Passing on family legacy

January 02, 2004|by Chris Copley

Many sites on the World Wide Web offer guidance on passing on family histories. Your Family Legacy, at, suggests using an interview setting. Here are some tips for interviewing:

-- Prepare ahead of time a list of areas to be discussed.

-- Take a tape recorder (be sure everyone is OK recording the conversation), extra tapes and batteries and a note pad.

-- Bring pictures or documents to spark memories and help recall details about other individuals.

-- Ask open-ended questions that go beyond just facts or yes/no answers. Ask about people's traits, habits, qualities, skills, stories. Ask general questions about the time period: "What was life like when you were growing up? When you were first married?"

-- Respect any unwillingness to discuss certain subjects or events. Some family secrets will never be passed on.

Like many authors, Frank McCourt writes about his own life. On the Writers Digest magazine Web site,, McCourt says he triggered old memories when he simply put himself at a table with pen and paper.


"When I sat down to write, the events that I recalled surprised me," he says. "I started writing about them, and they developed retroactively. Anecdotes, conversations, images came back to me that I hadn't thought of for years. This is a good thing for any writer to do. Sit and quiet yourself. Luxuriate in a certain memory, and the details will come."

Kirk Polking, author of "Writing Family Histories and Memoirs," suggests this checklist to help uncover a complete view of a person's past:

-- Focus on the major turning points in a person's life.

-- A person's educational, social and family framework is revealing.

-- Find out accomplishments, regrets, joys and sorrows.

-- Describe a person as a person, separate from their role as a parent, spouse or professional career person.

Donald Davis, professional storyteller from North Carolina, suggests using recollections of places to release or enhance memories. His suggestions and questions to ask, listed at the Web site for Story Arts Online,, include:

-- Describe the house in which you lived when you were a child.

-- Do you remember the room in which you slept as a child?

-- Describe the houses in your neighborhood.

-- Where was your favorite place to visit when you were a child?

-- Where did you go to school? What was in the classrooms?

-- Where did you go to worship?

-- Where did you go to shop for food or clothes?

-- Where did you go for fun and recreation?

-- Where did you go when you wanted to hide?

-- Did your family ever move?

-- Describe the house you lived in when you were first married.

-- What kind of utensils did you have in the kitchen?

- Compiled by Chris Copley

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