Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Our Not-So-Fun Adventure

I wanted to share a few photos so I decided to write some commentary to go along with them. Our “adventure” began two Saturdays ago – October 29th. We had been hearing that a “big” snowstorm was coming to town. Now, when you live in Massachusetts, big snowstorms hardly strike fear into your heart. I mean, last winter we got about 7 BIG snowstorms. Of course none of them came in October though. A big snowstorm in October seemed so unlikely that I even said to my husband “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Famous last words, right? Even if it did snow, we could handle it. We do all the time.

My first clue that something was different should have been Saturday night when we drove home from our church Halloween party. We could hardly get down my son’s friend’s road because so many trees were heavy with snow and leaning over the road. When we got to our own home, we found that a little tree by our front door was so bent over that we had to climb over the flower bed and onto the porch to get in the front door. When we got inside, the power was out. Unpleasant, I thought, but no big deal. We piled blankets on everyone and went to bed. I even made sure all the lights in the house were off so that when the power went on in the middle of the night, it wouldn’t wake anyone up. During the night, I woke several times to hear loud cracking sounds. Once, I took a flashlight and shone it out the back window. I saw a huge tree laying across our back lawn.

When we woke up the next morning, it was about 52 degrees inside the house – and there was still no power. Yuck. There was also no cell phone service. We had never lost cell phone service before. Looking out the window, I saw that we had gotten about a foot of snow. I also saw that the tree I had seen last night was not the only one down in our yard. A huge branch had fallen from higher then our second story ceiling, smashed half of our front fence (that we had just finished repairing and repainting two weeks ago). The branches nearly reached the kitchen window. Another huge tree was blocking our cars from getting out the driveway, one had smashed the back fence, and several more lay across the lawn. Christian (age 2) kept telling me, “Trees in the sky fall down, mom.”

Our house is on a little road (Gulf Road) that connects to Route 9 - one of the most major roads in town (but I live in the country so it’s just a two-land road). We got dressed and headed out to look around. Gulf Road was completely blocked by several huge trees. Our neighbors had a giant tree hanging upside down in their power line. It wasn’t until we turned the corner to Route 9 that we finally really realized how severe this storm had been. The road looked like a tornado had gone through it. Every five feet, a tree was down in the road. Trees lay across power lines, dangled over roads tangled in power lines, and power lines were strewn across lawns and the road everywhere. In several places, cars had been abandoned when huge trees had fallen and smashed them. The fact that it was October and some of the trees still had leaves on them had caused the trees to hold more of the wet, heavy snow – and had caused many to fall.

“We’re not going to have power for a week,” my husband said.

Now, I know this was not hurricane Katrina or anything. But, it was a tiny bit alarming to realize that we were stranded – no phone, no internet, no power, no heat, no water (we have a well so no electricity means no water), and no ability to drive away. Soon individual people were out on the road with their chain saws cutting a few of the major trees – our neighbor cut the one blocking our driveway. By night, I could drive to a gas station down the road (very slowly by driving around trees and on top of electrical wires). I wanted to find cell phone service so I could call my sister-in-law, Cassy, in NYC and see if we could escape to her house. I had no idea how widespread the damage was or if it was even possible to get out of town on the roads. Another problem – the gas station had no gas and we only had a quarter of a tank. A stranger let me borrow his cell phone (that had service – mine still didn’t) and Cassy said we were welcome at their house. We heated up leftovers on our grill for dinner, walked around with flashlights bundled up in coats and hats, dumped our water storage down the toilet to flush it (we tried bringing in some snow in a bin, but by then the house was so cold that the snow wasn’t melting very quickly), and huddled under the blankets. When we woke up, it was 44 degrees in the house. We were all miserable.

The next morning, we drove down the road some more and located a gas station with gas. The few stations that had gas had lines sometimes stretching half a mile. We had to pay in cash because they couldn’t take credit cards. That afternoon, I packed our belongings and headed out of town with the kids (my husband stayed behind). I took these pictures as I drove – all along Route 9 within about three miles from my house. Cars were still smashed under trees two days after the storm and I hadn’t seen one “official-looking” person. The road was an absolute safety hazard and if the town hadn’t been in a crisis, I am sure it would have been closed.

In NYC, I had cell phone service and was able to learn a little more. 100% of my town had lost power, as had many other towns around us. Some were calling it the worst storm in the history of western Massachusetts. (Other states were also hit hard, particularly Connecticut.)

As the days continued, I got periodic updates from friends in Belchertown. Halloween was “canceled.” The high school had been turned into a shelter. School was canceled for the entire week. Some people began getting power back on Tuesday night. Finally on Thursday, I decided to come back home. In the day, we began the work of cleaning up the mess and at night we slept at friend’s house since we still didn’t have power. The first clean-up task was to throw away all the food in the fridge and freezer. Still, I felt relatively calm until Friday afternoon. My husband’s co-worked came over with a chain saw to help us cut some of the largest trees. The one that had smashed half of the front fence was still caught in a branch higher than our house. I watched as he cut it down and it crashed through the remaining fence – the one I had just spent several weekends painting. At that moment, for the first time I felt a lump in my throat.

Sunday at 2:30 p.m. our power came back on – after eight nights. I just got internet access today (but it's only semi-functional).It will take us weeks to clear the trees and repair the damage. I read a newspaper article today that said Belchertown (my town) was the hardest hit community in Massachusetts. Still I know it could have been worse. We are safe, our house or cars were not damaged, we have wonderful family and friends that let us impose on them so we didn’t have to sleep in our freezing house, and we are now back in our house – appreciating the heat, flushing toilet, and lights more than ever before!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Trip to Canada for Genealogy - and Fun!

I spent most of last week in Canada. It was one of those work/fun trips - my favorite kind. The original purpose was to speak about my book and about the immigration experience to the Ottawa branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society for the Ryan Taylor Memorial lecture. Soon after I got the invitation, I began to develop a second part to this trip though. Ever since we moved to Massachusetts over five years ago, I have wanted to visit Quebec City. Once, I even had a trip in place to do it. My husband had meetings there and I convinced a friend to watch our (then) three kids for three days so I could go too. It was going to be a second honeymoon of sorts. But then, it turned out that the NGS (National Genealogical Society) Conference was going to be in Richmond at the same time - and that one of my magazine articles was going to receive an award from ISFHWE (International Society of Family HIstory and Writers). AND it turned out that I could get a plane ticket for less than $100 and stay at my brother's house in DC. In the end, I couldn't resist. I ditched the second honeymoon in favor of the genealogy conference. (Terrible, isn't it?)

But now I had a second chance - genealogy and vacation in one! We decided that the whole family would drive, spend a day in Quebec City, a day in Montreal, and a day in Ottawa (and lots of time driving too, of course). Initially I had thought it unfortuntate that the trip would take place in October instead of the summer, but I soon decided that the middle of October was perfect. The leaves on the drive through Vermont and in Canada were absolutely breathtaking.

It's a little embarrassing to admit that the only other time I had been to Canada was in 2004 when we went to Niagara Falls. Of course, we only spent four nights there this time, but it was fabulous. And, as I told the group, now I can put on my biography that I'm an internationally known speaker, right?

Here are a few highlights from the trip:

First, the classic photo of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. Rachel (age 11) liked the old city so much, that she decided we should move there!

We also made a stop at the nearby Montmerency Falls.

Did you know Montreal is famous for its bagels? Two bagel shops compete for the title of "best bagels." The kids sampled bagels from both to determine who was the winner of what we called the "Great Bagel Debate." (I originally called the "Great Bagel War", but Sarah Ann (age 6) wanted to know if they used swords...) Christian slept through our taste test.

We loved Ottawa! The downtown area was beautiful - even better than I expected. We loved walking by the government buildings and the Rideau Canal.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Everything You Need to Know About German Research in Two Hours or Less

I guess I really am breaking back into this blogging thing slowly...Where does the time go?

As I mentioned in my last post, Friday I flew to Toledo, Ohio (actually, I flew into Detroit and then drove to Toledo)to do a two-hour seminar on Saturday at the Toledo Public Library on tracing German ancestors. First, I have to say that I get really excited when I get to talk about JUST German ancestors. I like to talk about lots of things, but since I am a resident of Massachsuetts and do the majority of my speaking engagements in New England, I don't get to do many lectures that focus exclusively on German research. It's just often too narrow of a topic around here. Now, the same is not true in Toledo because just about everyone from Toledo is German (well, okay - that may be an exaggeration - but not by much).

