3 Memory Triggers to Enhance Your Family History Interviews

Updated 8 Dec 2020

Stack of black and white photos with title 3 memory trigger exercise for family history

Preparing to interview a family member can be super exciting. However, checking off a list of questions doesn't always capture the fun memories from the past. Instead of consulting a list of family history questions, use the following exercises to have better family history conversations.


Here are three ways to put your interview at ease and discuss stories that will give you a richer, deeper family history and family history interview.


The "Five Event Timeline " Family History Memory Trigger


The activity is repeatable and completed in under five minutes.


Create a memory timeline by having your relative do the following:


  • Draw a horizontal line across a sheet of paper.

  • Draw five vertical lines across the timeline, evenly spaced out.

  • On the far left line, write "Childhood."

  • On the far right, write "Recent."

Once you have a sketch that looks like this, you’re ready for the family history magic.

Family History Memory Timeline for Interviewing Relatives
You should have a sketch that looks like this.

Your family member, who is being interviewed, will now have two minutes to following:

  • Write a quick phrase for the earliest childhood memory on the far left line.

  • Write one or phrase that relates to a recent event in their life. This is an event that happened within the last week or even today.

  • Write three more phrases for three memories that happened anytime between their childhood and this past week.

Now you have a beginning questions for your interview.


Ask your relative to further those five memories. Within those memories, you’ll hear things that prompt additional questions you want to ask. Ask them!


If you enjoy this warm-up exercise, you can repeat it, and this time the family member will choose five different memories.


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Unlock the Past By Drawing a House


Any home can have memories, and many of them are unlocked when we remember our rooms and how the furnishings were arranged.


Have your family member sketch out their home. It could be their childhood home(s), the home when they first married, or their most recent residences. The floor plans can be as detailed or simple as the interviewee once.


Once the sketch is complete, invite your relative to take you on a verbal walking tour of their floor plan. Have them describe:

  • Which room belongs to each family member?

  • How were each room decorated?

  • What appliances were in each room?

  • Was one room colder than the other?

  • Did any room or hallway have special sounds or smells?

  • What was special or unique about the room?

As your relative remembers walking through their homes, you will be surprised at stories they may share.


You can take this exercise further by having your ancestor draw the outside of their home.

  • Draw the yard or farm and any outbuildings.

  • Draw any geographical features like creeks, ditches, mountains, sledding hills

  • Draw their neighborhood with locations of friends, relatives, schools, church, grocery stores, employment locations, and playgrounds.

With the expanded sketches, you can learn about the community in which your relative lived.


Utilize Keepsakes to Take a Trip Down Memory Lane


Utilize Keepsakes to Take ta Trip Down Memory Lane our homes. Ask your relatives to pull out treasured belongings. They can evoke sweet and loving memories, humorous tales, or sad trials. Items and the memories they evoke might include:

  • A Navy Jacket that belonged to a father.

  • A gravy dish that was only used during special holiday dinners.

  • A favorite family book that a mother read to her children.

  • Hospital documentation for cancer treatments.

  • A Texas homecoming mum from their senior year in high school.

Ask your relatives to share what they know and remember about each item. Ask them why they keep the items and if they'll ever part with them.


These keepsakes can tell rich stories that can make your life, cry, and learn from the past. Use them any chance you get.



Unlock Your Family History By Triggering Memories


There is a time and place for lists of "Best Questions to Ask Your Family Members” that flood the internet and genealogy how-to books.  


If you want a richer family history, help your family members capture the stories behind their possessions, and or recall the memories that have no documentation.


Your interview will be so much easier for you and the person you are interviewing.


pile of family photos with title Use These 3 Memory Triggers When Interviewing Your Family Members to Capture Better Family Stories

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