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

If I had to start again, this is what I would do.

This winter, I’ve been teaching a serious of family history classes at my local archives. The audience is all beginners with less than six months of experience in searching their ancestors. There is a great deal of information to impart on them and I take my role as their teacher very seriously. I wanted to give them the best possible advice. They are inspiration behind today's post.

In preparing for the classes, I took a long look at my research and genealogy journey to decide what I wish someone had told me back in the beginning. I asked myself, if I had to start again, what would I do differently.

If I had to start again,

I would create an organization system, from the start and be consistent.

We are so excited for the hunt for our ancestors, we don’t take the time to save our discoveries adequately in the beginning. By the time we realize we need a sound organization system, we are knee deep in genealogy stuff. Creating an organization system in both paper and digital is critical. Create a workflow, and cheat sheets for your file systems and file naming systems. File your documents as you find them. That catch-all folder, whether, it's for paper or digital, it is just an excuse to put off what you should be doing immediately, keeping your research in an organized fashion. Create systems, make cheat sheets, be consistent.

I would interview family members, immediately.

I asked this question of the 25 members of the class, how many had interviewed their family members. Not one person raised their hand. Do not dismiss what others may know about your family history. At some point, you will regret not carrying out those interviews. I did get to those interviews, and what I learned is that they contained a wealth of information that could have saved me much work if I just asked my relatives around me first. It can be a little scary starting those first interviews, but they are worth your time. 

I would learn and follow the principles of GPS.

The best foundation to begin your research is to understand Genealogical Proof Standard, an excellent foundation for guiding your research and decision-making process. I learned GPS, eventually, but had I taken the time upfront, I would have saved myself a great deal of time in the beginning if I had applied the 5 Steps to Proving Your Family History

I would cite my sources from day one. 

Again, I wish I had taken the time to cite all of my sources, not the willy-nilly approach I took 15 years ago. I also wish I had invested in Evidence Explained as a reference manual from the beginning. I know now, I don’t have to commit citations to memory. Now I have a lot of work in getting my sources and citations under control.  

Learn and understand what information you need to capture for a citation, and take the time to record that information. Give yourself the ability to retrace your steps, allow others to retrace your  steps and prepare yourself for writing your family history, even if it is years from now.

I would be very careful with family trees.

When I started my family tree online, they were new and all the rage. I certainly didn’t foresee what a problem they could become. Today, family trees need to have a warning label attached to them, “For clues only, not to be used as a source.”  Today, it is especially important for beginners to understand the pros and cons of information found in family trees and to proceed carefully.  

I would invest money in my genealogy education.

I wish I had invested some money in my knowledge and education. I would have been much further along than I am today. Conferences, webinars, local workshops at archives all provide opportunities to advance your knowledge of research methods and available resources. You can waste much time searching for information to advance your research. A little monetary investment can go a long way in making workshops and webinars work for you.  

I would visit an archive in the early days of my research. 

I started my family history research online.  I found and began my research. While I was familiar with local archives, it was years into my research before I ventured into one. I wish I had made that step earlier and stepped out of my comfort zone.  I wish I had overcome my trepidation of archives earlier in my journey. Today, I volunteer as a researcher in my local Archives, and I don’t know what took me so long. Visit your local archives today.

That’s my list. You might have a few of your own to add to this list.

Go ahead, finish this sentence,  or tweet your answer

If I had to start again, I would......

Happy to hear your comments.

Angie Harmon Connects with Her Ancestor's Land

Angie Harmon and Daughters Connect with Ancestor's Land
Picture Courtesy of TLC 

This Sunday, on Who Do You Think You Are? (March 22, 2015, at 10/9c on TLC) Angie Harmon brings us her family history story. 

Angie who believes she was Greek, Irish and native American will be surprised to meet her 5x g-grandfather, Michael Harmon who immigrated from Germany as an indentured servant and winds up gutting it out as a soldier in Washington's regiment at ValleyForge. After a bleak season in hell he mutinies against the Continental Congress in protest for his basic rights of food, clothing and shelter…and succeeds! After the war Michael becomes a well to do land owner in Kentucky where Angie will get to pay her respects to what is still Harmon owned land today.

Watch this Sunday, as Angie makes a  connection to her ancestor's land and their values. 

Here's a sneak peak!!

Who Do You Think You Are? Returns Sunday

Hard not to be a family historian without knowing about the popular series, Who Do You Think You Are? Genealogy shows are finally hitting their stride, the additions of the Genealogy Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, have all contributed to genealogy becoming a mainstay in television.

However, Who Do You Think You Are? broke new ground for genealogy shows and remains ever popular. Who Do You Think You Are? allows the viewer to sit on the shoulders of these celebrities as they discover their roots. We travel with them to ancestral hometowns and archives as they come face to face with the ancestors who helped shaped their paths. We are emotionally drawn into their stories, as their family history becomes real, as they find an emotional connection to these past lives. Whether we watch in hopes to one day have the same experience for ourselves or because we understand the emotional draw of learning about the sacrifices and difficult decisions our ancestors endured, we are hooked.

