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Rebecca’s Reel Hints: The Power of Writing

I am not afraid of much. I can take snakes, spiders, rollercoasters, speaking in front of large audiences, and even doing my own taxes.  But one thing that really gives me the shakes and makes me break out into a sweat is writing!

Why I write

Writing, however, is a crucial part of our research into family history.  Here are three reasons why I encourage researchers to spend time writing:

1)     Write to understand.  Often we sort out the why, when, and who of a particular research problem in our own head.  When we try to write it out, it gets difficult to explain.  This may be because we are missing parts of our research that we didn’t even realize.  Start with writing out the problem, such as “Who are Evaline’s parents?”  Then write what you know, and how this problem is being addressed.  You will find that you either are missing key points in your research, or sometimes that pieces fit together that you hadn’t realized.

2)     Write to analyze.   Often, our research problem is not solved with one document that says, “Uriah Smith was the father of Evaline.”  In most research problems, we have to build a case to show why we believe that Uriah was the father rather than another candidate.  You may end up using three censuses, a tax record, the brother’s death certificate, and a probate record to “prove” your point, for example.  Writing out the points of your case and how they fit together is called a “proof argument” by professional genealogists.  It is easier for you to analyze the points of your argument in writing, rather than trying to piece it together later.

3)     Write to communicate.  You probably found other researchers who believe that your ancestor’s parents were someone other than you have determined them to be. Online family trees could list Evaline’s parents as Josiah, not Uriah, and have either no proof or other documentation to prove it. If you believe your research is sound, it is a great idea to attach an explanation of your findings (with footnoted source citations) to your own online family tree or to give to family.  Not only does it lend credibility to your findings, but it can start some great conversations with other interested researchers.

Writing also helps you communicate with those who are less involved in the research process. Think about your children, siblings, cousins, and friends who may be thrilled to learn about your findings. If you keep the information in your head, or scattered in notes all over your office, how will they ever learn from all the hard work you put in?

Writing tips

There is no one way or style to use when writing your proof argument.  The style will depend on the needs of the research. However, there are formats that you may choose from that are recognizable to the genealogical community.  Check out articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) or other scholarly genealogical journals. They can easily be found at many local libraries or Family History Centers, and will familiarize yourself with how others have presented a problem and shown their work. The book Professional Genealogy, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, has a great chapter on writing proof arguments.  Even if you are not ready for scholarly-style writing, reading the case studies of other genealogists is a great way to learn.

Get over the mental block

As I said earlier, writing is a scary thing for me.  But even scarier is the idea that all the work I have done could be gone if something happened to me.  It is worth so much to me to respect my ancestors by sharing their stories and connecting them correctly to the people they loved.  No matter the way you write, just write!  Write what was found, not how you found it, and let your ancestor be the star.

And nothing is set in stone. Just because you write it one way doesn’t mean you can’t change it.  I find I change the style of writing a little with each project, because each ancestor and research project are so different.  The more you write, the easier it becomes.

Let us know at Reel Tributes how these ideas have helped your work.  What else would you like to hear about?  Send comments or emails, we’d love to hear from you.

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Research Plans


We are list-makers. We have to-do lists, grocery lists, and gift lists at holidays. A genealogical research plan is a specialized type of to-do list just for your family history project. To have a successful research plan, I have found it helpful to follow a few basic guidelines:

1. Make a written plan. You would be surprised how often we start our genealogy research without a plan, let alone a written one. Writing focuses our thinking and forces us to ask questions about the viability of certain research paths. When we review our timelines and background information, we have a better sense of what we need to find to accomplish our goals. Personally, I like to put the background information, timeline, and research plan in one document.

2. Stay focused. As I’ve mentioned before, you should have a specific goal in mind for your research, such as “Who are Emmeline’s parents?” It is easy to get sidetracked. For every goal you have, there may be a series of little jobs needed to accomplish it. If you get to thinking about other research goals for other ancestors, make note of those ideas for another time, and stay on target. Don’t just make a plan for what you want, tell yourself how to find what you’re looking for. If you have to stop your research for a while, you’ll be grateful for the reminder.

