Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gathering Information for Writing Your Memories

Gathering information for your family history comes from a variety of resources, including your particular memories as a child, family stories passed through the generations, tangible objects around you such as photos, and artifacts you have inherited or ones you wish to pass to future generations. Information stored in your memory can be stimulated through various sources outside of those in your possession, as well. Those sources may include researching on the internet or in books about your family’s history or the time periods in which they lived.

Memories are stimulated by sharing your stories with others and listening to theirs. For this reason you are encouraged to participate in a writing class on an on-going basis. You will be amazed at what you will recall and how much you can complete for your descendants.

Following are a few techniques that will help you gather more information.

Photos, Artifacts and Memorabilia

Take an inventory of all the items you have inherited and those you wish to pass to the next generation. These would include photos, recipes, ticket stubs, program booklets, documents, certificates, and various artifacts. An artifact in this situation is any tangible object you have acquired from a relative or friend that has sentimental value to you or to some family member as well as those you possess or have purchased that you wish to leave to your descendants.

By plowing through boxes of old photos and memorabilia and as you recall those keepsakes you inherited, you will remember many stories. As you sift through these items, consider these ideas:

..........When and where were the photos taken?
..........Who are the people in the photos, and what are their stories?
..........How did you obtain the memorabilia, and why have you kept it?
..........Who gave you the items you inherited; what is the history behind them and to whom did they belong?


One of the best collecting and organizational tools for writing your memories is making a timeline of your life. This timeline allows you to recall the events of your life and to collect them in an organized manner. It will be your “Table of Contents” and should appear first in your filing system. Consider a timeline your outline while writing. You will add to it as you work and as your memories return to you. Although you may begin writing only a sentence or two, it can become a source of stories on which you can expand. If you do no more than just complete a timeline for your life, you have still left your descendants a wonderful gift.

To begin, write the years from your birth to the present on the left side of your paper. If writing by hand, leave several lines of space or put one year on each page. Be prepared to revise it. If you are using a computer, leave one line of space between each year and add information as you go.

Timeline (or you could title it: Events of My Life)

1947: Jun 6. Birth of Emily……blah, blah, blah….
Sept. Parents moved from an apartment to 1997 South
8th Street, KCK


1949: Apr. 28. Sister Teresa is born


1951: July. Major flooding of the Kaw (Kansas) River in Kansas
City, Kansas.

Information about the years you skip will be added later, wherever possible. As you will have more than one entry for many years, put them in the best date order, even if you have to guess. Note that each event has a separate line. Make certain that you indicate it is a guess by adding some note or symbol, such as: circa, ?, pos. (possibly), or prob. (probably). Try to add a location for each event. Be sure to add all the addresses where you have lived with a short notation of why you moved.

Timeline Ideas
To expand your Timeline and to help you prepare for other stories, try to accomplish the following as you write about various topics.

1. Go through your photo albums or boxes and record their events on your Timeline. (Organize your photos, if you have not done so and be certain all names, dates, and locales are on the back. Use an archival photo pen to prevent damage to the picture—a huge task, so start now, doing a little at a time.)

2. Find those old Christmas Letters you wrote or you received. They are full of clues for your Timeline.

3. Did you or family members keep diaries or Journals? Locate them and record the information.

4. Do you have old letters from family and friends? They are full of great news which can enhance your stories.

5. Were you the one who wrote appointments and events on calendars and are lucky enough to have kept them? OR…perhaps you keep a date book. (HINT: These may be things you will want to do and keep for future memories, as well, and especially if you have children or grandchildren.)

6. Jot down ideas that come to mind when talking with friends and relatives. (I was at a friend’s house, and seeing a photo of her and her sister in a galvanized wash tub on a hot summer day reminded me of three short stories of my life—ones I had not remembered for years!) You never know when the memories pop into your mind so carry a notepad with you and leave one on your night stand or by your computer. Recording the memories that pop into your mind can be called “Flash memories” as they can leave as quickly as they arrive.

7. Go to many of the Web timelines by doing a Google search and seeing what historical events have happened during your life. Add these even if you do not remember them. Some you will remember, and you can write a brief sentence or two on them. If you were too young to remember these historical events, it will still be of great interest to your descendants how your life paralleled the great events in history.

8. Use your holiday gatherings to reminisce with friends and relatives about everyone's youth. You may be surprised what a relative remembers, and most people are thrilled to talk about the past.

9. Write the “flashing memories” from your notepad to your timeline.

Unknown Dates
When you cannot put a date to an event or a memory in your timeline, try these ideas:

1. List the month or season (summer, fall) under the year in your

2. Give an approximate date or age, but be sure to say it is a “good
guess” on your part. Example: about 8-10; teen years

3. Have a page or two for miscellaneous memories—ones that have no dates or have date ranges. Perhaps you could put them in groups such as “Elementary Years,” "High School Years,” “The 70s Decade,” etc. Just give each event some time frame.

Interviewing Tips

If you are fortunate enough to have living ancestors who can be interviewed, now is the time! There are several methods which can be used, but realize that once the ancestor begins sharing his or her memories your interview questions may change.

