google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html The Armchair Genealogist

3 Writing Lessons from a New Genealogy Blogger

Sometimes the best way to learn is by reading the works of other authors. However, there are so many books, blogs and newsletters filling our inboxes; it’s hard to filter through all the noise. Today, I would like to help you sort through that chatter by identifying for you a blog that I believe shines as an example of family history writing. A blog I think, you should subscribe to and read if you are interested in improving your storytelling skills. 

Earlier this year, when I started reading this blog it immediately captivated my attention and drew me in. I needed to know more about this author. I reached out to Michael Lacopo, the writer behind Hoosier Daddy? I asked Michael a few questions and being a natural writer Michael offered up some very insightful reponses. I thought it only approriate to share his words with you. Michael's perspective about storytelling didn’t surprise me and most certainly resonated with my own feelings on family history writing. From his answers, I found many lessons but here are three writing lessons we could all do well in remembering. 

First, a bit about Michael. 

 Michael began actively researching his family history in 1980 at thirteen years of age. He privately published his first book, a surname study on the Nowels family in 1985 after graduating from high school. He went on to Purdue University and became a veterinarian graduating in 1991. He continued his research never abandoning his passion.  Michael indicated to me that genealogy and veterinary medicine are very similar.

If you bring me a sick, skinny, old cat, I need to collect puzzle pieces: blood work, medical history, physical exam, radiographs, etc. I need enough pieces of the puzzle to see a coherent picture. The same goes for genealogical research.

If you apply the Genealogical Proof Standard to veterinary medicine: (1) a reasonably exhaustive search (or exam and diagnostics); (2) complete and accurate source citations (or medical records); (3) analysis and correlation of the collected information (or test results and other clinical findings); (4) resolution of any conflicting evidence (which is common in medicine) and (5) a soundly reasoned, coherently written conclusion (or treatment plan, surgery and/or medication).

It’s really all the same.”

Michael began lecturing in 2004 and he started to do client work at the same time and went to part time status in his day job to accommodate his schedule. In 2013, he turned his full attentions to genealogy after 22 years as a veterinarian.

Michael’s family history blog is a collaboration of research, creative nonfiction narrative and his personal reflections. His narratives come to life through action, description, dialogue and characterization.  One thing that Michael does exceptionally well is create tension and suspense for the reader. You know those books, the ones that when you get to end of one scene or chapter and the writer sets it up so beautifully that you have to turn the page and keep reading. Michael does exactly this at the end of each blog post. He sets us up, begging us to anxiously wait for the next blog post installment to arrive in our inbox.

Now on to a few lessons we can learn from Hoosier Daddy? and Michael Lacopo. 

Lesson #1 - While some experience and practice helps in writing your family history, it is equally important to understand your goal – to inform and entertain the reader. Know your reader and your purpose, so you can adapt and learn accordingly. 

Michael’s thoughts on his experience: 

“No, I do not have any writing experience. At the beginning of 2013, I left a 22-year profession as a small animal veterinarian. Short of writing very detailed medical records that my front office staff HATED transcribing, I have done nothing in the way of “creative writing.” At least there’s been no purposeful attempt to do so. But since I have been doing genealogical research pretty much all my life, I have done a lot of writing in that arena. Also, since I now do client work, I think it is very important to present information in both a scholarly and readable format. I want my clients to understand what I am sending to them, but I want them to understand both the research techniques I used, why I employed them and what they told me. Additionally, I think it is very important to put our ancestors in historical perspective. Like I mentioned in the last blog post, genealogy should be about telling a story! But in client reports, although I try to write a compelling narrative, I do make sure it would hold up to the scrutiny of my peers and all my reports are heavily sourced and footnoted. The fact that I am NOT doing that for my blog filled me with significant angst.”

You can read about Michael’s creative decision to not cite his blog in A Momentary Interlude

Lesson #2 - I love a good plan but sometimes too much planning can interfere with writing. Writing is a creative endeavour and a journey of discovery, let the writing and the stories be your guide. Don’t over think it. The path reveals itself with each step you take. 

Michael does such a wonderful job pulling us through the story, I was certain he must have a plan.  Has be mapped his posts long in advance?  Does he plan to turn his blog in to a book?