The beloved TLC series, returns this Sunday, March 8th, with new celebrities facing their pasts and learning the full power of knowing their history. Executive producers Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky have lined up 8 new celebrities for viewers. This season includes Julie Chen, Angie Harmon, Sean Hayes, Bill Paxton, Melissa Etheridge, Josh Groban, Tony Goldwyn and America Ferrera.

Who Do You Think You Are? begins Sunday March 8th on TLC at 10pm EST, 9pm Central

Here’s a sneak peak of what’s in store for viewers.

 Who Do You Think You Are? 

Choices in Publishing Your Family History Book

Today's post is courtesy of our guest author Biff Barnes from Stories to Tell. 

As you near completion of the manuscript of your family history book some of your focus shifts to the next step in the process:

How do I transform the finished draft into a bookstore-quality book?
Very few family histories will appeal to a large audience, so most of us will not find a traditional publisher ready to offer to pay us for the privilege of publishing our book. So we need to explore other options for getting our books into print. You might begin with the question:

How much help will I need?
The first thing to realize is that two important steps follow writing a book – editing the manuscript and designing the books interior layout and cover. A traditional publisher takes care of them as a part of the publishing process. When you don’t have a traditional publisher you have to take care of them yourself.

Many novice authors think of editing as checking the punctuation and spelling before moving on to publication, but editing is much more than that. Editors can offer three different kinds of advice to improve your manuscript:
  • Developmental editing focuses on improving the content and organization of a manuscript by suggesting where to add detail, delete redundancies, or move text to make it more effective.
  • Content editing polishes your writing style by improving its clarity, cohesiveness, and effectiveness.
  • Copy editing, sometimes called proof-reading, focuses on sentence-level correctness in syntax and mechanics.
All are essential to producing a quality book.

Once the manuscript is ready it’s time to design the book. Professionally designed books are usually created in Adobe Creative Suite using InDesignIllustratorPhotoShop, and Bridge. These tools are used to layout the text in fonts and styles that will enhance readability, prepare photos, charts, graphics and other illustrations, and create a striking cover to grab your reader. The final step in the design process is to create a PDF suitable for the digital press that will print the book. The PDF most of us have in Adobe Reader is not capable of doing this. You’ll need Adobe Acrobat, and you’ll need to know the printer’s specifications for the PDF that will be suitable for his use.

If editing and design sound complicated, they are. Unfortunately, many self-publishing authors think self-publishing means DIY. They have a few friends “edit” their books, try to design it in Microsoft Word, and think they are good to go. When a printer rejects their file, or they see an amateurish book when they look at the proof copy, they’re frustrated and disappointed.

Before going ahead to edit and design your book on your own consider whether you or the friends you’ll ask to help you truly have the skills, experience and software tools to do a quality job.

Best-selling author Guy Kawasaki in his book on self-publishing, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How to Publish a Book, advised, “Unless you’re a professional, hire a professional.”

Whether you decide to do your own editing and design, to have friends with skills in those areas help you, or hire professionals to do them for you:

When you complete the design of the book, who should publish it?
If you enter self-publishing into your browser’s search bar a number of large corporations – Author Solutions, Author House, Xlibris, and Outskirts Press among others – will dominate the results. These publishing companies offer packages including editing, design, cover, publishing, and marketing. It looks like a simple way to get your book published, but before you hit the buy button, take time to look a little more deeply at two questions.

Who will own the rights to the book? One of the most important considerations when publishing a family history book is making sure that you own the rights to your book. If you check copyright law you will see that a copyright is established as soon as you create the manuscript. A legal copyright registration is important only if there is ever a dispute over the ownership of the rights to the book.

However, when some publishing companies design your book the contract you sign with them states that while you own the copyright, the company owns the book file. If for any reason, you were unhappy with your relationship with the company and wanted to republish your book elsewhere, the company would not release the file to you, or it might require you to pay a significant fee to buy back the file that you paid to create in the first place!

We always advise Stories To Tell clients to make sure that the rights to their books and book files remain securely in their possession when they choose who should print them.

How much will printing the book cost? Authors almost always talk about publishing their book, but when you self-publish a family history what you really need is a printer, not a publisher. What’s the difference?

A publisher prints your book, provides opportunities for inclusion in catalogues from which bookstores or libraries may order copies, makes the book available online through portals like, promotes and publicizes the book and charges you for doing so by retaining a percentage of the sale price of each copy of your book. If you are saying, I don’t need those things, my book is only intended for a limited audience of family and friends, you don’t need a publisher.

A printer, on the other hand, charges you only the cost of actually printing the book. You don’t pay for publicity and marketing services you neither want nor need.

