Vintage writing ephemera with text: Writing Biographies for Your Family Cookbook: 5 Simple Strategies

Writing Biographies for Your Family Cookbook: 5 Simple Strategies

How can you capture the essence of someone’s story when you’re writing biographies for your family cookbook? This can be really hard to do, especially when your subject rambles or hopscotches through years of a life well-lived!

Through my experience of interviewing members of our clan for our family cookbook, I’ve developed some simple strategies to keep my interviewee on topic.

KISS your relatives!

When collecting biographies and family stories to add to my family cookbook, I always follow the basic principle of KISS – keep it short and simple. 

The central strategy, as I’ve said, is to keep your subject from veering off the subject. This makes it so much easier when it comes to writing the biographies later because you can focus on one topic at a time when telling your tale.

How to keep your interviewees on track for your cookbook biographies

A few years ago  I interviewed a 96-year-old relative who was a professional chef (as well as many other things) during his working days.

This guy was notorious for always bringing up, at length, his favourite hobby – civic water works! 

I was really dreading this task but I was determined to stay in control and go through my list of prepared questions in the one hour I had set aside for the interview.

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 and simple questions and come up with several funny anecdotes that revealed his true personality.

Doing this interview did take longer than an hour, but the extra time was well worth the biography that I was able to write for our family cookbook.

My 5 strategies for writing family cookbook biographies

Of course, it goes without saying, that you’re going to be sure to ask the basic facts of when your interviewee was born, along with other important dates, such as graduations, marriages, etc.

But beyond that, there are some easy ways that you can collect just the information you need to write great biographies to include in your family cookbook:

1. Ask leading questions

Steer away from the short and simple yes or no answers you’ll get from “Did you enjoy the party?” Instead, ask “Why did you enjoy the party?”  

2. Talk to several people

If you have the time, try to talk with several people about the subject for your biography. If the person is no longer living, interview at least three close relatives who interacted with him or her. The perspectives of more than one person will lend credibility and personality to your family cookbook biographies.

3. Probe deeper

You can get more insight into a person’s philosophy and character when they answer more personal questions such as “How do you wish to be remembered?”  This strategy might give you some surprising replies!

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 this strategy to add rich context to the biographies in your family cookbook.

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. Using this strategy to elicit opinions, can give you a rounded picture of your family member which others will relate to and enjoy.

Remember, your purpose in collecting information for a family biography is to capture the “spirit” of the individual and not to write the great American novel. 

Use these simple strategies to get the information you need to write loving paragraphs that portray a person’s life. After all, it is a family cookbook that you are making!

Happy Cookbooking,

About Erin Miller

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