Personal history prompts, part 1 (leisure)

If your experience is anything like mine, it can be frustratingly hard to get your family members to start sharing personal details about themselves, their parents, or their grandparents. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to talk about themselves, or perhaps they figure you’ve already heard and know the stories and they don’t want to bore you by repeating something you may have last heard decades ago.

I’m starting to think that more often, it’s because I’m not asking the right questions—that I’m not asking questions that are specific enough to trigger old memories. So in this series of posts, I’ll be bringing together some ideas for lines of questioning when interviewing relatives.

In the following examples, I’ll be pretending to ask an older relative about their deceased parent. While I use the pronoun “he” in the following questions, they apply equally well to both parents. I’m figuring there will be several lines of questioning (on leisure, religion, politics, personality, family, religion/spirituality, work, education, childhood, young adulthood, dating and marriage, the military, and so on), with the questions for any one of these lines being covered in one or more sessions of an hour or more each.

If you do go this route, I highly recommend recording the conversation, either with digital audio or as a digital video recording, so that you can pay attention to the conversation and the answers, rather than scrambling to keep up with note taking.

With the following questions, remember that the goal isn’t to get answers to all of the questions; it’s to get information flowing out of the person you’re interviewing.

I’ll start with a line of questions centering on leisure activities:

  • Did he smoke?
    • Did he smoke cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe?
    • Do you remember what brands he smoked?
  • Did he drink (alcoholic drinks)?
    • Did he prefer beer, wine, hard alcohol, or mixed drinks?
    • What was his favorite drink?
  • Did he like to dance?
    • What kinds of dancing did he enjoy?
  • Did he enjoy the movies?
    • Can you remember any movies that he liked?
  • Did he like to watch television?
    • What kinds of programs did he like to watch?
  • Was he an outgoing/social person, or more of a quiet person?
    • Did he have many friends?
    • Did he prefer smaller groups of people or larger groups?
    • Did he like to host people at his house?
  • Did he like to tell jokes?
    • Can you remember any of his jokes?
  • Did he like to play sports?
  • Did he enjoy watching sports?
  • Did he enjoy any particular hobbies?
  • Did he belong to any clubs?
  • Was he a musical man?
    • Did he like to sing?
      • Was he a good singer?
      • What kinds of songs did he like to sing?
    • Did he play any instruments?
  • Did he enjoy listening to music?
    • What were his favorite songs, bands, or musicians?
  • Did he like the outdoors?
    • Did he like to fish?
    • Did he like to hike and camp?
  • Did he like to play board games, puzzles, or cards?
  • Did he work on crossword puzzles?
  • Did he like to read?
    • Did he prefer fiction or non-fiction?
    • Who were his favorite authors?
    • Can you remember anything that was on his bookshelf?
    • Do you still have any of his books?
  • Did he subscribe to any magazines?
    • Do you remember the names of any of his favorite magazines?
  • Did he collect anything?
    • Do you know where those collections are today?
  • Did he like to travel?
    • Where were his favorite places to visit?
    • Did he have any favorite travel stories?
  • Was he a letter writer?
    • Did he send back postcards from his trips?
      • Do you still have those?
  • If he had two hours to himself, how would he spend them to enjoy himself?

What do you think? What questions did I miss? Which ones might be harder to ask than I’m letting on? Would you be opening to being asked these questions?

4 thoughts on “Personal history prompts, part 1 (leisure)

  1. Wow, this is great. I could answer alot of these questions about my Dad and it’s easier than thinking up the questions and answers myself. You are on the right track.

  2. I was wondering if you came across my ancestors in your research of Wadena, Minn. They were August & Augusta Marie/Mary Koehne. They had two children Annie and Paul. August b. 1836 Magdeburg, Germany. August & Augusta came to Wadena in 1880, bought land and he died of drowning in 1899. Thank you

    • Hi René,

      No, I haven’t run into their names yet, but I’ll keep an eye peeled for them now that I know. I suspect that they may have known one or more of my German-speaking ancestors and relatives of the Gores, von Wolf, Evertz, and/or Kaufmann lines, given the presumably small number of German speakers in Wadena in the 1880s and 1890s

      All the best,


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