Strategic Thinking: A Research Plan

nose in bookI declare there are no “brick walls.”

WHAT! you say. I instead contend that there are problems that we haven’t tackled yet or problems that we have tackled by “grazing” in the data. Oh, sure, eventually everyone runs into no records, but—we have genealogical dead ends because of a lack of strategic planning!

Our strategic answer? It’s called the development of a research plan.

So, I ask you to think of one of your intractable problems.  Got it? OK, let’s get started and see what kind of progress you can make on it. (All links are in the footnotes.)

We are going to develop a strategic research plan for your particular problem. I would suggest that one could do this with your easiest problem, but it might be better to start with one that you think is solvable, but you haven’t yet found the answer.

There are three phases to a research plan.

Phase 1: Recording all you know.

1. Start fresh. Act like you have never seen this problem before.[1]
comment: We cannot all go on vacation, like the resource listed but we can clear our mind of preconceptions about the problem we wish to tackle. Meditate if you have to.

2. Clearly state your research question and write it down. Make your individual of interest unique in the world using the “known facts of the case.” Write your question at the top of a blank document. Make it 14 pt. font and bold. [2]
comment: This is often harder to do than initially perceived. You are not writing this question for you, but for a casual reader who picks up the document tomorrow. Be obsessively specific about your ancestor of interest.

3. Gather together every shred of evidence that you already have that relates to the individual or his/her relatives, business associates etc.[3]
comment: This is not reviewing what you have in your genealogy database, but rather to pull out the actual document and look at it. You are looking for hidden clues or clues you missed, because you hyper-focused on that single bit of evidence and missed others. (That filing system and compulsive citing your sources pays off today!)

4. Document by document, write what you know, based on what you have. Start with the citation and then summarize what is contained within the source. Transcribe and abstract any documents with handwriting. If your document is a census, record the neighbors of at least 10 families in each direction. Label this section “Background.” [4]
comment: It is almost guaranteed you will see new information that you had not seen before, for example–are the children going to school? Perhaps there are school records. You may (or even should) transcribe printed documents as well. Remember this is your intractable problem and we cannot get to an answer without some work.

5. Note whether the “thing you are holding in your hand,” the source, is an original, derivative or authored work; whether the information is primary, secondary, or indeterminable; and whether the evidence is direct, indirect or negative in response to your research question. Don’t stop with just categorizing your documents. Instead, analyze your response. Record your catagories and if there is better record put it on your research plan. [5]
comment: For example, if you have a derivative work, is there an original? If so, where? Even if an original, is there a document that would be closer to the event?The analysis is the key piece here.

6. As you are doing no. 5 above, identify all FAN Club members and place in a table with the date of interaction and the role your ancestor played in that interaction. Label this “FAN Club.” keep the interactions in chronological order–you are building a timeline.[6]
comment: What you are looking for is patterns–patterns of interactions with others. Who keeps showing up? Do not be too narrow in your range of years you are looking at….you might be looking at 2 or even 3 generations of interactions.

7. Add known dates of importance of your individual of interest to your timeline. Depending on your problem, there may be other key individuals (in a separate column) you wish to add to your timeline. [7]
comment: Developing a timeline is particularly important when you have too many individuals with the same name–each candidate will get his/her own timeline. At this stage your timeline will be incomplete, but it includes what you know.

8. If appropriate, take your timeline and expand it to a table, which includes all people you think might be relevant to your investigation–family, candidates for identity (for example, all your possible John Smiths), business partners, and other members of the FAN Club you developed in item 7 above.  Add their events to their timeline as well. [8]
comment: The principles of physics apply here. See my next post!

Phase 2: Research researching

9. Because of your hard work in items 1-8, you should now have identified some localities or resources to investigate that you hadn’t thought of before or places you need to re-look. Develop a five-item research plan of the sources that are most likely to yield salient information based on what you know. Add the list of five items to your document and label this ”Research Plan.” Each resource should include a draft of the citation. Put the citation in bold. [9]
comment: Get the rest of that probate packet, find that regimental history or “mug book,” conduct a line by line search of a census…..just 5.  Your research plan may even include re-looking at some databases etc. which did not yield fruit the last time. This research plan is dynamic–once you start researching, you will add other resources to investigate.

10. Review Part 2 of Val Greenwood’s book for a list of types of sources. Review each source type to determine if researching that type of source might be likely to provide additional information for your particular research question.  Place “likely suspects” on your research plan.[10]
comment:  You may have to research the resources, e.g. determine what the names of the newspapers in that area at that era, before you can build the citation.

