Research and Citations: Save Time, Get It Right From the Start

Cover of Kerry Gans' The Warren Family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and their Ancestors, a genealogy research bookI’ve written a family history book for my father’s side of the family, and I am now at work on one for my mother’s side. The book for my father’s side took forever, but not because of the writing—because of the research.

Obviously, genealogy takes a lot of research. Over 20 years I have documented evidence from everything from tombstones to letters to photographs to legal documents for birth, death, and marriage. I have a genealogy program where I enter all the data, and cite my sources for each data point.

The problem? My citation entry proved insufficient.

Marriage Certificate of Mary Hobson Warren and Daniel LeinauAs I wrote my father’s book, putting the data into readable prose fell smack into my wheelhouse. But I wanted other researchers of those lines to have a fully sourced genealogy at their disposal. When a genealogist finds a source (such as this book) where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, that provides a paper trail, and has sources so you can judge for yourself the reliability of the data, it’s like striking gold. I wanted to give this information to people gift-wrapped, as a way of paying forward all the help I had gotten from those who researched before me.

Family Bible birth entry for Isaac Kite, 1754Since citation-supported research was a main goal of the book, I needed to have clear citations for every piece of data. I found in going back into the data that I had often been lax in my citations. While more prevalent in the early days when I often didn’t know better, I also found other places where I had taken shortcuts.

  • I had vague citations: “Tombstone.” Well great, except I didn’t say what cemetery. “Marriage License.” Whose? Issued where?
  • I found incorrect citations: “Scotland Birth Registry.” No such entity exists. I either meant the Scotland Old Parish Records, or the Scotland Statutory Records Index (depending on the date).
  • I had no citation at all. This baffled me the most because I clearly did not make up the information. I got it from somewhere. Often it required me to dig through the information I had to finally find the source.

Screenshot of genealogy database program for organizing researchSo the biggest time-suck writing my genealogy books is the source citations. I often have to stop and track down the original source so I can properly source it. Then I have to fix it in the genealogy program before I add it to the book. The upside, of course, is that when I am finished the books my genealogy database will also be in tip-top shape.

What does this mean for your writing research?

I know most of you are not writing genealogy books. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from my mistakes.

  • If you write historical novels, have a database where you list every historical detail you use and where you found it. That way you can defend that detail if needed, and it gives you a go-to list for more in-depth research if needed.
  • If you write contemporary novels and people helped you out with details of setting, character, or culture, write it down. In the many years it can take from first draft to publishing, you may forget who told you what, and when it comes time for the acknowledgements, you don’t want to forget someone.
  • If you write fantasy or science fiction, track every bit of real science or history you used to inform your world. Not only will you be able to discuss and defend your points, you can then go back to those sources later to see if there are updates to the science or cultural history that you can use in future books set in the same world.
  • If you write thrillers, mysteries, or police procedurals, you’ll need insider knowledge of the justice system and perhaps technical knowledge for things such as planes, submarines, and weapons.
  • Another advantage to all these research notes is that you can use that information to support blog posts and presentations, non-fiction works about the same subjects, and as resources to refer readers to if they want more information.

We writers pull information from everywhere, and we collect data on a wide variety of subjects. We need to know where all that research comes from. Don’t waste time later having to go back and retrace your steps to double-check a detail. Get it right from the start.

Do you keep track of your research? How do you organize the data and sources?

Contents and Endnotes and Index, Oh My!

I’m embarking on a new venture—non-fiction. It’s a whole new world.

As you may know, I am heavily into genealogy. Several years ago, I compiled all my data into a prose format to distribute to my father’s family (I’m still working on writing out my mother’s). Now, I have more information, and I am updating the book. But this time, I am working on it with an eye towards a wider audience.

Now, I know that genealogy books do not appeal to the general public. However, to that sleuth searching for their family, for that one missing link, a book about their line is pure gold. I cannot thank enough the people who have helped me on my quest, nor can I fully describe the joy of finding a treasure trove of well-documented information.

I want to give others that “family tree high.”

My intention is to fully source the book with endnotes and citations, so anyone reading the book will know the primary source of the information. Wherever possible, I will include pictures and scans of those sources. And I will put it online for as reasonable cost as I can so that others can access the information easily. I also intend to donate copies to local historical societies and/or libraries with genealogical collections. I want this information to be found.

But writing this book is much harder work than I thought.

Not the content itself—writing about each family lineage and couple is pretty easy, as it is chronological and all the information is right in front of me in my genealogical database. It’s the rest of the book that’s making me a little nuts. Like the Table of Contents. And Endnotes. And Index. Oh my.

My version of Word (2007) insists on creating my Table of Contents for me. Which would be very nice if I could figure out how to do that. It’s got something to do with “Styles,” but I have yet to get the details right. I need to sit down and figure it out because once I do, Word will supposedly update the Table of Contents as page numbers change. But so far it has been a headache and I long for the days of the old Word where I could do it myself without my computer freaking out and trying to think for me!

The Endnotes are fairly easy—soooo much easier than on a typewriter!—but I had forgotten what a pain it is to cite every fact on a page. Haven’t done that since my Master’s Degree ten years ago. However, citing everything has been a wonderful way of double-checking my sources within my own database and finding holes I still need documents to fill.

Then there’s the index. What a Herculean task! As far as I know, there is no shortcut to doing this in Word. I have to go through each page of the manuscript and enter each name into my Index database, along with the page number. And if I end up adding or deleting things and those page numbers change, what a headache to go in and fix! If anyone out there has and helpful hints at this, please leave them in the comments.

So there you have it—my latest project. It’s growing alongside my fiction works-in-progress. I’m juggling this book project, two fiction WIPs, several short stories, the weekly blogging, and querying for a third fiction project. I’m kinda busy! But I prefer having multiple projects—it keeps me from getting burned out.

Do you switch between fiction and non-fiction? Does it help keep you balanced?

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