3. Don’t over-plan. I remember once when I really wanted to plan for every contingency in an upcoming research problem. I literally wrote down 28 things I could investigate, that would possibly solve my problem. I followed the plan and ordered a vital record that was at the top of my list. Imagine my consternation when I got the vital record back and it changed the focus of everything I had on the rest of my list. The moral of the story is to not plan too far ahead, because the information we find may not be what we expected. Nowadays, I generally make a plan that involves 3 to 5 items, and I don’t go further until I have the results of one or two of them. This takes us to our next point…

4. Be flexible. Remember that theories about what our ancestors did and why are just that: Theories. Not proof. Not evidence. Our research is directed at finding the truth, and that may not necessarily follow our theories. When you get results from your research, take that into account. It may change the rest of your plan. I don’t think I have ever had a single research plan that did not change with time.

5. Plan effectively. If you want to find Emmeline’s parents, the first part of your plan should be the most effective strategy, not necessarily the easiest. Perhaps finding Emmeline’s obituary (and searching a few newspapers line-by-line) is more effective that finding every Emmeline (maiden name unknown) that lived in a certain census year. Effective doesn’t mean easy, nor does it necessarily mean difficult. Effective means you are more likely to get results. By far, the most effective things I find to put at the top of any research plan is to order birth, marriage, and death records, if they are available at the ancestor’s time period and location. What this really involves is finding out what records are available in your ancestor’s location. Try the FamilySearch Wiki for some great ideas from other researchers.

6. Some plans are location-based. Sometimes you know you are going to travel to a major facility, such as the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake, or the National Archives in Washington, DC. While they may not have everything you want to answer your research question (vital records are rarely at the National Archives, for example), you still need to plan to make the best use of your time. Find out information about hours, parking, copies, and restrictions so you do not get frustrated about something that has nothing to do with your actual research. Go online ahead of time to check online catalogs and plan out what you want most, and what can be your “Plan B” while you are waiting for records to be pulled or you don’t find what you wanted.

A sample research plan may look like the one below. Remember to adapt yours as needed. The research plan police are not out to get you. Over time, you may find you create your plans differently than you had in the past. The important thing is to make a plan, and refer to it often as you research.

Research Plan for finding Emmeline’s parents, born about 1869 in Genesee County, New York:

Background information: Emmeline (no known maiden name) was married to Augustus Wingate, probably by 1887, in Genesee County, New York. She died in 1937 in Washington, DC.

What to do and why:
• Order death certificate for Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC 1937. HOW: They should be on LDS microfilm, check the catalog. WHY: Emmeline’s maiden name and parents’ names should be listed on her death certificate.
• Check for obituary of Emmeline Wingate in Washington DC in 1937. HOW: Find the online Historic Washington Post available through many public libraries. WHY: Find out if it mentions any parents or living siblings.
• Order the marriage record of Augustus Wingate in Genesee County in 1887. HOW: New York vital records started in 1881, but not all were recorded. Call the county historian for instructions, the record is too early to be at the State Archives. WHY: Some marriage applications list the parents of the bride, or the witnesses may be relatives.
• Check for censuses in Genesee County in 1880. HOW: Use Ancestry or HeritageQuest online. WHY: Where is Augustus living? Could Emmeline be living in the same county or a nearby county?

In this sample, I already have four ideas. While there are other things I could do, I may consider these to be the most effective. As the results come from my research, I may change or add more information. If, for example I find that Augustus lives in the town of Batavia in Genesee County, I might want to know more about church records available for that area. Read up on research plans in many books at your local library and in online tutorials. One of my personal favorites is an article by Helen F. M. Leary, “Problem Analysis and Research Plans,” Chapter 14 of Professional Genealogy (Elizabeth Shown Mills, Editor. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Fourth Printing, 2005).

Remember, a plan is only the first step. How far will it take you? Try it out and let us know!