11. Read the FamilySearch wiki for your particular locality for additional resources. [11]
comment: The FS wiki is a go-to place for me for locality research. Research every jurisdictional area: country, state, county, court. If you do a lot of research in one area, consider writing a locality guide so you don’t lose all this fabulous work you are doing. consider also Cyndi’s List and Linkpendium.

12. Conduct a locality or topical search in Family Search and Ancestry catalog. Click through every entry in the catalog to identify film you ought to order or if the film has been indexed or uploaded and not indexed.  Add each film to your research plan as a citation. Your research plan should be longer than five items by now.[12]
comment: 70% of the Family Search resources are not accessible by conducting a surname search, but instead have been digitized, but not indexed by surname.

13. Review the National Genealogical Society (NGS) States series to determine if your state is included. These wonderful books are an overview of  resources and repositories that are state specific and which include archives and repositories you may not have thought of.[13]
comment: Another place to look for resources is the WPA inventory books (check Google or FHL). In the 1930s often WPA workers were asked to inventory county records, identity the documents held, where held and the years of coverage, for example, Civil War registrations, voter lists etc. Perhaps some of these records still exist.

Phase 3: Researching

14. Based on your research plan, conduct the research of your top priority source.  If you think of a new resource to check, just add it to your research plan in priority order. Always write out a skeleton citation.[14]
comment: Do not be afraid to remove a resource from your list. Your initial research may lead you down a different road than you had initially thought, rendering your initial thoughts less imperative. I form a “GARAGE” at the end of my document where I “park” resources I deem unlikely. I put them in red and save them. I may never look at it again, but I have been known to resurrect content from the “GARAGE” before.

15. Do your on site research. If you cannot travel, then enlist a friend or hire a genealogist in the area. Revisit your research plan and add new sources (as citations) as they are identified.[15]
comment: I have hired a researcher in a specific locale to find documents for me that I cannot access myself easily or cheaply.

16. Order those FHL films you identified in your catalog review or better yet, take a trip to Salt Lake City and do your research there in the company of research experts who can help.[16]
comment: You have to be registered to utilize the film loan program, but it is free. Film rental is minimal. Did you know you can call the FHL and get a telephone consult as well?

17. Re-conduct old research. We are smarter now then we were five years ago.[17]
comment: I visit a particular county courthouse every five years. Every time I ask for the same thing—the records on my Bode family—every time, I get something new.

18. Record ALL searches, including those that yield noting. Constantly update your research plan. Record all your findings including your negative searches. Label these Negative Findings.[18]
comment: At this point, beware of the “bright shiny object.” the goal is to practice “mindful genealogy.”

19. Repeat.

There are many standard locations in which to look that I have not covered here, including State Archives, local archives, genealogical society collections, newspapers, cemeteries, to name a few. You are responsible for knowing your area and your problem well enough that you know what will yield fruit for you and what might not–but remember we can find the most amazing evidence in the most obscure locations.

There is no guarantee that you will get to an answer to your research question by doing the above, but I can guarantee you will be further along than you were before and you wil have a terrific document outlining your search!

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last post: Finished a client report, worked on several syllabi that I thought were done–I was wrong. Since I am now Seattle GS president, I am dealing with society issues and generation of the Board agenda. This month we conducted a Society Summit planning meeting to see if there was any interest in getting the GS of the Puget Sound area together–there was and so we will be putting that together in the Spring.  I am getting prepped for my Google Hangout with 14 eager individuals who desire more information about certification by the Board for Certification of Genealogists(R). I have never done this before; I am waaaaaay outside my comfort zone.


[1] David Rock, blog post, “Back from Vacation? Don’t Waste a Precious Clear Mind,” Psychology Today, 6 September 2009, ( : accessed 12 February 2017) .

[2] Thomas W. Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof (Arlington, Virginia : National Genealogical Society, 2013), 7-8.

[3] Elizabeth Shown Mills, blog post, “Quick Lesson 11: Identity Issues & the FAN Club,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( : accessed 12 February 2017).

[4] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Professional Genealogist: A Manual for REsearchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers and Librarians, “Transcripts & Abstracts” by Mary McCampbell Bell (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc, 2001) 291-396.

[5] Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, 8-16.

[6] Mills, “Quick Lesson 11.”

[7] Jill Morelli, blog post, “Timelines for Analysis & Correlation,” Genealogy Certification: A Personal Journey ( : accessed 12 February 2017)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyber Space (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Co., Inc., 2014). This source gives you some templates for proper source citations, but do not be afraid to compose your own. Just make sure you have all the information needed for the casual reader to be able to evaluate the quality of your source.

[10] Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, Co., Inc., 1990), part 2.

