Composition: Part One

The map

Alicia Crane WilliamsMany people enjoy fishing, but not as many enjoy cleaning the catch. That is why we all have piles of research sitting waiting to be compiled into finished accounts. In some cases we may have entered our data into a genealogical database, but as nice as they are for sorting a multitude of facts, there is still no replacement for a well-written genealogical story.

Few of us enjoyed English composition in school (do they still teach it?), and with texting and tweeting the art of complete sentences is dying. I happen to like writing, have a little training, and through years of experience am getting better at it, but I can see the “deer in the headlights” look in the eyes of many researchers when they are faced with the idea of “writing” their genealogy.

I developed the Early New England Families Study Project format to make my job easier, and I also thought it might be useful to help others put their family histories in writing. I call this format “Register Style with subtitles.” It is my “map.”

  • Migrations/Residences: What are his origins, when did he come to New England (if not born here) and with whom, what places did he settle in or remove to?
  • Parentage/Family: Identification of (or theories on) parents, siblings, relatives, and connections to Great Migration families and/or Early New England Families already in print. Probate, deeds, or other material supporting family relationships.
  • Birth/Baptism: Records (or estimates) of dates and places of birth and/or baptism.
  • Death/Burial: Records (or estimates) of dates and places of death and/or burial.
  • Married: Records (or estimate) of date and place of marriage.
  • Bride: Name of bride (or husband, if subject of sketch is female).
  • Bride’s Parentage/Family: Same as above.
  • Bride’s Birth/Baptism: Same as above.
  • Bride’s Death/Burial: Same as above.
  • Land/Property: Grants, deeds, etc., showing property acquired and sold by subject.
  • Community: Civil offices held in town and/or colony, committee service, etc.; when made a Freeman.
  • Church: Records of membership and dismissals; ecclesiastical offices held; church sanctions, punishments, etc.
  • Military: Records and description of military service.
  • Court: Records of court activities, civil actions, criminal cases, magisterial offices held.
  • Occupation: Occupation and any interesting supporting information.
  • Personal: Anything else of interest about the individual – what others thought of him or her, what he or she wrote. Did he have a peg leg or a glass eye?
  • Estate: Probate records, wills, inventories, administration; deeds to and by heirs.
  • Children: Listing of children with births, marriages, deaths, spouses, parents of spouses, and spouses’ births and deaths.
  • Resources: Any significant source that provides additional material about this family.
  • Commentary: Anything that needs discussion or explanation.

The Early New England Families Study Project uses this “map” to create a summary of information about each subject, but it does not try to transcribe, abstract, or identify every record. For your family, you can use this “map” as a starting point on your journey towards developing a complete and fully explored genealogy in NEHGS “Register Style.” To paraphrase the proverb, “A genealogy of a thousand words begins with a map.”

Continued here.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

31 thoughts on “Composition: Part One

  1. Thank you so much, I needed this information as I have been putting off writing my families’ story for a very long time.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I may ‘just’ decide writing my history won’t be so bad!

  3. Alicia, thank you for this post! One of the things I like to point out in presentations on writing is that Register style really does walk you through what to record: first this, then that–exactly as you outline.

    1. Penny, yes. I think the subtitles help a lot, otherwise Register Style looks quite formidable unless some like you has walked people through. How are you doing?

  4. Very interesting; now to go back through my family history (600-page) and see what I need to add especially court records and estates.

  5. Thank you for sharing this easy to follow method of organizing piles of paper! I have tended to put various death certificates, obituaries and burial records in a separate pile from census records, but when I need to find something I just freeze up and decide its a project for another day. I am now motivated to sort my jumble into a “map”!

    1. Debra, thanks. If it helps, my office (read, entire house), is chronically a jumble, too. The map leads me through.

  6. Love this analogy! “Many people enjoy fishing, but not as many enjoy cleaning the catch.” And it describes my current organization – slimy with scales!!! 🙂

  7. This is very nice! With your permission , I would like to use it for my group genealogy gatherings or email one with your name and organization. Thank you, Alicia O’Neal
    Genealogist Independent Contractor,
    Founder of Genealogy Researchers of Bexar County (GRBC), MBA-HCM

  8. Thank you, Ms. Crane, I’ve looked at the sketches you prepared on my ancestor Daniel Morse, however, I found that some of the dates are slightly different from the Morse Society’s dates I have been given.
    I am glad to be able to have other records to compare. Your template is extremely useful because it is difficult to know where to begin when trying to write a narrative and having all the records in one place makes it more manageable.

