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Put The Story in Family HiSTORY

This article originally appeared in the NextGen Genealogy Network's newsletter The Dispatch.  If you have not already become a member of an organization that supports your history addiction, I would highly recommend you consider it.  Check out the NGGN website to learn more. 

When I tell people that I love history, I can literally watch their eyes glaze over (or, worse roll back into their head).  "UGH, I HATED history,"  they say emphatically.  Then as they catch themselves and get a little embarrassed that they may have just insulted you and your career, "But, I mean, it must be SO interesting...... I love (insert topic here: the Titanic, Downton Abbey, WWII Era)."  Usually, it is a highly commercialized subject in history which has garnered many appearances in television, movies and literature.  What I find interesting is that there are so many other dramatic, exciting, action-filled plots throughout the scope of history.  The common factor between these topics is that they aren't the dry, fact-laden history from high school text books-- they are stories. 

 It's a problem that family historians deal with as well and one of the many reasons we cling together, congregate in forums online and at conferences around the country.  We want people with whom we can share our discoveries and triumphs when our families' eyes just glaze over. Can we make our family history as engaging as Downton Abbey or The Titanic? How could we even try? The trick is telling stories.  Movie plots, T.V. shows and books aren't magically interesting, they use a formula to capture our interest and draw us in.  Of course, no matter how popular a particular story won't appeal to every audience, but it is possible to broaden the appeal so that more people can be engaged. 

 1. Prologue.  We have to connect with the characters.  This is what a prologue is for.  It helps us care about the big dramatic events because we connected with who the character was before the events took place.  These could be simple factual details that tell us who we are rooting for in the story, what preemptive struggles are they facing that puts them at a disadvantage, this creates tension, adversity and most of all makes us want to see them win.

 2. The Struggle.  This is the part where you elaborate on what the subject is coping with, it could be a multitude of things pertinent to your subject matter, some examples are: anti-German sentiment after WWI or WWII, living in a new country with a different language and culture and trying to find work, working in a mine on the west coast during the early 1900s with ever-present danger.  In the prologue you told us why we should care, now you are giving us something to care about, something we want to see the character overcome.

 3. The Climax.  This is going to be the turning point.  This is where your character makes a decision and acts out the decision-- for better or worse. 

 4. The Resolution.  Of course, we all love a happy ending, but sometimes in real life the endings aren't happy and that's okay.  Whatever the outcome, you have successfully told a story, the purpose of the resolution is to make us glad we heard it.  Tie up the loose ends and show us what happens.  Maybe the miner never struck it rich like he hoped; maybe he even got horribly injured in the mines and decided to go back home where he met his wife at which point they settled down and had kids. 

 A story can be plot driven or character driven, the difference is whether you were inspired by a mining accident that your ancestor was in or an ancestor who was horribly injured in a mining accident, the difference seems subtle and you need both a character and a plot to make a good story, but they change how you tell it.

 These parts of a story, make up the plot, that will help engage a listener or reader in the life of your ancestor they can be bent to accommodate an unending number of situations or story lines.  Mainly, what they will help you with is how to layout the story to capture someone's attention.  Whatever the family history, making sure it has these four components will help engage those around you with the research you've done.  

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Where I Work: My DIY Office

Since I've talked so much about organization and the importance of having aesthetically pleasing surroundings, I thought it might be interesting to show you where I work and ask to see where you do your best work!  I thought it would be a new spin on "Motivation Mondays" where we can get inspired by eachother.  

Although I have to admit that I do not spend all of my time here, one of my favorite spaces is my own office.   In my opinion, that's the way it should be! Afterall I designed it to be a space I would work well in, with all of the conveniences necessary for me to be productive and engaged in my projects.  

DIY Office

My office was a bunch of little projects, and I love every single one of them.  

Return Desk: My skirted desk used to be an old vanity that I had when I was a kid.  I added the skirt, made a knob to look like a rose and painted it a soft ballerina pink.  

Filing Cabinet: The filing cabinet was painted with a slightly darker pink, kind of a 1950s mamie pink, then I used this fun vintage inspired fabric print to cover the drawers attaching it with Mod Podge.  I painted the hardware because mine was in really rough shape.  

Chair: The chair was this super comfy vintage piece I picked up for $2 at Goodwill.  I stripped all the old gross fabric off and recovered it with fabric to match my filing cabinet.  I also polished all of the chrome colored metal with goo gone and painted the armrests to match the return desk.  

