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Help with your Genealogy Research is Here! Use this Free Planner

Now is the time to set some genealogy research goals for the new year! What’s that you say? You haven’t done that before? Having research goals will help to keep you on track while forging through the jungle of genealogical information. If you haven’t got goals set up, it can be all too easy to find yourself following a random bit of info down an unrelated rabbit hole. Once down that hole, its hard climbing back out.

Sounds intriguing you say, but again, you’ve never set research goals? That’s where I come in! I’ll show you how and even have a nice little PDF to help you out as well. 

Why setting Goals are important

Goals give you purpose. They help to inform the direction you will go. Goals simply help keep you on track. The storytelling meme below is a good illustration.  Would you rather take the long way around or the more direct way?

The more direct way takes less of your valuable research time. The more time you have, the more time you can spend researching other people. Or writing your family narrative!

Grab your The Genealogy Research Goal Planner Here

Remember me telling you that I had a little PDF to help you out? Well, this is it! When you are new to anything, having an aid or a cheat sheet to help you out is always nice to have. I will walk you through the steps to use the Genealogy Research Goal Planner, using two of my own goals as examples. By the end of this article, you will be able to use the planner to help set your own research goals.

What Is Your Vision

Start at the end. No, really. Think about what you want to accomplish. Then think about how accomplishing that goal will make you feel. How will your genealogical research, and your family tree, benefit from completing the goal? You can be as specific or general as you want. 

For me, I wanted to learn more about my ancestors who came from Germany. My research would benefit by adding another generation to my tree, and by correctly identifying where my relatives came from in Germany.

In completing this goal, I think I would change by being more confident in researching records out of the country (something I haven’t done much of).

What Are Your Goals

Take some time to think about what you want to accomplish. Just like mapping out a road trip in the days before GPS, you need to figure out your route before you set off. Research goals are the same. If you are new to setting goals, start with something less complex.

I have space for two goals so you don’t get too overwhelmed.

My first goal was to identify the town in Germany my great great grandparents came from before they emigrated to the US. My second goal was to research an ancestor of mine, Marie Moller who was married to Jens, who came to America, but I know very little about her. Questions I have are: Did she make it to America with her husband? Did she die in Germany? If so when? I assumed she died before he came over. It would be nice to have her records a bit more fleshed out. 

After I’ve identified the goals I want to achieve, I write down the steps needed to complete these goals. Remember, we are planning our route in the time before GPS. 

My action steps for my first goal, identifying the town my great great grandparents came from,  included research census records, finding birth certificates as well as interviewing my family related to that line. 

My action steps for my second goal, to learn about Marie are to find a marriage license, and a death certificate. 

Action Steps

Once the steps have been identified, you have plotted your course and now it’s time to get to work! This part of the planner will be the longest. This is where all the cool research comes in and you get to use your investigative skills like Sherlock Holmes! Just remember to be methodical. Use the space provided in the Goal Planner to document what you have and what you still need to find. That way, you can keep from repeating unnecessary research. No one likes to spend an hour finding something, then realizing they already found it a month or so ago!

I knew from previous research that my great great grandparents had sailed from Hamburg. Even though they sailed from there I thought it unlikely they lived there. I found a birth record for one of their children and listed Hamburg as their town. I was able to find a census record showing them living in Hamburg and an old sketchbook yielded more information to corroborate the birth certificate. 

Moving then to Marie, I was able to find her marriage certificate between her and Jens Fink. While I’m still mining the document for information, it lists Jens’ parents and Marie’s parents. Only problem is I’m having to decipher German cursive writing. But I’m working on it! I also wanted to know what happened to Marie. You see, all my records up to this point led me to believe that she died before coming to America. I managed to find a ship manifest listing that she traveled to America with her children. Talk about a great find! 

The next document I found was a death index with her name listed. This led me to the death certificate. She moved with her children to Chicago where her husband Jens was living and working. After 10 years of living here, she contracted Scarlet Fever and died in a hospital. A sad end to my research but I was able to find the information I was looking for.

You Did It!

Once you’ve met your goals it’s time to celebrate

Reflecting on your research is a great way to learn what worked and what to do differently next time. 

