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Biography Outline

This page is a series of questions. The answers will make a short biography. You can use them to interview your older relatives, or to write your autobiography. There is a navigation bar for the rest of my web site (Peace Corps stuff, Web Page Writing, Beginning Genealogy) at the Bottom of this page. You can bail out now if you want. There are almost 2,000 words below, and no pictures. There is a navigation bar to sections within the page after each section. There are more tips and suggestions for further reading on a second page. The link to it is in the section bar too.


When I was younger I could never think of enough to say. I can remember sitting in the 4th grade classroom after a long summer, sweating over the annual essay assignment, "What did you do over the summer vacation?" Miss Perry, who tried valiantly to develop my prose style and handwriting, would not accept the simple answer, "Played". Now that I'm a geezer, my problem is just the reverse; I ramble on for pages at the slightest excuse, while my children yawn elaborately.

I was surprised to find that some adults still have problems thinking of enough to say. In the course of gathering genealogical information I've asked my older relatives to write a short memoir. Some of them asked for a guide - "Oh, what sort of things do you want to know about?"

The short answer comes from putting yourself in someone else's shoes. What would you have liked your great-great-grand parents to have written about themselves for you? I sometimes stop, when I'm tracing some ancestor who married young in 1809, six ridges to the west of civilization, and wonder - what their life was like? Did they dance at the wedding? Did friends and neighbors gather in the hard-packed dirt between the house and the barn, to make merry with a couple of jugs and a fiddle? Or was it a solemn religious service, as quiet and subdued as a Quaker meeting? What was it like for a 16-year old to start keeping house in a log cabin with a dirt floor? What was it like for her 18-year old husband, who was expected to provide for her with a plow, an ax and a musket?

What follows is a long answer. These are some things I would like to know about my ancestors. They are just a guide; no one will want to answer all of them. For almost any category (occupation, schooling, religion, courtship, military service) or any age (child, teenager, young adult, young married, middle aged) you could ask yourself first, what was an ordinary day like? That might seem boring now, but might not be to your great- grandchildren. My grandmother didn't think hitching up a horse and buggy to go into town for supplies, or helping her mother cook for the threshing crews, was all that interesting. When I tell my children the stories she told me, they are hearing about what life was like 100 years ago.

After the ordinary part, and again for each period and category, what was the most exciting thing that happened, the proudest moment, the funniest event, the saddest moment? Don't forget those anecdotes that were horribly embarrassing at the time but funny when you look back on them.

The sections below have more specific questions.

Top | Childhood | Romance | Religion | Eating | Unknown | Painful | Final Words | Bottom | Second Page

Childhood and School Days

Where and when were you born? In a hospital? At home? In a taxi cab? (I remember my parents telling me that my twin and I were a week overdue, so Dad took mom for a car ride on a bumpy road.)

Where and when did you go to school (elementary, high school, college, trade school, graduate school) What were your favorite subjects? Why? Who were your favorite teachers? Why?

What were your favorite hobbies, sports, amusements, youth groups (Scouts, 4-H, etc.) as a child, teenager, young adult?

What would a typical school day, Saturday, Sunday have been like as a child, teenager, young adult? Chores, for instance, have changed a lot since children had to fetch water, chop kindling and hold a leg while Dad butchered the elk. I know a man whose teenager has to delete all the temporary files from the family's computers once a week.

If you had an after school or summer job, what did you do? What did you like about it? Dislike about it? What was the funniest thing that happened on the job? How much did you earn? What would that buy in terms of candy bars, movie tickets, toys, or other things you were likely to buy at that age?

Where did you live as a child, teenager, young adult? What was the house like? What was the town like? What do you remember liking and disliking about it? As an adult, why did you pick the places you picked to live (Specific apartments, neighborhoods, cities, regions)?

What was the most exciting thing that happened to you as a child, teenager, young adult? Or, what were the three most, five most, seven most exciting things?

Top | Childhood | Romance | Religion | Eating | Unknown | Painful | Final Words | Bottom | Second page

Romance, Work, Play and History

How did you and your spouse meet? What attracted you to each other? Do you have a favorite incident from your courtship that was either funny in the ordinary way or embarrassing then, funny now? (My cousin told me that when his parents, Bill and Dorothy, were courting, they often played tennis. Dorothy would make tuna sandwiches. After they were married Bill told Dorothy he hated tuna fish sandwiches; he just ate them to please her.)

