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Genealogy Research Planning is Easy : Family History Month #2

Today's post is the second for the Family History Month 2019 Collection.

If you haven't signed up to get the free resources, you can (through the end of October 2019) at The Occasional Genealogist Academy.

Today's freebie is a printable "Research Plan Creator" designed to simplify research planning.

In a nutshell, the Creator will have you go from a "goal" that is too broad (which is why so many people think planning their family history research is hard) to an actionable research question and planning. It's really simple but a good reminder if you keep trying to skip planning or dread it because it's too hard.

Research Planning for Beginners

There are some subtleties you can add to a research plan to improve it but those should happen naturally based on your skills. The more experience you have, the better your plan should be. That means if you are a newer researcher, a simpler plan is OK.

This is like in school before you learned multiplication. If you had three groups of three, the teacher didn't say "what is 3x3?" You didn't have the skills, yet, to answer that question.

Instead, you were lead through a skill-appropriate set of steps like counting the items or adding 3+3 and then 6+3. Multiplication is a faster way to get the answer but until you learn to multiply, you just can't do it. That doesn't mean you couldn't get to the right answer, though.

Research planning is the same. Your plan may be simpler or require more steps because you don't have certain skills, yet. That's OK.

You can still get to the answer even if you don't have the skills to take the most efficient path.

By-the-way, this is why good note-keeping is so important.

Sometimes our plan leads to the answer but we don't have the skill to see it. If you take good notes and are organized, later you can review your research and the version of you with improved skills will recognize that the answer has been sitting in your filing cabinet (or wherever you store genealogy).

But let's get back to creating a research plan. The free printable Creator in the Family History Month 2019 Collection is very simple on purpose.

There is an extra "step" I recommend everyone do, but it is too complicated to summarize in a form.

This important step is reviewing your background information.

Genealogy Reports for Research Planning

In an ideal world, we all create a research plan, do the research, and write a report about what we found.

Yeah, I know how often that happens.

Your reports provide the background information for future research plans. If "report" scares you, focus on creating a summary of the research you did (and it's much easier to consider summarizing research sitting in your filing cabinet rather than creating "reports" after the fact, too).

I've found as an extreme Occasional Genealogist, when I did try to write formal reports for myself, I'd often get interrupted and essentially never get back to what I was doing.

The best solution is to use a plan to notes to report system. All a plan to notes to report system is, is taking your notes on your research plan and then writing a brief summary at the top when your research session is done.

Professional Genealogy Reports vs. Summaries

As a professional genealogist I usually do more to create a report for a client but those steps aren't necessary when you're researching for yourself. When I research for myself, I find most of the "extra" is either unneccesary (such as explaining something I know to the client. If I know it without looking it up, I don't need to explain it to myself) or is somewhere else and I prefer it there.

I mention this because nearly all the early lectures I went to about research planning and reporting were for hobbyists but focused on professional style planning/reports. Often the examples you see are the same, because those are succinct and include everything in a compact format.

The fewer skills you have, the more involved your report/summary needs to be. You can still just summarize. You don't need fancy formatting.

What "more" you need is pretty simple. It's just like me explaining something to a client except you are both researcher and client. Realize the same applies to planning.

You may have questions while planning and need to look up the answer. This is the type of information that goes in your plan or summary (as appropriate) so you remember it when you are planning, researching, or reviewing later.

When you are getting started, include anything you need to look up or questions you have. It doesn't matter if it is something a professional would include, include what YOU need!

Having summaries you can quickly review before you create your (very easy) research plan is more important than a fancy report. Make sure you take note of any small details you may not remember later. There will be more of these if you have less experience but even the most experienced researcher needs to keep track of their specific train of thought.

I may not need to record basic details like which month a census is supposed to be enumerated, I've researched long enough I remember most of them (and if I don't remember, I do make a note if it's important). But if there's a small clue I've just noticed, you bet I'm making a note so I can use it later.

The odds of remembering a small clue are not good. Write it down including why you think that clue is important. It might be your frame of mind---after doing that exact research---that made the clue jump out at you. Later you might wonder what you were thinking!

Next week I'll talk more about plan to notes and I have a new template to help you go from plan to notes to summary. Let's get back to background information and research planning.

The research you've already done will help you simplify your planning. Including background information in your planning process is important not just for simplification, though.

Reviewing Existing Genealogy for a Research Plan

You obviously don't use sources you've already checked unless there's a good reason. Not considering those sources gives you fewer options for your plan which makes it simpler. This is rather a "duh" reason for including background information. You don't want to waste time looking at the same sources over and over again and getting the same results. There's a more powerful way to use background information, though.

Your previous research may have provided clues to additional sources you can check or hints like someone's religion or the fact they were an orphan (I don't know that there is a common term for this but I'd consider these clues about the person versus clues to sources or events). Following one of those clues may be the point of your research plan.

For those of you with less experience or who are struggling to recognize or use clues (but you know that should be part of your research experience), I wanted to quickly mention why I've separated clues to sources or events vs. clues about a person.

First, clues are the bread and butter of genealogy research. You will reach a point when you mostly collect clues instead of "facts." That's why knowing how to recognize them and what to do with them is so important. In a moment I'll go through a specific example related to research planning.