Interviews can be conducted over the phone, in person, by writing letters, by sending a blank tape (and perhaps a tape recorder), or by video taping the interviewee.

Many people love to be asked about their life’s stories, but they may not offer such stories on their own. Once deep in conversation with someone who genuinely cares, the interviewee may steer the interview in his or her own direction, sharing with you much more than expected.

There are many steps to good interviewing, and you need to be alert to the signals that will provide you with the stories you seek. Whether you are writing a letter, making a phone call or interviewing someone in person, let these tips guide you:

1. Always record the date, place and time of any interview along with the full name and relationship of the interviewer and interviewee.

2. Use a tape recorder since taking notes as someone speaks is difficult. Be sure to ask permission to tape record, however. Another option is to send blank tapes to a person to record their answers to your list of questions. Sometimes you may have to furnish a tape recorder for them, as well. It is very nice to record the voices of your family members for future generations. See future blogs for preserving cassette tapes.

3. If you are interviewing a person directly, make a morning appointment, if possible so everyone is alert. Often after lunch elderly people become quite tired.

4. Let the interviewee know how you will use the material and, if possible, have the person sign a release form giving you permission to record their story.

5. Ask clear questions with the easiest ones first.

6. Do not ask for too much information at any one time. Focus on one topic or area and let your questions come naturally from what you learn.

7. Refocus on the question or topic as needed from time to time, but permit the interviewee to follow the memories he or she recalls rather than constantly returning to your topic.

8. Ask your interview subjects “story-ending questions” as a way to wrap up his or her stories or memories. For example: Where do you go from here? What have you learned from your experience? What message do you want to pass on to the readers or descendants?

9. Take a photo of the interviewee.

10. If you are writing letters, include a self-addressed stamped envelope, and only ask a few questions in any one letter.

Research Tips

1. Always begin your research with yourself, recording the facts of your life.

2. Interview any and all members of your family, even on the same topics, as different perspectives on a situation can add more information about the event.

3. Check the backs of your photos as well as those photos of other family members for clues and information. As you do this, have family members help label the photos with full names, dates, locations, and relationships.

4. Add historical background to your writing by searching the Internet or the public library for information of the time and event.

5. Contact the family genealogist for more stories of the family or become the family genealogist. Your local genealogical society usually has beginning classes, and there are books in the public library to get you started.

6. Use the public library to locate newspapers of your ancestors or relatives. Depending upon the time period and location, you may find a few lines in the newspapers on your ancestors’ visits to relatives or about a family tragedy, marriage announcements, and obituaries.

Web Sources

Google is your friend! The Internet is the window to the world. At your fingertips, you have billions of pages covering every topic imaginable. There are many timelines on different aspects of our culture to give some background to your story’s setting. Google some products of your childhood (candy bars, cereal boxes, laundry soap your mom used, cars owned by you or your family, pets, etc.) or some scene from your past (vacation spots, movie theaters, etc.) and include a photo of it with your story. This is most helpful, if you do not have many photos that apply to your story. You may not have a photo of a family car, but recall many wonderful vacations or troubling repair stories. Using the Internet to find an example of this car will greatly enhance your story. The information for your stories that can be found on the Internet will surprise you.

The Internet has many resources which can help you identify time periods for photos as well, for example:

Hundreds of photos and clippings for fashion from late 1800s to mid 1900s

You can also use the Internet to locate various topics on which to write. However, these topics are usually one liners, and often that does not help you compile ideas on a topic quickly, leaving you using your time trying to think of information for the topic rather than writing.


There are many more books available than those mentioned here and on many more subjects related to researching and writing family stories. For example, there are excellent books on antiques to help you date your precious treasures and inexpensive booklets for birth years that give you prices of items, tell you who won the Oscars, report the news headlines and much more.

Although there are other excellent books on dating photographs the following two show how to use every clue in a photo to gain more information about it. As the author states, sometimes what is not in the photo is just as important as what is.

1. Forensic Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD, 2005, Rice Book Press, Fountain Valley, California, pgs. 220. ISBN: 0-9767160-0-3

2. The Dead Horse Investigation by Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD, 2008, Rice Book Press, Fountain Valley, California, pgs. 239. ISBN: 978-0-976-71605-1

As for writing topics, what you need to know, however, is that most books give you one-line topics with little space to develop that topic. This does not stimulate writing. If you scrapbook or are a genealogist there are many other books available with wonderful ideas on journaling and writing your family history. The following sources are much more thorough.

1. “Memoing” My Memories by Emily Aulicino, 2003, self published. Contact:

2. Celebrating the Family by, Inc, Editors of Publish, 2002 Barnes & Noble Publishing, 256 pages, ISBN: 1586635921

Gathering information for your family stories can be a rewarding experience. You can reconnect with family to get their versions, and you can get your photos and artifacts arranged and properly archived for your descendants. You might even organize a family reunion to reminisce and to collect more stories. You will have many lost memories return just by the interactions of attending a writing class. You will enjoy recalling those wonderful memories and get a better perspective on the unpleasant ones. BUT, best of all…you will have a compilation of cherished family stories to leave as your legacy.

©Aulicino, July 2008

1 comment:

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