Writing family stories is an enriching way to not only practice your creative writing skills, but preserve those stories for generations. One of the challenges, though, is making sure that you have the necessary information and details to accurately tell the story.
Relying solely on your own experiences or knowledge might work for some stories, but can result in a one-sided view of the events rather than portraying the full dimension of what happened. That means that for most projects, it’s best to go directly to the source.
And that means interviewing the key players in the story.
Most people tend to push back on interviewing. They are afraid that they’ll get the information wrong, they won’t be able to take notes fast enough, or if they use a tape recorder, it will malfunction and they’ll lose the whole thing. Ultimately, the easiest way to conduct an interview with someone is to go in with an action plan. Having done multiple interviews for articles and projects over the years, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve to help you make the process easier so you can not only capture the stories, but achieve the perfect wording and details to bring them to life.
By the way—these tips aren’t just for family interviews. You can use them for any project where you want to get firsthand accounts of a person’s life or experiences.
With that said, let’s get started.
Find your preferred way to take notes.
When I was in high school, I was on the newspaper staff, and each writer received an official reporter’s notepad. At first, I was intimidated by having to conduct interviews while taking notes—I scribbled as quickly as I could, my notes barely legible.
When I got back to my computer, half my writing time was spent trying to piece together what I wrote down to begin with. But the more I practiced, the better I got. Eventually, I was able to recognize and write down essential information and useful quotes without really thinking about it.
Notetaking is not just an interviewing skill. It’s an artform. While you might be tempted to take along a laptop or use your phone to take notes, I highly encourage you to go analog with this one and write by hand. Studies have even shown that the act of writing things down by hand helps you to remember them better and process them more efficiently. This fact will pay off dividends when it comes time to write your story. To make notetaking easier and faster, use abbreviations. Develop your own shorthand. This takes a lot of practice, but it will ultimately allow you to write more information down. Make sure that you type up your notes immediately after the interview so that you can decipher your notes and fill in any gaps. Also, you don’t have to write down everything your subject says. Listen for key phrases, terms, or ideas that are significant to your project and focus in on them. This eliminates the pressure of frantically trying to transcribe things that you may not even need.
Use technology responsibly.
Recording an interview helps—but don’t rely on it as your primary tool. Things can go wrong with technology all the time and the last thing you want is to have something malfunction.
If you do record the interview, the main purpose is preserving the interview so you can refer to it later if necessary.
There is also a great personal benefit to recording your interview, especially if you are speaking with a family member. Someday, long after you have finished the project itself, you will be thankful to have your loved ones on tape telling their own stories. So how do you record your interviews? If you are in person, you can easily use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or its equivalent. It will conveniently retain the interview audio on your phone and transfer it to your computer. Recording phone conversations gets a little more dicey. There are a lot of apps you can download for this…but they don’t usually work.
Your best bet is to put the call on speaker and then use another device, such as the recording app on your computer, to make your recording. The audio quality won’t be perfect, but the information you need and the vocal dynamics of the conversation will nonetheless be preserved.
Don’t be afraid to communicate your needs as an interviewer
There is nothing wrong with asking the person to slow down or stop. If you feel like they’re saying something significant that you know you’ll want to include in your story, it’s okay to say, “Hold on, let me write that down” or “Would you repeat that?”
Remember, you are the author and you are in charge. You’re the one running the interview and you can ask any questions or give any directives you want. The person you are interviewing will gladly follow your lead.
What about you? What questions do you have about interviewing? Drop them in the comments.
Also…if you need help with a writing project, I’d love to chat on Zoom. Click here to schedule a complimentary 30 minute Virtual Meetup to discuss your burning questions, brainstorm, and make an action plan for what you’re working on.