[11] Family Search, wiki ( : accessed 12 February 2017). You also can do topical searches and even find out about entry hours for the Family History Library and the webinar classes they are conducting that month at this site. Cyndi’s List ( : accessed 12 February 2017) and Linkpendium ( : accessed 12 February 2017).

[12] Family Search, catalog ( : accessed 12 February 2017). Ancestry, waypoints: Ancestry > Search > Card Catalog. Sometimes the Ancestry catalog is located in the sidebar at the bottom. You can also use the map for access to the items related to a locality search.

[13] National Genealogical Society, “Research in the States Series” ( : accessed 12 February 2017). As of this access date 24 states had been covered. TIP: if you don’t see your state published, go to the NGSQ and search on your state. Iowa, for example does not have a booklet as part of the “Research in the States” series but does have a comprehensive article in the Q: George E. McCracken, “Genealogical Resources in Iowa Archives,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 41 (September 1953): 67-69.

[14] Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, Chapter 3 “GPS Element 1: Thorough Research.”

[15] Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 12 February 2017). You can do a name, location, research specialty or geolocation search to find a genealogist who subscribes to the standards o the APG.

[16] Family Search, wiki, “Ordering Microfilm or Microfiche,” ( : accessed 12 February 2017).

[17] Federation of Genealogical Societies, website, ( : accessed 12 February 2017). If there is a society in your area, check out their website for classes; some run free webinars. today, more than every before, there is no excuse for not taking a class a week and learning something new.  Google: Illinois State Genealogical Society, Southern California GS, Wisconsin State GS and Legacy Software webinars for online educational opportunities–free!  no excuse.

[18] Jones, Mastering Genealogical Proof, 15.


17 comments on “Strategic Thinking: A Research Plan

  1. Gayla Nieminen says:

    Another great post, Jill–lots of excellent advice!

  2. a gray says:

    Thanks, Jill, for sharing this. It helps to provide focus to an intractable (nice word) problem with which I have been struggling for almost 50 years. That sounds impressive, but for the first several decades, I was not sophisticated enough to even bein to understand its scope and depth.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      I hope to post a step by step example soon.

      Hugs to you. JM

    • Jill Morelli says:

      I understand completely. Sometimes we have to spend some educational time before we re-tackle the problem. That’s why I am big proponent of re-looking at the evidence we have already collected–we see things differently; we read between the lines; and we see the context better.

      • a gray says:

        I have approximately five lineal feet of documents that were sent to me in 1991. They came from and elderly genealogist who collected them from 1935 on. They relate to various Southern pre-Revolution “brick walls”. They are organized– “sort of”. I haven’t really looked at these documents since receiving them. The genealogist to send them to me was a significant researcher in his day and published several books which are still well-received. I’m sure that there must be gold in those five lineal feet, but the prospect of digging it out is very daunting.

      • Jill Morelli says:

        Wow! I suspect every archive in town or elsewhere would love to have that. What is the location of most of the “action” of the documents found? NE? I would love to see some of your finds. You could do blog posts like Trish Nicola does and her Chinese Exclusion Act Files… document per blog; 1 blog per week.

  3. Barbara says:


    This is the most thorough explanation I have seen yet. Thank you.
    I must have missed the post about a Google HangOut for those interested in Certification. Can you point me to that one.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Barbara, the Certification Discussion Group is set up to encourage WA genealogists to join a discussion group about certification. A few weeks after I had recruited Seattle and WA genealogists to the class, I posted it on Facebook. With that I got enough individuals interested that the group is full with a waiting list. So, there was no blog post but rather a mention in “What I did since the last post.” Jill

  4. Jade says:

    Thanks for this terrific methodological outline. It will have enduring research value.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Wow! Thanks. I hope it does have a life longer than a blog post can give it. I think its a pretty good post! I decided to reformat a problem I have been working on to see if “fresh eyes” will help. I will post it step by step as a post with cross references to the numbers on the original post. It is also possible that I will find that my original post needs some tweaking. No surprise.

  5. Margaret R Fortier says:

    Great post, Jill. Very useful and specific. This will go into Evernote and I’ll have to think up a new tag, like ‘read once a week’ or ‘look away from that BSO’!

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Thanks, Margaret. I am glad you liked it and I am flattered that you think it important enough to share. I felt the “three phases” of a research plan were my big takeaway. I had not thought of the RP in quite that way before.
      BSO’s are the bane of my existence….I can get sucked in so easily. Enjoy the weather–I hear it’s terrific on the East Coast.

  6. Cohen Swiney says:

    Excellent post, great perspective and approach

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