I had two hours to share with people everything they ever needed to know about tracing German ancestors. Well, as I'm sure you know - that's impossibe. German research is not the kind of topic that can be covered in much depth in two hours. So, that is where the challenge was: choosing which information to share. The program coordinator and I had worked together to select two of my already-prepared lectures: 1) Jumping Over Hurdles in German Research and 2) The Journey Takers: An Inside Look at the German Immigration Experience. It was a nice combination of talks. The first focused on sources and methodology and the second brought it together in a case study.

I felt good about the seminar and really enjoyed doing it. Still, when it was done, my head was still filled with all the other things I COULD have told the attendees about German research.

The main message I wanted to get across was this: German research is NOT impossible. You can do it. People get intimidated of German research easily - mostly because of the language barrier and the handwriting I think. But truthfully, I really believe that German research is easier than US research. When I told my audience that, they all looked at me like I was crazy. It takes a little while to used to German research, but once you do, it really is very manageable - and lots of fun too!

So why do I say German research is easier? The main reason is because German research relies very heavily on one source: parish records. There is no source as important to US research as parish records are to German research. So I am going to focus the rest of my comments on using parish records.

In order to access these local records, you need the name of your ancestor's German hometown. This is the first hurdle I talk about in my lecture - and for many researchers, the highest of the four hurdles.

Once you have a hometown, you need to access records (the records hurdle). First, you must figure out where your ancestors went to church. This may not be the same as their hometown, because many villages were too small to have churches of their own. You can utilize gazetteers to find this information. Very few German parish records are online. Fortunately, many have been microfilmed and can be ordered to your local family history center. Otherwise, you may have to write for them.

The third and fourth hurdles are almost a combination hurdle: language and handwriting. Here's my advice: take advantage of the resources available at www.familysearch.org. Click on the "learn" tab to search their wikis. Here, you will find word lists, letter-writing guides, and handwriting guides (as well as research guides). Be patient with yourself as you become familiar with the handwriting in particular. Go slowly and it will start to come together, little by little!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Blog Awakening

It's been four months since I posted on my blog. I didn't plan to stop writing. I just did. It's not coincidence that my second to last post is seeking advice for burnout. Last year was an intense year. It was good intense, not bad intense. But it was still intense. I'm hoping to keep the good this year but loose some of the intensity. (I've found this is easier said than done though when you're the mom of four kids!)

Just to show how complete my burnout was, I hadn't even looked at my blog for probably three months. Then last week, I pulled it up. I thought about writing a post, but then I didn't. It's been in the back of my mind for a couple of days. Then tonight, I got an email from someone saying she missed my blog. It was just that little bit of motivation I needed to tip me off the fence - and into writing a blog post.

So, since I'm sure you've all been dying of suspense, I thought I would catch you up on what I've been doing the last four months instead of blogging! My book reached its one-year anniversary. I feel good about it's first year. I hope it will continue to reach people and I hope to continue speaking about it. But, I also somehow felt permission to slow down a bit now that the first year mark has passed. My speaking calendar has slowed back to a "normal" pace, instead of the fast-forward frenzy it was in. I'm excited about that. I love really love speaking to groups and I'm looking forward to my engagements this fall. I have two particularly exciting speaking adventures coming up. Tomorrow, I'm flying to Ohio where I will do a two-hour workshop at the Toledo Public Library on German research. Then, on October 15, I will be giving my book lecture as the Ryan Taylor Memorial Lecture for the Ottawa Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. My whole family will go with me on this trip (but don't worry - not to the lecture!). We decided to drive and make a five-day vacation of it, including overnights in Montreal and Quebec City. I've wanted to go to Quebec City since we moved to Massachusetts five years ago.

I've also been writing. I love writing! I finished a BIG project that I've been working on for some time and submitted it last Friday. That's one reason I feel ready to start blogging again. I don't want to say more about that right now, because there will be a long wait before I know anything else. Right now, I am just enjoying the accomplishment of having completed it. I have not done much magazine writing, but I am currently working on two articles for the Godfrey Update, a publication of the Godfrey Memorial Library. I've been writing for their semi-annual publication for several years now and enjoy that too.

And best of all, I've been spending lots of time with my family. My kids were home for the summer, of course. I really, really love summer. Mostly I love summer vacations. We had some great trips including a two-week trip where we drove to Austin, TX for my sister's wedding and saw some sites along the way such as Smoky Mountain National Park, Memphis, and Shenandoah National Park. We also spent four days in Acadia National Park (ME) later in the summer. It was beautiful. And, my husband and I flew to Brazil for a week in August. We laid on the tropical island beaches, hiked through a rainforest, listened to samba, fed mango to wild monkeys, and wandered the big city sites of Rio de Janiero. If I was motivated, I'd post photos - but I think I'll break back into this blogging through gradually. School has now started and the summer fun is over - back to fall craziness with an incredibly tight schedule and a little bit of chaos most of the time.

That's it in a nutshell I'd say. The question is...am I going to start blogging regularly again? I'm just going to blog when the desire strikes, and not worry if it doesn't. Hopefully, I'll blog about my Ohio trip and share some thoughts on tracing those tricky German ancestors.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Winchester Award

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had another award coming soon. Last night it was announced. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there. The Journey Takers received the Winchester Award from the Mormon History Association for the best thoroughly researched family or community history relating to the Mormon experience and published in 2010. The award was announced at their annual awards banquet held in conjunction with their conference, this year in St. George, UT.

You can see the Deseret News listing of the awards here. My award is listed on the second page. They gave out awards in several categories including some for graduate papers, thesis and dissertation awards, as well as a couple of other book awards.

I was very excited about the award – and sad I couldn’t attend the banquet. I actually considered going for a while – looking into plane ticket prices etc. I’ve never been to the Mormon History Association conference, but I’m sure I would love it. Maybe someday….

One of the reasons I couldn’t go was because my oldest (turning 11 on Monday) had her birthday party last night. It had a cat theme. Here are a couple of pictures.

Facepaint and headband ears turned all the kids into cats

My friend made this cute cat cake.

One of the funnest parts of the party was having the kids eat and drink like cats. They really got into it!

So, I could have been receiving this wonderful honor in St. George, but instead I was hot gluing fluffy pompoms to help the girls make their cat craft.

By the way, I plan to actually have a blog post with information for doing genealogy research soon! I have a post in mind about hints for finding your ancestors’ hometowns, so stay tuned…I’m feeling my burnout fading. I’m not sure if this is due to the award or the fact that we are taking a little trip to Cape Ann for Memorial Day. Can’t wait to sit on the sand (no way am I getting in that frigid water) on the beach – as long as it doesn’t rain!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Advice for Burn Out?

I should start my post by saying this is not an entry giving advice on avoiding getting burned out. It is a post seeking advice!

This last week I believe I have come down with a serious case of burn out. I hadn’t expected to come down with this ailment this spring. In my mind, I associate burn out with getting tired of doing something – or having to do something you don’t want to do anymore. That’s simply not how my burn out is functioning – and probably why I was surprised to get it. I am not having to do something I don’t want to do. And, I’m not really even tried of doing what I have been doing. I’m just tired in general.

I actually LOVE what I do. Although, like everyone else, my life is pulled in many directions, I tend to think of myself as having two major categories of demands. One is family. The other is work. This is not unique to me obviously. I thoroughly enjoy both aspects of my life. I love my four children (and my husband) and while I find it frazzling sometimes, I enjoy being a mom. And I love genealogy and writing and all that goes with it. Overall, I feel happy and content in my life. So why am I so burned out lately?

I think it has to do with intensity. It has been a very intense spring. In fact, as I thought about it I decided that this past year has been the most intense year of my life possibly second only to my second year of graduate school when I had a toddler and was miserably sick from being pregnant with our second child. It has not been a bad intensity (unlike that year in graduate school). It has been a good year filled with wonderful things – FILLED being the key word here.

Both categories of my life – family and work – have been extra busy for the past couple of months. My kids have intense schedules in the spring because this is when sports get going full swing. We also have all kinds of end-of-the-year events now – dance recitals, piano recitals, band concerts, programs at school etc. Add to that that three of my children have birthdays and I find that just keeping up with my family is a scramble. Then, spring is also perhaps the most intense time of year in the genealogy world. I have been doing a lot of speaking and book events lately too.

