Absolutely everyone has a story to tell...

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01 April 2015
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imports_FTRE_the-family-project_23919.jpg The Family Project
Do you love the idea of a good old chinwag with your family this Easter about times gone by, but are wondering just where to star

Do you love the idea of a good old chinwag with your family this Easter about times gone by, but are wondering just where to start? Follow these expert but achievable tips from journalists John-Paul Flintoff and Harriet Green and the memories will soon be flowing...have fun!

For family historians, it's no longer historical documents that present the greatest difficulty in building a narrative – it's talking to relatives.

Thanks to the internet, the documents are relatively easy to find. But relatives are harder to pin down. For one thing, families are scattered all over the place. On top of that, everybody always seems to be busy – making it hard to sit around a table with them and talk about the things they remember.

In fact, even if you overcome those logistical problems, there can be a difficulty with the very idea of talking things over. The sheer monumental scale of asking somebody 'all about your life' can be intimidating. For them, and for us, too. Where to start? What to leave out?!

Happily, there are ways to get around all these problems, and this is the perfect time of year to try it. Many families come together for the Easter weekend, and with a bit of preparation you can fill those bright spring days with creative exercises that will help you to harvest all kinds of useful data and anecdote, whether you are sitting around a table with paper and coloured pens, or just talking while you go for a walk.

As editor of The Guardian's Family section, Harriet has published hundreds of stories that make family life seem variously heart-rending, toe-curling and side-splitting. And John-Paul has worked as a newspaper interviewer and a theatrical improviser, learning how to gently tease those lovely stories out of others. We have both always felt strongly that absolutely everyone has a fascinating story to tell, if only it can be coaxed out of them. And that's why spent the best part of last year devising exercises, for our book The Family Project, to make the coaxing easy and enjoyable for everybody.

Taken as a whole, the exercises give you a framework to break down a person's life experience into manageable chunks – and as much as possible to focus on things that people are likely to WANT to talk about, at least to start.

At the end of this post, we've given a few for you to work with, but before you start – a word of warning. One of the most important things to remember is that facts aren’t enough. The best family stories are skilfully woven through with what the people involved were feeling and thinking at the time – and, more importantly, with what the writer thinks and feels about it too, looking back.

The key here is honesty: it may not be The Absolute Truth, because other people will probably remember things differently – but it’s absolutely true to you. (There’s a reasonable chance that sharing some things will feel awkward because they matter so much, and you may never have put it in words before.)

Another thing about facts: it’s not only the big ones that matter. A great family story includes, among the all the sensational events, insights that give a powerful sense of the everyday fabric of family life – the things that usually slip unrecorded into the past. It’s the contrast between the sensational and the everyday that gives each its power to move.

If you don't have relatives with you at Easter, you can do the exercises yourself – you may find yourself remembering lovely things you've not thought of for years. But it's always best to do it with somebody else, in conversation, taking turns to help each other look back. (Make sure to capture everything, in writing, or by drawing or with audio recordings.)

It’s hard to believe until you try it, but talking to a willing and interested listener can yield much more detail – if you give each other full permission to ask questions (you don’t have to answer them all!). Keep asking each other, “What’s so important about that?”

Very early memories

What were they? What were the smells, sights, sounds?

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Food

Who did you eat with (special occasions and every day)? Where did you eat, and when? What kinds of food?

Places

Make a map of journeys you took in childhood. Write a long answer to the question, Where are you from? Draw your childhood bedroom, in fine detail. Make a catalogue of the art that hung on the walls at home.

Things

What precious items were lost, stolen or went missing? What would surprise your ancestors, or your descendants, about how you lived?

Beliefs

Who did you get your religious or political beliefs from? Whose got left behind?

Big moments

What were the big and small dramas? Who was involved? Feel free to include things that don’t seem globally significant but were very important to you at the time.

People

Challenge yourself to write a list of 50 facts of sincerely held beliefs about each individual family member. Big things, small things – stick it all down.

After doing this, you may have a sense of a story. If you wish, weave it together into one narrative. Or just let it stand as it is, as a collection of beautiful, heartfelt fragments.

Between them, husband and wife team John-Paul Flintoff and Harriet Green have spent many years drawing stories and memories out of their interviewees, and writing about family issues. They've put together their wealth of experience into an inspiring creative workbook, The Family Project, recently published by Guardian Books and Faber & Faber Ltd RRP £12.99.

Find out more at www.flintoff.org/family-project