    1. Hilda, thank you. Discrepancies in dates among old sources is a great headache. If you find any of mine that are not properly supported, let me know!

  9. Then there’s the EMBED or FOOTNOTE Decision. As in GREAT MIGRATION’s “…[WaBOP 24]” versus EFNE’s “5. Watertown Book of Possessions 24 [see footnote 1].”

    I would not recommend the Mayflower Pink Book style: [1]…[2]…[3]…[1]…[3]… and so on, where each source gets a unique number that is used again wherever it is needed in the usually very short gen-bios. It works for them. When I went to convert my original such sourcing format to footnotes, even I got confused.

    I’d say FOOTNOTES for the Final Draft, but when starting use EMBED a la GM. If no embed source, that means you have NOT sourced the fact statement. It stares you right in the face: “… after floating down the Ohio to Cincinnati, they took wagons and oxen sledges overland to Township 4 [HIST. WARREN CO. or HIST. MADISON Co. ?? <–RECHECK]." Even "…[HUH???]" will work to remind you about an Important To-Do. [Se P.P.S. below.]

    For title abbreviations, see the lists at the beginning of each GM volume for pre-1775 material. These are NOW The Standard Short-Title Abbreviations. No use re-inventing the wheel. FOOF is FOOF, not Jacobus, Old Families.

    REMEMBER: An Unsourced Fact Statement is just HEARSAY.

    P.S. When Footnoting do NOT worry about things like putting brackets around the number showing in the text. That's a peculiarity of certain (*ahem*) gen-magazines. It'll just get in the way of your using Alicia's map. If what you've worked up is article quality, those kinds of things are what editors and copy-editors do. Don't worry upfront about that stuff. GET THE BASICS CORRECT AND SOURCED. Future generations will thank you.

    P.P.S. You can also always go One Step Further on the Just-To-Be-Sure Side of Citing.

    Well l-done family genealogies may have a complete transcriptions of a will or short summaries. Its OK to cite just the genealogy, as in "[Gerrity, RALPH PAIN 12-13]" if its a complete transcription, but especailly if its a SUMMARY only of that will, you are better off citing it as "[Gerrity, RALPH PAIN 12-13, citing BCP 4:275-277; original in "Ralph Paine, 1727" File Papers]". You see this a lot in Anderson's GM. You never know what might have got "Lost In Translation", and you or someone else might want to check on it.

  10. Alicia, your “map” (writing checklist) is great, and I really like how it ties in well with the key topics used to create immigrant sketches in the multivolume Great Migration publications that precede your current work. That provides a comfortable continuity between your work and that of Robert Charles Anderson. One of the topics I found interesting and useful in the earlier Great Migration work was entitled “Associations,” which included a reference to siblings, other non-parental relationships (aunts, uncles, etc.), significant friendships in Old England or New England, and relationships with a particular clerical group or personage. These data came from various places, including wills and Harvard University biographical sketches. Perhaps you were planning to include association information under one of your other map topics? If so, great; if not, perhaps it is worth considering. Associations can provide a welcome back door to research efforts when the front door is found to be locked.

    1. Jack, yes, I stole the idea from Bob and Great Migration, heeding his advice to include some topics he had not. I try to put the associations that I know about in under Parentage/Family, or Commentary. Bob’s research on Great Migration associations, of course, is far more encompassing that what I can do, but as Early New England Families progresses, there will be more opportunity to provide cross-fertilization.

      1. OK, sounds good. Really enjoying reading about your insights into how you intend to get and keep your arms around the elephant. It appears that the Early New England Families project is in very good hands.

