Valerie Elkins grew up hearing her father say that their only notable ancestors were horse thieves and moonshiners.
She decided to prove him wrong. She interviewed relatives and wrote a letter simply addressed to the Greenwades — relatives on her mother’s side — in Mount Sterling, Ky. The postmaster managed to deliver the letter, and a distant cousin wrote back with some good information.
“For the record, there are no horse thieves” in the family, Elkins said. “But we do have a few moonshiners.”
Every family history odyssey is different, but experts say there are some basic tips and guidelines for those who want to start researching and writing their family histories.
Many people start their research with a paid database like ancestry.com or a free database like familysearch.org. Both offer information about how to begin, or you can choose an online course (Family Tree University offers classes) or a book like Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s “You Can Write Your Family History” or Emily Anne Croom’s “Unpuzzling Your Past.”
Websites allow you to search census records, marriage and death records, even passenger lists for the ships that brought immigrants to America. Some sites specialize in particular immigrant groups like Scandinavians or Eastern Europeans, and fold3.com offers military records. And you can get background information and details of daily life from books and newspapers, either at online archives or at the public library.
But don’t forget to interview the living, said Carmack. Your aunt or grandfather might be a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes.
“That’s what we need to get recorded, because that will be lost,” Carmack said. “Those stories are not in the records. Those stories are not on ancestry.com. Tape-record the interview and transcribe it, or take notes; whatever works for you. But get those family stories recorded.”
When it’s time to start writing, think “short and simple,” said Lynn Palermo, a family historian who blogs at Armchair Genealogist (thearmchairgenealogist.com).
Palermo suggests starting with a single short story before you tackle a larger project. You may want to focus on a single event, a single day or a 10-year span of time. Just be sure to pick a subject that will resonate with you and your family.
Elkins, a genealogist and blogger (www.valerieelkins.com), suggests that beginners start by writing down the top 10 stories they want to pass on to future generations. “These are the stories that mean something to your heart,” she says.
Write the way you talk, Elkins said, and try not to airbrush your ancestors. Sensitive issues might not be suitable for all audiences, but you can always write two versions of a story — one for children and one for teenagers and older. Even if a family member made a bad decision and, say, landed in prison for stealing horses, there’s plenty to be learned about actions and consequences.
Palermo likes the idea of printing your first story and distributing it to family members; you’ll get the satisfaction of completing a project and sharing what you’ve learned. Websites like blurb.com offer attractive options for self-publishing, or you can come up with your own format.
Whatever you do, Palermo said, don’t fall into the trap of waiting to write until you’ve finished all your research.
“That will never happen,” Palermo says, laughing. “The research will never end.”