Details make the difference. According to Lawrence P. Gouldrup in Writing the Family Narrative, “The writer may begin with genealogical research, but he must augment that research with extensive local and general social, cultural, economic, scientific, and historical research if he expects to produce a successful exposition or narrative. It will happen no other way.” Both primary and secondary research with add depth, breadth, and universality to your narrative.
Organization is especially important here, too. Keep names, addresses, dates, letters written and received, notes from telephone calls. Since the project may last several years, you may end up duplicating efforts. Be sure to record where you found “nothing,” too, so as not to find it again!
The library is still the most useful information source. In addition to government documents like the U.S. Census, they also contain books and periodicals relating to Sociology, Education, Medicine, Geography, Religion, Literature, Psychology, Business, Music, History, Law, and Art.
State, County, and City Historical Societies will be where most of your genealogical research will be done. In addition, they will have microfilm of all state newspapers as well as copies of city and state local histories, county and city directories. They often have general Genealogy Resources as well as photograph archives and copies of other family histories. Contemporary newspapers and magazines are especially useful in obtaining a sense of place and historical time.
Most Museums have archives that are not open to the general public. However, most of them also welcome serious researchers. In addition, they are great places to give you a sense of the time period. You feel you are actually reliving the history. You can also see historical items in better detail and up close, both regular and special exhibits. Living history demonstrations and special events are great sources of “process” descriptions. Copy illustrations. (You will need to obtain permissions if you publish publicly.)
County Courthouses offer property, court, probate, and police records as well as transcripts of speeches, minutes of meetings, health inspections, driving records, and marriage licenses. In most cases, you can also view documents of public court cases and appeals. If you know what you are looking for it is less time-consuming to write or call and ask for information.
Church records can supply information on baptisms, weddings, funerals, church history, minutes of meetings, and books–library, hymnals, Bibles, prayer books, catechisms.
Read newspapers and magazines from the period/area to have a feel for the times. Even advertisements, especially the illustrations, can help you relive the time period.
The internet can be both a blessing and a curse. Its positive benefits include finding material that would be otherwise inaccessible and being able to type in key words to expedite searches. However, there is so much information, that it becomes extremely time-consuming–or rather, time-wasting. Much of the same information can be found in the libraries, museums, and historical societies.
Be thorough, patient, and friendly in your research. Add a personal touch when working with librarians, county clerks, historical societies, etc. Involve them in your “story.” (But don’t waste their time!)
Take along your camera and photograph everything–you can even take pictures of pictures. (Use them to generate stories in family interviews. In utilizing these sources, go beyond the obvious.)
Family resources (interviews, family keepsakes, recipes, etc) should also be worked in with the primary and secondary sources. Schools attended, family education records such as report cards and diplomas, yearbooks, school newspapers, scrapbooks, autograph books, trophies and awards are all rich mines of material.
Have a textual reason for the research. Incorporate research smoothly into the narrative. Don’t quote too much or at too great length or it will be an interruption for the reader. If there is more you want to add that might clutter the narrative, put it in the notes.
Expect serendipity. Sometimes great finds are just dumb luck.
Truth versus Facts, or Can you make it up? All we can give is our version of reality.
Rainer (Your Life as Story) states, “In writing for yourself and your family, you may wish to take less poetic license. If writing for publication, you may need to take more.”
Gerard (Creative Nonfiction) agrees that “Fact well arranged can be art.” There is no single, absolute Truth, so we must aim at Truthfulness–not Inventing but Interpreting. The stories should carry both a “literal truthfulness and a larger Truth.”