Writing Life Histories

Wouldn’t it be great for people to be able to easily compile biographies of their family members? Wouldn’t it be great if it were easy to publish these interviews and personal histories as actual books so they could be passed on to future generations?


Why is this so important? There are several reasons. Humans have always collected histories of the world and the people in the world. You and your family members are a big part of that. We can’t expect to understand life and be fulfilled in life if we don’t look to those who have come before us.

There is something really neat that comes from this in the form of self-reflection. What is the value of our life? Why do we do the things we do? What makes you the person you are today? This is all very important to explore. Taking a personal history helps you understand all of that.


Interviewing family members helps you become closer to them. You’ll learn and appreciate what makes them tick. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of them and what they’ve gone through. You’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of humanity in general.


There are people who’ve passed away in my life who I wish I could sit down and ask questions of. I would like to understand them better. I would like to learn from their lives. But, they are gone.


There are ways to get some of this history back (we’ll talk about that further on) but this is something that has a lot of urgency. This isn’t something that should wait until it’s ‘the right time.’ Now is the right time to get these personal histories down. Now is the right time to get your own history down.

Providing this as a service is on the other side of this. People often feel busy and rushed these days. Many people feel like they don’t have the time or the talent to get these family histories done before it’s too late. They love the idea but never follow through with it, always regretting that they hadn’t made it a priority.


And of course many people, maybe even most people, either don’t realize what’s possible with today’s technology, or don’t have the writing skills and training that you have.


You can do these people a great service. You can make it easy for them by teaching them how to do it. You can take what you learn here and guide them through the process in an easy to understand way-- in a way that helps them get it done.


Or…


Or, you can do the work for them. You can conduct the interviews and write the personal histories.

There are an incredible number of people out there who need and want this service. I greatly suspect that this number is going to increase. Indeed, family personal history writing is seeing an upswing in popularity, and I’m all for it. Get on the front end of this and you could become very fulfilled in a new business that earns you substantial income.


Types of Personal Histories


I have a feeling that some will be turned off by the idea of writing a ‘personal history’, either about yourself or others. That’s likely because we tend to think of personal histories as weighty tomes, likened to historical biographies we had to read in school.


This isn’t about taking a bunch of facts and writing a dry book using those facts. This is about getting a personal history in whatever way means the most to you. You’ll be interviewing people in your family (or people who hire you to interview them about someone in their family) and turning that into something special. This can include anything from the recorded interview, to a written personal history, to a memoir, to a wonderful multimedia project that will be a treasure for a lifetime and beyond.


My favorite method, however, is to conduct interviews and turn the interviews into physical books via CreateSpace. This is an easy and fun method that preserves your work in a beautifully bound book that can be bought as a single copy or bought in bulk for the whole family. You can include photos and personal histories or just the writing itself.


Don’t overlook this-- there are personal historian companies out there that charge $25,000+ to conduct interviews and bind books for clients. You can do the same, with beautiful results, for what it costs to buy the proof of your CreateSpace book (under $10). I’m sure you can imagine what your profits might be like if you provide this service to others.


Types of personal histories include:


  • Recorded interview

  • Email interview

  • Transcribed interview

  • Written memoir or biography

  • Multimedia


In a personal history, you can capture:


  • A lifetime’s worth of memories

  • An event in time

  • One’s spirituality

  • Travel

  • A quest or journey


What You’ll Need for Your First Interview


The first thing you need to do is pin down an interview subject. You not only need to choose an interview subject, you need to confirm that they are willing to do the interview. People will usually be happy to do it once you explain the process and why it is so important to you both.


I suggest you create a file with that person’s information saved to your hard drive. You’ll want their name, address, phone number, and email address if they have one. Keeping organized files of these things becomes much more important as you start to provide this as a service.


You and your interview subject need to choose a time and a place to conduct the interview. This can be in your home or theirs. It can be in a park or a private area in a restaurant-- whatever you prefer. Just keep in mind that you will be recording the interview so it should be a fairly quiet place with minimal distractions and interruptions. Choose a place where you can both be comfortable and where your interviewee can really open up. Consider having refreshments available to keep everyone happy and upbeat, but try to avoid an excess of alcoholic beverages as it might cause the memory to play tricks.


