When adding biographies and family stories to my family cookbook, I always follow the basic principle of KISS (keep it short & simple). To do this, I try to focus on one topic at a time when telling a tale, and avoid everything my subject discusses that is off the topic. This can be hard to do, especially when the subject rambles or hopscotches through years of a life well-lived.
For example, I interviewed a 96-year-old relative a few years ago who was a professional chef (as well as many other things) during his working days. I dreaded the task, because he was notorious for always bringing up — at length — his hobby of interest (civic water works). I was determined to stay in control and go through my list of prepared questions in the one hour I had allowed for the interview. Short & friends, and why.
Whenever he wandered off my topic, I steered the conversation back by saying “how interesting,” then asking another question back on topic. Eventually he became absorbed enough to stay with the subject matter, and I was able to get through my list of short & simple questions and come up with several funny anecdotes that revealed his true personality. It did take longer than one hour, but the extra time was well worth the bio that ended up in the family cookbook.
In retrospect, here are my 5 short & simple tips for writing better biographies to include in your family cookbook:
1. Ask leading questions
Steer away from the short & simple yes or no answers you’ll get from “Did you enjoy the party?” Instead, ask “Why did you enjoy the party?” Be sure to ask the basic facts of when he or she was born and other important dates, such as graduations, marriages, etc.
2. Talk to several people
If time permits, try to talk with several people about your bio subject. If the person is no longer living, interview at least 3 close relatives who interacted with him or her. The short & simple perspective of more than one person will lend credibility and personality.
3. Probe deeper
A person’s philosophy and character can become evident when answering more personal questions such as “How do you wish to be remembered?” The short & simple answer might surprise you.
4. Parallel history
No matter what your subject’s age may be, some historic event in their lifetime will trigger an insightful comment. Where were you when (blank) happened? What do you remember most about it? Try to keep it short & simple.
5. Ask about favorite things
It may sound corny, but most people do have favorite colors, foods, pets, holidays, collections, magazines, television shows, and vacations. Answers to these short & simple questions bring a rounded picture to the individual and allows others to relate and enjoy the opinions expressed.
Remember, your purpose in collecting information for a family biography is to capture the “essence” of the individual and not to write the great American novel. Some short & simple loving paragraphs that portray a person’s life will do nicely. After all, it is a family cookbook that you are making!