Most family historians are on a budget when they publish their book, so they are concerned with a final question:

How can I control my costs? 
Begin by doing as much of the work as you can yourself. You may hire a professional designer, but there are things you can do to reduce costs. For example, if your book has photographs, do your own scanning. If you need images for the cover, find them yourself rather than paying the designer to do it. Talk with your designer about other things you can do to reduce costs.

You can make publishing choices that will help control costs. The principal factors to consider in the cost of printing a book are:
  • Hardback or soft cover
  • Color or black and white
  • Trim size of the book
  • Number of pages
If you have a large number of photographs or want to include extensive pedigree charts or family group sheets, or a number of documents, this additional content can increase production costs. Inserting a CD inside the back cover or creating a website which will allow readers to access content can save you a significant amount of money.

Look for ways to share costs with relatives who will want copies of the book. Two methods that have worked very well for family historians are:
  • Presell the book – Work with your printer and designer to establish what it will cost to print the book. Consider you costs in creating the book such as hiring professional help. Establish a price for the book and send out a letter or email announcing that it will be available by a particular date (family reunions are great for this) and allow recipients to pre-order it from you. This will give you some cash to use to print the books, and it will give you a pretty good idea of how many you’ll want to print. Always order a few extra for those people who didn’t order one and decide they have to have it once they see it.
  • Offer online distribution utilizing print-on-demand – When you make a book available through an online bookstore like, the author doesn’t pay for production of the book. The person who orders the book does. The book isn’t printed until someone hits the buy button. The second benefit is that whenever someone orders your book, you receive a royalty. While the royalties from a family history book with a limited audience will hardly make you rich, they will help to defray some of the costs you incurred in creating the book.
We’ve only provided an overview here of the issues faced by a family historian who wants to get her book into print. If you have questions about the process, contact us at Stories To Tell. We specialize in helping family historians get their books published. We’ll be happy to answer your questions.

Biff Barnes Biff Barnes is a writer, educator, and historian who has published extensively about San Francisco. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. His experience with historical research, oral history, and academic writing is invaluable to family history authors as they plan and organize their books. Biff Barnes is part of the Stories To Tell team of editors and book designers who help authors to create memoirs and family history books. They have worked with hundreds of authors to develop their fiction, non-fiction, and creative non-fiction books. As an editor, he helps to plan the book's content, edits text and images, and design a professional, unique book for his clients. Biff offers great writing advice in his Stories to Tell Blog

Meet My New Editor - Grammarly

I write a lot. You would think that would make me an expert when it comes editing my work. Ha!  Nothing could be further from the truth.   

When I write, I turn off my internal editor, a skill I learned early on. Therefore, before I share any work it needs a good edit, often several. I find myself too close to the work. I see the content and have a hard time switching my mind to see the punctuation and grammar.

Most of us will turn to Spell Check in Word to edit our work. That’s a good place to start, but I have never found it to be enough. Of course, authors and publishers will tell you to invest in having your work edited by a professional, and I completely agree. This is great if you’re publishing commercially and making a living at it. However, for those of us self-publishing, writing blogs or producing a family history book for the family, the cost of a professional editor is just unrealistic. We have to rely on other means, sometimes that’s a family member or friend. I have a few teacher friends I lean on. But they have lives, so I needed some extra help.

Recently, I decided to invest in grammar software. I felt it would close the gap between Spell Check and a professional editor. I felt the amount of writing I was doing warranted the small investment. I chose Grammarly for Microsoft Office Suite.

I downloaded the program and it quickly and easily integrated with my Microsoft Office programs. It now works with Word and with my email through Outlook to correct grammar and spelling errors. Grammarly watchs for punctuation, sentence structure, style, spelling and grammar. I love that it offers you a thesaurus. If you’re overusing a word, it suggests some alternatives. It will also check your work for plagiarism. You can also choose the kind of document you are writing, such as a blog post, creative non-fiction, essay, report or research results are a few of the options.

I love that Grammarly offers grammar explanations with examples. It becomes a teaching tool. I find myself actually catching my mistakes now before I look at Grammarly for the explanation. Maybe there is hope for me.

If you’re like me and like to write distraction free including turning off that internal editor, you have the option with Grammarly. You can disable Grammarly and write focusing on the content and creativity of a piece. Enable Grammarly and edit away. Grammarly opens in a window alongside your Word document. It does not change your text. It highlights the errors it sees and makes suggestions. It keeps you in control as you decide the changes you wish to make to the document.

Grammarly is a great tool for those who aren’t quite in the position that warrants the price of a professional edit. It’s ideal for bloggers and family history writers. It’s another set of eyes and has become my first line of defense in my editing process.

Grammarly approached me to do this review and offered me a 1-month subscription. I was already a happy user and thrilled to be offering my readers a chance to win a one-month subscription to Grammarly.  Fill in the ballot below for a chance to win.