You won’t need a whole lot to do the actual interview. Bring prepared interview questions along. Bring a notepad so you can quickly scribble notes as the person is talking. This is a huge help when spur of the moment questions arise or you want clarification without interrupting.


There are a variety of options out there for the recording itself. You can get very high quality audio recordings straight from your iPhone or other smartphone. Visit your phone’s app store for a full listing, and be sure to check the reviews to make sure it will fit your needs.


If you don’t have a smartphone, there are very low cost recording devices that you can purchase in your local office supply store or on Amazon or other online stores.


Be sure to test out the recording process first before beginning your first interview, there’s nothing worse than spending an hour or more recording an interview only to find that you pushed the wrong buttons or something silly.


You can also record on your computer, using something like the ‘Audacity’ app. Ensure the microphone you are using can clearly pick up your voice and the voice of the person you are interviewing. Always test your equipment before you go into an interview so you don’t get any surprises later on.


If the person you’re interviewing mentions something that might be a name or place, and you aren’t sure of the spelling, be sure to ask them to repeat the name, or spell it for you. You want to make sure that you get everything recorded correctly, of course.


There is always an option to buy professional recording equipment, of course, but it’s certainly not necessary when you’re first starting out. We have so much available to us for next to nothing with the advent of smartphones and computers.


Transcribing the Interviews


You are going to transcribe the interview questions and answers so you can turn the interview into a physical book. This gives a written record of the interview, which is often more accessible.


Transcription can be a painstaking process. It can also be fun, if you enter into it with the right attitude. You were there during the interview, of course, but there are undoubtedly things you missed or even forgot about between then and now. You can capture every moment and every emotion when you review the oral interview.


You’ll include the questions (which you have typed already) and transcribe the answers. It’s a series of hitting ‘play’ and hitting ‘stop’ until you have it right. We write a lot differently than we speak, so you should eliminate the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of course.


Another option is hiring a transcriptionist. There are many services that will do this for you (and quite quickly), which you can find with a quick Google search. You can also set your own price and terms with a site like Odesk, where service providers will bid in effort to win your job.


After transcribing the interview, or having it done for you, be sure to edit it before continuing.


Turning It into a Written Masterpiece


Some people will be nearly finished with the process of documenting a personal history after the transcription has been completed. However, it can be very valuable to put your nonfiction writing skills into practice. You’ve probably read and enjoyed biographies and autobiographies. You can write a memoir, biography, or autobiography, using the interview and other facts as inspiration.


Putting it on CreateSpace


The final step is publication. Gone are the days when you had to pay a fortune to have your book painstakingly bound. Gone are the days when you had to wait for a publishing house to agree to publish your book. These days, you can just upload your file to CreateSpace and have your book sent to your door for next to nothing.


Go to CreateSpace.com (which is owned by Amazon) and get a feel for what they offer.


Providing This as a Service


Many people start with the itch to document their own family’s history, like me. Others are more attracted to the business end of it. The fact is that the demand for this service is most certainly out there. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to secure clients once you have everything in place.


Unlike other business ventures, you don’t really need to purchase a whole lot to get going. It’s not necessary to have any inventory and you don’t need a physical building where you conduct business. Really, you could get started with as little as a website (and not even that if you just want to rely on word of mouth through local church and community groups, which is very possible).


You’re providing a service where you choose who you work with. You get to pick your own hours, make your own rules, and set your own prices. That’s pretty phenomenal, when you really think about it.


You can turn this into a part or full time business... today, if you’re motivated enough. If you’re unhappy in your current job or are looking for a new way to freelance, this could be just the ticket. It’s not something very many people are offering, yet the demand is there. Open your mind to the possibilities here and don’t allow yourself to get intimidated by any of it. It’s a lot of fun to make your own rules and own a business that makes a huge difference in people’s lives.


So you might be thinking that you don’t have any experience in this service. Of course you don’t if you haven’t done it before, and this is one of the best things about this method, because you can “practice” on family or friends or family of friends, for no charge if you like (you can make a profit on the actual books for people who want to purchase them if you like).


Once you’ve done two or three personal histories, you’ll have the experience that you’re looking for, and hopefully some happy people who will spread the word through their social circle.


Specific Services You Can Offer


You can offer a full menu of services that will net you more clients. Some of these services are rarely offered by others so you’ll become the go-to provider for them. This field is wide open and the demand is there. Consider what you’re drawn to the most as you plan your business.


