google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html Finding Your Family History Voice | The Armchair Genealogist

Finding Your Family History Voice

I remember the day I decided I was going to make family history my mission. Like so many of you, I was excited by this new project. I was eager to get started, to talk to my family and start compiling my family history. 

I was shocked when other family members didn't share in my enthusiasm. There were objections to granting me interviews, my subjects felt they didn't have anything worthy to share. Request for pictures and information were not forthcoming, and some objected to some of the results I had uncovered. The process of updating births, marriages and death dates became a chore. What do you mean my mission wasn't a priority in the lives of my family.

I know I am not alone. Most new family historians are excited when they discover genealogy and begin their search; they eagerly turn to their family for answers. The genealogy world insists upon it. Start with your family, start with the living. However, no one prepares us for the objections we will face. 

When I interviewed John Paul Godges for his family memoir Oh, Beautiful, John eluded that his family was very talkative, and willing share and that made the writing of his book much easier. Oh how I wish we all had that kind of family. We do not.

Many and perhaps yourself included are disappointed when their family doesn't share your enthusiasm and even more particularly when they don't share their knowledge and accessibility to artifacts. When your requests for information are ignored and you find little interest from others, you become frustrated. Perhaps even other fellow family history researchers object to your findings, you may find yourself on a very lonely journey. 

Perhaps you're an introverted genealogist, the thought of interviewing family members scares you. It can be an overwhelming and a completely uncomfortable task for many. 

This is when it's time to take a step back and reconvene. How can you find your family history voice? How can you get others to respond to your requests and gain the respect of your family as the family historian? The one they will immediately think of and share with when they recall their family history memories or the one they'll turn to when they stumble upon and artifact or document or picture. You want to be that person. 

I’ve assembled a few tips to help you find your family history voice.   

1.     Getting The Word Out – A simple email to family members that you are researching the family history and would appreciate any information is the first step. Now, don't expect immediate responses. You are laying the ground work. Let them receive it as information.

2.     Be Patient- it may take some time for you to find your voice and for others to respect and trust your family history mission. Don't bombard them, ease your way into it. I know you’re excited and you want to gather as much information as soon as possible but you must take the time to earn their trust. 

3.     Be Honest About Your Plans – share how you plan to use the information, on a blog, in a book, for your eyes only or to past down to the next generation. It goes a long way to gaining trust and respect from for your family. Help them understand you’re not just being nosy but leaving a legacy and honouring the family name.

4.     Don't Overwhelm - too many requests all at once can shut a family member down. Take baby steps. Ease into it with small questions. One or two questions at a time opposed to a 3-page essay. Becoming the family historian is not meant to be work for them. Make the process as little encroaching on their lives as possible. 

5.     Share Your Findings - to get the conversation flowing share your knowledge before demanding they share their understanding of events. Lead by example. It can often lead to deeper and more insightful information. 

6.     Keep It Informal - Holiday gatherings are perfect time to talk family history. Bring an old picture or artifact to a gathering, pass it around and watch and listen to the information flow. 

7.     Don't Argue - record everyone's point of view, don’t argue over other family members versions of a story or what version of the family tree is correct. Trust that your primary sources will lead you to the truth. 

8.     Treat Every Family Member As Special - be empathetic to their concerns and convey that every piece of information no matter how irrelevant they think it may be is an opportunity to a new discovery.

 Do you struggle with interviewing the living?  

What problems do you face in acquiring information from your family? Do you encounter difficult family members who don't want to share? Intimidated by interviews or never conducted an interview before? Are you asking the right questions in the right manner? Are you asking the difficult questions? 

 Many encounter these difficulties. When it came time to interview my family, I realized I was going to have to turn to the interviewing skills I had acquired through my 20 years as a manager and trainer. 

I want to help new family historians develop those skills as well. Allow me to guide you through the interview process and prepare you to conduct your most rewarding family history interviews. Watch for my free ebook January 2013. 

Be sure to sign up for email updates so you don't miss out! 


Debra Newton-Carter said...

There are few links to the past left in my husband's family, and all our senior members who cared have passed. My generation is now at the top of the living descendants tree, and very few know anything about the history. Our ancestors did not want to talk about the hard times. They kept it hushed.

