3 Effective Ways to Jumpstart Your Genealogy Research

We're often told to "review our notes" when our genealogy research has stalled. But just digging out our old notes and reading them isn't always effective. Here are three things I've done when my research has stalled and needs a jumpstart. 

3 Effective Ways to Jumpstart Your Genealogy Research


1. Create a Timeline

Timelines are my "go to" tool when I'm stumped on a genealogical problem or I need to see what I have in a new way. Creating a timeline lets me see the details of a person's life that aren't easily captured on an ancestor chart or family group sheet. I can also add events that aren't specific to that person​, but that had an effect on him or her. I routinely add county creation dates, starts of wars, and major events in the area where the person was living. 

(If you use Excel to create timelines, check out my method for getting the dates to sort correctly.)​

2. Print a Family Group Sheet

Even though many of us are trying to get all of our genealogy to be digital, there are times when a paper copy is useful. I find that printing a family group sheet, as opposed to seeing the family on my computer screen, helps me better visualize what I have. 

Depending on your genealogy software, the view on your screen might not list all of the facts that you have for all of the children, but a printed copy of the family group sheet does. Having that in hand helps me spot gaps in my research, such as missing dates and spouses for the children. Researching those other people in the family can be the key that we need!

3. Review Your List of Sources

This goes hand-in-hand with printing a family group sheet. When you print it, make sure that you set it so that it includes the source citations. Review what it is that you've used for those names, dates, and places on that family group sheet. 

Have you used original records, such as wills and birth records? Have you relied mostly on derivative sources, such compiled family histories or published abstracts of records? Are most of your sources other people's family trees? 

Let's say that the death date that you have for your great-great-grandfather came from a list of tombstone readings. Is there something better you could use? Are there death records for that area when he died? Do you have a photo of the tombstone so you can evaluate it? Do you have an obituary? Seeing where your sources could be improved can further your research.

Your Turn

What your favorite way to jumpstart your genealogy research? Leave a comment below!

Posted: June 22, 2017.

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  • I use a white board to work on issues. It let’s me see the bigger view all in one place. I make notes of things to check right on the board.

  • I transcribe records. Not just names and dates like an index, but an actual word for word transcription. I am continually amazed at what I find in a record that I thought I had picked all the good stuff out of already. This actually helped me bust through a ten year old brick wall!

    • Definitely! It’s so easy to gloss over a document to pull out “the good stuff,” but there are often important clues that we miss when we do that.

  • I look for newspaper articles, maybe an obituary or a birth, death or marriage notice, or just an article about one of the people I am researching. These searches lead me down all sorts of journeys to make connections between people and places.

      • But don’t stop when you find AN obituary. I have found different obituaries in different papers for the same person but with sometimes brand new information!

        • That’s true! And sometimes the same paper will have different obituaries or articles on different days.

  • I’ve made a written master checklist to review for each person I research. On it, I’ve listed every single resource I’ve ever used. I refer back to it to see where I need to look when I get stumped.

    • Care to share that checklist? I’m trying to put together the same thing and I would greatly appreciate some insight as to what others are looking at.

  • Amy- Great ideas! Thanks! When I feel stalled I like to review my documents. I start with one ancestor and review/re-read the essential documents I have for them. Sometimes I find a new nugget of info or rediscover some vital piece of info I forgot I knew. Sometimes I realize something is missing and take this opportunity to gather records I neglected to obtain the first time round. For me it always seems to be a missing Census record. Thanks for sharing all of your great insights. I look forward to them!

  • Amy, Thank you for the example of a time line in Excel. I just started one for a whole family a few days ago, but I had it like a census record with the rows and columns reversed (names down the first column dates across the top row like the age groups in the census), so of course I couldn’t sort it. This makes a lot more sense. I am interested in the cousins as well as the direct ancestors, so I have migrations of individuals and families to consider as well as dates.

    Again, thank you!

  • I set up a chronological story bringing in all relatives adding all the stories by date from multiple sources and look for patterns. Often there are fun surprises that pop up

  • I have just started to write the story of my mother-in-law’s family and found as I was writing I had so many questions and I wanted to also record my sources as end notes. Result was I found forums on line that gave me details about some family members including one branch were Quakers in England. As a result I now have detailed written records of marriages, births and baptisms as well as deaths going back to 1755. Simply trying to do the story gave me an insight into the many new resources available as well as the alternative sources for information.
    I enjoy reading your hints.
    Marilyn (researching Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland and Denmark).

    • Writing is such an overlooked tool in our research! So many of us dread writing, but it makes us think about how we know what we know and how it all fits together. I’ve spotted so many gaps by starting to write something.

  • Great ideas Amy! It might sound a little different and weird, but when I need a jumpstart to my research I look at pictures of them and their descendants or ancestors. It sparks my question asking and wondering. Then I go a look for articles that would answer that question and find more facts that get me all excited and enthusiastic about my genealogy. Something else I like doing is calling my cousins or family members or looking back over the personal stories that they’ve shared about an ancestors personal life. All this sounds funny I know but it truly does spark questions that lead to more and more questions and more and more information. After that one little spark my research becomes the big, “contained” hunt and gets me so excited which truly does help you with anything in life really.

  • I use a random number generating website to pick who to look at next (my software gives each person a number). Thay way you look at the tree from a new perspective.

  • What a fantastic article.
    1. I’ve only started using timelines in the last year and now I can’t live without them. I’ve used them to sort out the lives of my grandmother’s parents, to track an extended Seekonk, Providence, East Providence boundary dispute and am now putting together one for my uncle’s career in the Marine Corps. It helps me see links and connections that I would otherwise miss. It also adds to my understanding of how much more complex a life or an issue can be.
    2. I’m always telling my beginners’ classes about the importance of family group sheets. It’s my first principle. Then I reiterate it in other genealogy classes I teach.
    3. Although I emphasize the importance of citing sources, I hadn’t thought of using them in the way you just suggested. It now seems so obvious. Being a genealogist is like being a librarian. Half the time you’re helping others and half the time you’re the one doing the learning. Thank you for being such a great teacher.

    A source I’ve learned to rely on more and more are local libraries and historical societies in the cities and towns my ancestors lived in. I always check the local library’s online catalog. I have found some gems of locally printed books that have only been dispersed to a few select libraries (sometimes surprisingly far afield.) I request them through my library’s interlibrary loan librarian and so far I’ve always had at least one library that is willing to lend a copy. Doing this I’ve found that an “only child” actually had a sister and another ancestor was adopted! Another book helped me sort out that boundary dispute I mentioned above. Whether or not someone can actually visit a library or historical society, it’s worth contacting people as well as institutions. Local librarians and historians can be a wealth of information–some of it uncatalogued and based entirely on the individual’s knowledge and experience.

  • I like to put information about an ancestor or group of ancestors into a table or spreadsheet. Sometimes rearranging the information lets you see a pattern or missing information. I did this with all the baptisms for a family and seeing the names of the sponsors all together in a column helped sort out collateral families.

  • I like to revisit different spellings of last names, especially when I enter a search on Google Books. The problem I keep having is all the great information on local histories that get me distracted!

  • I like to go back to a family I haven’t worked on digitally and digitize the paper files, look for holes and expand my previous research. That always jumpstarts something!

  • I like to discuss the problem with a fellow researcher. That’s the greatest advantage of belonging to my local historical society – being able to share knowledge and exchange ideas. 2 eyes – or heads! – are better than one.

  • I like to call, text or private message my friend. We bounce ideas off each other and we help with research. It’s amazing she or I could be working to solve a problem and getting no where and the moment we collaborate we find something that helps the process along.