52 Weeks to Better Genealogy: Good Writing Tips

This week, Amy Coffin’s provocative series of genealogy exercises throws down a challenge dear to my heart: Brush up on good genealogy writing tips.

Talk about timely. I don’t yet have a whole family history book in me, but I’d love my extended family to read at least a brief summary of the research I’ve done so far. If I get going on it now, it might be done in time for the holiday card mailing.

But how to square the demands of good storytelling with the structure of a well-researched genealogy table? I was cheered by this pragmatic advice in a wise, witty article from Sharon DeBartolo Carmack: Split them up. “Part One is the readable narrative family history; Part Two is the reference section of genealogical reports or summaries with all the bare bones facts.”

This sounds like an admirable way to tame these wildly different beasts. The trick is making sure everything in Part One is substantiated in Part Two.

So that takes care of my structure problem. On to the writing itself.

I’ve spent many hours hanging around copy-editors who waxed eloquent about gerunds and dangling participles. But over time, I’ve come to think the writing I most admire follows the sort of rules you’d hear from a plainspoken great-aunt:

Don’t show off.

Get to the point.

Say what you mean.

The motherlode of plainspoken writing advice is Strunk and White’s  The Elements of Style, a bible for generations of writers. “Pithy” doesn’t begin to describe it. (“Omit needless words!” the authors thunder — leaving you nodding. Wordlessly, of course. )

I can’t resist one final (and personal) tip:

Read it. Then cut it.

Once upon a time, I sat mesmerized as an editor (crusty, old-school, winner of two Pulitzers) whacked my story from 20 inches to 8. It was great. I mean it: In an hour’s work the strong, clear bones of the story emerged from the trivial details and extraneous turns of phrase I’d draped about to show what a clever thing I was. You don’t argue with an editor who demands, “What happened next? Why aren’t you just SAYING WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?”

In his memory, I always ask myself those questions when I’m writing. And then I whack whatever gets in the way.

Thank you, Amy, for the opportunity to think this over!


Libraries And Outsourcing, Oh My

Dick Eastman just linked to this article from the New York Times, about an emerging and interesting trend: municipalities outsourcing library management to private companies. Good thing or bad thing?

Hard to tell from this piece, which relies heavily on quotes from a private contractor and a mayor who supports privatization, steaming the story along on the premise that Privatization Equals Efficiency. But it’s thin on concrete examples of what towns would get for their privatization buck. How exactly does this improve the lot of the  library consumer? Would it make it possible to restore cuts in hours of operation, for example?

Another irritating aspect of this article is that it reduces arguments against library privatization to “libraries are just different” (and un-privatizable). I have a funny feeling that there are skeptical arguments out there that reach beyond, “GAH! … but … it’s the LIBRARY! A SACRED TRUST!”

Look, I don’t equate my library with Lourdes, but I do recognize it as a free public resource in a world where sometimes it seems the only thing free and public left is going to be the restrooms, and not so many of those at that. Practically speaking, a lot of taxpayers in my town depend upon a free library as a meeting and research space.

So how does a for-profit company fit into the municipal library’s mission to be a free, public space where toddlers are read to, seniors mingle, students do research with databases? What’s in it for the private managers, and what comes out of my hide as a taxpayer and consumer? What, for that matter, is meant by “outsourcing”? It could mean cataloging, or management, or materials selection (i.e., purchasing books/media for the collection).

The answers could be depressing or exciting. But I can’t say you’d find them in this particular article. Oh well: Chalk up another issue for the watch list.

Further reading: The American Library Association has been writing about the pros and cons of outsourcing for some time; some of their material can be found at their website.


Links, 9.27.10

October is around the corner, and with it the holidays and assorted scheduling madness. Really, the whole year goes to pot starting on Halloween, or so the Archaeologist feels in her gloomier moments. That Motivation Monday meme (courtesy of Dionne at Finding Josephine) is looking pretty crucial these days. In other news:

Problems: A Washington Post update on problems with burials at Arlington National Cemetery reports that progress has been made in rectifying burial mixups with the help of paperwork reviews and radar technology. But, discouragingly, the record-keeping issues remain unresolved.

