Maximizing Your Chances for Success

Mark Twain once said of the New Year, “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” That quote always makes me laugh, but I still cling to the hope that the New Year brings with it. It’s an open book full of unwritten pages that hold so much promise. What is written on them depends largely on us, and whether it’s our professional life, our personal life, or our family history, there are steps we can take that will help us fill those pages with success stories. Let’s look at some ways we can fill them with successful family history research.

Print and Read What You Find
With one search on, we can locate multiple records on our ancestors from rich and diverse collections. Then with a click we can attach them to our tree. Times are good for the family historian. But are you taking the time to read and savor every single record you’ve attached to your tree? The clues to your next steps lie within the records you find, so don’t just attach them to your tree and forget about them. Print them off and extract every detail on the record. Think about what each fact means and whether it can lead you to another record. I like to take it a step further and transcribe the record. When I’m reading I tend to skim and skip ahead, but when I’m transcribing, I concentrate on every word.

Be Skeptical
Whenever you notice something in your tree that makes you think, “That’s odd,” be skeptical. And when it comes to information from an unsourced tree belonging to someone else, be very skeptical. Look closely at all information you find, regardless of the source, before incorporating it into your family tree. A good tool for putting things in perspective is a chronology. Arrange the life events you know of for an ancestor chronologically. Events that would seem to defy the laws of nature or that put your ancestor in two places at one time deserve closer scrutiny.

Use a Variety of Records
Just as eating a wide variety of foods can help keep you healthy, a wide variety of records will keep your family tree healthy.  Explore new records like probates, land records, tax, military records, and more.

Be a Student of History
Your ancestors were active participants in history and both nationally and on a local scale impacted their lives and the decisions they made. Local histories can reveal migration patterns, ancestral origins, and delicious stories that might not be found elsewhere. As you learn of events that you think may have impacted your ancestors, add them to the timelines you have for your ancestors and you may find that they too hold clues to new avenues of research.

Review Recent Generations
It’s thrilling as we progress back in time with our research to our second and third great-grandparents and beyond, to ancestral places and historic eras. In our quest back through history, we may find ourselves overlooking more recent ancestors, despite the fact that new resources have become more readily available. Take some time and review the records you’ve collected for your grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as the siblings of your grandparents and great-grandparents. Search all the records at for them and see if they come up in collections you haven’t yet explored. You may find new records that tell more of their story, and you could uncover clues to that will help you as you research the generations that came before them.

Schedule in Time for Family History
We schedule in time for work obligations, school, chores, family fun, and so many other aspects of our lives, why not do the same for family history? Pick a time that's typically convenient for you and set aside an hour a week, or if possible several times a week. Even a half hour, several times a week can add up. If you can manage to get in three hours a week, you'll have logged more than 150 hours of research time by next year, and that could represent substantial progress.

I wish you all the best in your family history research and in your life in the upcoming year.


Juliana Smith has been writing articles and editing newsletters at for more than twelve years. When she’s not writing about family history, she’s probably off trying to track down her own elusive ancestors.