Family stories: Take note and take notes

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Mike Vance of Houston Arts & Media records an oral history with Charles Cook at College Park in Houston. (Submitted photo)

Mike Vance of Houston Arts & Media records an oral history with Charles Cook at College Park in Houston. (Submitted photo)

by Cynthia Lescalleet
For The Leader

You know the drill. When the extended family gathers, the lore starts to fly.

You’ve likely heard it all before. (Well, most of it anyway.) Maybe you think you know the stories so well you’ll never forget them. Or perhaps you think that you’ll eventually capture the tales for posterity.

Don’t wait. Get the elders talking and get them on the record. Whether written, recorded or on camera, urge family history documentarians and oral history experts.

Living through history
“Your family needs to know these stories,” said Mike Wallace, marketing director for the Brazos Tower at Bayou Manor retirement community. He’s a frequent speaker on asking relatives for not just family tales, but the history they witnessed.

“They’re historians and we’re not asking them the right questions,” he said in a “Recording Life Stories” presentation for a local Rotary Club.

Here are some of the topics he suggested to get the conversation started — or to keep it going once the best-spun family yarns have been told. Ask about:
* Parents and grandparents, favorite relatives (and why they’re favorites) and personal accomplishments.
* A typical day and what happened at school, at and after church and during the holidays.
* Favorite foods
* The advent of various technology and inventions.
* Pets. Encounters with famous people. Trips. Early jobs. Various homes.
* Historic moments.

And, on a lighter note, ask about the funny things that their children did or said while growing up.

Don’t be surprised if the family storyteller is a bit nervous about being on the record, he said. You might first ask them what they wish they had been able to ask one of their own relatives. It gets them thinking of long ago. So do photo albums and other memorabilia.

Wallace’s bottom line advice is “Turn off the cell phone and TV and turn on a recorder to ask 20 Lead. Listen. (And leave it alone.)

Stefani Twyford on the set, producing an oral history. (Submitted photo)

Stefani Twyford on the set, producing an oral history. (Submitted photo)

Award-winning professional video biographer Stefani Twyford, founder and president of Montrose-based Legacy Multimedia (, has encountered many modest interviewees who believe their lives have been “not that interesting.”

That’s not true, she said, especially to their families. “When it’s family, everything is fascinating.”

A member of the Association of Personal Historians who also produces corporate tributes and other archival services, Twyford likes to start a family history interview by asking the speaker about bygone traditions and entertainment.

“It can often get people talking descriptively,” she said.

One challenge for the interviewer (in or outside the family) is to stay out of the story, she said. If your relative embellishes a tale or remembers something differently than you – or their siblings – do, remember that it’s his or her story. “She’s entitled to her version of the truth.”

One reason to record family stories is that once captured, they can’t be embellished beyond recognition, like in a game of “Telephone,” she said.

Still, the underlying goal is to get not only the tale but the voice of the storyteller, meaning his or her vocal presence as well as the information and point of view.

Twyford offered up a few technical tips. For example, if the story is full of vague references, ask the speaker to be more specific by including a date, street address, full name or some element that adds details for those less familiar with the story or the people in it.

Better access to genealogy records has helped increase interest in capturing family stories, she said. While the former gets the facts, the latter gets the recollections and thoughtful reflections.

Twyford’s advice? “The most important thing is to just do it,” she said. “You don’t have to do the entire family history…Find that one story and tell that story.”

Then find another. You might end up with snippets, she said, but snippets and archival materials, such as photos and videos and scrapbook fodder, might be suitable for a more curated professional documentary in the future.

Or hire a professional to produce the personal history. “It’ll have a storyline and inform, educate and entertain,” she said in an e-mail follow-up. Professional pieces will typically have better audio, better lighting and better graphics and editing.

Crossing over into communities
Sometimes, a family story might resonate beyond the family, said local history author and video producer Mike Vance, founder of non-profit Houston Arts and Media (
HAM’s Neighbor to Neighbor oral history project has been creating a story-based database for researching Houston history community by community. Vance’s suggestions for effective info-gleaning apply whether the stories sought are for personal use or more public use.

For a more lively, spontaneous interview, don’t leak the questions beforehand, he said in an e-mail response. “They might tend to mentally edit their responses. ‘Off the cuff’ is almost always more animated and real.”

While written accounts allow editing and updating, people writing them sometimes tire of it and will cut answers shorter than if they are conversing, he said.

A fan – and provider — of recorded accounts, Vance said the medium delivers “a much truer picture of who a person is, something that is invaluable for family members.”

Sometimes, it’s even possible to hear the years melt away in the storyteller’s voice as he or she recollects days gone by, he said.

Vance has found that “most folks are between thrilled and honored” that someone wants to hear their stories. “It can be therapeutic for both parties.”

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