Visuals: The Nova Scotia Archives has released “Nova Scotia in Film, 1917-1957″, a collection of vintage films. There are scenic beauties, but also historical events such as the aftermath of the 1917 Halifax explosion. The archives has set up a YouTube channel for convenient viewing.

Job Talk: The Irish Times “My Day” column featured an entertaining interview with Helen Kelly, resident genealogist at Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, where she helps guests from all over the world (but especially the United States) trace their Irish ancestry.

Surveying: In other Irish news, an impressive graveyard survey is underway in Donegal by a private firm, Irish Graveyard Surveyors Ltd. They plan to launch a website with graveyard data next year. It will be interesting to see how this pans out for researchers. The article did not mention subscription fees, but said the company hopes to sell advertising space to the funeral trade.

Graveyard Beat: It is always nice to share stories of neglected cemeteries with happy endings. This week, two run-down cemeteries found champions, in Baltimore and Chicago. … At the Providence Journal, columnist Mark Patinkin writes the kind of slice-of-life piece that you don’t see so much nowadays, a bittersweet profile of a woman’s weekly visits to her relatives’ graves at a local cemetery.

BlogWatch: How on earth can you resist a post titled Confession: I Hired A Genealogy Psychic? Kerry at Clue Wagon tells all …

… At the JLog blog, a great article on how sharing your research in baby steps might get more of your family members interested  …

… Tonia’s Roots  featured a useful review of an FGS conference session on online research strategies

… Finally, Michael Hait spotlighted Ancestry.com’s acquisition of Footnote.com.

Thanksgiving will be here before you know it! Sharpen those pencils and have a great week.


How Ablebodied A Man? The $64,000 Pension Question

You might have noticed me screaming posting about Civil War pension files recently. Blame my great-great-grandfather Martin Haigney, who applied for a veteran’s pension shortly after the enactment of the Disability Pension Act of June 1890.

Martin was not a civilian who joined the great volunteer army of 1861-1865 and fought through its bloody battles — what I think of as a classic Civil War veteran. He had been regular Army since March 1854, when, probably soon after arriving in the United States, he enlisted as a soldier at the Watervliet Arsenal in West Troy, N.Y. And there he served as a soldier, from 1854 until 1867.

Watervliet Arsenal went on to play a vital role in arming Union troops, no doubt about it. However, although Martin was a soldier and was part of an immense war effort, he didn’t dodge snipers at Gettysburg or scramble out of the crater at Petersburg. This left me doubtful when I first started wondering whether he might have gotten a Civil War pension. Was he really pensioner material?

Well, I failed to consider the remarkable scope of the 1890 act. Fortunately, I caught up due to a fascinating and lengthy Ohio State Law Journal article (P. Blanck, Vol. 62, 2001, .pdf file) that examines the Civil War pension system, which began in 1862.

Early on, the U.S. government established pensions for disabled veterans and the widows and orphans of the slain. “Disability” had to be expressed in specific quantities. For example, in 1862 a totally disabled private was eligible for a stipend of $8 per month. From there, it was a matter of determining fractions. Lost a finger or toe? You rated a 2 out of 8, or $2 per month. An eye? 4/8.

As the war went on, the number and magnitude of injuries forced adaptations. Congress passed modifications providing increased benefits for severely disabled soldiers. A 100 percent disabled veteran was defined as one needing “regular aid and attendance” from another person. Measles, malaria and sunstroke were added to the list of  war-related conditions. Then an 1873 act took a big leap forward by compensating claims for subsequent disabilities — conditions which, though related to wartime service, didn’t appear until years later. However logical this might seem by today’s standards, it was pretty radical thinking to some commentators of the day.

But the really radical leap came in 1890. The 1890 act tied the pension system more to the idea of service rather than circumstance. It included new requirements for the length of military service. And it did not require the veteran’s disability to be directly war-related, as long as it was not caused by “vicious habits.”