The result of all of this is that lately I have a burning desire to plan trips all the time. This is generally what happens to me when life gets stressful. I have been able to justify it because we actually do have some trips coming up this summer that I need to get the plans made for. We are driving to Texas for my sister’s wedding at the end of June and then taking our time coming back, spending time in Memphis, Smoky Mountain National Park, and Shenandoah National Park. In the past week, I’ve gotten all the details worked out about hotels etc. I have also reserved our hotels for Brazil in August and planned our basic itinerary and started looking into plans for a short trip to Acadia National Park we’ll make in August also. While this all has to be done sooner or later (and in the case of Texas, sooner), I am also aware in the back of my head that I am doing this now because I can’t bring myself to do some of the other things I need to do. Soon, I am going to run out of trips to plan and besides, my to-do list is growing.

I would love to hear thoughts from others. Does this happen to you? How do you avoid it? How do you cope with it once it happens?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Writing Award, a Review, and more to come....

Something went wrong with blogger for a few days, so my last post on "A Speaker's Perspective" appeared, then disappeared, then appeared two times in a row (all without me doing anything), but now appears to be right again.

I have a couple of exciting book news tidbits to share. First, this past weekend the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors had their annual awards banquet which takes place every year at the National Genealogical Society Conference. I was not in attendance this year (this week has already been the busiest one of the year for me....), but I just learned that my book excerpt, which was published in Family Chronicle last December, received first place for articles published in 2010. Hooray!

The excerpt is on my book's website. You can read it here. Just click on "excerpt" from the top. I read part of this excerpt in my book talk too!

I also just got an email from Miriam Robbins Midkiff letting my know that she has reviewed The Journey Takers on her blog, Ancestories. Yuu can read her review here. She concludes her review with this paragraph:

"Family historians will benefit greatly from this title for a variety of reasons. The depth and scope of research required to create a quality history of Huber's ancestors' lives is marked. The careful documentation and source citations are to be applauded. Creating a realistic and sequential narration out of the bare bones of facts is to be commended. To be able to research, analyze and synthesize the details of family historians' ancestors in such an interesting and valid manner is something to which we all should attain. Huber's book is a strong example of a fascinating story married to a quality researched work and as such would be a excellent addition to any genealogist's personal library."

If you're not familiar with Miriam's blog, you should check it out. It has been consistently rated in several places as one of the top genealogy blogs out there.

Finally, I got another exciting email last week about an upcoming book award. However, the banquet for this award hasn't taken place yet, so I'm not allowed to share for a couple weeks...(Is that obnoxious?)

I can't resist just two photos. My third child, Sarah Ann, turned six yesterday. We had her birthday party with 14 kids (counting three of mine - Christian was NOT invited)! Here's her with one of her two butterfly cakes and then one of the whole group (minus one child who preferred not to be in the photo). By the way, I gave three book talks last week and I just want to say that frosting those birthday cakes was WAY more stressful than any of the book talks!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

A Speaker's Perspective

I am a crazy person this week. Well, maybe this whole month. For parents of school-aged children, May might be a busier month than December. We have soccer (with two players in the family – one doing travel soccer which requires driving an hour each way for some games) and softball season (one player – also traveling for games) both in full swing. On top of that there is the regular two dance classes and two piano lessons a week. There are end of the year dance recitals, piano recitals, and band concerts all coming up. AND, my three oldest children all have birthdays in the next month – which means three birthday parties. My husband, a college professor, is grading finals and calling in students who cheated (because of an error in the answer key, he determined that 25% of his class cheated on their homework) and attending graduation, and I am deeply involved in the busiest part of the year for genealogy speakers.

Which brings me to my topic at hand. (No, it’s not the woes of being a mother of four and living in the car – French fries are okay for toddlers to eat for dinner, right?) The topic is being a genealogy speaker. My topic was inspired by Thomas MacEntee who challenged bloggers to write about this – a couple of weeks ago. (I’m a little behind the times. What else is new?)

I gave my first genealogy lecture in the fall of 2006. Now I’m confessing personal information here. Maybe I shouldn’t….Oh well….here goes anyway. I had never attended a genealogy meeting of any sort until August of 2006 when I went to FGS in Boston for one day. I particularly remember listening to Craig Scott speak about…speaking. I was enthralled and instantly thought, “I can do this.” How’s that for arrogant? I had experience in genealogy. I had studied genealogy in college at Brigham Young University and had worked full time as a professional genealogist tracing other people’s families. I had also been writing for genealogy magazines since 2003. Until I started writing for magazines, I had remained unaware that there even were genealogy societies, meetings, or conferences. I had just moved from Valencia, Spain to Massachusetts a few weeks before FGS that year – and decided to see what it was all about.

I brought some speakers’ brochures home from FGS with me and went about designing my own brochure. Then, having never been to a genealogy society meeting in my life, I mailed them out to local genealogy societies I found in my area. I attended my first local society meeting in September of 2006, and gave my first lecture in November. I loved it and was instantly hooked.

My speaking has increased dramatically since my book launched last July. Since July, I have given nearly 80 lectures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, Utah, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, California, Maryland, and Virginia. I have spoken to large groups and small groups, to genealogy societies, state historical societies, libraries, senior centers, museums, book clubs, and other places.

Here are some of my thoughts on it:

1) The pay. Let’s be honest. The pay is not great. I once had a society offer me $75 for a one hour talk with this question: “Does $75 sound fair for one hour of your time?” Sure, but that’s not the exchange here. I’m giving WAY more than one hour of time. (And, except in very special circumstances I don’t speak for $75 a lecture either.) I use time to correspond with the society, to prepare the lecture, and to travel (more below). I’ve never known a genealogy speaker who feels like he or she can make a living from speaking.

2) The travel. I love to travel. By that I mean, I have tickets to Rio de Janiero in August and I can’t wait. I’m super excited for our family trip in June to Rocky Mountain National Park, Memphis, etc. Loving to travel doesn’t generally include three hour drives to little New England towns. I have done a lot of traveling in the last year – a lot for me and my family anyway. Tonight I will drive two hours each way to speak in WInchester, MA and on Saturday, I’ll drive almost three hours each way to speak to the Falmouth Genealogical Society. In March, I spoke in Virginia and Ohio and in February, I spent 11 days in Utah. That said though, I actually don’t mind the travel so much. I enjoy listening to a good book on CD or listening to NPR in the car (as a mom of little kids, “alone time” is pretty exciting!). And I also try really hard to combine speaking engagements with other travel. For example, I was invited to speak in Ottawa in October and we have decided to make a family trip out of it and stay five days in Montreal and Quebec City. And in June when we do our big trip, I’ll have three lectures along the way.

3) The prep. It’s A LOT of work to put together a new lecture. I always try to turn lectures into magazine articles to maximize the benefit. I have a dozen or so prepared lectures. I am usually not willing to put together a new lecture at the request of a society, although I am willing to tweak or adjust a lecture I already have. Every so often, I develop a new lecture. This past year, I’ve given my book talk MANY times. I know it so well that I don’t even glance at my notes ahead of time. I just hop in the car and head to the next venue.

4) The nerves. Actually, I generally don’t get nervous. When I first started speaking, I got nervous for the question and answer period. I was afraid I wouldn’t know the answer to something someone asked me. I have gotten over that. Not because I always know the answers. I don’t. But I’m okay with that now. Setting up my equipment can make me jittery if something isn’t working well. This is why I ALWAYS bring my own projector and laptop – even when the group is providing it. I leave it in the car…just in case. There have been several times when I have needed to get it. Sometimes nobody in the society knows how to work the library’s equipment or something similar. I KNOW that I know how to work my own equipment. I also bring an extension cord with me.

5) The benefits. Of course, practically the main reason I have spoken so much lately is to get the word out about my book. Besides, as I mentioned before, I love to speak. Why? I really enjoy the dynamic of interacting with a group of people – and of sharing information that I’m excited about. I love to feel like something I’ve said is useful to others. I have especially enjoyed talking about my book. It is extremely rewarding to have people tell me that they have read my book and that they related to it, or that it emotionally impacted them, or that it inspired them to want to write their family story.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

One Simple Truth of Writing (or should I say editing?)

