the best hair (or longest or shortest) in the family? Who was the best looking? Who was the most helpful? The friendliest?

I could go on and on and on. But once one of these questions reminds Aunt Sally about first cousin Elizabeth's beautiful long hair, you will hear about first cousin Elizabeth. And if Aunt Sally remembers that cousin Clyde taught her how to play checkers when brother John wouldn't, then you will learn much about cousin Clyde's level of compassion, as well as his sense of fun.

Sent by Jack from South Dakota.

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I've been toying with the idea of what is the first car I can remember (my dad's old Studebaker?) and that brought up a flood of memories involving cars.

Sent by Val McCown from Seattle, Washington.

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Family Sayings

My suggestion is Family Sayings; for example, "what a Corker!" My mother used to say this to us as children, especially when we were being silly, but wise about a situation at the same time. Later, when I asked her where that saying came from she said "your grandmother, great-grandmother and family used to say it". While my mother was doing her genealogy she discovered that "Corker" referred to County Cork, Ireland. People in other counties in Ireland used it for residents of County Cork.

My grandfather used to call everyone "Buckshot" (not women) but even kids. I'm still working on that one. He used to call us "You rapscallion!" He would give us a hug when he said that.

Another idea would be nicknames. My sister was always called "Clyde-crash-cut" by a particular aunt. This was because my sister was not graceful. She was always tripping and getting skinned up or hurt. She was also known as "Motor-Mouth" by her kindergarten teacher for her non-stop talking.

As you can see, we always get a laugh when we think of these things and thought I would pass it on!

Sent by Stephanie from Glens Falls, New York

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Take a Remembering Trip

A couple of years ago, my aunt's husband died, and I took my parents (now in their mid-80s) the 180+ miles to our hometown, to attend the funeral. Knowing that my father and his sister are the last of the older generation, and feeling that we would probably not be getting together many more times with the elders present, I tucked a small notebook & pen into my purse.

The evening after the funeral, a number of us gathered at my aunt's house, and began remembering old times. We got Dad and my aunt to tell us about things that happened when they and their now departed siblings were growing up. Naturally there were many laughs and tears. I made notes as we talked, and as soon as I returned to my motel room, I wrote up the notes as best I could. I've since added these notes to the appropriate places in my genealogy program, and sent them to the cousins that were present that night.

Realizing how much all of us enjoyed the time together, my husband and I now are making an effort to take my parents back to our hometown a couple of times a year for more of these remembering trips. I still take notes, and even the cousins who weren't there the first time, now are participating. We are all being enriched by this activity, and saving memories for future generations.

Sent by Carla White from Tonkawa, Oklahoma.

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Special Questions for a Nun

My Aunt is a nun, so some of the questions you suggested don't quite fit. Here are some that I came up with, based on your ideas.

When did you decide to become a nun?
Was there any specific event that made you want to become a nun?
When did you leave home to start your studies?
Where did you go?
What was school like in a convent?
What did you learn about?
How often could you go home?
Were you ever homesick?
What were the rooms like?
Were able to take any of your favorite things with you when you went to school?

Sent by Ruthann Hula from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[Ed. note - these questions would obviously work for a man who became a monk or a priest and, to some extent, for a person who became a protestant minister. Mrs. Hula phrased them for a nun. I left them that way because changing "nun" to "Nun/Priest/Minister" would make the lines awkward. It would also insult my reader's intelligence. You can all rephrase questions to suit the situation.]

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The Scent of Yesteryear

Thirteen years ago, I wanted my mother-in-law to write down her stories but I couldn't find a good linchpin for her. She grew up in an immigrant neighborhood in Davenport, Iowa. I asked her to tell me about the smells in the butcher shop. She told me not only about the smells but the young boys who waited outside the door to deliver an order for a couple of pennies. The memory of the smell opened a floodgate. I wrote down a list of memories afterwards and had her write a couple of paragraphs about each. I have heard that our brain stores our smells and memories fairly close. The next time you smell the odor in airplane cement, do you remember putting together model airplanes? Does the smell of chalk dust put you back in a classroom?

Smells evoke feelings. Along with the smell, the teller has the opportunity to express how he or she felt at that point. Was she mad, sad, glad or scared? It will add to the richness of the written memory.

Sent by Don Mattson from Indianapolis.

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The Day You Were Born

Did your mom tell you about the day you were born?
What time of the day were you born? The middle of the night, morning, evening?
What was the weather like?
Were you born during the middle of a blizzard or on a balmy spring day?

How did she (and your dad) feel on that day?
How did you feel on the day your first (second, third) child was born?

Sent by Jolene Brown from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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What did you want to be when you grew up?

A lady who prefers to be anonymous writes:
I've done several interviews of older citizens for our local historical society and discovered something very interesting. The most "successful" people I interviewed knew when they were 4 or 5 years old what they wanted to do when they grew up. An architect told me he started building when he was little and had no intention of ever stopping even though he had never heard the term "architect". Another gentleman worked in his Dad's store, knowing he would inherit it and just loved it until he was in his 80's, then passed it on to his son.

While the women I spoke to knew what they were going to do when they grew up (marry, have children, keep house) many of them expressed an interest in other occupations - but alas, were doomed by gender... Very few pursued any other careers. Now when I interview anyone about anything I ask "What did you want to be when you were little...?"

Sometimes, hearing about their hopes and dreams, whether they came true or not, is a very significant lesson in itself. As always, try to get the respondent to embellish the answer instead of answering in just one word. Most will go into other interesting aspects of their childhood.

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What Did You Collect?

This is closely related to the question about your hobbies, but so many people collect things it deserves to be a separate question. Do you have any collections? What got you started in it? What was your first item? What is your most prized item? Did you collect anything when you were young?

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Further Reading

How to Get Started, by Richard A. Pence
Mr. Pence wrote this for people just starting. He goes into methods of jogging people's memories, and has lots of good questions.

Oral History Questions, compiled by Joanne Todd Rabun
Almost 200 questions. Joanne and I have some overlap, since intelligent, good-looking people often think along parallel lines.

Biography Assistant, from Genealogy.com
This is a very professionally-done site from the people who bring you GenForum. It branches into six tracks, depending on the subject; living subject (m/f), dead subject (m/f) or yourself (m/f). It keeps branching according to experiences and goes into much more detail than I do. Just for instance, there are 22 questions for living males who fought in the Korean War.

Biography of William Bucklin, of Hingham and Pawtucket
This page is a wonderful example of how much you can do with historical documents, for someone long gone. William was born about 1606 and came to New England in the 1630's. The Bucklin Society has a great site devoted to their family's genealogy. If you are a Bucklin descendant, it is a must; if you are just interested in a good example, it is well worth the click.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014