You can offer to do:


  • In person interviews

  • Phone interviews

  • Email interviews

  • Online services

  • Group interviews

  • Fundraisers

  • Mini memoirs

  • Legacy letters

  • Memorials

  • Weddings

  • Births

  • Businesses

  • Milestones


Teach Others to Create Personal Histories, Biographies, and Memoirs


It’s amazing to offer this service to others. You can make a great business from that alone. But you might want to offer this additional service and perhaps even specialize in it.


There are many people out there who want to learn how to create personal histories of their own. They want to interview their family and publish the book. This group of people might not have the funds to hire someone else to do it or they just love the idea and want to pursue it as a hobby. No matter the reason, you’re in prime position to earn extra money teaching them.


The personal historian field is wide open-- it’s even more the case with this part of the business. There are very few resources out there where people can learn the art of documenting their family’s history.


There is another benefit to this as well. There may come a time where you’re feeling burned out by the detail and dedication you’ve been putting into these personal histories. Teaching others helps you earn money without dedicating yourself quite as much to the service based aspect of your life as a personal historian. You might go back and forth on what you prefer to focus on. That’s the cool thing about being your own boss.


What You Need to Teach Them


You can’t just jump into creating products, writing books, and running workshops for would-be personal historians. You have to figure out what they need and want to know. Think about what you had a hard time with when you first started out. Consider what you can do to smooth the path for those who are learning.


Questions to Ask


It’s important to teach your students how to prepare before they interview their subject. Give them a list of potential questions, but also teach them how to come up with questions on their own. Explain that it’s great to have questions prepared, but they should also be flexible and go with the flow of the interview.


At the same time, they should be ready to steer the interview back on topic if it goes too far off center. Instruct them on how to research before and after the interview to enhance the project. Ancestry.com and Google can reveal more than most people realize, even about those who are long gone from our lives.


Interview Techniques


Learning how to interview is both exciting and nerve wracking. Just as I had you start on a friend or family member, have them do the same. They will learn so much from this exercise-- more than they can ever learn. You can also model great interview techniques to make them feel more comfortable.


Teach your students what equipment they might need. For most, just point them to their smartphone or computer and ensure they have a backup.


Explain how to make their interview subject comfortable and how to get them to open up. A good interviewer can start to feel like a friend and a confidant. Make sure your students know that they will get better and become more confident over time.


Transcription


Teach your students how to transcribe interviews. Note that it’s often just a series of starting and stopping the recording as they type the words. Experiment with your favorite transcription apps and point them to the ones you like best. You can also get a list of transcriptionists ready and refer them to a professional if they don’t want to do it themselves.


Writing Narratives


Teach your students about the power of a narrative. Give popular examples of great memoirs, biographies, and other non-fiction narratives. Narrative writing can be a series of lessons on its own for you to share.


Turning this into Their Own Business


Here is something that can be yet another leg to your business. The business-to-business industry is booming. There are always people who want to know how to work for themselves. You are now experienced as a personal historian and you know just how viable this business is. You’ve built your reputation online and you know all the ins and outs. You’re in a great position to not only teach others how to create personal histories of their own, but how to start a business doing it for other people.


You might decide you don’t want the competition, but you should think beyond that. This is a wide-open field and truthfully, there are a lot of “dreamers” out there. Some who learn from you (despite your best efforts) will go on to the next “shiny object” or business opportunity. And some want to learn how to do it themselves just so they can interview people in their own family without having to pay someone else.


There are some (like you) who will run with it and create thriving businesses. This benefits all of us. It helps it become “the norm” for people to hire personal historians. It helps us all grow and get more clients. All that is to say that you shouldn’t be scared off because of the potential for competition. There is a lot of money to be made in teaching others how to make money. Teach them how to run a solid business and they’ll be very grateful.


Get Started With Person Histories


It’s time to take that first step. Start with someone in your family, get rid of the jitters, and move on from there. Create your website, start advertising, and talk about your new venture. Grow your business and start to teach other people.


None of us can know where we’re going if we don’t look to the past. In these days of fast moving information, it’s easy for people to get lost in the shuffle. The people are what are most important. Our connection with others is what keeps us strong-- it’s why we’re all here.


You’re about to embark on a noble profession. It’s going to make you smile and it’s going to make your clients smile. You’re going to change lives and capture our most unique resource-- our memories.