Interviewing Family: What Should I Ask? Major Life Events

Interviewing Family Lifespan SurveyWhat questions should I ask? Here’s a strategy for coming up with questions based on what you know about the person. Create a rough structure of the person’s life. List what you know about the person. List what you know about the time period. Look at it and then let the questions suggest themselves.

The structure of your interviewee’s life

Symbolpeople stages of life

Image above comes with a hat-tip to my friend Symbolman, who’s animated some stories about life using Symbolpeople. check out Boy Meets Girl.)

The low-tech version uses a piece of paper. High tech version uses a spreadsheet that you can download. 

I’ll use my dad as an example. He’s no longer alive (which is one reason I’ll use some specifics from his life)

  1. Create a document with a few columns across the top: Calendar year, Age (how many years old), and then more columns to note life’s events. A column for where he lived, a column for school and work, a column for major life events, and a column for historical events going on at the time.
  2. Start by noting the year of the person’s birth. Fill other years below (The spreadsheet does this automatically)
  3. Fill in information about locations lived, school, work, relationship and family.
  4. Fill in some information about history. What was happening in the world and the nation at the time?

Here’s a table that lays out some events from my father’s life. This demo uses fewer columns than the downloadable spreadsheet, but it’s enough to give you an idea how to create this life structure and work from it.

Year Age Life Event Historical
1929 birth Market Crash
1934 5 Kindergarten
1945 16 WW2 Ends
1947 18 High School Grad
ROTC Reserve
1952 23 College Grad + Officer Commission Korean War
1952 23 Marriage
1954 25 Firstborn
1955? Work: Pasadena

The high tech version uses a spreadsheet. Download this Excel spreadsheet: lifeform_blank.xls [25k].

Don’t have Microsoft Excel?
This document can be opened in these alternative software applications:

  • iWork Numbers (MacOS)
  • Open Office, Open source cross-platform.
  • Google docs.
    Right now, Google Docs has a “new version”—but this spreadsheet looked weird there. If portions of the headers disappear for you, too, then switch to the Old Version of Google Docs.
    (You’ll need to create a Google account if you don’t have one already. If you have a gmail account, you have a Google account.)

Here’s what the blank spreadsheet document looks like (I uploaded it to Google Docs so I could display it here):


To start working with your spreadsheet, personalize it for person you want to interview.

  1. Replace the John Doe name with the name of the person you want to interview.
  2. Enter the year of the person’s birth in the blue cell (currently labeled 1930).
    The spreadsheet will automatically calculate the years for the person, for about a 98-year lifespan
  3. Enter information into the other columns of the spreadsheet, to begin building a picture of the person’s life.

As you add to this chart, the questions start suggesting themselves.

Question Strategy 1: Generate questions based on the phase of the person’s life.

There are some sample phase of life questions:

  • What was your early childhood like?
  • What are your earliest memories?
  • What were your early impressions of your mother?
  • Your father?
  • Grandparents and extended family? (Questions about forbearers can also include basic fact-finding about them)
  • What is your mother’s name and when and where was she born? (If you’ve been doing any genealogy, you’ve probably covered this base.)
  • Can you talk me through a typical day in your childhood?
  • Tell me about your childhood friends.
  • Tell me about your experience going to elementary school.
  • Did you have a favorite subject?
  • A favorite teacher?
  • Were there any major events in elementary school? Significant achievements? Significant punishments?
  • What extracurricular activities were you involved in?
  • When you were very young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

As you can see, the list of questions can get pretty extensive pretty quickly. Continue generating them through the course of the person’s lifetime.

First job, military service, dating, relationships, marriage, becoming a parent, raising children, work, accomplishments, job changes, and so on.

There are also other major life events:

  • Major illnesses?
  • Deaths of family members or others close to you?
  • Brushes with the Law?

Question Strategy 2: Tie the stage of life with larger historical events.

This strategy will elicit information that’s both personal (What happened to you?) and a personal perspective on the historical events the person witnessed (How did you experience these historical events?).

In my dad’s case, he was born the year of the stock crash. His early childhood was during the first part of the Great Depression.