Michael’s reply:

“There was no plan for this blog, and there is no plan for this blog. I certainly had/have no plans to write a book, although that has recently been suggested by a number of people. I am not sure if the audience would be there for something so far-reaching. I had in the past considered writing a work of creative non-fiction based on the facts surrounding the murder of a relative in 1920s Chicago, so the allure of doing something of this nature has been simmering inside my head for a while. But as stated before, I think our families are chock full of stories, and they need to be written. In my many, many years of research I have been told stories of my long-dead relatives by people who are now also long-dead. And do you know what? Almost NONE of them are written down. I have been passed snippets of oral history that you will find in EVERY family, and even as a professional, I have put little of it in print. Why? There’s no space in our computerized genealogy programs for “Aunt Kate said her grandfather loved the bottle more than he did work.” It’s just filed in the back of our heads, and it will be gone when we are gone. I started research when I was 13 years old, and I pestered my older relatives with thousands of questions. There are thousands more I want to ask them, and they are gone.

As far as planning posts, I don’t. I follow the narrative into the direction I feel it is taking me. I like to intersperse action with reflection. If I refer to a person in a narrative, I am not content with saying, “she married Frank Strukel.” So who was Frank Strukel? If I reach a point where I am introducing someone new, people need to understand who they are. And so I anticipate moving backward and forward, mixing contemporary research with reflection and narrative.”

Lesson #3 – Place your ancestors in historical perspective. Your ancestors lived in the real world. Make history more personal and more meaningful for your reader by showing its affects in the daily lives of your ancestors.

Michael thoughts on marrying world history with family history: 

And by writing about people in my past, I find personally where I am missing pieces of information, have gaps in my research, or I don’t know the story. Frank Strukel’s war experience is a perfect example. He never spoke of it. So there was no oral history. When I started writing about the man Frank was, I knew from what I was told that the war affected him significantly. When I started putting it into writing, I had no idea why. I guess in my head, I always just thought “war is hell,” and I left it at that. That’s reason enough to be deeply affected, right? And although I read a great deal of historical non-fiction, 20th-century history is not my thing, nor is military history. My working knowledge of World War II is dismally basic. And I think the big picture of war fronts and battle lines and statistics and politics and the Roosevelt/Patton/Eisenhower/Churchill/Stalin/Hitler/Mussolini/etc. angle is exceedingly boring to the average person. That is why high school history classes are so dismally unpopular. But do you think Frank Strukel knew ANYTHING about the political dynamics of Russia and Germany in the 1930s? No. That is not what affects us as people on a daily basis - not now nor then. When you plop your grandfather into the story, it all has more meaning.”

I hope you join me in reading Hoosier Daddy? and following the family history stories of Michael Lacopo.  Be sure to start at the beginning, because it reads like a good novel and you won't want to miss a thing. You can also find Michael at his Facebook page Roots4U where he announces his lectures and events.  Michael specializes in German and German-speaking research, American research, with particular strengths in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states, especially the Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois corridor. Michael has a deep interest in 18th century German immigration to Pennsylvania and beyond, as well as in Swiss Mennonite research in both Europe and America.

A Genealogist's Guide to the NGS 2014 Conference

This came across my desk yesterday from my friends at The In-Depth Genealogist. The National Genealogical Conference is just around the corner, this guide may be a great way to get acquainted with the city before you arrive.

PRESS RELEASE An In-Depth Guide to Richmond Virginia book release announced by The In-Depth Genealogist March 30, 2014; Utica, OH: This Guide to Richmond, Virginia was created in honor of The National Genealogical Society’s 2014 Family History Conference "Virginia: The First Frontier" held May 7-10, 2014.  Within the guide, Shannon Combs-Bennett shares her familiarity with Richmond and the surrounding area to assist genealogists and family in making their trip an enjoyable one.

The book includes: a Packing Checklist, Downtown Richmond City Safety Guide, Public Transportation, Shopping (ATM’s & Banks, Convenience Stores, Restaurants), Richmond Area Genealogy and other Attractions, and Genealogy and other Attractions that are short Day –Trips (within 2 hours drive) of Richmond.