As an example, clues to sources or events would be reading a county history and using what you're told to consider events in the family's life (because it can apply to people beyond the subject) and the sources that would have been created.

When I worked at the DAR we often looked for information about Revolutionary War service this way. A history might mention a father or grandfather served. You'd put that with what you were told about the people's ages and residences to consider where they served and what sources could exist.

You'd also double check that everything made sense. You might find someone's father supposedly served in the Revolution, but they would have had to be over 100 when the child the sketch is about was born. There's no point creating a research plan when there's clearly a problem!

Taking what you are directly told and considering other sources that can verify that "fact" is a pretty straight forward use of clues to create a research plan.

Clues about a person can be more subtle (because these are clues, not directly stated facts).

For example, a couple names a child Wesley, particularly John or Charles. That might mean they are Methodist (the child could also be named after a relative or friend who was Methodist but if it's in the family, it can help eventually!). If your research problem could benefit from church records, you'd look at the Methodist records, first.

This is still a clue and we can use it to shape our research plan. Maybe the child was named for someone in the family and they aren't Methodist. You don't have to drop everything to verify their religion before using church records for your question.

If you didn't know which church records to check, it's fine to use this kind of clue to decide where to start. You're using your background information to form a hypothesis. Your hypothesis is the family is Methodist and what you are looking for is in particular Methodist church records. It's a hypothesis, it's fine if it turns out not to be true!

These personal clues can provide all types of clues and hints. If you had that naming pattern and knew someone was a preacher, you might be looking for a Methodist circuit-rider which could explain why a man has few records in a location or lots of moves. None of this is "fact" without further research but the clues could lead to more.

If you had clues that someone was in trouble with the law, might be divorced, was orphaned, or inherited property, those are all clues about the person that you might need to determine how to use. With the example about military service, information about the War and their residence was pretty easy to use for more records, and what are usually desirable records to genealogists without even having a specific research goal in mind.

These "personal" clues, well, how do you use them?

All the ones I just mentioned could involve court records. That can be some slow research. You might go look for any military record for the Revolutionary War clue because there are a number of easy to check sources.

You probably don't want to read every court book for a location (or multiple locations) because of one or several of the court-related clues (although I've gotten desperate and just started reading court books when what's available is limited!)

With this type of clue, you might need to take some additional thinking steps. First, does that clue have any affect on your research goal? You can just run off and research whatever you've just found or you can try and stay focused (and organized---filing away what you just found but don't need). If the clue is related to your goal, you may then need to figure out if it fits in with what else you know and what kind of records it could indicate exist.

Personal clues are often subtle clues and can be hard to use because they do require some experience (looking up information to help you use any clue you find is the best way to gain this experience, education is the second-best way). I find these clues extremely valuable but often overlooked or ignored.

Also, if multiple clues indicate different sources, I'd consider each source a plan. Yes, a one-source plan, really easy to create (and follow!). The longer I do professional genealogy (where I'm basically being paid to make sure I follow the whole research process), the more I find creating a one-source plan means you're doing things right. Often there's one source you'll check and then you'll decide what to do based on the results.

Realize, one-source can be a book of court records you have to read line by line or it can be the main search bar on It can also be a single printed book of abstracted records or a particular index. Each of those can cover a lot of variety or a very narrow selection. You would choose to use that one source because of your understanding of what it will cover and how not finding what you're looking for would impact your next steps.

A one-source plan can be your first plan (such as searching all of or all of for a marriage record) or far into an on-going project (when you're getting desperate and have checked all the obvious places and are now working through difficult sources---and you'll be done as soon as you get a positive result).

So let's look at examples of clues from background information for a specific research goal.

You are most likely already doing this.

We'll use an example of a goal of finding a marriage record for a particular couple.

Your previous research likely provides you with one or more children with their estimated year of birth and the estimated years of birth of each person in the couple. If it doesn't, maybe you shouldn't be planing to find their marriage record, yet!
  • You probably first look for a marriage before the oldest known child was born and after the couple is likely old enough to marry. You've used clues based on their children and their ages. You used background information (see, you are doing this and it's easy!).
You hopefully have previous research providing clues to where the marriage most likely took place.
  • Your background information may include where they were living as young adults (or with a very young child if this is a later or second marriage) or maybe even where they lived with their parents.
  • With experience, you probably give more weight to the location where the bride was from.

Your background information may have even more clues, if you use it correctly.
  • You might look for geographic clues for location, meaning you actually look at a map to see if they might live near a border. 
  • You might take it farther and look at a topographic map to see if a large waterway or a mountain is between them and the county seat.

These are all ways your previous research could shape a research plan with the overall goal of finding a marriage date/record. Each example I gave could be a separate plan or it might all be one plan because you had all that information when you started. This relates to when I said a one-source plan might be your first plan or a plan for a difficult problem. Between that, you might have several clues indicating a handful of likely sources. You can put all those sources into a plan or break them up. Just don't loose any ideas you have in case you need them.

