• Your cart is empty.
  • Your cart is empty.
how to interview

How to capture a loved one’s personal history: Part 1- Interviewing technique

How to interview is part 1 in a series of posts to help you capture a loved one’s personal history.

Decide Together

First, do you know where to start? Begin with a great set of questions! If you don’t already have them, download the FREE Legacy Tale e-book of writing prompts here. Whatever resource you use, make sure they are open-ended questions that invite reflection and trigger important memories.

You’ll want to plan together with your loved one and decide in advance the scope of the project. Do you want to capture a full life story or is there a certain life period that is the priority?

When working with clients, I always advise them to consider what will be of most worth to their posterity, and start there. Don’t feel overwhelmed trying to start at birth and move forward. Decide what is most important in telling your tale, in leaving a legacy, and begin there. Put first things first. After you complete the most important, you can work down the list to lower priorities.

Always assume your time is limited, because it is. The priorities for capturing a tale will be different in every family, but decide what they are together, and begin there.

An easy way to do this is by giving your interviewee a copy of the questions and letting him or her review them for a day or two and mark ones that seem most important. Then you can discuss those priorities together and come to consensus on where to start.

Meet Regularly

Once you’ve agreed on a set of questions and where to begin, plan to meet regularly to conduct the interviews. I like to meet with clients in their homes because I find they are most comfortable talking and sharing in that setting. Additionally, that setting means there will be family photos, books, and other memory triggers easily available if needed.

Legacy Tale interviewing WWII veteran in his home

I recommend meeting once a week, for about 90 minutes, depending on stamina for everyone involved. I find that much less time cuts off the flow of thought and memory too soon, but consider health and energy levels, and follow your instincts to cut it short if fatigue sets in.


Make sure you record each session with a digital recorder. This is easily done with a free app on your smart phone. There are many available. I use Smart Voice Recorder for Android.

Because you are recording, focus on listening and being engaged in the stories you hear. That will better equip you to understand context and train of thought when you later transcribe, and better positions you to ask clarifying questions and relevant prompts. Plus, it makes your interviewing job much more enjoyable!

You will want to have pen and paper (along with your questions) handy to mark things you want to come back to, or jot down key dates or names. If you do hear a name that’s new to you, ask for the spelling. And if he mentions a milestone, ask if he remembers the year. Even better, ask for complete dates where possible, especially for births, deaths, weddings, and other family history data.

The best interview doesn’t end up being an interview at all. It is a walk down memory lane for your loved one, led by the natural flow of remembrance. Occasionally you will want to offer a prompt or ask a follow-up question, but try to let her just remember and share.

I find the most important questions I ask are not about events or people, but about the meaning those events and relationships have now, with the benefit of hindsight and reflection. That is where the real gems of legacy are found.

It is in the interpretation of one’s own history, in the meaning one recognizes therein, that we find the riches for which posterity is ever grateful.

Stay tuned for our next post about how to transcribe these great stories you’ve recorded from a loved family one.

For hands-on help and focused time to capture your own or another’s priceless stories, join us for the Family Storytelling Retreat. You’ll love this time to renew yourself and your relationships while capturing life stories across multiple generations!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment below. Was this post useful? If so, I’d really appreciate you sharing on social media.

Read Part 2: Transcription and Part 3: Organizing the Manuscript for more tutorials on capturing and writing a loved one’s life story.

Have you grabbed a copy of my free mini e-book of writing prompts focused on family life? If not, you can get it here.

Don’t leave your tale untold…


Join our Community of Storytellers!

We'll send you news, tips and advice every week

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *