Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve decided to do another family tree book for a family member in time for Christmas. I’m using Microsoft Word, which isn’t the greatest for page layout, but it’s quick, it does everything that I need and it’s easy to move things around and change the size or shape, if needed. This project is taking a lot of my time, so once again, I’m feeling the pressure.

If you think this is something you’d like to attempt, here are some things I’ve learned.

  • Be organized from the start. If you’re going to be working on a project that will require lots of images, be sure you have your folders set up from the very beginning. For this project, I printed out a couple of 5 Gen charts and numbered each couple. Pretty standard stuff. Each couple has a folder, so those are all already set up in my Google Drive. For example: 1 – Milholland and Little. Every time you find a document you’d like to use in the book, put it directly into the correct folder. If the document will end up on more than one page (parent and child on a census record) go ahead and add the document in both places.
    • Along with being organized with your files, be organized with your “to do” or “completed” list. If you’re going to have to go to the library, keep your list handy so you can add to it as you research. And if you start working on pages and you want to remember that you need to come back to add something later (a scan from microfilm at the library or a photo from the cemetery) be sure you have a running list and not a pile of post-it notes.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll do all of the research now and then put it all together at the end. There is no end. You have to have a definite plan and work the plan from the beginning. Have a “Must complete” plan (I must complete 4 generations) and a “If I have time” plan (out to 5 generations) and even a plan for what you’ll do if you find tons for one line and very little for another.
  • Make your first page or set of pages very early. I started with couple #1. I had a timeline format in mind, so I made the pages for them right away. This page/pages will help you see from the beginning what you’d like to collect and how your going to arrange your page. Things to think about:
    • What size paper will you use? I’m using legal size paper (8.5″ x 14″) so that I can have a nice wide canvas to work with.
    • If you’re going to use standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, what orientation will you print? Landscape or portrait?
    • What will you ultimately put these pages in? If you’re printing yourself, you will probably use a binder. In my experience, legal sized binders are only available online, so order early! If you are having it printed, how soon do you have to get it in to receive your final product on time?
    • How detailed do you plan to be? Sometimes, I get so caught up in trying to find the details that we genealogists love and I lose time by chasing down the minutia. Will the gift receiver really care if you have every tax record? Probably not. But they might be interested to know when an ancestor arrived in a certain location.
    • Here’s a biggie. What are you going to do for the female ancestors? Let’s face it, there aren’t as many documents for the women. And if you’re just collecting census records, you’ve got duplicates through the husband and father. So do they get their own page? Do you include them with their father? With their husband? It will save you a ton of time to make that decision EARLY in your process.
    • What exactly would you like to be able to add to each couple? For me, I’m adding a cropped image for each census (names and ages only), marriage license/register and pictures of grave stones. I will also include a text box showing the birth of the next generation direct ancestor on the timeline. Everything else is a bonus. I know that every ancestor won’t have a civil war pension, but those that do will need extra space for that information.
    • Once you’ve found a document, download it immediately. Don’t kick yourself later for wishing you weren’t going back to find something you didn’t think you’d end up using. I always say, “Better to have it and not need it than to wish you had it!” I even take that one step further…once I’ve downloaded it, I go ahead and crop it. I crop away any extra black around the edges and straighten the image, if needed. Then I make a copy and crop it down to the specific area to make it easier to read on my timeline. All of the documents will be included on a flashdrive along with the book.
  • When you make your first set of pages, try to make it as duplicatable as possible. Think of it as the template you’ll use for the rest of the book. I spent an entire afternoon creating the timeline that will be at the bottom of every page. I had to think about who the oldest ancestors were to make sure their lifetime would fit on 1 two-page timeline. And what would I do if I needed more space for an event? How will I “fix” the timeline for an ancestor who didn’t live as long as the others? I don’t need a 100 year timeline on every page if some of the ancestors only lived 40-50 years. I would not want to have to re-create that timeline over and over, so I have a blank set of pages that contain the timeline only as well as a plan for “fixing” the timeline. I start with those pages for each set of ancestors and rename the file as soon as I’ve added specific information.
  • Having a list of nothing but documents can be boring. How are you going to make the ancestor come alive? Will you write a short bio? Write a sentence or two for each detail on the timeline? Add some images? Maybe you don’t have access to any family photos. What about images from the place that they lived or the occupation they had? Try to find the house they grew up in on Google street view, or a map of their hometown. My uncle LOVED to shoot marbles when he was a kid. Finding a picture of an old fashioned marble game would be a great image to add to fill in some blank space.
  • After you complete your first set of pages, print them out before doing any more pages. Something that looks great on your monitor may be pretty difficult to see once it’s printed out. I don’t plan on printing pages as I go because you never know if I’m going to decide to change the set up for the title or something like that, but printing out the first page or two is a must. Better to find out now that something isn’t going to work rather than at the end!
  • Finally, set up some type of timeline to complete the project. Do you just hate feeling stressed trying to get something finished before Christmas? After I made the 5 Gen charts (I’ll admit that I did quite a bit of research before starting the book to get these names down.) I set a goal of completing 6 couples per week. That’s about 1 a day. Some of those will go quickly, so if I get a little ahead, that’s great! If I stick to this time table, I’ll have everything on the “if I have time” list ready to print by December 15. If I realize that there’s no way I can accomplish 6 couples per week, then I can fall back to the 4 generation plan and that will take a ton of pressure off.

If you decide to work on a project like this for a 2019 Christmas gift, I’d love to hear what you’re doing to make it “easier” to accomplish? (We all know it isn’t EASY, but you know what I mean!) Here is one of the pages I’ve been working on. This is half of the timeline for this individual. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you enjoy the project!