My end result was I was able to determine that my great grandparents did indeed come from Hamburg, Germany. I was also able to capture the names of my 3X great grandparents and add another branch to my tree. I was able to research Marie and not only find her death date, but that she had made it to America and lived here for about a decade. 

What helped me along the way was finding multiple documents to support the information I was researching. 

What would I have done differently? Review other documents I collected before began my research. There have been a number of times where I have collected a document but didn’t mine it properly and I forgot that I already had corroborating evidence.

If you take time to layout your goals and your action steps it will keep you on track. Now that’s a happy new year!


What to do when you discover a shocking family secret

Drunks, dead beats, physical abusers, thieves, bootleggers. Drug dealers, con artists, prostitutes, shady characters. Suicides, rapists, child molesters, murderers.

Digging into your family history you will find all kinds of people. Some people you will be proud of and others you will not. One of the most difficult decisions a family historian will make is how to handle this kind of sensitive information. Once uncovered, what should you do?

My Shocking Discovery

My great grandfather, Charles Kittridge, went to prison for sexual abuse against a child. I discovered this story initially through my Aunt Maggie’s diary. Great Aunt Maggie was Charles’s sister. There were several entries in her 1940 and 1941 diaries that mentioned visiting Charles. Her diary entry made it sound like she had to travel far to visit him. What an odd statement especially since they lived in the same town. None of the entries come straight out to say that she visited him in prison. It made me curious, where was Charles and why did she have to go visit him?

I questioned my Mom and her brother. Both were vague but said he went to prison for committing a crime.  I was even more curious.

A few years later, I was researching Charles Kittridge and I found him in the 1940 census. He was enumerated as an inmate at Michigan State Prison. 

Ok, so one mystery was solved. It was true that he went to prison. 

But I still didn’t know why. 

Then I found this newspaper article.

Lansing State Journal November 5, 1939

My heart stopped. I read the article again and again. I was shaking; I felt sick.

I am related to a monster! This can’t be true. How can I be related to such a horrible person!

I needed answers! I needed to talk to someone! I called my Mom and demanded answers. She verified what I found was true she but didn’t elaborate.  Much later, my mom went into greater detail and said that Grandma (Shirley Kittridge) My Mom’s mom, didn’t bring her girlfriends to the house because she was uncomfortable to have girls around her father.

For several weeks I felt a mix of revulsion and shame.  Overtime, I realized I can’t change the past and I can’t change the fact that I’m related to him. I had to accept it. My great grandfather was a child sex molester. And like it or not, I am related to him. His sins don’t define me or my family. 

How to Write about a shocking family secret

Being a family historian I feel responsible for the stories my family tells. Since I’m the one doing research, it is my responsibility to ensure that the stories support the research that has been done. 

So when a shocking secret is uncovered, how should this kind of story be told? 

Tell their story just like you would anyone else. That’s it.  

Being a family historian means that we record our family stories—both good and bad ones!  Our job is to record the story, keep judgment and our feelings out of it. It’s our job to report just the facts. Think of yourself as an investigative reporter. We don’t get to adjust the story to fit what our family wants to hear. Don’t make a big deal out of the incident, but don’t hide it either.

Keep in mind these tips when you write about sensitive information

  1. Always cite your sources. Even if your source is a letter or diary entry.
  2. Keep your emotions out of the story.
  3. After you have made your discovery, refrain from gossiping about it. Share it with family but don’t make the shocking event the focus. 
  4. Once you have shared the story, understand that your family may need time to process it just like you did. 
  5. Support family as they process the information. Some people may need to talk aloud to process their emotions. If needed, encourage your family member to seek the help of a therapist. 

Have you discovered a secret? What did you do? Tell me about it! Wishing you luck on your family history journey.

Tips for a Successful Family Interview

With so many family gatherings within the next few weeks, this is the perfect time to gather information for your family’s story. I’m not saying you need to corner great Aunt Sylvia and hammer her with questions until her eyes glaze over. Please don’t do this; you would give family historians a bad name.

I prefer informally interviewing vs. formal interviewing of family members. But what are the differences? 