I suppose I should start this post with a disclaimer. I am a big believer in editing. I spent lots – and I mean LOTS – of time editing my book, and I spend lots of time editing each and every magazine article I submit. However, I do not believe in editing my blog posts. Why not? The main reason is simple: I don’t have time. I really don’t have time to blog. But if I’m going to blog, I really don’t have time to edit. Is that terrible? Maybe so. I think of blogging as a much more casual, conversational kind of writing. When I give a lecture, I prepare my remarks carefully, but of course when I’m just talking to someone about genealogy, I just talk – I don’t prepare ahead of time. I think of my blog as a conversation with others about genealogy while an article is a prepared lecture.

Okay, enough of philosophy. Really that is just all an excuse because I want to “talk” about editing here, yet I don’t want anyone to hold my blog entries up as examples of how to edit. They would be very bad examples because they are NOT edited.

The editor I worked with on my book (and by the way, her name is Kristine Thornley and she’s great if you are looking for an editor) has George Orwell’s Six Rules of Writing on her webpage. Actually, I think of them as editing rules. To me, writing is just the stage where the information spews forth. To shape the writing together into something meaningful and enjoyable to read – that takes editing. Anyway, I have taken the rules to heart. They are:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Aren’t those great? I love them because they remind me of a simple truth about writing. When I first started writing, I wanted to somehow sound smart – or at least fancy – when I wrote. I wanted to use impressive words arranged into poetically abstract sentences. The simple truth I was missing was this: Really good writing is clear, succinct writing.

This sounds simpler than it is. We usually don’t speak succinctly, and, without concentration, most of us don’t write succinctly either. So, to have this clear, concise writing, we have to edit. And edit. And edit. We have to read through our writing and look for these extraneous words, these unnecessary long or complex words. We have to read and reread to focus our language and thoughts more effectively.

In my lecture on “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History,” I describe how after I “finished” my book, I had to do many revisions. In one of these revisions, I cut 50,000 words or about one-third of the manuscript. This always makes people gasp. They are concerned about this deleted material. Afterwards, people ask me what I did with those words. They want to make sure I saved them somewhere. (Some of the words came from deleting entire sections and chapters, but many also came individually out of the middle of sentences.) Well, don’t’ worry. I did save them. I save everything (of substance – not individual words obviously) I delete from a manuscript and paste it into its own little file – in case I ever decide I want it back. But guess what? I never have. Not once have I re-pasted the deleted material into my document. With my book, I had found a way to say the same thing with many fewer words by tightening and weeding out unnecessary material.

With that little pep talk for myself, it’s off to some more editing for me.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Let's Start at the Very Beginning (A Very Good Place to Start)

Today I drove to a library in Albany to speak to the Capital District Genealogical Society about “Writing A Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” I have only been to Albany one other time – that was in October to do an interview with Joe Donahue on the Roundtable (a show on Northeast Public Radio) about my book and about genealogy in general. But as I was looking at my schedule this week (trying to get myself organized), I realized that I am speaking at that exact same library in Albany next week – giving the exact same lecture – but to a different group. Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?

Like everyone else, I get lots of email. I mean to answer all of them. Really I do. But it doesn’t always happen. There’s just only so many hours in the day. I get lots of email from people who ask me questions about their specific genealogy research problems. Some of them are complex problems, but many of them are questions from people who are just starting to do genealogy research and don’t know where to turn or what to do first. So, since I don’t get around to answering all these emails individually, I thought I would address some of these basic beginning steps all at once here.

What should you do when you first begin tracing your family? Here are ten do’s and don’ts to help you get started.

1) DO start with yourself and your own family. You are the first person on your family tree. Make sure you have the relevant documents for yourself and your own family. Then move back to your parents and grandparents. You would be surprised at how many people do not know basic information about their parents or grandparents. Many people don’t know their parents’ marriage date – or even the maiden names of grandmothers. Track down this information first.

2) DON’T get ahead of yourself. Don’t try to start your research with some famous ancestor in the 1800s. You will want to work your way back one generation at a time – ensuring that the connections are correct and you actually are related to this person in the first place.

3) DON’T try to tackle your entire family tree at once. Besides being overwhelming and discouraging, this is also impossible. You will want to eventually choose one family line to focus on.

4) DO educate yourself. Check out books from the library about how to get started in genealogy research. Find a book about how to do research in the particular place your family lived. Join a genealogy society and learn from their classes – and from talking to people there who may be more experienced.

5) DON’T miss the resources on www.familysearch.org. Under the “learn” tab, check out the different Wiki pages to get oriented on a wide variety of topics. For example, type in “German Research” to get a detailed guide on researching German ancestors. You can also find guides for each of the 50 states and most Western European countries – as well as other places too.

6) DO develop a system to organize your research results. For one thing, you will need a computer software program. You can download PAF from www.familysearch.org. There are many other options you can purchase. These allow you to enter information about your family and also list the sources.

7) DO contact family members. Express your interest in gathering information about the family. Find out what others might have or might know that can be useful to you.

8) DON’T swallow online family trees whole – or lineage society records – or really any other record for that matter. Online family trees are riddled with errors from minor inaccuracies to completely incorrect people listed on your tree. You will want to do as I suggested and start with yourself and move back one family at a time, verifying what you find – even if you find a large family tree online.

9) DON’T miss opportunities to interview family members. Documents will be there (okay, not always – but generally), but family members won’t. Get their memories and experience recorded before they slip away.

10) DO take advantage of online sources, but DON’T expect to do all your genealogy research online – or assume that all needed records are online.

By the way, my daughter got a Sound of Music CD for Christmas and lately I often have Doe a Deer in my head - can you tell? The other song I have in my head a lot lately is Here Comes the Sun because my son got a Beatles CD. I don't mind too much because I actually really like both CDs - and it's certainly better than My Little Pony which I have also found myself singing while alone in my car before (maybe that is too embarrassing to admit...)

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Free Conference, a Book Review, and Some Easter Pictures

Spring break is over and it’s back to regular life for me. What that means this week is three lectures: tomorrow to the Central Massachusetts Genealogy Society (CMGS) in Gardner. They meet at 7 p.m. at the American Legion building (22 Elm Street). On Friday, I am speaking at a conference that should be of interest to those interested in genealogy within reasonable driving distances of Worcester, MA. The library (with the help of Kay Sheldon and others) is hosting a two day genealogical conference that is completely free. Pretty exciting, don’t you think? You can read more about it HERE. I’m speaking on Friday afternoon at 3:45 on Beyond Names And Dates: Uncovering Your Ancestors’ Stories. You’ll see a long list of lectures on a variety of topics – some by well known lecturers, and some by lectures who are not so well-known (but I know many of them and they’ll be great!). Then on Saturday, I’m driving to Albany, New York to speak to the Capital District Genealogical Society (LINK) on “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” It will be a busy week! (I will also be driving children to a total of two softball practices, two soccer practices, two soccer games, two piano lessons, and two dance classes, among other things. Spring is the busiest season in the genealogy world – but it’s also the busiest season in the parents-of-school-aged-children world since so many sports take place now.)

On another note, I received in the mail a recent issue of the VASA Star, which is the publication for the international organization of VASA – an group that celebrates Swedish heritage. If you have Swedish roots, you might want to check out their website. They have branches located all over the country, including many in Massachusetts. They hold monthly meetings as well as periodic larger gatherings. Anyway, a recent issue of their publication reviewed my book, The Journey Takers. The review is rather lengthy, but I wanted to share the first few paragraphs:

“Leslie Albrecht Huber’s book The Journey Takers is a highly interesting account of how emigration from three European countries through seven generations crystallize into the family in which the author and her children so far are the latest members. In addition she has gone back three generations in the three countries (Germany, Sweden, and England) and arrived in the middle of the 1700s.

The book is extraordinarily comprehensive, based on nearly ten years of very thorough genealogical research in each of the countries concerned. The footnotes and bibliography take up 55 pages.

The author has previously published hundreds of articles in the fields of genealogy and history, but this is her first book. She was honored for one of her articles in 2004 with the “Franklin D. Scott Award” by the Swedish American Historical Society in Chicago.

A book with so many factual details risks being boring, but such is not the case here. The authoress lends to the presentation her imagination, which gives life, above all to the older generations in the countries of origin and the USA. Furthermore, she portrays her own life and her family at the same time in relation to the research work carried out in each of the places visited and the people she has met there in the present. These aspects of fiction and autobiography make the book easily accessible and at times as thrilling as a novel.”

The review concludes with the following sentence: “Everyone interested in delving deeper in these matters (referring to immigration) ought to read the book, which so far has only been published in English.”