Note: Finding a marriage is different than some types of research because often we want a civil marriage record or a church marriage record and there will be only one so we stop when we find it. With parents we have to identify the people of the names we find, meaning we need more than one source. Or we need to make sure they are biological and not step or adopted parents. With a death or birth we often like a selection of records like a death record and a tombstone and an obituary or birth information from every source we can find because there is no birth certificate. Your plan will adapt for each situation, clearly.

The ** above is an example of a good place to consider a related plan. Here's an example.

You might need a marriage record for the date and place of marriage but you might know the parents of the couple.

Your main goal (your broader goal) might be finding the marriage record for the couple. Your specific goal for a research plan could be identifying the residence of the bride as close to the likely marriage date as possible.

In some locations, the marriage was supposed to happen in the bride's jurisdiction (in the county, parish, or town she lived in) so her or her parents' residence could change where you look.

Note that early in your research, you don't have to research what the law was, first. If you know the bride's parents, it's ok to take a "shortcut" and research their residence if you're stuck finding a marriage record.

If it is easier to research the law (were they supposed to marry in her residence?), do that first, though. There are no genealogy police. You don't have to follow a set order for which source to check first. It should make sense based on what is easy and what will most likely provide your answer.

The printable Research Plan Creator asks for two types of goals (one broad and one very narrow). Your narrow goal might be a tangent, finding the bride's residence by her parents' residence. Or it might be a part of your bigger goal such as "were they married in [specific location] between [specific dates]?"

Only focusing on "when and where were they married?" would create a huge involved research plan. That is your broad goal. The questions you ask or hypotheses you test are what you actually plan.

Here's an exercise for this. You might think your research QUESTION is "when and where did they marry?" Do you immediately think of specific sources to check? Aside from an online search, probably not.

If you ask "did John and Mary marry in Cobb County, Georgia in 1860?" The obvious source to check is Cobb County marriage records for 1860. If you don't find a record, this also makes a next question easier. It could be "do Cobb County marriage records exist for 1860?" or "did they marry in Cherokee County in 1860?" or "did they marry in Cobb County in 1859?" Which you choose is based on your background information.

The too broad question is like a brick wall in itself. The narrow question leads to more questions with clear sources to check (even if you don't know what sources, you should be able to learn more because the direction you need to take is so clear).

I hope you can see how background information relates to research planning.

I hope you also see you will not create one research plan to find one fact, unless you happen to find it on your first try and it doesn't require corroboration (like a civil or church marriage record).

That's when you often have a one-source plan. Your plan might look like this...
  • Goal:"Find the civil marriage record for [couples' names]"
  • Source(s) to check: "Search's main search interface for [his name], [her name], [date range based on clues], [location based on clues]"

You might also be checking a printed book of marriage records for the location you determined from clues and that's your one source plan.

I've intentionally used the example of a marriage because it's easy to explain and is a "fact" we might solve after looking at one source. There's no magic number of sources to include with a plan but if the specifics of a source rely on the results of looking at a previous source, those are separate plans.

That's why the marriage record one-source plan works the way it does. If you have a specific date range and place to check, you don't need to plan to check a second source if one source covers that date and place. IF you don't find the marriage record where you expect it, then you consider why and where else to check.

(BTW that Cobb County, Georgia example---they next question should be "do the marriages exist" because they don't. You should have figured that out when you went to answer the first specific question and then there was no point in looking for an 1859 marriage in that county. At least not a civil marriage record as they were burned during the Civil War. Searching all of or all of would not provide that insight.)

Other types of research can be more complicated so think back to the simplicity of the marriage record example before you try and create a massive research plan.

Keep it simple, just create multiple plans when needed.

  • Research planning is easy.
  • You have a broader goal like finding someone's parents, finding a marriage date, or finding a place of death.
  • Your plan needs the broad goal narrowed to a research question or a hypothesis to test. That's how creating a plan will be easy. Try and answer a narrow question with just a few sources. If you don't find your answer, ask a different question and create another simple plan.
  • Which question to ask first depends on both what sources are most likely to answer your question (often based on clues you've found) AND what research will be easy to do. We don't sit around NOT doing research because we can't access the sources most likely to answer the question. Instead, try and find some research you CAN do---which likely involves a different plan answering a slightly different narrow question.
  • Remember, there are multiple ways to get to the "right answer." Not all are as efficient but it only matters that you do get the right answer!
  • You use background information from your previous research to determine which sources don't need to be checked because you already used them and the results will be the same (note that some "sources," particularly those online may change and therefore should be checked again).
  • You also use background information to take clues from previous research and create a plan with a narrow focus, even if it's a related question.
    • Examples of related questions are, "where did her parents live just before the possible marriage date" if you were looking for a marriage and knew who her parents were, or
    • "Is there a guardianship record for [person who's parents you're looking for] in [location] for [date range]?" if you found a clue that your ancestor might have been orphaned and you can determine a location and date range.
I'll say it again, research planning is easy.
Don't try and tackle a massive amount of research with a single plan. A plan can be checking one source.
Write down your plan, take notes on the plan, and summarize your research findings on your plan. Now you've done the complete research process and have great notes!

The other topic we haven't covered that is very related is keeping a research log. I'll post about that later this week.

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