There is one person, a "half-first cousin," who probably could shed some light on the story. Her grandfather was the oldest half-brother and my father-in-law was the youngest surviving child. I have tried to reach out to her in the past. She did accept my LinkedIn connection request several years ago, but will not respond to emails. This is very frustrating!

Any suggestions? Or just keep moving on?

Ann Hinds said...

Great post because my frustration level is at an all time high. Having discovered the oldest child in my husband's family, I find that she holds the key to the other missing children but she doesn't care. She tells us things like her mother was jailed for manslaughter but not when or where. No amount of prodding can dislodge that information. I have written the family history and am getting ready to self-publish. Hopefully, when she gets her copy, she will become more forthcoming. Still, I am moving forward and have found other family members with stories to be uncovered. What keeps me going is finding little bits of information that tantalize my imagination and make my ancestors real people.

Lynn Palermo said...

Debra, it's always difficult to know what is going on in her life. Keep the door open, if only in the form of a Christmas card each year. When she's ready she'll know she can reach out to you. If you don't keep that door open when she is ready she may feel uncomfortable contacting you having not done so in the past. Keep your door open and be sincere and generous, when she is ready you will be in her thoughts.

Lynn Palermo said...

Ann you're right, getting that book out may just be the nudge she needs to get her knowledge out to you. I'm happy to hear you're not letting it stop you from publishing. Your book can be a catalyst to expanding your story further. Again keep the lines of communication open, everyone is at a different place and hopefully one day she'll understand the value of sharing her stories and theentire family can benefit and grow.

Barbara Gallagher said...

I was pretty disappointed when my family joked and rolled their eyes when I would mention a piece of family history. No one seemed to understand that it was such a deep passionate interest with such personal connection to those that I love. What I have found now, though, is that they all turn to me when they have a family question or have heard some bit of family history that they can share. Yesterday, I had a new grandson born and the parents wanted to know if the name they selected appeared in the family tree before (of course it had).I got to tell a bit of the story to willing ears! Baby steps, baby steps!

Lynn Palermo said...

Exactly Barbara, baby steps. As our family members lives change, birth of a child, death of loved one, marriage, we shift our focus and for some family history becomes front and center. If you're patient your opportunity to receive information will happen. But also as you pointed out you can become a wonderful asset with to the rest of the family.

Tessa said...

Great post and some very good points to keep in mind for dealing with those recalcitrant family members! When I started this obsession a few years back, I wrote up a questionnaire and mailed it out to family members. Then I sat back waiting for the information to come flooding in. Well, I got a grand total of 6 responses (from 60 letters).

It certainly has been a long slog to get information from them. However, if someone has a question or needs a family tree for a school project, they call or email and want the information right away! Now I operate like a toll booth - if you want something, I need to get something in return. It helps but I do wish I could get them to be a bit more "giving."

Thanks for the tips - first Scrivener and now we are going to get interview help. Can't wait - will be a great start to the new year.

Rorey Cathcart said...

My journey to 'my voice' has run the gambit. From demanding to know, to refusing to ask. I've had support from some, disinterest from others and outright objection from others still. Now I think I'm finally coming to where I need to be. I'm writing for me now. I'm telling the stories with no expectation that anyone in the immediate family will ever read my two personal history blogs. And low and behold, though they haven't commented, they are sharing my posts to their FB pages.

As Barbara said: "Baby steps, baby steps!"

Michelle Taggart said...

Really great post and I enjoyed it very much. Oh I can so relate to so many of the things mentioned and it has been a huge frustration to me. I've decided there is a whole multitude of things that come into play ranging from people just not being interested, to some having painful memories they would prefer not to drudge up, to not wanting to take the time and then there is a suspicion about our intentions. As you mentioned, for those not having an interest themselves, they wonder just what we will do with information shared. Like you said, I have found that some will open up over time as we are patient, but a large number of people are very opposed to family information being published or put anywhere on the internet. I just feel like the ancestors are not mine alone and sharing is what it is all about because in every instance, there are lessons we can learn from their experiences.