What a nice review!

Finally, I can’t resist closing with a few photos from our Easter celebrations.

We started the week by visiting my brother and his family in New York City. We visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was fabulous – and more kid-friendly than I expected. Here are my children and their cousins in one of the Egyptian rooms in the museum. That night, I gave a lecture at the Connetquot Library in Bohemia, NY (on Long Island).

Rachel and her friend helped make fruit pizza in preparation for our annual Easter egg hunt. This year, we had 77 people at our house!

Sarah Ann and her friends looking for eggs in the front yard.

Christian quickly figured out that there was chocolate in these eggs. After that, he became a very motivated egg hunter. In the end though, he still preferred finding balls instead of eggs in the yard.

The Easter bunny brought coordinated clothes (which about did the Easter bunny in since she had to shop with an assistant who spent his time hiding under the clothes racks at Macy’s.)

My brother and his family joined us for our Easter dinner.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Conversation With My Daughter About Evaluating Sources

Yikes! Where has the past week gone? It’s spring break this week for my kids, which means I’ll be saying the same thing again in a week. We are leaving in 30 minutes for a couple of days in New York City with my brother, but I’m hoping I have time to jot a few thoughts down. (Can you jot thought down when you’re typing on a computer?)

My oldest child, Rachel, is ten. She’s in fifth grade. Recently she came home with the assignment to write her first “research paper.” Now – remember we are talking about fifth grade research papers here. That means the entire “paper” was supposed to be a few paragraphs long. They were required to use three sources, one of which had to be an actual book – as opposed to an online source. (I’ll try to resist the urge to become nostalgic reflecting on the fact that there were no such rules when I was in fifth grade or even high school since of course there was no internet to use.)

Rachel selected the topic of “The History of Irish Step.” Yeah, I know – I should have tried to persuade her to do some sort of genealogy topic, right? She chose this all on her own since she and I had gone a few weeks before to watch Riverdance in Springfield. (Again – trying to fight the urge to depart from my topic – but WOW! – it was fabulous.)

Her class had spent an hour or so at the computer lab and so Rachel had come home with several “articles” printed out from the internet that she had found. As we sat down to look at them, she soon discovered that the articles contained conflicting information. She was baffled. She figured out quickly that they couldn’t both be correct. So, HOW could this EVER happen? HOW could INCORRECT information get online? And HOW could she know which one was correct? And finally, wouldn’t the solution to this problem be to get a book from the library? Surely, it would be correct because nobody would PUBLISH something that was WRONG.

Oh, the genealogist in me was getting so excited about the conversation that was about to follow that I could hardly contain myself. It’s a conversation I have often at genealogy meetings and conferences with people beginning their research and I couldn’t believe I was going to get to have this heart to heart with my daughter at the tender age of ten.

I started out with discussing with her how information gets online. Anyone can put it there. Anyone. Here I am putting this online right now. Nobody is making sure I know what I’m talking about (a question you may have already asked yourself…) One of her sources was Wikipedia – the ultimate example of anyone putting anything online. (I’m not slamming Wikipedia – actually, I’m a big fan but it doesn’t mean I take it as gospel truth.)

This made her head spin and she suddenly became concerned not just about the conflicting information, but about ALL the information she had found. How did she know that ANY of it was true? Hooray! I wish every genealogist asked herself this very question when she found something online. She noticed that some of the “facts” were in every article. Those must be true then, right? They couldn’t all get it wrong.

Oh yes they most certainly could. Again, this is an argument I hear a lot. ALL the family charts say the father is this person. Therefore, he must be. This is nonsensical logic. All those charts could be very well be based on the same original chart that was wrong in the first place. They are just all repeating the same information. If you repeat incorrect information one hundred times, it doesn’t somehow become correct.

But, she reasoned, there’s still hope that a book will straighten it all out. Again, I had to burst her little bubble (poor kid). There are lots and lots of books out there with lots and lots of incorrect information. Nobody fact checked my book, for instance. In fact, only a very few of the magazines I write for fact check articles I submit either. (Once FamilyFun called to verify that my daughter really was the age I said she was in an article. This made me laugh since they were asking me – the original provider of the information – to verify that the information I provided was correct. Luckily, I hadn’t forgotten how old my daughter was in the few months since I had sent in the article.)

It’s enough to throw your hands up in despair, isn’t it? Well never fear. Just as there is no hope remaining, in enters ORIGINAL records. It’s at this point when my daughter gave me a look that said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” I didn’t even begin the discussion of original records that are WRONG. Instead I just said, “Don’t worry. It’s a fifth grade paper. Your teacher doesn’t expect you to dig through archives in Ireland to find original records of Irish Step. I’m sure Wikipedia will be just fine.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Common Mistakes People Make Tracing Immigrant Ancestors

NERGC is over now for two years. It was such a fun conference that I was sad to see it end. I‘ll post a couple of pictures at the end of the post.

Over the past three weekends, I have spoken at three fairly major conferences: The Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference, The Ohio Genealogical Society Conference, and the New England Regional Genealogical Conference. During those three weeks, I have had lots of opportunities to talk to people about their immigrant ancestors – and their immigration research hurdles. This has gotten me thinking….

Of course, there are a wide variety of reasons that we may have trouble finding our immigrant ancestors. It is certainly possible that a person could be doing everything “right” and still be having trouble finding their immigrants ancestors. Some of these research problems can be very tricky and our ancestors aren’t always in the records we think they should be.

That said, I have noticed two major mistakes that people tend to make that prevent them from finding their ancestors. If you’ve been doing research for a while, you may not find these surprising. (And you may have different opinions. I’d be curious to what others feel are the most common mistakes that prevent people from finding immigrant ancestors.)

1) Flexibility in name spellings. There’s a quote I use in one of my lectures from William Thorndale in The Source that says, “An enormous amount of genealogical research fails because people do not take simple precautions in searching for spelling variants.” This is ESPECIALLY true in immigration research. (And no – it wasn’t because your ancestor’s name was changed at Ellis Island. You can read my thoughts on that here.)

There are lots of reasons that our ancestors’ names change spelling and many of them are covered in my post on Ellis Island. But what it comes down to are a couple of things: our ancestors spelled phonetically – based on how things sounded instead of how they were written. Spelling was not important to them. Add to that the language barriers that occurred when our immigrant ancestors said their names to US record keepers. Often they were unfamiliar names spoken with unfamiliar accents and sounds. And the record keeper wasn’t that concerned about spelling either. Think of EVERY possible way your ancestors could have spelled his or her name. Also become familiar with how the name may have been pronounced in the country of origin. As a researcher, you must be flexible – and sometimes creative. You can read more in my article here.

2) Trying to jump to Western European records without fully utilizing US records. Often people ask me what GERMAN (or SWEDISH or ITALIAN etc.) records they can use to find their immigrant ancestors. In many cases I tell them, “You can’t use any German records. You need to use US records.” In most cases, you need the European home town FIRST before you can start using Western European records. Sometimes, if you have fairly specific information, other Western European records will be accessible before you have a town name. For example, if you know the state or county etc. and it happens to have some type of large, indexed database available, you might be able to check this.

Even if this is the case, before you jump across the ocean and start trying to use those records, gain everything you can from US records. I always ask people if they have already gathered (or tried to gather anyway…) some of those basic sources such as census records, vital records, church records, naturalization records etc. You may find the town name you need. Even if you don’t, you’ll be able to narrow your search in other records more effectively.

Also, the more information you know about your ancestor on this side of the ocean, the more likely you will be able to confirm that you have the right person on the other side of the ocean. For example, if you know your ancestor is named Johann Schmidt and he was born in 1857 in Mecklenburg and you find a birth record that “matches”, will you know you have the right person? Of course not. Similarly, often people find a person with the “right” name on a passenger list – but it can be difficult to determine if this is really your ancestor. If you know the age, traveling companions, occupation, home region, year of travel, port etc. – all this can help you identify your person.

On a side note, don’t dismiss someone who doesn’t match up perfectly either. Just as name spellings aren’t perfect in the records, other information isn’t perfect either. Having an age off a bit should not alarm you. Similarly, if the naturalization record says your ancestor came 17 years ago, but the passenger list shows 16 years – this is not a cause for throwing out the record.

The point is that the more you know about your ancestor, the more likely it is that you will be able to find him in the European records – and the more confident you will be that you are really looking at a record for your ancestor.

