Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Writing it up

What is your goal in genealogy? Finding all the relatives you can, tracing a direct line back as far as the trail leads, confirming family legends, or is it something else? [Or all of the above?]

No matter what the ultimate aim, the possibility of writing up your findings has probably occurred to you at some point.

There are books, magazine articles and software packages designed to help with this, of course. There are even online courses. Publishers await your dollars, certain libraries will accept your finished work, and someone in your family would surely be pleased to receive such a gift.

BUT – and this is a big one – if you wait until you are "done," it will never happen. This is a dilemma for the perfectionists among us, who feel we must defer any kind of presentation until we find that final piece of information.

Happily, there is another option. Whether or not you plan to publish at some future date, consider doing this much now: write up a series of brief narratives about particular family events, members' lives, or research knots you have untangled. Put them down just as if you were telling a story. Get it all together in a few pages, scan in a photo or two, and at least some of your research notes and charts will be transformed into an accessible written record. (Christmas is only six months away.)

I tried this a few years ago because I was discovering a number of intriguing facts about my father's family, and felt my children would like to have a written record of them sooner rather than later. Afterwards, I realized there were cousins who might also be interested, so I passed along copies to them.

There were pictures of my paternal grandparents, evidently taken when they were attending a teachers' college in Ohio, along with a copy of their 1876 graduation program (the ceremony, honoring the Centenary of the United States, took place over a three day period!). The many-layered saga of how Grandmother Cain inherited the funds which paid for her education was included.

I added brief accounts of other family members, like the great-uncle named Elmer Ellsworth. He had twin sons, aptly named Elmer and Ellsworth. Elmer himself was likely to have been named for a well-known Civil War casualty, whose existence I discovered quite by accident at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

There was also my great-grandfather, Samuel Parker Howard, whose given names sent me on a fruitless search for family connections. We had no Parkers, and no other Samuels, so where did these names come from? It turns out a circuit-riding minister, famed for his eloquence, was working in the region of rural Kentucky where my ancestor was soon to be born. The preacher's name was Samuel Parker.

If you decide to put together such a narrative, don't wait. And don't get hung up on citations and footnotes! Take pains to qualify unsupported statements, of course, and invite readers to get in touch if they have queries about specific facts. Date the document, and be sure to include your name and address. It also helps to draw up a simple chart showing how the individuals in your narrative are related

Besides creating a gift for family members, you may find that the very act of composing your findings in story form helps you, too. It may show up gaps in your research, or stir your interest in following up another segment of family history. And there is a chance the written work will inspire a recipient to contribute something of his or her own, in the way of documents or memories.


A postscript: it is fascinating to see how other people do research, so if you have not already tuned in to the PBS program "History Detectives," give it a try. Mondays at 9 p.m. on KQED.

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