Without question, the best way to start your family research is by speaking to your relatives. You can discover tons of information stretching back generations with just a quick chat. But, as with all your research, there are ways and means of conducting these interviews to get the most out of them.
The key point here is to ask sooner rather than later. Many of us only get interested in family history as we get older, so sadly the opportunity to ask older relatives can have disappeared. Older relatives can push your family research back two or three generations which will give you a firm standing point for your work. But don’t despair if you don’t have anyone older to ask: siblings and cousins may know some details which haven’t yet been passed on to you.
While most of your family may be happy to talk to you about family history, you may find that some people might be a bit more reluctant. Older relatives might not initially want to talk about things such as a child being born before the marriage of the parents. If you can, try to patiently explain why you want to talk about the family and how any information could really help. You could promise to share your findings too, as this could in turn make them curious about the wider family.
Having questions prepared beforehand is a good idea, but you don’t need to stick to them like a script. You might feel nervous talking to a relative you hardly know, or have never met before, during your research. They might feel nervous too. Keep it informal and friendly and at the end ask them if it’s OK to visit them again or call back later for another chat.
Try to keep your questions open, rather than direct and the discussion will flow better. “What was your grandfather’s name?” might get a very short answer. But if you say, “I’m really interested in your grandfather, what do you remember about him?” make your relative feel valued. With dates, it’s a good idea to give a reference point, such as: “Was it before the war that he was born?” And old photographs can be a very useful aid: “Is this your mother at the house in Newcastle?” may bring up the entirely unknown details.
And don’t forget to ask about the life of your relative too. How they lived and what they did will add depth to your research, help you imagine their lives, and will be fascinating for future generations.
During your chat, it might also be worth trying to find out if your relative has any family records and documents they wouldn’t mind sharing with you. If they don’t have them, you might discover who has them, at least. The same is true of photographs, which may have been passed down a different family line.
Unwittingly, not all the information you’re given may be correct – but nevertheless, you now have a great starting point to begin your research. The trick is to always check the accuracy of your information against other sources. Family stories can get embellished, and memories can fade over time, so it’s really important to check the facts as much as possible.
As you gather more information from other relatives, you can add your notes and stories to your Ancestry.co.uk Family Tree, alongside records and photos. Find out how to build your tree here.