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  • How (Not) to Write a Self-Published Genealogy

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : October 1985
    After several years of genealogical struggles in the vineyard of the Societys library, there have become apparent to the author a number of factors which contribute mightily to the success or failure of a self-published genealogy or family history.  These are perceived from the viewpoint of another family historian who has in mind one surname in his ancestry.  It happens to be the same as the main surname of your book, and he would like to connect his ancestry to the fruits of your work.  There are a number of obstacles which you can put in his way to prevent him from doing this.

    1.  Don’t provide an index.  This has several important consequences. First, of course, it saves you a lot of work, and indeed some authors beg off for this reason alone.  Of course, if you do decide to do some indexing, do only those persons with your surname.  This makes entry by the Outsider more difficult.  But the real reason for not indexing is to prolong the life of the physical book itself.  That is, the stranger seeking to join your precious clan will quickly decide that he doesn’t want to read the whole book to find Abigail Smith, and just as quickly puts it back on the shelf.  The effectiveness of this tactic increases in proportion to the length of the book.  Only your cousins, of whatever degree, will read the whole book, and then perhaps just once, which helps preserve it for posterity.

    2.  Make up your own unique, better-than-anyone-else’s scheme for intergenerational linkages.  This requires the outsider to study the book not for content but for structure, especially if you omit a paragraph describing how the system is meant to work.  Prescriptive examples of such systems are not necessary here, although abundantly available, since this is a field where it’s every man or woman for his or her self, and ingenuity is its own reward.

    3.  Omit biographical detail.  The important thing is an unbroken link of begats!  The intrusion of biographical detail, of course, provides a flavor of the life and times of the subjects, but also provides the stranger with clues.  For example, if he [125] knew that Jeremiah Smith was a sea captain, he might wonder how Jeremiah could possibly have sired Abigail in Westminster, Vermont.  If you don’t tell him Jeremiah was a mariner, he’ll rapidly adopt him.  If you need an excuse for this omission use the rationale provided by at least one published genealogy: that by so doing you would be accused of “showing favoritism.” That is, if you record that one cousin was a banker and another a farmer, you might be thought to be putting down the latter (or the former?).

    4.  Omit geographical detail.  This is in part a subset of the preceding, and has much the same desired effect. The plausibility of relationships is often supported by factors of proximity, known migration patterns, etc., and any obstacle you can throw in the way of the stranger will keep him from becoming an unwanted fruit on your tree.  A sub-subset is, of course, the common tactic of seeming to give geographical detail, but leaving out some critical piece of information.  There are whole family histories which take place in Smith County, copiously mentioned without ever telling the reader what state it is in. One can do this on the local level, too, where towns of the same name exist in more than one state, especially if the states are contiguous.  Two fine examples in the author’s recent experience are Westminster, Massachusetts and Vermont, and Littleton, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  This tactic is particularly useful for the circum-Revolutionary period when New Englanders were extremely mobile and were naming their new towns after their old ones.

    5.  Do not have your manuscript reviewed by an outsider, particularly a genealogist.  Only in this way will it be possible for you to marry off ten-year-old girls, give posthumous children to a father more than nine months after his death, and otherwise expedite the continuity of your story.  These are great substitutes for research in wills, deeds, and other primary data.  In particular, the absence of review will allow you to ignore the disconcertingly large volume of already published information.

    6.  Give your book a misleading title.  There are two approaches to this.  One is the cute sort, usually based on a pun on the family name or on a family joke.  This helps put off the outsider, especially if he cannot figure out what family it is about.  The other is the all-inclusive: “The Smith Family” puts your book right on the shelf with twenty-three others with exactly the same title, which of course ignore the real Smiths (yours).

    7.  Do not proofread.  This is an annoying practice, developed by printers to increase their profit margin.

    Other rules may appeal to readers of NEXUS, who are encouraged, not to submit them to NEXUS, but to observe them (negatively or positively, as appropriate)!

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