Guide to interviewing relatives like a true detective

Too many times a good source of information can’t been seen when the person being interviewed keeps saying “I don’t know”.  The problem may not be the person not knowing anything but how they are being questioned.

That’s what I learned during my years as a newspaper reporter. The knowledge I have gained as a newspaper reporter really does help in genealogy.

Here’s how to get around the “I don’t know” scenario.

Example 1: When was he or she was born?

Instead ask:

How close was this to the birth of his brother or sister?

Was the day close to a holiday or family special event (such as someone’s wedding, baptism or funeral)?

Did you go to school that day? What grade were you in?

What was going on in your life? (to get answers like “I just graduated from junior high school.” I got my first job.”

Example 2: What village did you (or your parents) live in the old country?

Instead ask:

Was there anything in the village that attracted a lot of attention (such as monuments, famous churches, historical buildings, etc.)

What were your favorite places in the village? Did you visit a particular store regularly?

Did you have to go far to get to the next town or city? What was the closest city or town?

What do you remember the most about the village? (to get a unique feature of the village)

Was there a train station nearby and where could you go?

Example 3: When did your grandmother die?

Instead ask:

What was the weather like for the funeral? Was that cold or hot for that time of the year? What did you wear to the funeral?

Was the day close to a holiday or family special event (such as someone’s wedding, baptism or funeral)?

Was he or she (the person who died or being interviewed) about to have a birthday?

Did he or she (the person who died or being interviewed) recently have a wedding anniversary or celebrate a child’s birthday?

Example 4: When did you immigrate to this country?

Instead ask:

Did you start school already? What grade did you finish in school?

Was this close to when another relative had left for immigration?

What was the weather like when you got on the ship or plane?

Was there a major political event or war-related event that happened near that time?

Was there a delay in leaving due to weather or a war-related event?

Example 5: What is the name of the church where your parents got married?

Instead ask:

Was the church old or newer?

Was it near any other churches?

What street was it on or near?

What did the church look like? (in case, the person had seen the church before)

Did any other relatives get married there?

These types of questions should get memories flowing and bringing out some great stories. It’s so easy to give up but finding the right source by asking the right questions are truly worth the effort.

Related posts:
Break open the “I don’t know anything” relatives for some genealogy gems
Find my family village. Hold your genealogy horses!
Secrets of searching the Internet in Russian and Ukrainian like a native speaker
Best tips on uncovering U.S. documents on mysterious Soviet Union relatives

5 thoughts on “Guide to interviewing relatives like a true detective

  1. A much needed post all of us could use. I have found the best thing to do in a interview is for me to shut up and let the person talk. They may (and often do) go in a different direction than you wanted but the rewards can be great. Then if you were not clear about something they said ask a open ended follow up question and once more I keep my mouth shut. You may not get all the questions you wanted answered but many times the things you learn instead is pure family history gold.


  2. Pingback: Friday's Family History Finds | Empty Branches on the Family Tree

  3. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — February 2, 2019 | Genealogy à la carte

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