What was your wedding like? Where and when was it held? Was this typical for the time? (Not everyone gets married while skydiving.) Did you dance? What did people wear? (Those of you who changed out of a rented tuxedo into a powder blue polyester leisure suit for the reception will want to skip this one.)

Military service - When and where did you serve? Why did you choose it, if you had a choice? What was the most exciting thing that happened to you in the service? Funniest? Most frightening? This particular section can get intense if you are interviewing a Vietnam vet. Try to be sensitive. If your subject is willing, ask about his reactions to the furor at home while he was fighting. There will probably not be many funny anecdotes here, no matter what war they fought in.

Occupation - what did you do? Why did you choose it as a career? What did you especially like and dislike about the job(s)? What are some of the things your are proudest of? How much did you make to start with at your first full-time job? How much was that in terms of a "starter" home, or a good second-hand car? (Inflation being what it is, most of us started working at wages that seem ridiculously low now. Asking how much a car, house or whatever cost back then balances it out. I only earned $2,000 a year at a variety of part time and summer jobs while I was in college, but it was enough to cover room, board, tuition, books and living expenses.)

What did you do outside of your job as an adult? Why do you do it? What did you like or dislike about it? Funny, proud, sad events? Not just volunteer work, but hobbies, recreation, travel, and so on. Do you bird watch, water ski, play the banjo, teach Sunday school, volunteer at the library, fly fish, collect stamps, refinish antiques, rebuild hot rods?

What historical events have you witnessed in person? Via radio or television? How did you and your friends and neighbors react to them?

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Religion, Children, History again

Religion - Why did you choose your particular denomination, if you did? What do you like about it? Dislike? What was the funniest thing that ever happened to you in church? What was the most awe-inspiring thing? What was your proudest moment? What was your saddest moment? What was the top church event in that elusive class, "Things that were horribly embarrassing then but funny now that a few years have passed"?

Children - where and when were they born? How did you pick their names? What were they like as infants and toddlers? Most of the questions above are as open and optional as I could phrase them, but parents doing this have to come up with at least two anecdotes about each child, for the grandchildren to chuckle over.

Larger events, personal perspective - what do you notice is the biggest (three biggest, five biggest) change in the world today from the world you knew as a child? What one, three, five things can you remember being invented in your life which people today take for granted?

(The first time ever I saw a television set, it was showing a boxing match. The horizontal adjustments was off. The top half of the screen showed the boxer's legs, the bottom half their heads, arms and chests. I thought there was a special double-decked boxing arena, and the TV was showing two matches at once.)

Even if you didn't participate in a large event, you may have watched. When I was born, somewhat before 1950, women kept house, men worked, and schools were segregated. What changes have you seen in your society and the way it treats women? African-Americans? Hispanics? Asians? Lesbian women and gay men?

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Eating - Holidays and Hard Times

Food makes memories and binds families together. How did you celebrate Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas? What did you eat, and how did you cook it? (Some people in Texas deep-fry their turkeys for Thanksgiving. I barbecue mine, with mesquite chips.) How did you decorate the house? Did you do anything special for breakfast, lunch or dinner on your birthday? If you are writing an autobiography, and you are an American between 25 and 50, there is a good chance Super Bowl Sunday is one of your major holidays. Don't forget to describe it.

Did your family celebrate any holidays that were special to your religious or ethnic heritage? If, for instance, you are Jewish, Muslim or Sikh, how did you feel when Christmas rolled around? How did your parents help you cope?

This would be a good place to ask about heirloom recipes, too.

What was your favorite meal, apart from the holidays?

Not everyone had steak every Saturday night when they were growing up. I don't think anything brought the reality of the Great Depression home to me more than my mother's description of eating corn meal mush for dinner. When I was substitute teaching for $75 a week, I used to eat boiled wheat instead of rice. The wheat was seven cents a pound down at the feed store, right next to the layer mash. Rice was 29 cents a pound. Describe your hard times; maybe your kids will appreciate what they have. (Maybe they will pick up their room without being told, too.)

Top | Childhood | Romance | Religion | Eating | Unknown | Painful | Final Words | Bottom | Second page

The Unknown Side

The next question is one I ask at dinner parties a lot. "What have you done that no one would guess you'd done, to look at you"? People are surprising.

