The shortest path to a story is sometimes the object you hold in your hand. What I’ve found so interesting about going through the memorabilia of my maternal grandmother (she died in Newton, Kansas, in 1980), is that she left stories with almost every item she saved. Her methods were low-tech (most often a hand-written note pinned to a piece of fabric), but they left many snapshots of her life and times.

Click on the image to read the note

Take this little square of black netting, for instance. Alone it is just a worthless scrap of fabric that might as easily go to Goodwill as to the trash. Instead, I learn from my grandmother’s note that she attended Marymount College in Salinas, Kansas, in the 1920s – and that she had to wear this veil to chapel every day, accompanying her uniform of navy wool serge with a stiff white collar and cuffs. But, she notes, they could wear a dress of their choice on Sundays (after church, that is). That’s a lot of information out of so small an artifact, and she wrote many similar notes.

Her descriptions – anecdotes, really – have made me realize two things: one, that I should start writing and recording notes for my own (and my children’s) “keepsakes;” and two, that artifacts are a great entrée to discovering new stories – or eliciting them. As you mine these bits and pieces of a life, not only will you help reluctant subjects get started, but you will often get stories that you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.

So the next time you want to get a story from Mom, grandpa or Aunt Mildred, try collecting a group of items from their desk, bedside table or box of mementos (or ask them to collect items themselves), and hand them over, one item at a time, with your digital recorder at the ready. When you ask, “Tell me about this…..,” I think you will get more than you expected.


A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  –Lao-tzu

After last month’s newsletter, we received a few queries about how to convert audio tapes to a digital format on the computer. One person had reel-to-reel tapes he’d recorded at a concert many years ago. Another had tapes of doing a radio show during college. Whether your tapes are old reel to reels, cassettes or microcassettes, the process is pretty much the same, and if you still have the player, it will probably only cost you the price of a cable. So if you or family members have any old recordings with content you’d like to save – and perhaps edit –read on!

  1. First you need to locate a player for your tape. If you don’t still have a working reel-to-reel player or cassette or microcassette recorder, ask your friends and family. If that turns up nothing, try a local school. Cassette players are pretty easy to come by, perhaps even at your local Salvation Army or Goodwill store. Reel-to-reel and microcassette players will take a bit more digging. But you can find all online, whether a used machine for reel to reel (from eBay) or a new one for cassettes and microcassettes (from Office Depot, Radio Shack, etc…).
  2. Next you will need a double “male” cable to connect your tape player to your computer. One end of the cable goes into the headphone jack on your tape player. The other end goes into the microphone jack on the back or side of your computer. This cable is sometimes called a “male-male mini phone plug,” or a “male to male stereo cable.” The good news is that it’s cheap – between $2 and $4 – and easy to find from a local electronics or big box store. If you order online from Amazon, for instance, you could get a 6-foot-long “3.5mm male to male stereo cable” for $2.11. You can buy a longer one if you need it.
  3. The third element you need is the software to do the digital recording. Since it’s free and relatively easy to use, we recommend Audacity (available for both PCs and Macs). Just google Audacity and download it or click HERE. If you have not used Audacity before, you will probably want to watch a tutorial or two. Try this one, or check out one of the many available on YouTube. The default audio settings on your desktop or laptop might be fine as they are, but if things don’t work as expected, you’ll need to go through a tutorial more closely and make adjustments.
  4. Another helpful item is a pair of headphones, especially if you have an old player with built-in speakers that makes a lot of noise as it’s playing. Our old Wollensak reel-to-reel machine sounded like a tractor as the tape played through and made me wonder if it was worth transferring the tapes to begin with. But when I listened through the headphones, the audio tapes themselves were fine. It also helps to listen to the tapes first and take notes with counter readings of when sections you want begin and end — unless you plan to record a tape from start to finish.
  5. OK, ready to get started? Plug one end of your male/male cable into the headphone jack (output) of your tape player; plug the other end into the microphone jack (input) of your computer. Get your tape cued up roughly where you want it to start. Click the RECORD button on Audacity, then hit the PLAY button on your tape player. If it’s working, you’ll see a wave form show up on your computer screen. If it’s not, recheck connections, make sure volume is turned up enough, and refer to your player manual and/or tutorials.
  6. You should see a meter on your screen that shows recording levels — watch this meter to make sure the level doesn’t exceed zero and go into positive numbers. To reduce the input volume (measured in decibels (dB)), either turn down the RECORD volume in Audacity (a slider near the top of screen), or turn down the volume of the tape player. If the wave form is very low, turn up the RECORD volume in Audacity or turn up the player volume. Ideally, you want the wave form to nearly touch the top and bottom of the frame without “maxing out.” If the level goes beyond zero you will have some distortion.
  7. Make sure you do a test recording (say, 10 to 30 seconds) before recording your entire tape, then stop and rewind and play back what you’ve recorded on your computer. Make sure your speakers are turned on and working. If you have controls on your tape player beyond volume, such as TONE (bass, treble or balanced tone, for instance), try different settings to see which one sounds the best. We found significant improvement in the audio quality when we tried different settings.
  8. If you’re satisfied with the result, restart or finish your recording session, then save to a “.wav” file. In Audacity, for example, under the File menu, select “Export to wav.” As a wav file, you will be able to play it on your computer by double-clicking it, burn it onto a CD, or edit it. You can edit directly in Audacity (still free), or in a video editing program such as Sony’s Vegas Movie Studio (not free). Of course other editing programs are available, but besides being free, Audacity has a large user base, so you’ll stand a good chance of getting your question answered if you google for a solution.
  9. Editing not only lets you cut out what you don’t want, and adjust volumes within the recording, but you can also add a voiceover and/or music. Our favorite site for free music (royalty-free, but not copyright free, so you need to give appropriate credit for what you use) is Kevin MacLeod’sIncompetech site.
  10. And finally, if you’re comfortable with Audacity, you can try the various “effects” to remove or lessen background noise such as hiss and hum, or compression to even out volume levels. A word of caution, though. When it comes to these “tweaks,” a little goes a long way. Be careful you don’t remove all hum just to find that your Dad’s voice no longer sounds like him. When it comes to sound, there is a lot to learn!

