Monday, November 26, 2007

Framing a Family History Interview

One of my current projects is to put together a memoir of my father-in-law Lou's service in the United States Army during the Korean Conflict. After I worked on Kenny's Choice a few weeks ago, I decided that Lou also had a story waiting to be told. Especially since none of his children really knew the details of his time in Korea.

This project is a bit more involved and here is how I've decided to approach it.

  • Written notes and narrative: I asked the subject to write down his experiences, from the time he received a draft notice in 1951 until he was discharged in early 1954.

    I received 11 handwritten pages which I then transcribed into my working document (in Word 2007). I told Lou that it didn't matter if he jumped around - very often our memories are not linear. It is guaranteed that when I write the final story, I will arrange the incidents in an order that makes the memoir very readable and enjoyable for the reader.

  • Research: Once I've received the written notes from the subject, I pick out keywords or topics such as Pusan, 366th Engineering Airborne Battalion, SCARWAF etc. and go to work. Wikipedia and Google are both great resources for this. I then create a second Word 2007 document with notes, hyperlinks and sources.

  • Clarification: After some research is performed, I will email the subject to clarify topics and incidents in the notes. Very often this will bring out new memories and lead to more research topics. In Lou's case, I was even able to find a message forum where others who served in his battalion wanted to communicate with their buddies via email. He was fascinated and delighted by this.

    The clarification process is very important. In this project, Lou stated that he was transported from Oakland, California to Yokahama, Japan on "the Anderson." Well my research had shown that the USS Anderson was decommissioned and scuttled in 1946 which didn't make sense. Further research showed that he was on the USS R.B. Anderson DD-786 Destroyer class. Wikipedia has great records on many of the United States war ships.

  • Interview questions: Next, I set off to construct meaningful questions that can be answered either in written form or recorded audio form. Other genea-bloggers know I look at family history from some odd angles and this of course can lead to challenging questions such as: Did you or your group use any racial slang to describe Koreans or other people? Were there black men in your battalion? (I had done research and knew that since WWII the Armed Forces were working on integration of blacks into the service units) What did you do for recreation? How did you feel about being drafted?

  • Interview: At first Lou balked at being interviewed since he didn't really see the value in such an endeavor. But as we began the process of piecing together his story, he came to understand that an interview framed with challenging questions can really help to flesh out the story.

    Right now, I don't have recording apparatus and I've come up with a somewhat ingenious way of doing the interview. I rely upon web conferencing software that can record audio and visual content into a .wmv file saved locally. It allows the participant to basically hold a phone conversation with you and if they want to follow along on screen they can. Later I can play back the recording to review pertinent points such as medals earned, places visited etc. This arrangement also allows me to sit at home and conduct the interview without having to travel long distances.

I'd be interested to know how other genea-bloggers handle a memoir type family history project from start to finish. Any tips? Any do's or dont's?

Photo: Ed Farren, my great-great grandmother Bridget Farren McGinnes' brother, during the Spanish American War.

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