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.
4 thoughts on “Stop Researching and Start Writing Your Family History Book”
I am enjoying your articles. They are helping me transition from research to writing.
This is wonderful and wise advice! So many folks are waiting until their research is ‘done’ or their tree is ‘complete’ – and we all know that just doesn’t happen, particularly with new material coming online practically every day…
One excellent researcher in my husband’s family line would rarely share documents because she paid for many of them and was going to write a book someday to recover her investment. But she never wrote the book, and the research will probably die with her, and that is such a terrible shame!
I’ll contact you directly at your society’s website about how to include the post in your newsletter.
I am the editor of our society’s periodical, Polish Footprints. I would love to reprint your article in our spring issue. Full credit will be given to you along with your credentials.
May I have your permission to reprint?