And that’s it. Now that we’ve transferred the reel-to-reel tapes from my childhood (see the January newsletter if you missed it), next on my list is the microcassette of my husband interviewing me on the way to the hospital while in labor with our first child. If you’re guessing I was in no mood to be interviewed, you guessed right! The audio quality is poor because we’re in the car and we didn’t use an external mic, but the content is irreplaceable (if not unrepeatable).

If you’ve tried a tape transfer, let us know how it went and what you learned. Good luck!

Because there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in
all human beings, even just a little nurturing of this impulse
can bring about astonishing and delightful results.

—Nancy Mellon, Storytelling and the Art of Imagination

In Part 1 of “How to get great answers” we talked about doing research before asking your questions to draw out the best answers. This month we’ll talk about how you ask your questions. Here are five tips for getting a great interview.

Tip 1: Ask essay questions, not multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank. Better than asking, “Did you like school?” or “Were you a good student?”, ask:

• What was elementary school like for you?
• What stories do you remember from high school?
• What sort of student were you?
• What did you do after school?
• How did you and your family spend your summers?

Tip 2: Like a good investigative reporter, ask follow-up questions if you sense there might be more – more detail, more emotion, more complexity. The trick is to keep the follow-up question in your head while you wait for your subject to finish answering. Don’t jump in too soon or you’ll step on their answer!

Tip 3:
Don’t be afraid of pauses. If you have asked a question and your subject does not respond right away, don’t assume you need to jump in with a reworded question or additional explanation. Sometimes the best answers will come after a long pause. We all need time to think and compose our thoughts. And there’s nothing more dramatic than a pause, followed by a moving answer.

Tip 4: Take your time. If you look at your watch a few times, your subject will notice and perhaps be distracted – or worse, annoyed, or anxious that they’re not going fast enough. And if you look more than that, you may lose them entirely – not only for this time but for anytime in the future. If circumstances demand that you have little time, plan to cover less ground and give them your full attention. And if you need to keep track of the time, position a watch or small clock where you can see it without having to move your gaze too much. (Make sure you can’t hear ticking, though!)

Tip 5:
Like a new school teacher needs to prep more than enough material for one period because he’s not sure how fast or slow the material will play out, make sure you have more than enough questions to fill the time available. We’d scheduled 20 minutes to talk to a town senior about a local flood and hurricane, but all of her recollections were captured in about 10 minutes, so we moved on to other topics. “What was elementary school like when you went to school in the town 75 years ago? How did your courtship start? What was it like being a young parent?” Just make sure you prioritize your questions so you get to the ones you’re most interested in if you do run out of time.

And beyond that, remember, it’s not rocket science. There’s no right or wrong way to conduct an interview. Just be a good listener in a quiet place and let them talk!

If you’d like to go directly to our website, click HERE. Otherwise, please read on…

From friends and family, we’ve often heard the following:

“My mother doesn’t want to be filmed. She is worried about how she will look. And she says she doesn’t have anything interesting to say.”

Then don’t film her, just record her voice. And don’t say you want her to talk about her whole life. Remember, every journey begins with a single step. Sit down with her and say you just want to ask about a few things — for now. You could either use the video camera with the lens cap on, or pointed away from her, or use a recorder. In the past, you’d probably use a cassette or microcassette recorder, but the sound quality is not great, and then what do you do with the tape?

Try a digital voice recorder
If a cassette is what you have access to for now, use it, but a fairly low-cost option is a digital voice recorder. It runs on batteries and is about the size of a cell phone, which makes it pretty low key for camera- or technology-shy subjects. We recommend one that can be plugged into a USB port on your PC or Mac.

We have (and like) the Olympus VN-4100PC, which takes two AAA batteries (included) and comes with the USB connecting cable and transfer software for about $48. The Sony ICD-P520 digital voice recorder (around $55) is a similar product. (Both are only available for PCs, though, not Macs). For the Mac, the lower end of pricing begins around $90, with an Olympus DS-20.

Additionally, consider using an external microphone that plugs into your recorder (clip-on, lapel-type, around $20). For a small investment, it can greatly improve the sound quality. You can find digital recorders and microphones at most electronics outlets, such as Staples, Circuit City, and Amazon.

Because your files are saved digitally, now you can do what you want with them — leave the stories alone and burn them to a CD; edit them and use as the audio track behind a photo slide show for a birthday or anniversary; or just save them in a “Mom” folder until you have more time. The point is, now you’ve preserved that story of Mom telling how it was actually the jelly donuts that got her interested in your father.

You could record one or two stories each time you see her. And soon she may be listing stories she wants to tell you the next time. If you have a video camera and a tripod, bring them just in case, because her aversion to being filmed may have disappeared. If she’s feeling good and looking good, you want to be able to say, “Hey, let me do this one on camera, because it’s such a good story.” And when you get down to it, they are all good stories. And they only get more precious as time goes on.

You will find a few more tips for recording stories yourself on our website [].