White Boards: I love to keep track of my schedule and daily  to-do items, and rather than having hundreds of lists everywhere, it is way better to keep one and keep it current somewhere that I won't lose it.  I took some old photo frames that I have had forever and some pretty scrapbook paper that matched my fabric.  I spend some time deciding what kind of layout would work best for me and then cut the scrapbook paper and glued it to white tag board cut to fit my frames.  I used some pretty scrapbook details like sparkly letter stickers and some flourishes to add some detail.  

Curtains: These were a little bit of an after thought, mostly I had some left over fabric and wanted a way to blend the two different patterns a little more. It wasn't quite enough to make traditional curtains, so I used some ribbon tied into bows around the top to hang them.  


I've added some other little details here and there, a little organization caddy with some binders to sort my current projects with all the supplies that I need to keep up with them.  A rug and some plants to warm the space up a little bit more.  It is a space I love to spend my time, which makes getting my work done a whole lot easier.

Where do you work? I want to know! Show or tell me about your space in the comments!  

Tara Cajacob

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Get Your Priorities Straight in 10 Easy Steps

Do you struggle finding your focus? Does it seem like you don't get as much done as you could with your time because your mind wanders or you are paralyzed with overwhelm?  If so, this blog post is for you.  

Working with big projects used to freak me out.  When I first got started, I felt like I had no idea where to start so every time I would try I was so scattered I would waste hours getting nothing done.   Now, I have strategies that can help me work through even the most complex and seemingly endless projects imaginable.  Which means I can get more done in less time.  Isn't that what we all want out of life? 

In the end, a big part of this process comes down to priorities.  The reality is, there is no way you can get everything done every day.  You will have off days, family obligations, emergencies, and other things that come up and detract from your productivity.  You can't do anything about those obstacles, but what you can do is decide in advance what your priorities are and how you are going to accomplish those things that rank at the top of your list.  Here is how you can do it in 10 steps:

  1. Think about your general priorities in your life.  What are your top five? Some examples might be: Family, Friends, Health, Home, Work, Hobbies, Etc.  Where do you place research?
  2. Formatting a to do list for success.  When you write a to do list,  start with major categories that point to what category the activities fit under.  Those get capitalized roman numerals (I, II, III...) beneath those, an indented list of tasks which get numbers (1, 2, 3) and if they are complex they get broken into sub-tasks that get letters (a, b, c) which are further indented. 
  3. Choose two categories that align with your life priorities.  When you write up your daily to do list, make sure to rank activities that top your general priority list as more important. Pick two to three categories and highlight them.  Those are your priorities for the day.  
  4. Simplicity wins. If you find yourself overwhelmed by your list, then simplify it.  Re-write, using only those highlighted items.  You can add to it later after you finish it.  Sometimes this act of re-writing is like clearing your slate and giving yourself permission not to get it all done.  
  5. The 80/20 Rule. This rule has gotten a lot of press in the past couple years, but here is why I think it is awesome.  In theory, it says that if we go at something without a plan, twenty percent of our time will be spent being productive in tiny increments over the course of the entire span of time we use up.  The other 80% of the time will be less productive.  There are two ways you can use this:

    (A) If you have a lot you need to do in a day, you can spend the first 2 hours doing the most important tasks.  Use your most productive 20% all at once.  Then, there is nothing to say the other 80% of your day won't be productive, just less productive, in setting the bar high right away, you raise your average output for the day.  