 The book is being offered as a PDF for just $4.99 or get a paperback version that is black & white 8.5” x 11” for $9.99.  Simply go to to get your copy!
For more information, please contact Terri O’Connell.

A Sticky Situation - Removing Photos from Those Evil Albums

If you recall two weeks ago I shared with you the story of a photograph that I discovered and wanted to preserve. After creating a digital copy of it, I then handed it over to Top Hat Photo Repair who did an amazing job restoring it. Go ahead and check out the results I'll wait. Now our attention turns to removing the much damaged old photo from the evil sticky photo album. Why not just leave it there? Because there is something written on the back, and well you know, I’m a family historian and enquiring minds want to know. It may not tell me anything, but what if it does?

I’ve done some research on removing old photos; at this point I’m not as concerned with maintaining the photo since I have a beautiful restored copy but removing it so I can read the writing on the back.

The photo is a picture of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother about 1906-1914. One of the children in the photo I believe is my grandfather. If the writing on the back indicates which child is my grandfather then I can narrow in on the date, and probably identify some of the other children. As well there are a couple of unidentified adults in the photo and perhaps the writing will reveal their identities.

My research on Google came up with several options.

Option 1: Dental Floss (unwaxed) Slide back and forth between sticky page and photo.
Option 2: UN-DU a scrapbook product applied to back of photo.
Option 3: The freezer - leave for a few minutes but not so long to cause condensation on photo.
Option 4: A sharp knife (now with clarification, some recommend this, others do not)
Option 5:  I consulted the curator at the Norfolk Historical Society. Helen suggested a tool that scrap bookers use; it’s thin but dull so it won’t cut through the photo.

Knowing the fragile condition of the photo, I quickly eliminated the UN-DU product and the freezer.  I’m down to the dental floss, scrapbooking tool and the sharp knife.  The dental floss was a fail. It worked nicely on some other photos in the book that were intact and stuck but it wasn’t happening for this photo. It just couldn’t get between the picture and album page. The photo paper is so thin at this point. I need a very thin sharp edge to pry the photo off the page.  The scrapbook tool did not have a sharp enough edge but I could see working well for other photos in a less fragile state.  Its clear there is only one option at this point – a sharp edge not a dull edge is my only option.

Understand I am entering into this knowing full well I may lose the photo, but take comfort in knowing I have a restored copy. I enlisted the help of my husband and I attempted the removal of the photo – the thin sharp blade we chose was the blade from an x acto knife.

 We first cut the page out of the book. 

We very slowly moved the blade, edge down, basically scraping the photo off the page ever so gently.  The use of a light directly on the picture helped. I held the light when I wasn't taking photos. 

We also found it easier to cut the page apart into a smaller piece to manage it better.

There was one particular area of the photo that was very difficult of course that was in the area of the writing. This took a great deal of time –it took us 90 minutes to remove the picture.

It is difficult to make out here but with the help of my magnifying glass and tweezers, I am to able read most of what is written and confirm my grandfather is in this photo.

The Results

I would be lying if I said the photo wasn’t a little worse from the wear and tear but it is still in tack. It can now be stored in a proper archival photo album; I will include a copy of the restored photo alongside it and a label of those identified. So did I get the answers to my questions?

Yes and No?  
I was able to confirm through the photo and in comparison to other photos, my mother’s memory of the photo and through the little bit of writing on the back that the young boy standing in front is my grandfather. I estimate he is about 3 1/2 years old; the baby his mother is holding is his brother.  I can therefore narrow down the date of this picture to 1909.

The writing on the back did not identify all the people in the photo which was a disappointment. Overall, it was an interesting experiment; I hope it helps other family historians who may come across a similar sticky situation. 

Read Part 1 - A 100 Year Old Photo Restored for 100 More! 

Closing the Gap on 400 Years

 As we drove across the bridge, the wind gusted off the St. Lawrence and the impending
rain clouds hung over the quiet oblong-shaped island. Making our way down the single road that encompassed the isle on this dark and rainy fall evening, it had become apparent; time had stood still on this tiny parcel of land of 76 square miles. The flat agricultural landscape known as the birthplace of New France housed a mere 7000 residents in six charming villages.  Our arrival on the L'île d'Orléans, just outside Quebec City marked the second day in our family history vacation. Hoping this trip would provide me, my sister and our parents with a connection to our French Canadian history, it became clear and quickly, we wouldn’t be disappointed.  

