Recently, I was wondering through a store when I came upon a variety of books, simply produced and quick printed, with hundreds of life story writing prompts, fiction writing ideas, advice on how to write your journey, and how to write the tough stories you don’t want people close to you to know. The interesting thing about these books is that each of them was a regurgitation of questions, not any content that would advise you on how to write your life story. What they will do, however, is get you thinking.
Sometimes those life story writing books, especially the ones we tend to receive as gifts, like Stories From Grandma, only give you a few lines after the questions to fill in an answer. Don’t let your life story be limited to three lousy blank lines.
To create compelling life stories stories you must begin asking yourself hundreds of questions. They are key to opening up the attic to your memory. Sometimes that takes more time than we expect.
Here are ten steps to developing a custom list of life story questions.
- When deciding to write your life stories, create a list of topics. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Use some scrap paper, so it’s right in front of you. Decide what you want to talk about. Edit the list frequently.
- Will those topics be discussed in a chronological order (i.e. childhood, summer camps, education, work, marriage, etc), by theme, or as a series of random adventures?
- Brainstorm your own list of life story questions. Use the samples you see in those Stories From Grandma books or any set of writing prompts as a springboard to creating your own line of questions. The point is to give yourself time to think about the stories you want to tell and what questions they answer. Try developing a set of 15 to 30 questions, then give yourself a break before editing and adding to them. Sometimes you may need a few days to think about them. Need some ideas – check our our Top Life Story Questions.
- Don’t write questions that require one or two-word answers. Use leading words (i.e. describe, tell, what).
- Do your questions touch on the senses? Can readers feel what you felt?
- Can your questions help you visually put you reader in the location? Use them to open up a sense of place. (Example – Describe how it felt like to set up a tent for the weekend on the hillside at Woodstock, New York in 1969, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people, knowing you borrowed your father’s station wagon and drove 200 miles with three friends without enough food or gear.)
- Remember readers may only be family or friends, but people tend to remember stories slightly differently. What questions are you forgetting that help you fill in the details, according to your memory?
- Edit, revise and reorganize your questions to create an outline of topics. (i.e. Childhood, education, travel, marriage, challenges, victories.) In the editing process, one question may spark an idea that helps you create a whole new series of questions that you previously forgot.
- For each topic area can you create a summary statement from your questions. (Example: Childhood – These questions answer the overall question of what it was like to grow up in a large family in the growing suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s.)
- Are there any themes that weave through your life story questions, such as faith, overcoming tragedy, life lessons, immigration, coming of age, or family traditions. Keep this in mind as you begin writing and editing your work.
A solid set of questions helps give you the storyteller’s mindset needed in the writing and editing process. It provides a system of checks and balances to ensure you are on the path of your outline. It will also help you put yourself in the reader’s place.
Allow yourself the time to comfortably and fully answer each question.