Here I am at NERGC with Ed Zapletal and Rick Cree at the Family Chronicle booth where my book was available for purchase

I was one of the NEAPG (New England Association of Professional Genealogists) table hosts at the luncheon on Saturday. My table's topic was German research.

Elissa Scalise Powell came for a post-NERGC visit

Friday, April 8, 2011

New England Regional Genealogical Conference

I am home for a pause from the three day NERGC (New England Regional Genealogical Conference) and just wanted to share a few thoughts. I had such a wonderful time yesterday! I love genealogy conferences in general, but I REALLY love NERGC. Here are my top reasons:

1) The People. I was trying to explain this to husband. I told him I almost felt like I was going to a high school reunion (I don’t think this helped him “get it” very much). What I meant though is that one of my favorite things about NERGC is connecting with “genealogy people” from all over New England – and beyond – that I don’t get to see very often. For just three days, they are all in one place. It’s great! I was talking to someone in the hall and he explained it to one his friends this way, “I’m going to a conference filled with people just like me, people who are all nuts about genealogy.”

2) Great Lectures. There are a wide variety of topics at NERGC, and at any one timeslot you have a number of lectures to choose from. Since the conference is in New England, you’ll find lots of lectures targeted to New England topics, even research in specific New England states. But, you don’t have to have New England roots to benefit from the conference. I spoke about immigration research yesterday, and saw other talks on census research, probate records, and on tracing ancestors from different countries. There are well-known speakers from around New England – and from across the country giving these lectures.

3) Well Run and Extremely Organized. I have the opportunity to have a very small part in the planning of NERGC. I oversee the Special Interest Groups which occurred last night. (These are informal discussion groups led by knowledgeable facilitators on different topics such as Italian Research, French-Canadian Research, Irish Research, Becoming a Professional, DNA Research, etc.) Being involved just a little gives me a peek into the running and organizing of the conference. Once again this year, I have been amazed at how well everything comes together. Everybody does their part and works together to pull it off. And of course some of these people devote a huge number of hours to making this conference run smoothly.

4) Close to Home! I only live about 40 minutes from the Springfield Marriott and Sheraton where the conference takes place. This means that I can sleep in my own bed and work around my family’s schedule a bit more. Yesterday, I got my kids on the bus, dropped my toddler off with a babysitter and headed to my third grader’s school – dressed in my suit since I was speaking at 12:15. At Taylor’s school, I helped the kids with some activities designed to increase their understanding of children’s lives in the 1700s and 1800s. One of these activities consisted of shaking milk until it became butter. As I was shaking this Tupperware in my suit, the teacher commented, “Don’t worry if some buttermilk leaks from the container and sprays on your clothes. It always does this.” Yikes! I tried to shake it away from me so I wouldn’t have to stand in front of a room full of people with buttermilk all over my clothes. Then, I jumped in my car and headed to NERGC.

I feel sad to miss out today, but I suppose my husband does have to go to work sometimes! But, I’ll be back tomorrow for the last day. I am doing a book signing at 11 a.m. in the Exhibit Hall at the Family Chronicle booth. So stop by and say hello! Then, I’ll be hosting a German discussion table at the NEAPG (New England Association of Professional Genealogists) luncheon, followed by Ancestor Roadshow appointments – where people have signed up to come and talk to me for about twenty minutes each about their German brick walls.

Conference attendance was nearing 800 yesterday – which I believe is a record for NERGC. So, if you weren’t able to come this year, keep it in mind for 2013!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hobbyists in Our Midst

I just returned last night from the Ohio Genealogical Society Conference. Of course, I had a great time. It was fun to reconnect with people I don’t see very often and talk to other people for the very first time. Another highlight for me – and this may sound strange if you are not a mom of little kids – was sleeping in a hotel room by myself. I always miss my kids and I’m relieved that I only have “local” speaking assignments for the next couple of months (including NERGC coming up this weekend!), but I cannot tell you how much I look forward to sleeping in a hotel room by myself. There is something incredibly luxurious about going to sleep at whatever time I want and waking up at whatever time I want. And my room at the Hyatt was absolutely fabulous…

Anyway, I am already digressing from the topic I mean to write on. While I was in Columbus, I began to reflect on the type of people who attend conferences like these. Now, I don’t mean age, gender, income levels, or even personalities. I mean what level of skills people who come to genealogical conferences have. Most of you probably know the answer to this question: they have all different levels of skills and backgrounds. I notice this so much as people come ask me questions after my lectures. Some of the questions begin like this, “I’m brand new to this and I just wanted to know….” This is followed by a very basic and general question such as, “I think my great-grandfather might have been born in Germany. What should I do?” On the other hand, I also have people who ask questions that begin like this, “I’ve been working on tracing my family for the past twenty years, but I’m a stuck on this one line.” The question that follows will show extensive efforts in searching a variety of documents and advanced skills in analyzing evidence.

Apart from this spectrum of skills, there is another important divide between people at conferences that we don’t talk about as much. Some are professional genealogists – or aspiring professional genealogists, while others are hobbyists. These hobbyists love doing genealogy (and may be new or may be experienced), but their only intention is to trace their own families.

These differences present unique challenges. When you are a speaking, you have to be aware that out there in your audience are hobbyists and professionals – sitting next to each other, each hoping to gain something from your lecture. And let me say - I think conferences generally do a good of job of meeting these diverse needs. My comments that follow are not a reaction or commentary on OGS at all – I just happened to be at the conference when some of my thoughts came together on this.

I feel like most of us recognize the difference in experience levels among people at conferences (or local genealogy meetings). But, sometimes I wonder if those of us who are “professionals,” sometimes forget that there are hobbyists in our midst. Not only are there hobbyists in our midst, but MOST of the people around us are hobbyists. It’s not a difference of skills necessarily; it’s a difference of goals. These hobbyists have no intention of taking on a client – ever, and have no desire to ever publish in a scholarly journal. And, that is just fine.

This should shape our approach. I especially think of this in regards to writing family histories – a topic I speak on frequently. In Ohio, I was thinking about what the main message I want to get across in my lecture is. It’s not “Make sure you use Evidence Explained – and follow it EXACTLY.” It’s not “There is only one way to number the generations in your family history that makes sense, so be sure you get it right.” I realized the main message I wanted to send was, “You can do it. You can write your family history.” I want people to leave my lecture with hope – not fear.

I am, of course, not saying we should promote sloppy research. But let’s face it: the great majority of people in my lecture have no interest in publishing in the NGSQ. They want to write a family history for their family. Lest you be alarmed, I talk about documentation in my lectures. I talk about Evidence Explained and the Chicago Manual of Style. I stress how important it is for others to be able to see where they got their information from.

I also talk about some writing techniques. I warn people about passive verbs, cheer for proofreading (despite the fact that I don’t proofread my blog much!), promote deleting adverbs in favor of using stronger verbs, etc. But, my deep thought after lying in my Hyatt room in wonderful solitude is that there is a more important message than verbs and footnotes.

I hope professional journals continue to hold their standards high. I hope those who publish in them meet these professional standards with their writing style and with thoroughness in documentation.

As for everyone else though, I want something a little different. I want people to write the best, most accurate, most well-researched family history they possibly can. But most of all, I want them to write their family history. Because a written family history – even if it doesn’t meet “professional” standards – is much better than no written family history at all. And you don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winning writer – or a certified genealogist – to write a family history that your family will treasure for generations to come.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thoughts on Researching Family Histories from the Harford Airport

I am writing this from my gate at the Hartford airport as I wait to get on my plane to Columbus, Ohio. (Or actually to Philadelphia – even though the flight isn’t that far, I still have a layover.) This weekend is the Ohio Genealogical Conference. It should be an intense, fun weekend.

The official conference starts tomorrow, but this afternoon and evening, a series of two-hour workshops are offered in addition to the conference for (generally) a $15 fee. I will be presenting one of these workshops entitled “Researching and Writing Your Ancestors’ Stories” at 4:30 p.m. I hope my flight isn’t late!! Saturday morning I will give a presentation called “Crossing the Ocean with the Internet” about immigration research, before hopping on my plane to come back home. I have glanced at the rest of the schedule and it is packed full of interesting

I love talking about doing the research to write full and interesting family histories. I often have people express to me that this is what they love about family history – not just discovering names and dates, but coming to understand their family – what their lives were like, etc. I talk about three mains ways to do this:

1) Dig Deeper in the Records. Often, the “basic” records have more clues than we realize – if we take the time to thoroughly study them.

