Project advice from a veteran researcher

In my current work assignment, I have the opportunity to listen to quite a lot of audio as I edit photographs for an online retailer.  One of the podcast episodes I listened to this week, although not specifically about family history or genealogy research, should be required listening for every genealogist that is working to create a narrative document for future generations.  The show was Stuff You Missed In History Class and the episode (get the mp3) was the second part of an interview with multiple Pulitzer Prize winning history author David McCullough.

The part of the interview that really caught my ear was toward the end.  The podcast hosts asked Mr. McCullough for his top tips in doing a research project with the goal of writing a book about the subject.  As I listened to the interview, I was struck with the thought that these tips should be followed by every genealogist who wants to share the research results with the rest of the family.  I would strongly recommend listening to the show to hear his words, but here’s a summary of his tips.

1. Reference material availability

Choose a research topic that has more information than you think you will need.  When you sit down to write a treatise on any subject, you need a lot of information.  You won’t necessarily know what information you’ll need to present your topic in print, so it helps to select a research topic that has quite a bit more information and references than you think will be necessary.  As you do the research and start writing, you’ll find that you really do need all that information.  In fact, you’ll need even more references than you have already found to really do a proper treatment of your chosen subject.

2. A compelling story

The second tip also relates to selecting your research subject.  Choose a subject that has a real story and not just names and dates.  The key here is to work with reference materials that present a dialogue of events.  Pull out those letters, baby books, journals, newspaper articles, home movies, recordings and anything else that goes beyond mere facts and use them to put together a story of the events you want to include in your narrative.  The story behind the facts is much more interesting and much easier to read and fully comprehend.  Since the story will be read and understand more readily, it will also be remembered more easily and therefore passed down to future generations more readily.

3. Talk about your research

When you’re researching your story, you’re going to archives and libraries and making contact with a number of different record repositories.  Each of those research locations is staffed by people who are knowledgeable about the holdings of the repositories, and the librarians and archivists themselves can be some of the most invaluable resources that you will consult.  Tell the archivist not only the specific details of what you are researching, but also convey the greater project that you are researching and make sure to leave your contact information with a short description of your research project after you leave.  In the interview, Mr. McCullough related stories of archivists who contacted him long after his visit to tell him about new material acquisitions that relate to his research.  This might not happen with all of the sites you visit in your research, but it could happen to any of us.  In the interview, he also suggested just talking to as many people as possible about your research project because you never know what someone might have in a personal collection that would relate to your research.  Talking to everyone about your project might remind someone of something you need to further your research.

4. Start writing now

Don’t wait until you think you’ve finished researching before you start writing your manuscript about the subject, because there will always be more that can be researched.  Start writing when you start researching.  Write down what you already know about your subject.  Build the outline of your “Great American Novel” and use it to start asking questions about your subject.  As you fill in the outline, you will discover some of the questions you need to ask in order to tell your story.  Many of the questions won’t be obvious until you start writing.  As was mentioned in the first tip, you won’t necessarily know what materials you will need and you will always need more references to fill out the story.

5. Work every day

Okay, this tip might be a little more difficult for some of the projects we research, but the thing is, if you don’t continue working on your projects, they will falter and never get to print (or at least never get related to other family members).  You don’t have to be an expert on a subject before you start writing a book about it.  You also don’t have to sit down and write the entire book in one swell foop.  For a genealogical story about immigration patterns in your family, write down the story of one family’s migration from one location to the next.  Do a little bit at a time but keep doing little bits and keep progressing in your research and output.  In doing a little bit at a time, you’ll be amazed at how thick your manuscript becomes after just a year of working on it here and there.  For example, another podcast that I listen to published its 500th episode last year; the podcaster didn’t set out to create 500 episodes, he just kept creating the next episode and suddenly he was at 500.

Working with these top tips makes researching and writing historical treatises sound simple, but then again, they really aren’t that difficult.  These tips can be easily adapted by every genealogist.  I’m doing parts of each of them by publishing this blog.  I plan to do more and keep working at it.  I might not publish something every day, but I will continue working on my projects.  Eventually, I’ll get to my own 500th episode.


Nancy said...

Thank you for sharing these ideas and the link to the podcast. I appreciate it.

Susan Hill Bonko said...

Thank you for such good advice that I will be sure to use when writing about my family and my blogs. Keep up the great work!