The next morning, we leisurely sat at the breakfast table of our B and B, the clouds were still hovering and threatening, but they did not distract from the spectacular view of the St. Lawrence, only steps from our table. We meandered over our scrambled eggs, fresh from the chickens in the backyard, vegetables grown locally on the island and cranberry juice hand pressed by our lovely hostess, LouLou. We had all the fuel needed for a day of exploring our ancestral village of St. Francois on L’île d'Orléans. Discovering a copy of Dictionnaire National de Canadiens Francois by the Drouin Institut on the bookshelf of our living quarters convinced me, I was immersed in a culture that knew and embraced its past. I opened the book flipping to the pages noting my ancestor's name. LouLou was educated onthe  history of the island; her family had been here almost as long as mine, one of the reasons I often proclaim the benefits of bed and breakfasts in family history travels.

Despite the grey clouds and with a flick of button, our umbrellas popped and we strolled to the yellow brick house a few doors down. The building with its sparking metal roof and brilliant red  flowerpots hanging in a neat row across the front porch gleamed like a jewel against the backdrop of the rich green lawn that stretched to meet the waters of the mighty St. Lawrence.  The Maison de nos Aïeux houses the history of the first 300 French colonists who settled on the island during the French Regime.  My 8th great-grandfather, Robert Vaillancourt (1644-1699) one of those colonists arrived over 400 years ago, but this morning, we too had arrived.  Opening the doors of
the historical society, I was excited to step inside and see just what I would find.

Local historical societies have become the heart of my family history studies. They have been a worthy extension of my online research and necessary in my writings.  Although, I spend much time on my computer with you here, in research and writing my family history stories, I try to travel and explore the paths and villages of my ancestors, as I did this past fall. My travels to ancestral towns as well to the neighborhood societies that house the stories of these towns have provided me with a rich social and local history I could not have imagined from the documents I have attained online.

Where do you find local histories?

Local histories are best found in small museums and genealogical societies, in the communities of your ancestors. Usually they have a website allowing you to contact them or arrange for a visit. They provide knowledge of the community that you cannot replace with online research. Not only do they house the history of the area, the staff and volunteers in these societies, have an intense understanding of the region that no Internet search engine can possibly duplicate.

You could declare I was fortunate to find such wonderful rich history of my ancestor. However, the reality is most of the facts about his life I had already obtained online.  What I found was a social and cultural history that gave me a deeper, richer perspective of his life, his struggles, his triumphs, and his everyday living. What I found in L'île d'Orléans was the soul of his life.

The local historical society provided me with details of my ancestor’s arrival and activities in the area. I was able to purchase a book that had a chapter devoted to my great-grandfather. I toured the museum and got an up-close education on the history of the island alongside the regional and world events that shaped the community and directly affected the lives of my ancestors. We then set off to explore the island first-hand, I saw monuments with my family name on it and businesses baring the surname today, we ate the cuisine and for a few short days we inhaled the history and community of Robert Vaillancourt. It left us changed.

 I have visited many societies across Ontario over the years.  If I could offer you some words of advice:

  • Cast your net wide, take in everything the society has to offer, including the social and cultural history as well as the data particular to your ancestors.
  • Give yourself plenty of time, don’t rush, scampering on to your next appointment. Take some time to get to know the town and the people who inhabit it. Spend a few days if you can.
  • Make your query in advance, give them time to dig their heels in and find all that they can on your ancestors, providing you with the best possible visit.

If you think my experience was one off, let me share with you another example from my local society, The Norfolk Historical Society. On my last volunteer shift, I helped a woman scan a dozen or more letters that her uncle wrote home to his family, during WW1. They revealed so much more about this brave young man than any documents she may have found on the Internet. She didn’t walk in that day knowing we had a box of letters but she walked out with the heart of her uncle in her hand. Those treasures are possible, you have to ask, and you have to go get them.

What societies hold in their collections?