Formal interviews are well, formal. You have faithfully reviewed your research and  carefully selected the questions. You have triple checked to ensure your equipment is in working order and you have confirmed and re-confirmed that your relative is prepared.

An informal interview is spontaneous and perfect for Family gatherings. Keep a general list of photos or questions that you want more information about on your phone. Then when the time is right ask away. But do make sure you have permission to video or voice record. 

Below are some tips for a successful interview. 

Timing is everything. Be observant and listen. Wait for opportunities to present itself. There is nothing worse than starting a weighty conversation when too many conversations are going on at once. When the time is right, start a conversation. Have a copy of your tree on your cell phone or carry a paper copy with you. It helps to have this information near by as a reference.  For example, you might ask how great grandma and grandpa met. Aim your question at one or two people to get their perspective but also open the question to other relatives. Multiple perspectives will add depth to your history. 

Access family photos over your cell phone. In the midst of talking about specific people, it would be great to refer to them in photos. Keep copies of your photos in cloud storage such as Google Photos. You can create shared photo albums so that everyone has access. What’s great about this is that you don’t have to worry about loaning out photos to family members (and hoping you will get them back) or spending the time and money to make copies. Again, record or make a note information that helps to support that picture.

Contact information. Make sure you have relatives’ latest contact information: cell number, email, Facebook etc… You never know, you may have follow up questions to ask!

Add to your research. Add the conversations, or comments to the note section of your genealogy database. Note the person who gave you the information, the date and any other information that may be relevant.

That’s it! Easy as pie!

Enjoy learning more about your family this holiday season.

5 places to research when you are stumped

You’ve hit a roadblock in your research. Not a huge one but a roadblock nonetheless. 

So what is to be done? You could swear off doing genealogy ever again. You could take a breather from researching that person and turn your focus to someone else. 

Or you could go back to the basics. I  know these resources below aren’t new to many genealogists, but when you’re stumped it’s best to give them a try instead of doing nothing at all.  

5 places to research when you are stumped

  1. Post to Facebook groups. There is a group for everything! I belong to several genealogy groups ranging from research help to specific surnames to geographic areas. Whenever I need extra help I post a question to the appropriate group and within hours I have a new direction to research. The best part about this is you are collaborating with other genealogists and making new friendships. What can be better than that?
  2. Google your ancestor. Confession: I don’t remember to do this for every person I’m researching but I really should. It really pays to google who you are researching. Let me give you an example.
    1. I was researching Samuel P. Dinsmore, a distant cousin of mine. In Ancestry I was finding the usual suspects: census records, city directories, obituary index. I googled him to see what else I could find. Oh my gosh! I found a treasure trove of information! Samuel was the owner and editor of a newspaper based in New York City. The city would place ads in his paper. There was a dispute on the agreed upon price and Samuel and later his son Bryant W. Dinsmore would take the case all the way to the New York State Supreme Court. Online I was able to find the Court Case and the decision from the court. What a find!
  3. Connect with distant relatives. You see the same trees over and over again that mirror and support your research.  Why not reach out to that person and get to know a distant relative? They may have the key piece of information you have been looking for. If not, you at least get to know another relative! Not sure how to connect with a relative? Read this post.  It’s a win for both of you!
  4. Research newspaper articles. Websites like or is a great way to potentially research your ancestor in the newspaper. While they are subscription sites you do get 7 days free. Utilize the free time! You might find an obituary notice or an article that mentions them. Either way, it deepens your knowledge about them. 
  5. Use I have a love hate relationship with Find a Grave. Sometimes you don’t find anything, sometimes you hit the mother load. So for that reason, it’s always worth it to research there. 
What does this have to do with Storytelling? 

Breaking through your road block leads to a deeper understanding of your ancestor. The more research you collect about an ancestor the richer and more meaningful your family story will be. Spend some time writing, video recording and sharing the information you have found. 

I hope you aren’t stumped for too long. Enjoy your research journey. 

The Ultimate Guide on Finding and Contacting New Relatives + Email Scripts

Let me introduce you to one of my brick walls. His name is Chester Benjamin and he’s my great grandfather. I’ve been looking for a photo, a relative who knew him, anything for the last fifteen years. Researching his life became my mission. My great grandmother and her children are gone and my father only had a few stories to share. Curse you, brick walls!

