30 questions to get started recording family history

Posted April 16

I had a professor in college who once told me that the first step to preparing for any interview was to make a list of 10 questions.

You couldn’t just have them in your head; you had to write them down. And if you turned in an assignment with fewer than 10 questions on it, you failed.

I started writing down my 10 questions then, and I’ve never stopped — but I learned something, in time.

You have to ask the right questions.

You can’t ask a bereaved mother how she feels about her son dying in the war, and you can’t say, “Are you disappointed?” to the politician who just lost the election. A public relations agent once told me of a time when reporters were all over a story about an infectious disease, but they never discovered that the disease was actually already in the state. Why? They didn’t ask the question.

I have always been an inquisitive person, so coming up with questions usually isn’t too hard for me. Just ask my daughter — I lob about 60 questions at her on a daily basis, from “What did you do at recess?” to “Who did you sit next to on the bus?”

In my mind, the basic level of family history research is all about collecting information and conducting interviews with living relatives. If you follow the lead from my professor, rule No. 1 is to start with 10 questions and go from there.

Start writing your own history. Gather your parents’ history. Call up your grandma, if you’re lucky enough that she’s still alive, or your great-grandfather, if you can, and start saving their stories.

Here are 10 questions I wrote to ask myself, my parents and, someday, my grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born.


1. What were your favorite toys growing up?

2. What did you do all day during the summer?

3. Where was the first place you traveled that you felt like you were really somewhere different?

4. How did someone find you that time you wandered off in the department store and got lost?

5. What’s one of your favorite memories from elementary school?

6. How did you figure out what you wanted to do in life?

7. What are five things your kids said today?

8. How did you know you were ready to get married and that you should marry your husband?

9. What would you change about high school?

10. What’s on your bucket list?

My parents

1. What was I like as a child?

2. What’s your last memory of your grandfather/grandmother?

3. Whose idea was it to dress us in matching fluorescent pink shirts at Busch Gardens every year?

4. Were you closer to your father or mother growing up? Why?

5. How did you know you wanted to marry each other?

6. Mom, were you disappointed Dad never became a doctor?

7. Dad, where did you get your sense of humor?

8. How does 35 years change a marriage?

9. What were you like when you were 21?

10. What has been the hardest part of your life, and how did you survive it?

My grandmother Fleeta

1. What was it like to get your master’s degree as a mother, wife and woman in the 1960s?

2. What do you remember about your mother?

3. Who taught you how to cook?

4. Were you there that night in 1995 when I got into that car accident?

5. How did you cope with miscarriages and cancer and death, and still keep your sense of humor?

6. What’s your favorite memory of my father?

7. What do you think of women today?

8. What did you love about my grandfather?

9. What are your top three favorite things in life?

10. What’s the best advice you can give me?

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.


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