2) Rely on the Personal Accounts of Others. Even if our ancestors didn’t write anything about their lives, we can still glean those insides glimpses by reading first-hand accounts written by their family members or friends – or complete strangers that experienced similar events and circumstances in their lives.

3) Create the Historical Context. We understand a lot about our ancestors simply by understanding the time and place in which they lived. What kinds of homes did people live in? How did they dress? What did they eat? How were family role expectations different?

In fact, even just typing this now makes me feel a flutter of impatience. I love talking about doing the research to write something – but I love actually doing the research and writing even more! And I have an exciting project underway that I haven’t had time to work on for a while. I am looking forward to life slowing down a bit so I can get back to work on it.

Actually, I think I may end my post and go do that right now…(or maybe I should glance at my lecture notes again….)

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Weekend in DC

We just returned last night from a long weekend in the DC area filled with conferences, family, and sight-seeing. What more could you want?

We drove down (about seven hours plus on I-95) on Wednesday night, arriving around midnight since the last supposed 15 minutes (according to our GPS that fails to recognize traffic lights) took close to an hour. Then we were up bright and early on Thursday morning. I had grand plans of getting in line early to get tickets to go up the Washington Monument and to watch money get printed. We were in one line at 7:30 while my brother and sister-in-law were in another. It was about forty degrees with drizzling rain. (What nice relatives I have – I don’t think they were all that interested in seeing either the monument or the money, but they still stood in line in the cold rain for an hour to get tickets.) Due to the misery of the weather, we easily got tickets since anyone with any sense had stayed inside. Here's a picture of the National Mall and the Capital as seen from the Washington Monument.

We had planned to take a peddle boat out on the tidal basin and see the cherry blossoms – but we were forced to reconsider. Or I should say I was forced to reconsider. My children BEGGED to go still, but even their pleading could not persuade me to climb into a boat filled with puddles of frigid water. Here’s a super cute picture of my brother and son walking next to the tidal basin under the cherry blossoms and then a picture of everyone together.

We did still walk over to get a look at the White House, which somehow in all our trips to DC, I had never laid eyes on. We couldn’t actually go inside since you have to get your Congressman to get tickets for you months in advance and I wasn’t that organized. Here are the kids in front of the White House.

By then, we were more or less ice cubes, so we headed for the American History Smithsonian where we saw the original Star-Spangled Banner. I had actually seen it before, but it still gave me chills. It even impressed my kids.

Friday morning, we spent a couple hours at the Air and Space Museum before driving into Old Town Alexandria for lunch. Then, George and I did the kid-switch (he had been at a conference), and I headed to my conference.

I spent Friday evening and Saturday at the Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference. Friday started with consultations. I found it so fun to talk to other people about their research problems which ranged from basic immigration questions to complex records and methodology questions with family stories of Germans immigrating to Argentina, German Russians coming to the US and others. I did one lecture that night then joined some of the conference planners for a late dinner. It’s a fun group of people in Fairfax and I enjoyed the dinner. I did four more lectures on Saturday, mostly focused on immigration and European research again.

Saturday night, we had dinner with some cousins. The next morning we made the long drive back to Massachusetts, with a quick stop for lunch at my brother’s house in Forest Hills, NY (in Queens).

When we got home last night, my husband asked the kids what was their favorite part of the trip. After seeing the White House, Roosevelt Island, the Jefferson Monument, huge spy planes, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and many other amazing things, as well as playing with all kinds of cousins on Saturday, Sarah Ann (age 5) remarked instantly, “seeing the deer cross the street on the way to Uncle Tim and Aunt Chris’s house.”

I’m so glad we spent 15 hours in the car for that.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Glamorous Job Writing About Western European Civil Registration Records

The other day I was checking out at the grocery story and for some reason (I can’t remember exactly), the clerk asked what I do for my job. I told her that I write for magazines.

“Oh, wow,” she said, her eyes wide. “That sounds so exciting….” I could see her looking at me - wrestling my toddler, with my hair tied in a knot on the back of my head - trying to figure out how I got such a “glamorous” job (people have actually even used the word "glamorous" before). “So what kinds of things do you write?”

“Right now, I’m working on article called ‘Using Civil Registration Records in Western European Research,’” I told her. I could have just said, “I write for history and family history magazines,” and left it at that, but I just couldn’t resist.

She stared at my blankly for a minute – maybe to see if I was kidding. When it was obvious I wasn’t, she said, “Oh.” Her moment of being impressed with my glamorous job was now over. Suddenly, it didn’t seem too exciting anymore.

But, it IS exciting! I submitted my article yesterday morning and absolutely thought it was interesting. So I wanted to share a few things I wrote about here with other people who might also think civil registration records are exciting and glamorous! For a full account, you’ll have to wait for a forthcoming issue of Internet Genealogy Magazine. (I’m sorry to leave you in suspense until then.)

Here’s some random (and interesting) tidbits about civil registration records in Western Europe:

1) Civil registration records usually don’t go back nearly as far as parish records, but some do date back fairly early. For example, in France they begin in 1792.

2) Napoleon brought civil registration to many of the countries he took over, but these countries weren’t so sold on the idea. As soon as he left, most of them quit recording the information. But many places have these brief, early records sometimes written in French – and possibly using the French Republican Calendar.

3) In the Netherlands, civil registration records are the most important records for post-1811 research. And, they are coming online at Genlias (a fee-charging website).

4) Civil registration records began at different times in different states of Germany and Italy since these countries didn’t form until relatively late.

5) The Scandinavian countries do not have very good or very useful civil registration records.

6) Scotland has great civil registration records that begin in 1855 and can be accessed at ScotlandsPeople.

7) Civil registration records can often be more complete than parish records, and in many areas are indexed (sometimes even with ten-year indexes).

8) I haven’t written anything here about English civil registration records, because I find them annoying. (Don’t worry, I did include them in my article – and I didn’t say I thought they were annoying). You can find the indexes several places online, most notably FreeBMD – which is, surprise, surprise, FREE. But, the records are not open to the public and must be ordered. And if you have tried using these indexes and have an ancestor with a name like James Harris like I do, you will understand why they annoy me. That said, civil registration records provided the key to unraveling a mystery on my family. But that’s a story for another day. Here’s the record that did it though:

Now, if that’s not glamorous, I don’t know what is.

Tomorrow we leave for the DC area. I will be speaking at the Fairfax Genealogical Society Spring Conference on Friday evening and Saturday. I will be giving a total of five lectures and doing some consultations too. I’ve never done five different lectures all at once like this. I’ve done four a number of times. I’m worried about all that information fitting in my brain at one time….But, I’m excited for the conference. And I’m excited to be a tourist with my kids on Thursday. We’ve been to DC a number of times before, but there’s always more to see. (I’m not excited about spending seven - or more - hours on I-95 on Wednesday night though...)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

One Lovely Blog Award

In my last post, I mentioned the "One Lovely Blog Award" I had received. Here are the rules for acceptance:

1. Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who granted the award and their blog link.
2. Pass the award on to 15 other blogs that you've newly discovered.
3. Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

So, here is my list of 15 blogs that I'm passing the award along to. Some of them are newly discovered, and some are blogs I've followed for a while.

1. Renee’s Genealogy Blog, by Renee Zamora - lots of great info for the Utah genealogy scene (including FamilySearch updated) and beyond

2. Greta’s Genealogy Bog, by Greta Koehl Her blog post from March 11 has got to be the funniest one I have ever read!

3. Nutfield Genealogy, by Heather Rojo

4. AnceStories: The Stories of My Ancestors, by Miriam Midkiff I wrote about Miriam’s blog in an article some time back in Discovering Family History called “Genealogy Blogs You Need to Read.”

5. The Accidental Genealogist, by Lisa Alzo

6. FrustratedGenealogist, by FrustratedSue – This one is brand new.

7. Amy’s Genealogy, etc. Blog, by Amy Johnson Crow

8. Life from the Roots, by Barbara Poole

9. Granite in My Blood, by Midge Frazel

10. Growing Up in Willow Creek, Mary Nunn Maki

11. Musing by Linda, by Linda Woodward Geiger

12. Clue Wagon by Kerry Scott, She starts out with “My name is Kerry. I like dead people.” How you can you not like a blog with this beginning?