Then one day, when I was least expecting it, a distant cousin posted his photo to her online tree. After doing a happy dance, I got down to business to contact this new cousin and thank her for the best gift anyone could have given me. 

I used to think that researching my family tree was a solo pursuit.  But it’s not. We rely on the research of others to corroborate our research, to confirm a family story and to share photos. 

In other words, we need to know where to find distant cousins and we need to know what is the best way to contact them to get a response. So read on for my tips and tricks I learned along the way. 

young man in military uniform

5 Places to find new relatives 

  1. Online family tree websites such as Ancestry, FamilySearch and My Heritage. You’ve looked at the trees that others have built with your common last names. Why not reach out to them! I find it best to contact them via email if they listed that on their profile. If, not contact them through the message app. Make sure that you list your email address in the profile so that relatives can reach out to you. 

Bonus tip: Upload your GEDCOM file to other family tree websites. This will help you reach more relatives. This article lists a number of places to upload your tree. 

  1. Test your DNA and tie your results to your online tree. Since I was tested a number of years ago, that is the way I have been connecting with relatives. 
  2. Facebook. Chances are you are already on Facebook and connected to some family. Have you found that a family member you are connected to is friends with a relative that you were not aware of?  Ask that person to introduce you. 

Bonus Tip: Join a Facebook group specific to your surname or start your own! 

  1. Join GenealogyWise. Genealogy Wise is a social network for genealogists. Like Facebook, you can connect with people and post research questions 
  2. Go to family reunions.If you can’t go, hold a virtual reunion over Zoom, Google Meet or Skype. Don’t forget to talk about family history and take notes!

Ok, so you know where to find them. But what should you say when you reach out to them? Don’t worry, I have that covered too. 

4 tips on emailing your new found family members

  • Use a warm and friendly tone, but be specific in your email. You don’t want your message to sound like an excited fan, or be misinterpreted as demanding. You also don’t want to ramble. Be warm and friendly, but get to the point of why you contacted them. Still not sure? My scripts will show you how. 
  • Give a gift. If you are asking someone you never met to share information with you, you need to be willing to share first. I normally share something I don’t have online after the introductory email I send. I want them to be comfortable sharing information and know that I’m not going to use them.  

What happens if you don’t get a response? 

  • Email or leave a message again. It wouldn’t hurt to contact them again. Maybe the first message wasn’t received. 
  • No response? Don’t get too discouraged. I know this is easier said than done. I know that you are eager to hear from them and exchange information. There can be many reasons you didn’t hear from them. I’ve seen issues ranging from not seeing the message to not having time to research genealogy to not interested in sharing information. 
  • Remember not everyone is into genealogy. This one hurts. How can anyone not be into genealogy? Sadly, it’s true. Some people are just interested in learning about their ethnicity. Look to see if your new found relative has a tree attached to their dna. This clue might help in knowing the likeliness for their response. 

How does this tie into storytelling?

  • Your new found relative can lead to new family stories you never heard of.
  • They can potentially confirm or deny the authenticity of family stories you’ve heard.
  • They may have access to more photos, documents and information that you don’t have. 
  • They can help you write family stories from their perspective. Plus it’s always more fun to work with someone rather than alone!

Need some help?…Use My Email Scripts

I’ve created a few scripts you can use to help you craft your initial email to your new family members.

Enjoy the journey in meeting new relatives!

Stop Procrastinating! Write your family stories now

I write excruciatingly slow. Why? Because I am a professional procrastinator.  I have a horrible habit of writing a few sentences, only to get up to refill my coffee cup, then sit back down to write again, only to get back up within a few minutes.

Why do I do this every time I write? 

I feel

  • overwhelmed by how by the writing process
  • uncertain on where to start
  • awkward and shy about your writing skills
  • anxious about being judged
  • there isn’t anything interesting to write about. My family was just an average, ordinary family. 

What do all these excuses have in common? Fear. Fear leads to procrastination. It is fear that holds us back.

