Join us in April as Writer’s Zen celebrates the world of historical fiction, blogging along with the A to Z Blog Challenge. We’ll be posting our way through the alphabet, a letter at a time – every day except Sunday.
If you like historical fiction, there are links at the end where you can follow Pages of the Past on Facebook or sign up for the weekly newsletter. Each week we feature an article about writing historical fiction, spotlight a historical fiction author, and share great reads in a variety of time periods. There are also occasional short story contests and other fun highlights.
Today, introduces the letter O.
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As authors of historical fiction, often the information we glean during our research phase is from oral histories of people that have first-hand information of people, places, or events of long ago. Following is an excerpt from a class I had on writing your family history that has some tips about interviewing people.
Are you interviewing family members for their stories? Do you think about it, but don’t get around to it? Not sure where to start?
Here’s some tips for interviewing people to glean information and tales of the past.
- Do it now. This is I think one of the most important. Oh, how I wish I could go back in time fifteen or twenty years and listen to more stories from Grandma. I’d listen more intently, not with just half my attention. And I’d take notes. And record her! We think we’ll have time. Next month. Next summer. When I’m not so busy. And then – it’s too late. So do it now.
- Plan multiple visits if possible. You’re not going to get everything in one visit. You’re not going to cover 60-70-80 years of memories in an afternoon. The best time I had with my mom was when I took a week and flew to California. I picked her up and we drove to Arizona to see my kids and grandkids. We spent several days there and drove back. I took notes the whole week. One memory begets another. It seems that once someone takes a trip back in time, other memories start surfacing over the next few days and weeks.
- Don’t do too much at once. Plan for breaks. Several hours is a good period. If you try to go all day, it will be fatiguing – to you and to the person you’re interviewing. The visit with my mom worked well, even though it was over a period of many days because we weren’t constantly ‘interviewing.’ It was conversations in between driving, visiting, eating, relaxing, etc. Most likely the person you’ll be interviewing is older, so be considerate. Realize that this process may be tiring for them.
- Make notes, and record if possible. I didn’t record any conversations with my mom, but I have a legal pad full of notes. Unfortunately, when I go to look at those notes four or five years later, some of my cryptic notes that made so much sense at the time now look like nonsense and I have no idea what I meant by my scribbles. Most people now have phones that can easily – and unobtrusively – record your interviews.
- Ask ahead of time if there are photographs available that you can look at. If this doesn’t come up until you’re with the individual for your interview session, it may not be possible to access photographs. Often, they’re buried deep in a closet or in a storage bin. If they know ahead of time, it will be easier for them to have photographs available, which are a great source of prompts.
- Ask open ended questions. Open ended questions, those that don’t require yes or no answers, gather more responsive answers. Instead of asking ‘Did you like being raised on a farm? (Answer – yes or no – and you’re done), ask ‘What was it like being raised on a farm?”
- If possible, visit at their home. Especially if they’re elderly. They may be more comfortable at home in their own environment. Also, being home may prompt memories that wouldn’t surface if you’re sitting in a loud, busy restaurant for your interview.
- Be Patient. Many elderly people speak slowly and softy. Some are hard of hearing. In our excitement about getting to the gold nuggets we’ve been searching for; we don’t want to rush full speed ahead. We may need to slow down a notch or two to match their energy levels.
The Legacy Project has six terrific questions to ask:
If a young person asked you, “What have you learned in your ____ years in this world,” what would you tell him or her?
Some people say that they have had difficult or stressful experiences, but they have learned important lessons from them. Is that true for you? Can you give an example?
As you look back over your life, do you see any “turning points”; that is, a key event or experience that changed the course of your life or set you on a different track?
What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were twenty?
What can younger people do to avoid having regrets later in life?
What would you say are the major values or principles that you live by?