    (B) If you feel guilty for spending some time unproductively, spend 20% of it getting important things done and then relax and enjoy the rest of the day however you wish.  If you were preoccupied and thinking of that fun thing you weren't doing, you wouldn't be getting much done anyway. 
  6. Scheduling Tasks. By designating space on your calendar to the most important things you are mentally making these items an event.  Psychologically events are important and require focus and attention.  
  7. Set a timer. If something is a priority and you are still having trouble focusing on the task at hand, set a timer for a reasonable amount of time to complete the item.  Sometimes, the mental accountability of having a timer that requires you to get the work done can be that extra bit of motivation that you need to get it done.  
  8. Schedule priorities that don't have tasks associated. Some priorities just don't have a whole lot of tasks associated, for example, if you are a working professional, sometimes family time can get neglected because "remember to play a game with Tommy" doesn't always fit nicely into our to do lists.  For this reason, remember to schedule blocks of time to spend on these important activities that fit into your priorities so they do not get neglected.  
  9. Reward yourself for accomplishing priorities. Even little rewards can have powerful psychological effects.  Figure out what kind of reward system will work for you.  Sometimes just visual cues, like putting a marble in a jar every time you complete a task, or even crossing items off of a list can be enough.  Sometimes you may need something a little more tangible, like scheduled time to do something you love - like playing a game or reading a book.  It all depends on you! 
  10. Spend time assessing whether you are focusing on your priorities. In the end your life will be defined by what you do rather than what you say.  What does that mean? It means, if you prioritize something in your life, you have to practice spending time on it.  When you look back on your week, did one of your priorities get totally neglected? If so, you need to think hard about whether that item is really a priority to you.  If it isn't, it needs to come off the list.  If it is, you need to find ways to spend time honoring that priority.  

Whats top priority on your list for today? How do you get things done? Let me know in the comments below!

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

Motivation Monday: Becoming A Visionary

If you've read my new ebook, The Purposeful Family Historianthe title of this post and the quote that I use below will be familiar to you.  This idea of becoming a visionary, is really inspiring to me, I think it is the epitome of looking at something from a unique perspective and thinking outside of the box.  

The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.
— Malcolm Gladwell

I think that in academic fields that tend to require a certain amount of formality, it can be easy to forget about the importance of creativity and ingenuity.  I encourage you to take some time and think about how a sense of vision and imagination could enrich your research process and help you look at your history project in a different light.

If you liked this post and you haven't yet read the book. Now is the time! Today is the last day of the Free Book Promotion on Amazon.  So click the Buy on Amazon button to get your copy now!  

I only ask one little favor: If you love it, would you consider leaving an Amazon review with your thoughts?  The more reviews the book has, the more people will be able to find it and get some use out of it.  

I so appreciate your help, and I really hope you enjoy reading your copy.  

How have you been a visionary in your research? Who do you think is a historical visionary?  Let us know in the comments!

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

The Ultimate Organization Cheat Sheet for Genealogists

Does it feel some days like you are buried under a pile of papers?  Do you worry if you start organizing it could eat away days, weeks or months of your valuable free time that you could otherwise spend researching your family tree?  

I get it, I've been there. But it doesn't have to be that way forever.  I've created a printable cheat sheet to break down your organization into small easy to accomplish, bite-sized tasks that will help you start to get organized and stay that way once you get there.   

Wondering how to get on the track to a more organized life? Well, wonder no more.

Weekly:  On a weekly basis do these three things.

  1. Mark Your Papers.  As you work, mark your papers so you can easily identify where you will need to file them.  In our Historical Research Planner: Filing Pack we include small color coding labels that are meant for this purpose.  You could also write a surname to further break down your papers into individual file groups you will eventually place them in.  
  2. Sort Your Papers.  Once a week, sit down and sort your "To File" pile so that it will be easy to file everything in one short sitting.  Arrange them in the same way that your filing system is arranged.  If they need to be 3-hole punched to go into a binder, separate them by binder the order you will put them in.  If you have a file cabinet where all of the files are color coded by family group, alphabetized by surname and chronological by family member - organize your papers in a way that will make putting them into these files as quick and easy as possible. 
  3. File Your Papers. Now that you've taken out a lot of the leg-work, use one day each week to put your papers where they belong so they will be easy to find in the future.  

Monthly:  On a monthly basis do these three things. 

  1. Keep Your Binders Relevant.  Binders should include only the papers you need easily accessible because you are currently working on them.  Each month go through and decide what needs to stay in these binders.  If you haven't worked on a particular project in a month or more these items probably need to get taken out of your binders.  
  2. Move Your Papers from Binders to Filing.  The papers you took out of your binder still need a home, start new folders in filing or put them into the folders they belong in.  
  3. Move Bulky or Grouped Files into Boxes. When you notice your filing system is getting a little cramped, it may be time to move your less active files into boxes.  Another way of making space is to move grouped files into boxes.  What does this mean? It means you can use your biggest categorization - For example, in our system,  you might break down your filing system may be COLOR-CODING > SURNAME > FAMILY GROUP > INDIVIDUAL - so to begin with you would make four boxes, one with each color, then put the coordinating color in that box.  As your research grows, you may need a box for each surname.

