Most of you know from watching television that detectives use different approaches to get information from their suspects. Two of TV's famous crime fighters and their techniques come to mind.
The first is Sgt. Joe Friday. The stone-faced lead character of the "Dragnet" series never veered from his approach. "All we want are the facts, ma'am," he would say, not cracking a grin or blinking an eye.
Then there was Columbo. He was a fumbler interested in the quirkiest of things about unsuspecting persons of interest, sidestepping his way to what he really was after. I also think he was a closet genealogist. He was forever talking about his cousins and revealing things about his family - things such as his father having been a tail gunner on a beer truck during Prohibition and his grandfather being 40 years old when he began wearing dentures.
Columbo's approach might work well for you when interviewing reluctant relatives.
If Columbo wanted to quiz sweet Aunt Mary about her family history, I have no doubt he would sit and have tea with her. He would tell her how nicely the peonies were growing, sharing that his wife couldn't get anything to grow and asking for gardening secrets. Or he'd tell her the coconut cake she just served was the best he had since his grandmother died.
Before he left, he would know Mary's deepest, darkest family secrets.
Select Proper Approach
I would never suggest you deceive anyone you are trying to interview. But being head-on direct - asking for "just the facts, ma'am" - often ruins the opportunity for grasping that once-in-a-lifetime chat with an aging relative.
Sitting down knee to knee, pen in hand, asking stiff questions isn't going to bring out the chattiness in anyone. Rather than take an interview approach, why not make it a visit? If Aunt Mary is a gardener, get her out into the yard, brag on roses and help her with the weeding. If she surrounds herself with family heirlooms, get the stories behind them.
When we conduct genealogical research, our best hope is to find direct evidence, original information and primary sources. We hope to find people with firsthand information about our families.
From a genealogical evidence standpoint, Aunt Mary's information about what she saw and did will be most valuable. But don't overlook the value of the "lead information" she can provide you. Aunt Mary may be able to relate approximate dates and places that you otherwise wouldn't know to check out. For example, if she is 85 years old, no one from her previous generation is alive to interview. So ask her about things her parents, aunts and uncles might have told her. These stories will be hearsay because they are secondhand. They also will be priceless because you can't get them anywhere else.
As she shares her memories and stories, you'll not only get an opportunity to record "the facts" about the family, but you'll also get details that make a family history real and meaningful.
Hopefully, you know facts are critical to a good genealogy, but they also are very boring if you present them in a straightforward format. Creativity will turn those facts into interesting stories that your relatives will appreciate.
After you've spent some time and bonded with your relative, it will be worth asking whether you can record audio of your conversations. Today's small digital recorders are powerful and not intrusive. Your relative may even forget it is there after a while.
But never record a conversation without permission. In many states this is a crime. At the very least, it is unethical and a violation of trust.
There will be times when you don't have the luxury of spending entire quiet afternoons with elderly relatives, and situations such as I've described won't be possible.
When you have one shot at talking with someone, you may have to resort to more direct and structured interviews
Sometimes It Takes 2
Then there are the times when a person will not talk with you, no matter what you do. Sometimes you might have to team up with another family member.
For instance, a distant cousin I met through my genealogical research lived "up north." She came to Georgia and tried to talk to relatives in the Appalachian foothills of the state.
This was 30 years ago, before genealogy became known as an acceptable pursuit. They were suspicious of her, suspecting she might be trying to learn about the family to beat them out of something that was theirs. After all, she didn't talk like them. They wouldn't even let her in the house.
I had worked hard for years to lose the twang from my Southern drawl, but it came in quite handy when I approached those same relatives. The doors were opened to me, and I got the information my cousin and I wanted. I felt a bit like Columbo, doing a version of his bumbling act.
The Columbo approach wouldn't work on the busy clerk at the courthouse marriage bureau. She doesn't give a hoot about how Grandpa went looking for your mother with a shotgun when he learned she had run away to marry her boyfriend.
In this case, learn from Sgt. Friday. Just give that clerk the facts: "I want a copy of a specific marriage certificate issued to 'John Smith' and 'Mary Black' on 'July 3, 1945.'"