One evening, when my daughter was a Girl Scout, we adults were sitting around the fire after the girls had gone to their tents. Talk turned to wool sweaters scented with wood smoke, and other memorable odors. A small, quiet fellow who everyone in the troop called "Grandpa" told us he'd never forget the smell of a Japanese pillbox wiped out by a flame thrower. When World War II broke out he'd lied about his age and gone to Guadalcanal as a Sea Bee.

Our children took ballet lessons with the children of a thin, scholarly piano teacher. I never thought of him as an athlete until he swam the length of our pool, twice, underwater. He told us his lungs had always been good; when he was a boy he climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States, in a single day.

An accountant used to work down the hall from me. She had glasses, brown hair and paid meticulous attention to detail. Her office had a wall of spectacular underwater photos. I asked her once if she had bought reprints from the National Geographic. She said, no, she and her husband lived rather frugally so that they could spend two weeks a year SCUBA diving. They had been all over the Caribbean and the South Pacific. She'd taken about half, he the others

During my brief stint as an eighth-grade math teacher, the ace reporter from the school paper interviewed all of us first-year teachers. I wanted to tell him about being tear gassed by riot police in Berkeley or almost tattooed by headhunters in Borneo. He asked, "What's your favorite food?"

Years of asking that question have convinced me that everyone has done something exciting, interesting or amazing at least once in their life. Your deed doesn't have to be a huge, death-defying stunt; just something to make your grandchildren say, "Wow - I never knew that!"

There are a lot of subjects that don't fit any of the above very well. Many of them are what I call the "est" questions. What is the best meal you've ever eaten? Worst? (What are the ten best, for that matter, and three worst?) What was the best vacation you've ever taken? Worst? What was the nicest act of human kindness you've performed or benefited from? What was the most beautiful sunset (sunrise, waterfall, rolling hillside covered with wildflowers) you've ever seen? Fanciest party you've ever been to? Most fun you've had in a single day?

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Painful Questions

[Added August 2010.]

Most lives have a little pain. Some have a lot of it. There are black people alive today (2010) who had to attend segregated schools and sit in the back of the bus. There are Jews and Muslims who have had things spray-painted on their doors because of their religion. There are refugees in the USA today whose lives have changed dramatically.

The Hmongs, for instance, lived communally and followed a low-tech farming life until the Viet Nam war. The family I knew through our church had to walk for three weeks in the jungle, eating leaves and slugs to keep hunger at bay, to escape. One of their children is now an electrical engineer, another a pharmacist.

My great grand aunt was born in Herzogenbuchsee, in Switzerland, a small, green town in an alpine valley in Switzerland. She came to the USA in 1866, when she was 14 years old. The family ended up on the Midwest plains. How often did she think of the clear streams bouncing down the mountains back home, as she looked at the wide, muddy rivers of Nebraska?

Did you suffer because of your race, religion, ethnicity, home country, language? Did you suffer because you are some other kind of minority? (Vegetarians and lesbians don't have much in common, to pick two, but both are a minority.) What was it like?

Have things changed? How? For the better? For worse?

If you are an immigrant, why did you come to your new country? Did you find what you were hoping for? What differences are there between your home country and your new one? What do like the best about your new country? What do you like the least? What customs, holidays, foods have you brought with you? Left behind?

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Final Words and a Warning:

Julia Case, editor of Missing Links, a now-defunct weekly e-mail magazine for genealogists, published a link to this page in August 2000 and again in June 2002. (Brag, Brag, Brag). So many people asked if they could reprint the questions or use them as a questionnaire that I added this permission and warning:

Permission: If you'd like to reprint the questions, feel free. I'd be honored. If you put my name on the page I'd be famous, too. You may link to the page.

Warning: If you are going to use these questions as a questionnaire, I suggest you copy the page into a word processor and re-format it. Change the margins. Take out the illustrative examples and put in a LOT of blank space after each question. Better yet, list the questions on one or two sheets then give your interviewee a new yellow pad and two pens.

I have a personal reason for this suggestion. My second great grandfather served for three years in the 118th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, during the Civil War. He marched with Sherman to the sea. He kept a small (6 inch x 3 inch) diary for a year. It had the dates pre-printed, two days per page. Each day he filled a 3-inch square and stopped writing. We all wish he'd written more. Don't let the size of the space limit the length of the answer.

More Suggestions: Several people sent me tips, more questions to ask and other suggestions. I found two professional web sites with biography questions for further reading. This page was getting long, so I started a second page. You can go back to the Top, too.

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This page updated: June 21, 2014