Historical details add depth to personal histories

You’ve decided to create a video biography chronicling your life, or the life of one of your family members. That’s great! You’re sure to capture lots of great personal stories. But as you go about planning your interview, don’t forget to include some questions that put your subject’s personal history in the context of national and/or world history.

We all know how quickly times change. Asking your subject to reminisce about what things were like on the home front during World War II, for example, or during other times of nationwide joy or catastrophe can provide details that evoke a sense of time and place and add depth and texture to the story.

Here’s an example. I recently received a wonderful e-mail from a new Family Legacy Video customer in England. She lives in Eastbourne, on England’s south coast. She has a love for personal and oral history and is a budding video biographer. I thought you’d enjoy some of what she had to say:

“Being right on the south coast, you can imagine how many Battle of Britain stories people have. All the hotels along the seafront were billeted to Canadian and American soldiers. Eastbourne was a major target for German planes during WW II, and was the second most bombed town on the south coast. I’ll finish with a ‘little history’ from the last interview I transcribed:

Anyhow, we heard these aircraft and then one or two came over the woods, so low that you could actually see the Germans in their cock pits, only a matter of a few hundred feet. I suppose they were flying low to escape the RAF, and they’d obviously been on an attack, probably on London, and they came back and they still had their bombs onboard. And having seen them pass so low over the farm, we then ran round the back. We watched them heading off toward the English Channel and then they dropped their bombs-trying to hit the railway just between Stone Cross and Westham. We saw the plumes of earth going up from these bombs. The other thing about aircraft noise was; the house or the farm opposite the Hall was called Montague, and they had some evacuated horses, dray horses from London, grazing on the field there. And the extraordinary thing about these horses that had experienced the Blitz in London was; if they heard the German aircraft they would rush round the field in great panic but an RAF aircraft didn’t stir them, they didn’t react the same way and they were quite content to graze. They obviously associated the German aircraft noises with the noise and threat of bombs.

I love the ‘little’ history about the dray horses, how many people would know that unless the lived on the farm next door?”

What a great picture that story paints – and who would’ve thought horses could tell the difference between German and British airplane engines! These are the kinds of details that really help evoke a sense of time and place and that you should strive to bring out during your next video biography interview.