What each museum and historical society houses will vary from location to location. For instance, in my historical society we contain a database of over 10,000 digitally scanned photos. We have a digital database of all objects in our museum, a vast paper archive and library of rare books. This does not begin to include our reference books or microfilm files. Most of these items will never be seen by family historians on the Internet.

Most historical societies provide a variety of resources from pioneer history, church histories along with school, club and organization histories, family bibles, family biographies, photographs, maps, artifacts and transcribed records. Do not under estimate the value of local historical and genealogical societies in the advancement of your research.

When I visited L'île d'Orléans, I walked away with a breadth and depth about Robert Vaillancourt that I could not have rendered from my online research. My sister and parents enjoyed getting to know their 8th great-grandfather’s history, his community and the daily events that filled his life. The 400 years that separated his life from ours when we crossed that bridge on a rainy September evening is now nearly wiped away.  

Do you have you a local historical society visit that you want to share?

Leave a comment or write a blog post about your own experience. Let’s continue to sing the praises of local historical societies for new family historians who have yet to learn about their immense value.

A 100 Year Old Photo Restored for 100 More!

Man on left my great-grandfather Charles Thomas Desmarais,
to his left his wife, Regina Demurs and one of the three children,
my grandfather Germaine Desmarais. 
Hidden among the pages of one of those dreadful sticky-paged photo albums, lies a 100-year-old picture, an image which captures a moment in the lives of my great-grandfather, his wife and their son, my grandfather.  However, the photo is frail, and has a limited number of days left in this world.  I can place its age about 1906-1912 and most likely taken in Hull, Quebec. The backing of the photo has become one with these sticky pages, I suspect lying in wait in its current resting place for my discovery, these last 50 years or more.  The removal of the photo will undoubtedly result in its end.  The image sits on the paper-backing loosely, almost like a pillow of dust.  I fear opening a window in its presence, a gentle breeze is likely to carry the image away in a blur of grey powder across my desk, the reflection of my ancestors lost forever.

I gently pulled back the corner of the photo with some tweezers; it is clear there is some writing on the back in red ink no less, almost daring me to rip it off like a Band-aid on some unsuspecting skin.  I curve my desire. Although the family historian in me desperately wants to know the information hiding behind the photo, I know better.  Any attempt to move this picture and it will be lost. I turn my thoughts to capturing the image before any more damage occurs.  I take a photo of the photo and ponder how I should proceed.

Almost serendipitously, I receive an e-mail from Michael.  Michael owns a photo restoration company and was eager to show me his work. Did I have a photo I would like restored?

 I responded to Michael, “I have just the picture.”

I skipped over to his website Top Hat Photo Repair and looked in the gallery at his work. Impressed with what I saw, I decided to take Michael up on his offer.  My first step was to upload a digital copy of the photograph to their website.  I chose to scan the photo using my Flip-Pal mobile scanner, placing the setting at 600dpi. The Flip-Pal worked brilliantly because it provided the most gentle and forgiving environment for the delicate picture. I just laid the scanner on top of the picture. I didn’t have to move the picture or manipulate it in any way, not compromising its quality any further.  In minutes, I had uploaded the picture with a couple mouse clicks to Top Hat Photo Repair.  I received an email immediately confirming the arrival of my picture. 

A few days later, my restored photo arrived in my inbox. When your photo comes back from Top Hat Photo Repair, it arrives as a proof with the companies watermark on it. Once you are happy with the results, you make your payment via PayPal and Michael will send you the finished product without the watermark. Michael will make any adjustments until you are happy, at no additional cost. Prices are reasonable, and you can select from several choices based on your particular needs.
The entire process was easy and seamless. I believe the finished product speaks for itself. 

As way of disclosure, Michael did provide the product to me for free. However, he is willing to provide my readers with a fantastic offer.  He will provide you with a 35% discount valid until the end of March. Just use the promo code: armchair  

This beautiful picture is now destined for a frame on my ancestor’s wall of fame, thank you Michael and Top Hat Photo Repair for your gracious offer and the beautiful results.

Comfortable that I have done my part to make sure the image is preserved for the next 100 years, I can now turn my attention back to that fragile photo awaiting me in the album and the information written on the back.  What does it say? Stay tuned for part 2.