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Want to get info about family history? Try talking to your family

As wonderful a resource as the Internet is, genealogists can't get very far without interviewing people.

Interviewing quickly becomes second nature to journalists, but a lot of folks are intimidated by the thought of formally questioning someone.

Forget formalities. Just think of an interview as a conversation.

Strong silent types can be difficult to interview, but most folks like to talk about things they're interested in and, fortunately, most people are interested in themselves and in their families.

Ah, that's one of the keys to successful interviews. The interviewer needs to focus on what interests the interviewee. That, and a little curiosity and interest in the subject, are about all we need to conduct a successful interview.

No one taught me how to interview. I was born a natural conversationalist, which helps explain why even as a little shaver I found old folks more interesting than other kids.

When I was young, I used to go down the street with my brother and friends to play at the Halls, in Kennewick's Garden Tracts. It wouldn't take long for me to lose interest in our childhood games and wander into Mrs. Hall's kitchen to interview ... er ... talk to her as she did household duties.

Mrs. Hall plied me with stories about the wonderful farm they established on the Hanford Reach, near White Bluffs, I believe. Farm families there had to abandon their orchards and fields when the federal government took over the land to secretly build nuclear reactors during World War II.

As Mrs. Hall served up stories as delicious as her cookies, I peppered her with questions.

Unfortunately, I hadn't yet learned that interviewers need to come equipped with paper and pencil or pen. That knowledge would come later, when I stumbled and fell into a career in journalism.

But, for lack of notes, most of Mrs. Hall's poignant stories are mired in fading memories. And this is an essential point. If you are going to the trouble of interviewing someone, you need to take good notes and then write up the interview soon after.

But, back to questions.

There is no substitute for curiosity. If people don't have a thimble full of curiosity in them, interviewing just isn't going to be their game. They might as well take up golf or fishing.

Curiosity not only provides the first question, but should also provide myriad follow-up questions. They elicit additional information, clarify and elucidate.

As a teenager, I asked my octogenarian paternal grandfather why he moved to Kennewick. "Because I owned a farm here," he said in those or similar words. Dummy that I was as a teenager, I thought Grandpa (Charlie) Day had answered my question.

He hadn't.

My question should have been followed by a blizzard of questions aimed at getting to the bottom of the matter.

How did he come to own a farm in Kennewick?

I could have asked, "Grandpa, didn't you own a farm in Asotin?"

He would have answered in the affirmative, in which case I should have asked why he didn't just keep that farm.

I suspect — but will never know — that he decided that an irrigated farm would be more profitable than the dryland farm. But there may have been other reasons, as well. About that time he sold a hotel in Moscow, Idaho. Perhaps the Kennewick farm was part of the payment.

We will never know. We will never know because I didn't ask.

Good interviews include a lot of why questions. Three-year-olds are good interviewers. And they're persistent, too, which is another handy trait in interviewers.

Genealogists need to study 3-year-old interviewers. They wrote the book on questioning.