  11. I am one of those people who would rather write a narrative than do data-entry anytime (I love to write). Data entry is not only tedious, the process makes it a set of disjointed facts until you do build a narrative around them. By doing the narrative up-front, I get to see where the un-ohs are right away, or if I miss them, it’s easy for someone else to point them out. When I start compiling data, I like to start with a timeline and a literal map: I am a visual person, and a physical map makes omissions glaringly obvious. A huge question presented itself when I realized that my ggggfather (somewhere in there) had relocated to Tennessee from CT, and I had no idea what route he took, whether he’d sojourned along the way, and who he took with him (or vice-versa, as it turned out). I pirate my narratives for the data for the genealogical summaries. It’s slow, but I’m getting there. I can use Alicia’s “map” for pulling things together to remind me of what I still need to do. Which is lots.

    And Robert’s suggestion to use inline citations for drafts is excellent. I’ve done that for a long time, having been a writer of scientific papers for purposes of making policy, I needed to make sure I had everything accounted for, and how better in the development phase than to keep the kittens with the cats.

    I learn from all of you, including the folks who post here with questions I didn’t know I needed the answers to. I enjoy getting to them a bit, and getting to know the staff at NEHGS as well.

  12. Thanks for the outline. I am almost done tweaking my own sketch format and I like the idea of including social and other associations in a sketch.

    I know I am not alone when I say have a lot of unlabeled family history information. And that is why my sketch format also includes a 10 pt universal footnote with my full name, my birth date, date I last updated a sketch and __ page # of X pages. (FYI, information in a universal footnote is repeated on every page.) I include this to save time for future family historians.

    Since my primary goal is not to publish my history but to entice my fact-phobic but very visual relatives to read my sketches, I begin every pedigree member sketch with ideally a short grabby anecdote plus one or two photos. Because I am done fishing back 6 generations, I know I will be able to include at least one of these elements in every pedigree member’s sketch.
    My favorite way to be grabby is to lead with an unusual characteristic (such as ACW’s tip,a peg leg) or something that connects the sketch subject to living or recently deceased family members.

    Drawing in readers to my 3rd great grandmother, Elizabeth (Whitcomb) Gates (1795-1877) is one sketch I’ve just begun that will be easy because I have so much information about her including a portrait and silhouette of her profile. My grabby anecdote is Eliza’s tiny chin. My mother plus my 4 sisters, a nice and myself all have Eliza’s exact chin. My tiny chin dropped to the floor when I found a photo of Eliza’s silhouette in the New Hampshire Historical Society’s collection. My shock was partially due to the odds against inheriting more than 5% of one’s dna from 3 generations back. In fact just before finding Eliza’s silhouette I had read a genetic genealogist’s blog post with the odds of inheriting certain thresholds of DNA back 8 generations.

    Casual readers of my Eliza sketch will not note the mitochondrial chin DNA in my family without my pointing it out. At this juncture in my family’s history I am the only person who has studied my ancestors. If I don’t write my observations and insights, they will likely be permanently lost.

    Of course we must include dates, names and properly cited sources. But I implore everyone to also include their personal observations and insights.

    1. Sarah, excellent methodology. Yes, a universal, or running, footer and/or header on every page with information about the compiler is essential when dealing with material that is not printed in a physical book. Creating your genealogy with the family as primary audience is also excellent. The genealogical material and facts make up the skeleton, which has to be solid, but the stories add heart and flesh.

  13. Thanks for this brief and simple format. When I was teaching beginners, I encouraged them to write about the people they knew, including themselves, parents and siblings. My chapter for composing the narrative is called “Keeping Your Research Out of the Dumpster.” Students expressed surprised to hear that their shoeboxes of beloved notes, charts, and scribbles, might not appear valuable to family members without some coherent treatment. Sadly, they didn’t see themselves and their modern stories as family history. If it wasn’t on the computer or in a cemetery, the information didn’t count.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Joan, yes, indeed. How many sad stories do we hear about boxes of papers being thrown out after someone dies. It isn’t enough to collect and keep the “stuff” by itself, it has to be interpreted. Good thing we like interpreting.

  14. Thank you so much for the discussion of the map. I am preparing a Register style genealogy on my 17th century ancestors. Being technically oriented, the names, dates, places, and citations are relatively straight forward for me. My mentor tells me to put meat on the bones (eg, probate and land records), which requires considerably more effort on my part. Your map will be a big help for me to do that. I only wish I had read it when you first posted it. Also, the proof reading post is also very helpful.


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