How to 'interview' your ancestor


01 June 2022
Believe it or not, it is possible to 'interview' a person who died long ago. Read on for top tips from Susie Douglas to help you approach your research from a brand new angle.

Framing questions around existing knowledge creates a family history that any reader will relate to and enjoy. Especially when combined with context that is relevant to place and period.

Most ancestors won’t have left diaries, correspondence, or had books written about them. But voices from the past are everywhere, hidden in plain sight, in books, old documents, newspapers, etc. For example, vast numbers of people worked the land as hinds, shepherds and agricultural labourers.  

An agricultural labourer’s answer to a question about his cottage in 1867 at Lanton, Northumberland, might read:

There was only one room and for want of space, we kept the coals at the door. There were no ‘necessaries’ but there was a pigsty and place for a cow.

Use questions to challenge your research and put yourself on the spot. The interview or Q&A with a deceased ancestor is a method and style I will use again and again. It is also helpful for creating a focus and framework for questioning the living.

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Top tips:

  • Limit the number of questions to 5 or 6
  • Limit writing time to 45 minutes to an hour
  • Keep the context accurate to place and period
  • Have fun!

Susie Douglas MLitt. QG, runs Borders Ancestry, offering a qualified, experienced, and professionally accredited historical research service for the UK, specialising in the‚Äč Scottish Borders, Northumberland and Durham.

(originally published November 2021. Reviewed June 2022).