You may find that most of the people you interview are older people. When you ask if you may talk to them about their memories they often start off:

“Well, you know, we just lived on the farm. There’s nothing much to say”. Or, “I just stayed at home. You should ask my husband – he went out to work.”

It helps if you prepare yourself for these objections by having prepared some simple  questions ahead of time. Don’t start out with the hard questions “Why is it you and your sister haven’t spoken to each other since 1985?” It might be the one question that is burning inside you, but it is not the question that will get the talking started.

Do some research ahead of time. Find out more about these people so you are not going in cold. Find out about their children, their hobbies and, if you can, find what they are proud of. They may be proud that their son is a doctor, or that “My husband built this house. Every single board of it.” People will talk about what they are proud of. It’s worthwhile putting into your history and it paves the way for other questions.

Make yourself familiar with some of the terms they are going to use. If Uncle Jim was a millwright, know what a millwright’s job consisted of. You don’t have to parade your knowledge (Maybe better that you don’t – if he’s been doing the job for forty years so he might know more about it than you do.) Just show that you have some familiarity with it, so you can base more complex questions on it.

 Prepare in practical ways too. Will you take a tape recorder? Do you have enough tape and enough battery life for a long session? Check your equipment to be sure it is in working order. Will you take notes? Be sure to take more than one pen or pencil. And get permission for recording or note-taking ahead of time.

While you are getting that permission ask if they have any old photographs they might like to show you. If they have some photographs ready when you arrive you will have a ready-made source of questions as you look at them. Other faces will appear in the pictures and you will have questions about these new people. There might be a different house, so you can ask “Where were you living then?” or “When did you move/why did you move/how long did you live in that town?”

Good preparation shows that you are going about your interviewing and research in a professional, business-like way. It gives your interviewees confidence in you and in your ability. It helps establish a level of trust that will pay dividends throughout your visit.

Some easy interview starter questions:

Tell me about your children. John’s the oldest, right?

Did you name your children after your parents?

Were you happy to retire?

Is that a photo of your mother? I’ve heard she was a warm/strict/careful person.

Was it in 1960 you were married? Do you have a picture of the wedding?