How much research is enough?
Do you know genealogists who say, “I want to write a family history book, but I need to finish my research first?”
Somehow they never get to their book. More research leads to new avenues of information that should be explored. They charge off seeking the vital records of previously unknown ancestors. You have to admire their dogged determination. Just a bit more research and they’ll be ready.
I thought about those dedicated researchers recently as I was rereading Practicing History, a collection of essays by historian Barbara Tuchman, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Guns of August, an account of the first month of World War I, and the second for Stillwell and the American Experience in China. Tuchman offered a great piece of advice on when to quit researching and begin writing.
The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish. I had an object lesson in this once in Washington at the Archives. I was looking for documents in the case of Pedicaris, an American – or supposed American – who was captured by Moroccan brigands in 1904. The Archives people introduced me to a lady professor who had been doing research in United States relations with Morocco all her life. She had written her Ph.D thesis on the subject back in, I think, 1936, and was still coming for six months each year to work in the Archives. She was in her seventies and, they told me, had recently suffered a heart attack. When I asked her what year was her cut-off point, she looked at me in surprise and said she kept a file of newspaper clippings right up to the moment. I am sure she knew more about United States – Moroccan relations than anyone alive, but would she ever leave off her research in time to write that definitive history, and tell the world what she knew? I feared the answer.
How does one avoid this fate? Family history research can be a lot like US – Moroccan relations. The research will never be completed. If you want to get a family history book written, you have to, at least temporarily, stop researching, start taking an inventory of the information you’ve already gathered and start to consider how you might organize that information in a book. When you begin to plan the book two things will probably happen. First, you may find that you have much more information than you realized and that you don’t really need more research to fill in your outline. Second, you will know exactly what you will need to find to write the book so that your future research switches from infinite to specifically limited.
If you want to write a book you have to begin writing it. There will be time for more research when your book is published.
Nancy Barnes is the founder and managing editor of Stories To Tell, a team of editors and book designers who help authors to prepare their books for publishing. She is also the author of Stories To Tell: An Easy Guide to Self Publishing Family History Books and Memoirs. Building on a career as an award-winning teacher, she has specialized in the “creative nonfiction” of memoir and family history. Nancy also has experience in graphic design and commercial publishing, coordinating projects with marketers, designers, and printers. Her successful career path was recently featured in Starting Your Career as a Freelance Editor by Mary Embree. Biff Barnes, an Editor at Stories To Tell, is a writer, educator, and historian. He earned his MA in History from the University of San Francisco, and was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. He taught history and writing for 28 years. His work appears in California Publisher, California History, California Living, and American West. Biff has extensive experience with historical research, oral history, and interviewing techniques. He provides editing and coaching to fiction and nonfiction authors as they gather and prepare their stories for publication.