Yearly:  On an annual basis do these three things.

  1. Update Your Labels.  Go through all of your filing and make sure that everything is labeled appropriately.  Replace labels that are falling apart, or that reflect out-dated information.  If there are files that are big and bulky and could be broken down further into smaller sub-folders do this now.  
  2. Index Your Boxes.  When everything is where it belongs, create indexes so that you can find the information quickly and easily.  This will become more important the more information you amass in your research.  Start with boxes, and place the completed index in the front of the box or on the top if the box isn't used often.  Make two copies of the index, one that goes inside the box, and another to be kept in a "master index" which you will file to keep track of all of your boxes. 
  3. Assess Your System. The best system is one that works.  Look at how you are organizing your information and the process you are using to keep up with organization.  Is it working for you? Could it work better? Tweak accordingly and come up with a plan for the following year. 

Did you like this information? I put it together in a printable so that it would be easy for you to keep somewhere visible for a reminder.  

Get your free copy now!

How do you keep organized?  What strategies work for you? Let us know in the comments!

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

If you liked this post you may like these products from our shop: 

The History Dictionary

Today is National Dictionary Day here in the U.S. and I thought it would be a fun time to look at some unusual words that pertain to history.  These aren't really dictionary definitions.  After all, what fun would that be?  They are more, definitions as they apply to historical research.

Life is our Dictionary.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson


Definition - the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.

Origin -
early 15c., from Latin contextus "a joining together," originally past-participle of contexere "to weave together,"
from com- "together" + texere "to weave".

In history - 
When looking at a specific, small topic, like family history, establishing context can mean two things.  The first, is gathering information about outside events that might have affected the subject of your research.  For example, researching your ancestors living in Oklahoma in the 1930s, it could be very important to understand the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, so that you can understand what the sources you find mean within the context of those two events.  

The second form of context, can refer to bias.  Every piece of information is subject to bias.  You are bias, and the sources you choose to incorporate as well as the information you choose to wain from those sources and how you tell the story will be influenced by that bias.  Even your sources are bias, they were written by humans with opinions and objectives for specific reasons.  This establishes a context that can help you understand what further information you might need as well as how to interpret your sources. 


Definition - 
the evidence of the past, such as historical sites, buildings, 
and the unspoilt natural environment, considered collectively 
as the inheritance of present-day society

Origin -  c.1200, "that which may be inherited," from Old French iritage, eritage , heritage, from heriter "inherit," from Late Latin hereditare,
ultimately from Latin heres (genitive heredis) "heir."

In history - 
Heritage has earned itself a rather controversial position in the historical vocabulary.  According to historian David Loewenthal, "The purpose of 'heritage' is to domesticate the past for present causes."*  It is the idea of using history as a kind of propoganda with a specific end in mind.  Consider it the ultimate bias-- and one more often than not political in nature.  This simple term, while often used innocently, can have rather dark connotations in some instances.

[hi-stawr-ee-og-ruh-fee, -stohr-] 

Definition - 
the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical
 research and presentation; 
methods of historical scholarship.

Origin -

1560s; see from history + -graphy. Related: Historiographer.

In History - 
Typically this refers to a method of doing research that we adhere to, in order to make our research valuable for future generations.  Historiography dictates that we should attempt to interpret history without bending it based on our personal biases or the biases of our sources.  It also tells us that to do this we should try to rely upon primary sources for our information where possible, rather than relying on the interpretation of another historian too heavily.  

*taken from John Fea's Why Study History? pp. 39-40.  

If you are interested in knowing more about the how and why behind genealogy and family history research, my book The Purposeful Family Historian delves into how to harness the bigger picture of historical context and research to find your purpose and propel your research. 

For 5 days only ( 10/16-10/20)  - starting today -  I'm giving it away for free on Amazon! 

It's normally $9.99, but to celebrate my birthday, I thought I'd give it away for a very short, limited time!

I am only asking one teeny, tiny favor: If you download the book and you love it, would you consider writing a review on Amazon? The more reviews the book gets the more potential others will find it and it will help them.  I really appreciate your help!

photo 4 (2).JPG

Hi, I'm Tara!  I am more than a huge fan of history, you might say I'm a little obsessed.  I would spend a Friday night in with a glass of local wine and a reference book any night of the week.   Learn more about me and my work here

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