Mining for Memories: Looking and Listening for Gold (Guest Post)

Note: This post was featured on the wonderful blog Women’s Memoirs. To read the post in its entirety, including the introduction by Kendra Bonnett, please visit http://womensmemoirs.com/memoir-writing-book-business/memoir-writing-tips-interviewing-and-the-art-of-listening/

I remember Mary, a very elderly woman I once interviewed. She wanted to preserve her life stories but was struggling with how and where to begin.

I asked Mary, “Do you have a family heirloom that is a precious piece of your family’s story?”

It didn’t take her but a moment or two before she said, “Yes, I do. It is one of the most cherished things that I own.”

“Would you share that with me?”

Within a few moments she returned to her chair gingerly carrying a hand carved wooden pipe rack, which housed three pipes. She held the pipe rack in her frail hands, as if the items were sacred.

My curiosity intensified, as she gently caressed the items. “Please tell me about what you are holding.”

“These were my father’s pipes,” Mary began.

As she spoke, her face took on a serene and tender expression. “He died nearly fifty years ago, but I still remember how in the evening hours, after supper was done, that my father would sit next to the fire in his rocking chair and smoke his pipe. Even after all these years, I can still remember the fruity aroma of that pipe tobacco as it smoldered in the bowl of the pipe. I remember sitting on the floor at his feet working on a wooden puzzle or looking at a picture book. My mother was there, too. Nothing could have improved this moment in time.”

Mary continued: “My father and mother were nurturing parents, and I always felt their love.” And then she got quiet, lost in her memories.

“Mary,” I asked, “How did your parents show their love for you?”

“They listened to me. They listened to me talk about my childhood dreams. They gave me their time and attention, and I knew that they cared about what mattered to me.

“One day when I was about six years old I was given a kitten. Not long after getting the kitten, it ran out of the front door of our home and was hit by a car and killed. I cried and cried over the loss of my kitten. My mother took me in her arms and rocked me softly. I still remember how quiet she was. She hardly said a thing, but I knew that she cared about how I was feeling.”

A pipe rack holding three pipes…and the memories arrived. As interviewer, I hardly had to say a thing to Mary because her memories flooded into her mind as she held, smelled, felt and saw the memories in her mind’s eye. Sometimes that is all it takes to find memories more priceless than gold.

Like her parents so many years earlier, I listened.

 

Rebecca’s Reel Hints: Organize Your Project with Timelines and Maps

Why use timelines?

How do you keep your personal calendar of things to do each day? Written into a calendar hung on the wall by the fridge? Carefully noted in a day planner? Typed into your Ipad, phone, or other electronic device? Hundreds of sticky notes stuck to the front door? Some ways are better than others, but the fact of the matter is that you probably keep on schedule better when you are keeping some kind of calendar. It is a very rare person who can keep all their appointments and to-do lists in their head, collated and cross-referenced with all the relationships and demands placed upon their time. So, why do we think we can keep someone else’s life from a hundred years ago– every fact, document, and migration–  sorted in our heads at the same time? If you calendar your own life, it makes sense to “calendar” your ancestor’s life.

Start your timeline simply

There are four options, and we will discuss some pros and cons of each.

1) Paper and pencil.

Pro: If you aren’t comfortable with computers, at least you’re getting it done.

Con: Hard to adjust if you find new information.

2) Word document on your computer. Use a simple document to enter facts into a table you’ve created, or use easy-to-read bullet points. Use the footnoting option to cite and document each fact.

Pros: Easy to adjust, print, duplicate, and share.

Cons: None (in my opinion), unless you hate using the computer.

3) Create a spreadsheet.

Pros: Many people find this format familiar, and easier to refer to.

Cons: Harder to transfer the information when you are ready to write a report or narrative. Don’t forget to include a column for citations.

4) Use your computerized genealogy program to create a timeline for you.

Pros: Quick and easy.

Cons: You may not own a genealogy program. And make sure that your generated timeline cites the source of each fact.

What are the elements of an effective timeline?