As in previous acts, however, disability level = a person’s capacity for manual labor. Someone who could not perform one-half of an ablebodied man’s work was a potential pensioner.

Well, I could go on and on, because frankly I’m fascinated by yet another example of how the Civil War sparked big social changes. But for now let’s go back to Martin’s 1890 pension application, and the affidavit sworn before a county clerk in Albany, NY on 4 Sept. 1890  by two of his neighbors, David Fitzgerald and Patrick Lyons.

That we have been well and personally acquainted with Martin Haigney [sic] for 25 years, and 25 years respectively, and that since his return from the Army we certify he has been a man of good temperate habits and that the disability is of a permanent character and same is not due to his vicious habits we are near neighbors of his living only about four or five hundred yards apart and have seen him daily three and four times a week the period since he came to live in our neighborhood, about 25 years ago we have conversed with him during the same time and know that he has suffered from the disability of rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders

He is married and has a family depending on him for their suport [sic] We know he has not been wholely [sic] confined to his house but has found laboring work wherever he could. At such light labor as he could do working in a carpenter shop sweaping [sic] floors and policing about the building at the rate of one Dollar and 12 cents per day for ten Hours work That we know he has paid what he could afford for medicine to cure his rheumatism and we know he is considerablly [sic] bent over from his disability That he is well advanced in years about sixty years of age He is not able to do a sound ablebodied mans [sic] work for he is not physically strong or sound man and we belive [sic] in propositions to his disability He is impaired fully more than one half

These guys had the right talking points:

1. Martin’s disability — severe rheumatism in arms, legs and shoulders — was real and permanent. Plus, it was severe enough that he could no longer “do a sound ablebodied mans work.” Indeed, he was “impaired fully more than one half.”

2. Martin was a man of “good temperate habits” and his disability was “not due to vicious habits.”

3. He was not averse to work. He was trying to support his family with a combination janitor/security guy job at a carpenter’s shop.

Martin’s neighbors (well, most likely the attorney helping him with his application) knew it was important to stress two key factors: degree of disability and soundness of character. Commentators throughout the post-Civil War era fretted about veterans taking advantage. “There are very few men who could not have got a certificate of disability,” groused the New York Times in 1894. “The door of fraud was thrown wide open to let those in who were not incapacitated for self-support.”

Even in 1890, Martin knew the onus was on him to prove himself the real deal.


Things To Do When The Pension File Arrives

Author’s Note: A Civil War pension file, if your ancestor has one, is a marvelous thing for a nosy descendant. If you’re not sure what one is and how to get one, study up at the National Archives site.

First, the preliminaries: Ask spouse where the mail is. Discover package from National Archives in Washington, D.C., containing your great-great-grandfather’s complete Civil War pension file. Wander abstractedly away from spouse and bewildered children. Tell them there’s mac and cheese in the cupboard, you think.

On to business:

1. Open the envelope. (It will look like something from Land’s End, but heavier.)

2. Don’t hyperventilate at the “Dear Patron” notice, which does look ominous.

This is a standard “We Regret” letter, apologizing in advance for copies that are blurry or faded due to the original document’s age and wear. My file didn’t contain any illegible Xeroxes, although I’ve heard accounts of disappointing copies.

3. Don’t just rummage.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! You are not going to follow this direction at all, I bet. I tried to, for about thirty seconds.  I was going to be all cool and calm and organized and WAIT A MINUTE! THAT’S MY GG-GRANDMA’S BIRTH NAME!! WHEEEE! WHAT ELSE IS IN THERE?????

