While you may be fascinated by the subject of your research, unless you can find a story – with a hook – you are not going to get published.
Of course, this may not be your aim. You may be reconstructing a family history for your own pleasure or your family’s information. All equally valid.
But if you want to be read – even by a tolerant and cooperative family – you need to tell your story.
Lists of dates and facts – while interesting to you, and representing the result of hours, days, months of dedicated and creative research – are not that interesting to read. The excitement you felt when you tracked down some hard-to-find little gem of research does not usually translate to excitement in the reader. You have to assume that your average reader is not as obsessed with your subject as you are. They need to be wooed.
Is your story going to be chronological? Or are you going to start with the most dramatic part and then go back in time to show how the subject got to that point? Is there a dramatic part? Too many flashbacks can be confusing unless really well handled.
The best advice I ever received (from Frances Osborne, author if Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter, both about her ancestresses. She said “write with passion”.
It took me a while to work out what that meant to me. My natural writing style has been subjugated over the years into something the cross between a university essay and a government report. Excellent for presenting dry facts and a logical argument but not great for writing a biography.
Write with passion didn’t mean overly flowery detail, emotive words, embroidered prose. It meant entering into the spirit of the subject, the spirit of the times and telling the story from her perspective, even if it was written in third person, not first.
I’m still working on it.
If you are lucky, your biographic subject, their friends, relatives and times, might appear in books, newspapers and magazines.
However, unless you are researching someone who is currently famous, these resources may be difficult to find. Here are a few hints I came across.
1. Newspaper archives. As mentioned, the wonderful newspaperarchive.com has an increasing number of papers from all around the world, and going back over a hundred years. They are also searhable by key word. This remains problematic in tracking down references to women who are oftend referred to as “Mrs John Smith” rather than their own name “Eleanor Smith” (for example). Also, if your subject has a common (popular!) name, this can be difficult.
Other newspapers also have their archives on line.
2. Magazines. These are much harder to find. Few magazine archives seem to exist, with the exception of Time and Life (online). A number of magazines articles I came across were sent to me by family archivists and geneology buffs.
3. Advertisements, postcards and other ephemera. These turn up on ebay from time to time, particularly if you have a topic of popular interest. For instance, Armour and Co. advertising material is frequently for sale. Postcards of towns are also for sale – handy if you are trying to get some idea of how a town looked many years ago.
4. Books. Amazon has an excellent second-hand book seller option, which often has items for sale very cheaply. In additon, some of the harder to find books can be sought through online searches at Alibris.com and Biblioz. Both of these take your details and the details of the book and then set up a permanent search.
5. Libraries often have books and newspapers – but you may have to go there to get them. Alternatives can be to get your local library to borrow it for you on an interlibrary loan, or to purchase copies of microfiche. Some libraries offer this, others don’t.
6. Geneology groups, family groups often have someone who is the collector of family history, particularly if there is someone notorious or famous in the family tree. They may have already collected the items you are after. Family may be happy to loan you items, providing you are not unearthing their family skeletons! If you are, then be aware you may only be given access to the items they want you to see.
7. Google. Don’t overlook Google as an excellent source of leads in tracking down items. Many of the online forums have buffs who are excellent sources of information, and of resources.
So you know your topic – the person or event you want to research. Assuming it is not yourself or someone you know – where can you start to find information?
To start with, make sure you have some sort of cross referencing system ready to go. You never know what little gem of information you come across that might have significance and meaning later on. This used to be a card file of names, dates, places and subjects. Now it is more likely to be computer based. And yes, there are tools out there that you can buy that will help you. In addition to those that are specifically for biography, you can use Endnote, a really powerful research and reference tool. Ancestry tools might also be useful. Either way, it is much easier to enter the data straight away than decide later on the you need it and have to enter the data all over again.
If your subject / event is famous or infamous, they might have mentions in books. Research for you biogrpahy should certainly include finding out what has already been written. A keyword search in Amazon will turn up not only books about the topic, but also mentions of your topic in books on other subjects. And so many of the Happy Valley residents are mentioned in general books about kenya, colonialism, the Briitish in Africa etc. Also in fictional works – be careful to note what is purporting to be fact and what is fiction.