Moving past fear is hard. Really hard.

I know. I have let fear control my actions for too long. For example, I delayed as long as I could naming both my children. I finally relented when a nurse threatened not to release me from the hospital until I completed the birth certificate. In my defense, I wanted to be absolutely certain that the names were the right ones for them. 

Don’t be like me. 

Take a moment to identify the fear that is holding you back. When you have identified it, you can create a plan to move past it.  

The easiest way I have found to combat fear is to take action. Any forward momentum is better than standing still. Start small.

If you are overwhelmed

  • Start by writing what is overwhelming you, much like a brain dump. From that, create a list and put the lists in order that makes sense for you. Create a plan from your lists. Only focus on one item at a time.
  • This is what I did.
    • I wanted to focus on family members that I had numerous photos of. I started with the list of their names. I prioritized that list in order of how much info I had on each person. Under each person’s name I jotted down things I wanted to write about. Since I prioritized my list, I only focused on the one individual instead of the whole family.

If you are uncertain and don’t know where to start

  • Start with the person you know the most about. That could be you, a spouse, sibling or parents. Jot down whatever comes to mind about that person. Later you can fill in with sentences and structure.

If you feel awkward about your writing ability

  • Get clear on why you want to write and share your family stories. Returning to your why will help when you feel awkward and shy.
  • Your writing style won’t be judged. Why? Because the reader’s attention will be on the family story rather than on your writing ability. Keep the goal in mind: getting the stories written and out there.

If you are afraid of being judged by your family

  • You don’t have to tell anyone what you’re doing. Overtime, the more you write the more confident you will get. 
  • When you are ready, tell a trusted family member. 

If you think your family is just an average ordinary family

  • Remember: Not every family story is going to be filled with action, adventure, comedy, romance and drama. Sometimes stories are just about ordinary people living their lives. Tell these stories anyway. 
  • The ordinary story allows us to compare and contrast to how we live today. That is how we learn to relate to our family.

So your homework for today, identify what is holding you back from writing and telling your family stories. Then create a plan to move past that fear. This is your time to get the stories told.

Happy Writing.

5 Reasons to write your family’s story

Genealogists are thrill seekers. Who else would enjoy piecing together a brittle yellow page from a dusty old scrapbook just so you can determine once and for all if the entry is really about your ancestor? Or the research high you got when you went line-by-line trying to decipher cursive handwriting from an ancestor’s will and you found that crucial missing link? Or what about that time you spent until 2AM researching online when you swore you would only spend 5 more minutes before going to bed? Yes, we are thrill seekers–the nerdy kind.

But doing research is only half the story. The other half is telling the story from that research. Author and researcher, Brene Brown, reminds us that stories are data with soul. We do our ancestors a disservice if all we focus on is only on their birth, marriage and death dates and let their stories perish.

Be open to the idea of not just collecting their information, but telling their story.

5 Reasons Why you need to take time to Write your Family’s Story

  1. Your family’s stories may be lost forever. Think about it. How many of your relatives are interested in doing genealogy? If it’s like my family you only have a few. Now of those few, how many are willing to take the time to record the stories? I thought so. You need to be that one. Start today.
  2. Writing your story is a gift to yourself and future generations. This goes hand in hand with number one. If you write your family story, you can enjoy it and add it to your research. Others can add it to their research as well. Your family will live on!
  3. People are looking for meaning and connection. Don’t be fooled by the sound bite culture we live in. People are craving connections and meaningful relationships. You can provide that by taking the time to write the stories that make your family unique. Then share them through email, Facebook or blogging. They will discover that they aren’t the only ones who faced similar situations.
  4. Every life has a story. I cannot tell you how many times, I’ve heard, “My family isn’t special. Nothing interesting happened.” Not every story you write will be filled with action, adventure, romance and drama. Some stories are the quiet character dramas. Even if it’s not interesting to you, it will be to someone. Tell their story anyway.
  5. You may inspire someone! Once you have captured the story, don’t forget to share it. It is in sharing that your ancestor will live on. Who knows, you may inspire some one to write or become a genealogist.

Whatever your reason, I hope you take time to write.

Happy Writing!