The first, most important, step for anyone who wants to research their family history, say Scott and Connie McDowell, is to talk to your oldest living relatives.
"Do it now," stresses Scott McDowell. "I waited too long, and my grandmother died before I got to talk to her."
To extract relevant information from a relative, they suggest:
* Ask about daily life -- both the routines and the important events. Get a feel for what life was really like with questions such as "How much did you pay for a loaf of bread?" and "How did the Great Depression affect you?"
* Listen for names, dates and towns. These may help in further research.
* Inquire about pictures or scrapbooks. They may spark an older person's memory.
* Find out about occupations. A name such as Smith or Tailor could come from a person's work.
* Be patient. An elderly person may repeat the same story several times. But on the third repetition, a new, important piece of information may come out.
* Ask to see the family Bible. "Nine times out of 10," says Scott McDowell, "they'll say there's nothing in the Bible, but you'll open it and there'll be a yellowed piece of paper stuck in the back with the names you need."
Among other suggestions:
* When researching in a small town, find and talk to the oldest person and/or the one who knows the most about the town.
* Remember that members of the same family could spell their name differently. "In earlier times," notes Connie McDowell, "many people couldn't spell well." Also names could have been translated when someone immigrated. For example, Zimmerman in German is Carpenter in English.
* Be sure to record sources on your genealogy chart.
* To get last names--"an amazing number of women were known simply as Aunt Joan or Cousin Mary," says Connie McDowell -- find out male children's surnames or visit the family graveyard. Chances are those buried near your relatives are family members.