Regardless of which way you decide to create your timeline, it must have five basic things: Dates, places, descriptions of the events, people involved, and citations of where the information came from. Keep it simple or make it complicated, it’s up to you. Dates can be the whole day-month-year or a simple year reference. A place should be as complete as possible, including a town (if known), county or parish, and state. Descriptions of the events vary widely from voter records to birth of a third child to an obituary. Having a list of people involved is an often-missed section of timelines; knowing who witnessed the deed or who else was in the household that census day can help with future research. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: the citation. How can your judge between different pieces of events if information is conflicting? Using citations and applying common sense to questions like “Which document was made closer to the time of the event or created by a witness to the event?” A mother’s letter about her baby’s birth is probably more convincing than a granddaughter’s recollection. When I have a big project ahead of me, the timeline becomes my main organizational tool. I can chronologically look for clues and patterns. Do I have two men named John voting in different wards of the city on the same day? I may have two Johns, and have to watch that I keep their records separate.

Try it

Build your timeline now with the background information you collected on your focus family from last month. What do you notice? Are there gaps? Contradictions? Now go back and include major events, such as wars in that country, famines, or anything you think might reasonably have caused changes in your focus family’s lives.

Map Your Timeline

Mapping out your family’s chronology wil be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. There are two types of maps you may find yourself needing. First, large maps of multiple counties or states that show migration patterns. Second, detailed maps of cities/counties or plats of deeded lands, created with descriptions of chains, links, compass points or cadastral survey map subdivisions. Your choice of map depends on how far your ancestor traveled or what you are looking for.

An example of how mapping out the family answered a question. Look at the map at the top of this blog article, complete with some county names. The question was “Where were Jane and William married?” Here are some points from their timeline (simplified, and without citations for this example):
• 1845 – William was born in LaSalle County, Illinois
• 1850 – Jane born in Jo Daviess County, Illinios
___? – Married in an unknown place.
• 1873 – Missouri, daughter Emma born
• 1876 – Iowa, daughter Sophie born
• 1879 – Missouri, daughter Mary born
• 1880 – Census in Nodaway County, Missouri
• 1883 – Gentry County, Missouri, son Willie born

In mapping this family’s migration,  I learned something very important. I learned that Iowa, which had been later in my timeline (where daughter Sophie had been born), turned out to be an much more important place. Using the two lines from Jane and William’s birth places to places they were known to be later, I ended up finding that they had married in Louisa County, Iowa, smack in the middle. I even found the name of Jane’s step-father on the marriage record!

Now it is your turn – What could you find out with timelines and some creative mapping? You’d be surprised. Give it a try and let us know what new information you discover!

Next month: Research Plans

A letter to myself on my (future) 80th birthday

Dear Me,

You have now lived a full eight decades of life.  Congratulations!   As you look back I hope that you will be able to say that it has been a good ride over these last eighty years.  I also hope that your body has continued to serve you well.  I sure hope that you have all your teeth, not too many wrinkles (except for those smile lines!) and that you still like to wear a nice fitting pair of black jeans.You will be the talk of the family if you do!

On your birthday, I’m sure you’re celebrating by remembering your long and amazing life. With the family by your side, you’ll watch the home videos we made, flip through the scrapbooks and photo albums, and talk about your favorite heirlooms from your grandparents that you still have on the mantle. You’re lucky, not only to be in good health but also to have recorded so much of your life history for the rest of the family to enjoy.

But please don’t forget – even though you are now an old lady (in body, but young in spirit), you can still continue with this legacy work.  Don’t forget to talk about your experiences, hopes, dreams, and what life has taught you along the way. Your children and grandchildren need to hear you tell your stories. They might be curious how you cherished the hippy era, living in San Francisco and that funny smelling stuff you smoked back then.  On second thought, maybe you might not want to tell them about that.

But do tell them about growing up. They will want to hear about how you felt when you became a mom for the first time.  They will be curious to know what got you through the tough times in life – through multiple miscarriages, the suicide of a close family member, and the disappointments  of rejection and failure. But most importantly, tell them how you bounced back and always kept your head up high. Life is all about learning from our hardships, and you’ve certainly done that.

Oh, before I forget, have a HAPPY BIRTHDAY and as you blow out the candles on your cake, please make a wish that you will live at least another 20 years. You still have a lot to accomplish and the energy to do it!

Photo credit: Birthday cakes blog