The usual trap is wading in too deep, too fast. To stay in control, start on solid ground. "Work backward in time from the known to the unknown," says Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Organizing Your Family History Search (Betterway Books, 1999). Collect your own birth certificate and any other documents that connect you to your parents. Then prove the links from them to their parents.
Find your focus
Now that your grandparents are established, make a choice. "Narrow it down and pick just one," says Emily Anne Croom, author of Unpuzzling Your Past (Betterway Books, 2001). Concentrate on this "focus ancestor" until you can go no further. This will keep your search manageable.
Stay the course
It's tempting to skip generations and research that dashing Revolutionary War hero. But you must prove each generation's links, or you risk wasting time on an ancestor who may not be yours.
Begin on paper
Dig through attics and trunks for clue-encrusted gems: diaries, scrapbooks, letters, address books, family Bibles, bankbooks, passports, yearbooks, membership cards, and so on. Deciphering the hints they hold will guide your online research.
Keep a record
Make a dated log of your findings and leads for further follow-up. Many how-to books and websites provide blank forms. There are also computer programs to help. Family Tree Maker, for one, can store sound, photo, and video files. Other popular programs include The Master Genealogist; Legacy Family Tree; RootsMagic; Reunion, which is for Macs; and the (free!) Personal Ancestral File, downloadable from www.familysearch.org.
Consider the source
Just because a document is old doesn't mean it's true. A death certificate, for example, can't have been checked by the person it's about. The best proof of a birth date is a birth certificate.
Visit the dark side
"There's a ton of information in divorce records, especially when you get back into the pre-no-fault days," says Rhonda McClure, author of Finding Your Famous (and Infamous) Ancestors (Betterway Books, 2003). Allegations such as infidelity had to be proven in court, so life details are plentiful. Check state archives and courthouses for other civil or criminal cases.
Remember the ladies
"Unfortunately, the maternal line is generally overlooked," says McClure. "But that's generally where you find most of your connections." When you do research women, be sure to check under maiden and all married names.
Learn the lingo
A "cousin" or "aunt" could be a second cousin or a great-aunt. "Sr." and "Jr." may distinguish between unrelated men of the same name. Could an immigrant (or an immigration official) have Americanized his name? Place names also change over time.
Hitting a wall on your "focus" ancestor? Don't give up—there may be much to learn by studying his spouse, siblings, even fellow church members. A diary from your cousin's attic might mention your ancestor. A land sale, indexed at the county seat, might have been witnessed by him. Obituaries of children may contain information about their parents.