Ask open-ended questions that will stimulate narrative responses rather than yes-no answers. Many oral historians suggest doing interviews chronologically: Tell me about your first memory, about growing up, going to school, getting your first job.
You also can take advantage of the holidays to get your storyteller talking. Ask: How did your family celebrate Christmas (or Hanukkah) when you were growing up? What is your favorite memory? What was your favorite gift? What did everyone do after opening gifts? Who cooked, and what was served?
Ask questions that touch on all the senses: Imagine walking into your childhood home through the front door. Describe what you see, smell, hear and feel. Ask them to describe their neighborhood, including details that illuminate the time period.
Ask subjects about their parents and grandparents: What characteristics and values are you proud to have inherited? Which ones would you like to pass on to your grandchildren?
Barbara Tabach's book "545 Life Story Prompts" ($9.95 at www.lifecatching.com) suggests asking questions such as: Tell me about your first kiss and first dance. How do you think your grandchildren's lives are different from yours? Tell me the five people, dead or alive, whom you would invite to dinner. What age will you be in heaven?
-- Rosemary McClure