[****Cue feral genealogy sounds.****]

So. Ahem. After you finish rummaging and have slept off your genealogy buzz (this will perhaps be two days later):

4. Go through the file carefully and put the paperwork in order.

This will take time, because in all likelihood your file will be a mess, whether you rummaged in it or not. The archive folks photocopy what they find and send it along. They cannot be blamed if, over the last 120 years, a succession of clerks was sloppy about filing and re-filing. Do your best to put the file into chronological order, examining the paperwork carefully to make sure that multi-page documents haven’t been mixed up. Be careful with date stamps — they note the date a document was received at its destination, not when it was created. These two dates are usually close together, but not always. Update: Craig Scott, in the comments, makes the good point that it’s not uncommon to find more than one pensioner in a file — a soldier and his widow would be the obvious example. Just another thing to keep in mind when sorting.

5. Make copies of the file.

What sort of copies depends on your style. Some like writing notes directly on paper copies. I prefer making my notes in a separate notebook or Word file, and scan the file pages to my hard drive(s). But whichever way you go, copying is a good idea.

6. Make an inventory of the file.

Just a suggestion, but it can be very helpful.  Here’s what the start of my file summary looks like.

DOCUMENT DATE DESCRIPTION
1. File Label None No. 592-963Veteran: Martin Haigney

Rank: 1st class Pvt.

Service: Ordnance Dept. US Army

CAN no. 12841 Bundle No. 16

2. Declaration for Invalid Pension

Notes: Regular Army enlistment records show Martin’s first enlistment was in 1854, not ’57.

Age given here indicates a birth year of 1833, not 1831, the year he specifies in Doc. #27.

17 July 1890 Initial application for pension under the Act of June 27, 1890. Martin gave his age as 57, his initial enlistment as March 1857. He re-enlisted in March 1864.Reason for applying was inability to earn support by manual labor due to age and rheumatism in shoulders and right leg.

Martin signs with an X, being unable to write his name.

Tabulated information soothes me. It also helps me prioritize. For instance, the first document I worked with was No. 16, the marriage and family questionnaire my ancestor filled out in 1898. It had a couple of birth dates for his children I’d never known, plus information on his spouse and date of marriage. My chart helps me pinpoint discrepancies quickly, and when I’m done with the scanning, it will help me navigate my online files quickly, too.

Finally, the best part:

7. Make a list of all the interesting new ideas you can investigate because of the information in this file.

So that’s what I’m doing with my great-great grandfather’s pension file, and it’s just scratching the surface. What are your tips?

Further reading: I enjoyed this informative group of articles about assessing pension files. One caution, however: the fees quoted for obtaining a complete file from NARA are out of date. But there are very good case studies and tips.


Links, 9.20.10

It’s the I-word edition of links. Hey, gimmicks happen sometimes.

Impressive: Michelle at Babble offers five highly creative ways to represent a family tree. They really belong in art galleries.

Intriguing: Jen Thorpe’s musings upon discovering her own early attempt to compile a family tree are an interesting read.  Thorpe herself had forgotten about her effort, made just after her grandmother died. As she writes: “I didn’t even realize that I’d put these notes away, for the ‘Future Me’ (the one who was expected to have much more free time than ‘Past Me’), to find. Yet, here they are.” Sounds like they’ll be valuable, too.

Indefinite: I know that James Tanner’s No Absolutes post at Genealogy’s Star has been linked elsewhere, but it is too cool not to mention. Read it if you haven’t already. It reminds me about a novel I read years ago that touched in a very affecting way upon this topic of how impossible it is to have the final say on how things “really were.”  I have to dig into my memory now and find that book!

Involved: October is Family History Month. Close to my home, here’s what the Hudson County (N.J.) Genealogical Society is doing to celebrate. What’s up in your neck of the woods? Also, DearMYRTLE reports the latest on Ancestry.com’s upcoming outings in Boston, Pleasanton, Calif. and Atlanta. Sounds like educational fun if your travel budget permits.

Inspiring: I really liked this photo from a Rosh Hashanah street fair in Buenos Aires, Argentina — a long line of people waiting at a genealogy booth to see if they can find out more about their ancestors.

Upon re-reading this edition, it seems inconceivable that it boasts no news about Irish, Italian or Iberian genealogy, and must resort to these honorary links as a result. Honestly, what is the world coming to?

Have an incredible week anyway.


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