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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Six Easy Steps to Collect Family Stories to Enrich Your Genealogy

Grandson and Grandfather - collecting family stories to enrich your genealogy

Are you wondering why you think genealogy is so boring? Perhaps you've overlooked the words family story in FAMILY hiSTORY. Why not add more fun to preserving your family legacy by recording the legends and teals for different members of your family tree?

Why is gathering family stories important?

Personally, while climbing my family tree, I learned stories of how to be a good mother and how to turn awkward situations into something better. I've also healed from the generations of alcoholism that my paternal line passed down to me.

In essence, my personal experience supports the research conducted by Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., who produced the study The Power of Family History in Adolescent Identity and Well-Being. She states, "stories about our parents and grandparents provide models of both good and bad times, as well as models of overcoming challenges and sticking together."

The key is, we must not wait until it's too late to capture these stories. I enjoyed the article "We're Losing Generations of Family History Because We Don't Share Our Stories" by Racheal Rifkin in Good Housekeeping.

Let's spend time preserving family stories to improve our present and enrich the future. And let's have fun along the way.

Six Steps to Collecting Family Stories

Follow these simple steps to gather family stories. Always remember to have fun and make the experience enjoyable for those who share memories with you.

1. Begin With Photos

If we took time to photograph a person, place, or thing, it had value. The best way to start gathering family stories begins with documenting the stories behind images in your photo collection.

Write down, or get help to do so, the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a photo. I discussed this process in a lecture that I presented at RootsTech. You can watch the training here.

You'll be amazed at how many memories and how varied the stories you'll learn when you open a photo album with other family members.

2. Talk to Your Family Members

This leads me to my next point. Talk to your family members - those closely related to you and more distant kin.

One of my favorite trips to visit my Grannie Brown involved listening to her tell me about her childhood and marriage. I laughed when she shared how she gave my cousin a plunger after being commissioned into the US Navy. She had me laughing about how she turned name-calling into her nickname.

The trick to get my Grannie talking was to use the photos I mentioned above or a few basic questions. I kept our discussions informal and story-focused.

Don't limit yourself to defining "talk to your relatives" as a face-to-face event. My Great Aunt Margie and I started our visits by exchanging letters. Then, she moved on to creating cassette recordings for me. Had we visited during the past 10 years, we could have used email, text messages, or other communication tools. Talking for us wasn't face-to-face, but it was still a great story-rich conversation.

After meaning new-to-me living relative, each one has shared great details about their ordinary lives that I treasure. No memory or story is too small to be discussed.

The trick is, make a date when you can but always be prepared to capture a story.

Few people enjoy an eager family historian taking over a vacation or family reunion, asking questions about the past. However, if you prepare your relatives in advance for such a chat, they will answer your questions.

However, follow the rule to "Always Be Prepared." Suppose you hear a family story on any occasion. Quickly take down a few notes and then follow up with a relative later.

3. Know What You Want to Learn

When you talk to family members, you can gently steer a conversation in the direction you want. It helps if you know what family stories you might like to gather.

Aside from the stories behind the photos, I like to focus on having relatives:

  1. Retell stories - could you tell me again how Philippine Moulter reacted when she saw her new Canadian home after crossing the ocean?

  2. Explanation of Family Traditions - every family has traditions, whether it is dinner and games on Sunday night to St. Brigid's crosses.

  3. Sharing Family Legends - regardless of whether the legends are factually accurate, have your relatives talk about the family legends. Collect your family stories ranging from links to famous relatives, big catches, how grandma got the scar on her finger, and the night the lights went out in Georgia.

  4. Describe the History Family Heirlooms and Memorabilia - While these items often provide clues to other genealogical records, we should stop and document the reasons for and the ownership of family treasures.

While a plan helps organize your story-gathering efforts, your family might share something unexpected. Don't hesitate to go down that tangent. Occasionally these tangents lead to amazing discoveries.

I have uncovered many wonderful stories as I've worked on my family history. You can too.

4. Record the Stories

You can employ many different techniques to record the stories your relatives share.

If you exchange written messages, then you're set with the recorded stories. Otherwise, you're going to have to use some different strategies.

With their permission, you could audio or video record a relative telling the story. I like this method because you can later use these recordings to create a family history video with multiple voices.

Otherwise, you will need to take notes if the situation allows or write a story from memory as the earliest available opportunity. The great thing about writing from recall is that you can definitely do the next step.

5. Ask Follow-Up Questions

As a trained journalist, one of the most important parts of interviewing sources involved saying, "May I contact you again if I have follow-up questions?"

While listening intently during a story-sharing session, you could ask follow-up questions that occur to you ask you to talk with your relatives. For instance, if your relative talks about a bobsled, you could ask, "Could you describe that for me?" (Was it a Winter Olympics four-person bobsled or something else?)

However, most of my best newspaper articles happened when I asked follow-up questions after the interview. As the stories simmer in my mind, I think of a host of things that I want to know more about. It's much like how I add historical context while writing family histories. If you've watched a Write With Me session on Facebook, you've seen this in action.

Follow-up questions can take a small moment and turn it into a reenactment of the event if you ask questions that clarify the place, the people, the emotions, and the context.

Your final follow-up questions should always be, "Do you have a photo of this story? Do you have any mementos that relate to this family story?" Perhaps your ancestors have artwork, letters, or other resources that can support the stories. Ask for them.

↪️ Do you want to write a family history book?

Grab your copy of this FREE Writing Guide:

laptop and writing notes with title Free Guide: 5 Steps to Quickly Write Family Histories

6. Decide What to Do Next

Amy Johnson Crow has stated, "You can't preserve a family story that you haven't recorded." I completely agree.

You can share and preserve what you've gathered in several formats. Some of which include:

If the final project stops you from gathering family stories, stop stressing! Family history is a team sport. Play your part. Your talent may be the story gatherer. Someone else may be the writer or scrapbooker.

Use your genealogy superpower to capture the stories and ask follow-up questions. Leave the family story source material for another family member to turn into something amazing.

More Family History Articles You Might Like

Keep gathering stories and expanding your family history archive by following these additional tips:

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