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Three Steps to a Better (Ancestral) Life

By Daniel Hubbard | October 17, 2010

Anything that isn’t sufficiently complex to look at from many different angles probably won’t hold a person’s attention for very long. There are certainly many ways to look at genealogy and the process of genealogical research.  Genealogy, I’ve noticed, has been known to hold the attention of a researcher or two.  One rather basic way I like to look at it consists of these three steps.

Gathering Evidence

I hope that is self-explanatory, at least at the level of being something that needs to be done. There is, of course, a nearly infinite amount that can be written about what evidence is and how it can be categorized and evaluated. There are questions of what kind of things are generally most useful, what should exist for people living in a certain place and time, what might help you with a specific type of problem… Then there is recording where the evidence was found and organizing the evidence. At the most basic level, though, we know we need to gather evidence to proceed.

Thinking Logically

Evidence doesn’t amount to much by itself. We need to analyze it to say whether this John Doe is the same as that Jonathan Dow. We need to figure out how families fit together. We need to think about proposed migration paths that may or may not make sense…

We need to weigh evidence in conflict. Is there a real conflict or is there a way for both pieces of evidence to be true? Is one of the pieces of evidence about another person? Is there a reason why we shouldn’t trust one of the pieces of evidence?

We need to interpret missing evidence. It might be missing because it is lost or it could be telling us that the person we are looking for was no longer in that place, or dead, or worse yet that our reconstruction of that person with the seemingly missing evidence doesn’t match anyone who ever existed.

Often the logic is where we stop. Once everything makes sufficient sense to be written down on a form or entered into a database and we leave it at that. We move on to the next problem.

I think there is one more basic step.

Telling the Story

I like to think of this view of the genealogical process as something like making up a connect-the-dots drawing. When I’m gathering evidence, I’m collecting dots. When I’m thinking through the logic, I’m putting them down on the paper in some rational pattern. When I compose a story, I’m checking that the dots connect in a way that makes a realistic drawing. We don’t live our lives jumping from recorded fact to recorded fact, we draw lines in between as we go.

Writing stories can mean many things. You might imagine coming up with a tale that you can spin for a child sitting on your knee. You might think of the simple pleasure derived from writing creatively. You might think of preserving your facts in a narrative form. I might mean, and in a sense do mean, all of those things but they are all possible results of the process and I’m thinking first about the process itself.

Often each step of a process results in knowing that you can either proceed to a later step or that you will need to go back to a previous step and correct a problem, fill in a gap or simply double check.

The point of creating a story isn’t just the result if you succeed, it is what you might do if you get stuck. Part of the point of story writing is to tackle the same issues as logical thinking but to do it from a different angle. If you can’t write a story that makes sense, it might be because something is wrong. If it doesn’t seem possible that something is wrong, then maybe something interesting or important is missing.

As you write, you might also start to get into the heads of the people you are writing about and become suspicious that something interesting is happening behind the scene that you are writing. You might simply start to wonder about things you hadn’t wondered about or even noticed before.

You might start to describe something and discover you need to go to a map, a local history or read the inventory to a will in order to get the details right. Then you’ve learned something you didn’t know about an ancestor’s life. You might wonder why something was worded the way it was and become skeptical. You might discover something because of your suspicions. You might find that your doubts were unfounded but along the way you might learn some very interesting things about why that suspicious something was actually true.

When we try to write and end up needing to gather more information or reason out more possibilities, then story writing is part of the process that makes you jump back and make improvements. Once you’re done making those improvements and the story is finished, flows and makes sense, it is time to set that child on your knee. It is, after all, very human to tell stories.

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Topics: Genealogy, Methods | 2 Comments »

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2 Responses to “Three Steps to a Better (Ancestral) Life”

  1. Greta Koehl Says:
    October 17th, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Yes, it’s definitely the story-writing step that keeps sending me back to Step 1 – to the point that I sometimes feel that I’m on an endless loop.

  2. Donna Says:
    October 18th, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Good post! I agree. There may only be 3 steps but it’s a vicious circle that keeps sending you around and around.