13. What’s Past is Prologue, by Donna Pointkouski

14. The Educated Genealogist, by Sheri Fenley

15. BeNotForgot, by Vickie Everhart

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Family Skeletons in the Closet

Before I write on the topic at hand, I have a comment first. You may see at the side that I have been award the “One Lovely Blog Award.” Actually, I got nominated twice. How fun! I want to say thank you to Lisa Swanson Ellam from the Faces of My Family blog and to Ginger Smith at Genealogy by Ginger’s Blog. I will be passing the award along to fifteen recipients in the next week, so please check back here for a listing of them coming soon.

Okay – but on to skeletons in the closet. One of the lectures that I give often lately is called “Writing a Page-Turning (But True) Family History.” In this lecture, I walk everyone through a step-by-step process describing how to write an interesting and accurate family history. One of my slides is entitled “Be Sensitive.”
My four bullet points for this slide are:
• Protect your family’s privacy.
• Be tactful – but truthful.
• Consider the feelings of others.
• Don’t reveal your family’s “skeletons in the closet.”

I only spend a few minutes covering this – it is not one of the main themes of the talk. But it seems that inevitably it is the topic that gets the most comments and questions – both during and after the talk. It seems apparent to me that many people struggle with this - where to draw the line between being open and honest and being sensitive in their written family history. So, I am going to share my opinion. Now, keep in mind, this is just my opinion. Other people may certainly feel differently – and I have heard lectures where other people put forth a different opinion. But, here’s what I think:

For the sake of time, I am not going to talk about protecting privacy of living people. Instead, I want to focus on skeletons in the closet. I often have people share stories from their families with me that include events such as illegitimate children, severe mental illness, incarceration, extramarital affairs, and so on. What do you do with these things on your family tree?

First, keep in mind that none of us have a perfect family tree. We all have dirt under our tree so to speak. So, don’t despair. Second, I think we should differentiate between skeletons in our ancestors’ closets and skeletons in our own (or our living family’s closets). Now before I go further though I want to add a disclaimer. Each situation is unique just as each family is unique. I will share some general thoughts, but you must make your own decision about what to include in your family history based on the specifics of your individual situation.

My general opinion is if we are talking about events that happened a long time ago that do not involve living people – then put them in the history. There is nothing to be gained from hiding the fact that your great-great-great grandfather committed a crime or secretly had a second family or whatever else he did. I am not a believer in only painting our family in the best light. We need to be truthful (which is not the same as dwelling on the negative). This may bother some of your family members, so you may want to discuss it with them. If it bothers them because is involves their mother or father or someone they knew and loved, then we are moving into a gray area (possibly involving the scenario discussed in the next paragraph). If it bothers them just because it is embarrassing to admit that their ancestors were not all honorable – well, I think it’s time to move past that.

When we are talking about skeletons in the closet that include living people, then I think we should rely on sensitivity and discretion. I do not believe that a family history is the place where grandchildren should first hear that their grandmother (who is still alive) spent years in an institution for mental illness or that their grandfather committed a heinous crime. Now, if this information is freely discussed in the family and family members are comfortable with it – then by all means, put it in. The purpose of not putting it in is not to hide that it happened. It is to demonstrate sensitivity. There may be a time – further down the road – to include this, but a family history is not where it should be first revealed. We have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of writing this family history? Hopefully it is to preserve our heritage and increase our family’s awareness of their history – but also, to draw our family together. Announcing a family secret that others are not ready to discuss is not an effective way of bringing families together. Sometimes it’s not a question of whether or not to include it, but how much to say. For example, you can certainly acknowledge that your father had a drinking problem without sharing horrific stories of his drunken behavior.

One closing comment: Please do not misinterpret my advice to mean that we should hide bad behavior in our families. I am not a psychologist and am not saying that we shouldn’t discuss and deal with these problems openly. I am only addressing family skeletons as they relate to a written family history. Also, I am not suggesting we write untruthful, glowing reports of family members whose behavior was far less than glowing in reality. I am just suggesting to be tactful when considering which bits of “truth” to include. Of course, you must also keep in mind who your audience is. If you are just sharing the family history with your own children then you have more latitude (you can feel confident including more of the “secrets”) than if you want to pass it on to all of your ninety-three second-cousins.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Why I Do This

I mentioned I had some thoughts and analysis from my trip to Utah to share. I really can’t stand sentimentality (the chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to writing), but at the risk of being sentimental, here goes anyway.

On the way home from my Utah trip last Sunday, Christian fell asleep about thirty minutes into the second flight. This left me in the position of trying to hold as still as possible for the next couple of hours so as not to disturb him. It sounds simple enough – but it’s not. Any position on an airplane with a twenty-three pound toddler draped over you gets uncomfortable quickly. I was much too uncomfortable to sleep. I had brought a book (One Year Off: Leaving it All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey With Our Children by David Elliott Cohen – I like to pretend I am someday going to follow in his footsteps…) but after an hour or so I was too uncomfortable even to read (balancing the book and supporting Christian at the same time was giving me arm cramps). This left me sitting there with nothing to do except ponder the meaning of life – or at least ponder the events of the last week or two. Specifically, it left me pondering why I do this (referring to writing and genealogy research, not sitting on airplanes with toddlers draped over me).

I’ll tell you up front it’s not for the money. I’m sure this doesn’t come as surprise to any of you, but neither genealogy or writing as a career path is likely to make you wealthy. If you are wise with your choices in your genealogy career you can make a decent amount of money and if you are wildly talented or lucky (or probably both), you can make an absurd amount of money as a writer. But in general, there are more efficient ways to get ahead in the rat race. Maybe I overestimate myself, but I feel fairly confident that I could make more money doing something else.

It is because I enjoy doing it? Well yes – I do enjoy it. I love writing and I love doing research. I find it exhilarating to speak to groups about writing and doing research. But for all those wonderful moments, there are plenty of moments of frustration, rejection, and just plain exhaustion. I don’t think enjoyment really explains it either.

It would be nice to say that I do it in order to do something that matters in the world. I feel like helping families connect to one another and learn about their heritage is important. I had people during the week tell me that my book had inspired them to want to learn about their families. That was wonderful to hear. But I’m not sure if I am altruistic enough to be solely motivated based on this. (Although maybe I should claim that I am…)

As I was thinking about the week, my mind settled on one experience that I think best sums up why I do it. It’s an experience I mentioned briefly in my last post. I was sitting in the West Jordan bookstore last Friday at a book signing at Seagull Bookstore. And although I probably shouldn’t admit this, let’s just say book signings are definitely not the reason I do this. I hadn’t been there very long when a woman came up and introduced herself. She had emailed me before and mentioned that she might come to my signing – but truthfully, in all the hustle and bustle of the trip and lectures and preparations, I had forgotten.

This woman was a descendent of Georg and Mina Albrecht, the couple on the cover of my book, also – a distant cousin of mine who I had never heard of before her email. We talked about the book for a while and about her memories of the family.

She said, “Well, you’ve certainly done a lot of work on this. A LOT of hard work.”

And I answered with my ready-answer that I say whenever someone says this. “Yes. It has been a lot of work. But it wasn’t hard work. I enjoyed it. I got so much out of it.”

Then she asked, “So, I just want to know. Why did you do it? Why did you write this book? You could have written about so many other things – even so many other ancestors. Why them?”

It had been so long since I had thought about that. Lately I think about pitches and sales and conferences and newspaper articles (and sometimes even overdue blog posts). I don’t think anymore about why I did it.

I sat there for a while and then I said. “I don’t know.”

She looked perplexed by my answer. Finally I added, “Maybe because they had a story that needed to be told. They had a story that I didn’t know.”

Then she leaned closer to me and her eyes got watery. “I just want you to know how much this book has meant to me.”

And that’s the scene I thought of on the plane as Christian made my right hand go tingly from smashing it flat against the arm rest and cutting off the circulation.

If the conclusion you came to after reading my experience is that I do this for my ancestors (to tell their story) or for this woman (because it meant a lot to her), then you are wrong on both counts.

What I realized is that I do this because of the way I felt right at that moment in the Seagull Bookstore. I suppose I do it because of the meaning it brings into my own life. And that’s why I’ll probably continue doing this (despite claiming on a regular basis that I’m going to find another profession…).

Unless of course I find someone who wants to fund sending my family on a year-long trip around the world… In that case, I would happily switch to being a professional traveler – at least for a year.