  • Were you aware that there was a Depression?
  • What were the biggest items that stood out to you?
  • Did your family undergo any financial hardship due to the Depression?

He was a teenager during World War 2.

  • What were your impressions of the war?
  • How were you and your family affected by it?
  • Did you know people who enlisted or were drafted? What was your understanding about their situation?
  • How did your family help in the war effort on the home front?
  • What do you remember about ration books?
  • Are there any particular days in the war that stand out in your mind?
  • What is your memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor?
  • What do you remember about VE day?
  • What do you remember about the news of the use of the atom bomb?
  • What do you remember about news of Japan surrenduring?

More historical events (this list is so not exhaustive!):

  • The McCarthy hearings
  • Sputnik
  • Vietnam
  • JFK assassination
  • Civil Rights movement
  • MLK assassination
  • Bobby Kennedy assassination
  • 1968 and Summer of Love
  • Women’s movement
  • Watergate
  • Nixon’s resignation
  • Oil shortage

There’s a column in the spreadsheet for other events tied regional history: 

  • Major weather events?
  • Natural disasters? (earthquake, fire, flood, blizzard, tornado, hurricane, volcano)

Local News and Industry

Was the place you were located a “company town”? or “institutional town?”
Were you part of a larger industry that dominated your location? What are your memories of events with that institution?

Some examples:

  • A major university
  • A company or industry
  • A major institution (museum, government entity, nonprofit, professional sports.)
  • A military base

What major news about the dominant institution do you remember?

Examples: Strikes, base closings, student unrest or protests, changes in industry, ramping up of work, major layoffs and plant closings, from farmland to urban development, Olympics held in local area, etc.

Strategy 3: Changes in life direction

Look at major life changes and talk about the decisions that went into the change. This is a good way to get a sense of what was happening at the time, as well as the principles and personal values that held major influence in life changes.

Look over the moments of decision and change in the person’s life. Explore what led to changes and shifts in the person’s career, schooling, marriage, divorce, moves, starting a business, leaving a business, etc.

(This is an area where it’s good to remember alternate wordings to the use of Why? as discussed in the previous Interviewing Family post. Remember, you’re aiming for the person to tell you their story. It’s best to avoid any sense of criticism that might seep into your question… You want to know more and make them feel apprecited for sharing the stories of their lives. Don’t make the person feel as though they need to justify their life decisions to you.)

  • What led you to go into that direction?
  • What were the circumstances at the time?
  • What sorts of things were you weighing as you made your decision?
  • Was there anyone in your life that was opposed to this move? How did you deal with the difference in opinion?
  • What were the results of that change?
  • What was paramount in your mind at the time?
  • What consequences surprised you after the fact?
  • Looking back on it now, what might you do differently?

This line of questioning is also a good thing to have on hand as a follow-up to stories and discussion that you hear.

Finally: Share your resources!

This worksheet/spreadsheet of mine is a build-your-own timeline. Do you use any genealogy/life-history applications or websites that provide you with a similar feature to examine the events of a person’s life? If so, please chime in in the comments and share what you’re using.

Next time, I’ll post a collection of good online resources for filling out your spreadsheet with historical events.

Also, if you have any problems with the spreadsheet, please describe them in the comments.


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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 27, 2010 in • Interviewing
2 CommentsPermalink

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Our gen society has been struggling with this subject as we prepare to do oral interviews with the elderly in one of our local retirement communities. 

Can I use your example as something to pass around to our small group, and also write it up in our newsletter, with your byline?  Or could you write up a summary for our newsletter?

My fallback position is to provide a link to your post but that won’t convey the absolute greatness of your post no matter what I say.


Randy Seaver  on 05/29  at  09:20 PM

Glad to know it’s of use, Randy!

I think I’d like to write an intro summary for your newsletter with a link to this page (and the whole series), because this is one in a series on interviewing (and the why not why and other intro stuff is important. Plus, I’ll be adding more here.)

When is your newsletter deadline (please, oh please be after Jamboree)?

Susan A. Kitchens  on 06/03  at  11:17 AM

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