The next easiest place to look for information is in newspaper archives. As noted before, many of these are now online and also available by keyword search. Others can be located using online databases and library catalogues – libraries may be happy to send their microfiche to your local library to read on site, for a small cost.
Another really interesting and relatively easy source of infromation is travel documents / immigration papers. Ellis Island has their infromation all online now, making tracking travel into and out of the United States easy. Infromation such as who your subject was travelling with, what they listed as their occupation, where they listed their regualr address or the address where they would be staying – all useful information. Be aware that this information is not always accurate though – some of the dates of birth seem to be approximate! And tracking women is often difficult as they may be listed as “Mrs Smith” ratehr than their full name.
So what should you be noting? Obviously that depends on your topic, but generally:
• names – friends, relatives, acquaintances, bystanders, contemporaries. All of these develop a background picture of the environment your subject was living in. And should this person turn out to have some significance, you need to know where to go back to find more information.
• places – again, names of local places, common or colloquial names can all be followed up separately. Make sure that you keep some detail of the context – who was there and what date – again, so if you need more research on a particular place you can quickly ascertain which references to go back to.
• dates – if, as Alice and her friends did, your subject/s move arund a lot, a timeline of dates and places is vital. Alice travelled extensivley between Europe, Africa and America – it was ometimes difficult to ascertain where she was when other events were occurring
When you start your research off, you don’t really know where your story might lead you. It is so much easier to do the referencing thoroughly the first time than to have to keep rereading sources to try to remember where that piece of information that is suddenly relevant, might have come from.
Hats off to researchers and writers prior to the advent of the internet. Research must have been incredibly time consuming and expensive, particularly if the subject you pick lived in a number of countries, none of which you happen to live in.
The advent of online genealogy websites and online newspaper archives is an amazing blessing. Being able to search electronically by keyword or name cuts down the enormous hours of reading edition after edition after edition on the off-chance that your subject is mentioned.
On-line chat forums associated with these sites and other interest groups provide access to people from around the world who have special interests in areas you might need information. For instance, the online Formula One forums helped me track down that Alice’s first husband was not a Le Mans driver when she met him (Le Mans did not actually exist prior to their marriage) despite this “fact” being reported extensively in books and nespapers of the time. Nor could the FI forum members identify anyone from any other race-courses who, even using a nom de circuit, might have been him. All this with a friendly chat at the same time. I could never have amassed their decades of knowledge to come to this conclusion.
Alice was born in Chicago Illinois. Her family was mostly from Chicago and New York, with ancestry in Scotland. She spent some of her childhood in Buffalo, New York, also took a number of trans-Atlantic trips to European countries. She spent her adult life between USA, France, Kenya and England. Her husbands were from France and England, and one lover was from South Africa. One husband travelled to South America and Australia. A number of her friends and lovers were military men and hence were posted in various battle fronts. Many of her friends and lovers travelled extensively.
This required me finding and researching newspaper and official archives from all of these countries – a great deal cheaper and easier online than through flights to various libraries to go through their microfiche archives. Photographs are available online and many national archives now have a number of their catalogues available online.
So, a few of the really helpful generic sites:
– Amazon.com (keyword searches and index searches)
– and of course Google, which done regularly on a range of different associated topics, turns up all sorts of amazing links.
Some newspapers and magazines (Time-Life, London Times) have their own archives which are again searchable by key-word. Newspapers from the early 1900s had very different editorial standards, and, one can only presume, were not sued on a regular basis for inaccuracies and flat-out fabrications. (“Leap Year’s Wierdest Romance” featured sketches of how the shotting may have occurred) So be careful taking their word at face value – try to back it up with documents from other sources. Nonetheless, they can be highly entertaining and give you some pointers on areas to investigate.
The best part of these forums were the people – some really lovely helpful people, some other authors that I got in contact with who were very generous with their time and knowledge.
Are there other websites and resources that you have found of help in researching biographical and genealogical information? Please let me know in the comments section and I will add them to a future post.