1. Gather what you already know about your family.
Scour your basement, attic and closets (and those of your family members) and collect family records, old photos, letters, diaries, photocopies from family Bibles, even newspaper clippings. E-mail far-flung relatives to ask whether they have records that may be of help for your genealogy quest.
2. Talk to your relatives.
Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles about their memories. Don’t ask just about facts and dates—get the stories of their growing up and of the ancestors they remember. Try to phrase questions with “why,” “how” and “what.” (See our tips for oral history interviewing.)
3. Put it on paper.
Write down what you know so you can decide what you don’t know yet. Start with the five-generation “pedigree” chart available in our Free Forms section.
4. Focus your search.
What are the blanks in your family tree? Don’t try to fill them in all at once—focus on someone from the most recent generation where your chart is missing information. Try to answer that “mystery” first, then work backward in time.
5. Search the Internet.
The Internet is a terrific place to find leads and share information—but don’t expect to “find your whole family tree” online. See our Google search tips for genealogists here. You can search many of the biggest databases of names on the web with one click using One-Step Webpages by Stephen Morse. You can search records on the FamilySearch.org website for free. Ancestry.com subscribers can search that site from home, or see if your local library offers Ancestry Library Edition for free on its computers.
6. Explore specific Web sites.
Once you’ve searched for the last names in your family, try websites specifically about your ethnic heritage or parts of the country where your relatives lived. You may even find websites about your family created by distant relatives researching the same family tree. A good place to start is our 101 Best Web Sites section.
7. Discover your local FamilySearch Center.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 4,000 FamilySearch Centers where anyone can tap the world’s largest collection of genealogical information. Using your local center, you can borrow microfilm of records such as the birth, marriage or death certificates of your ancestors. More than 2 million rolls of microfilmed records from all over the world are available. Compare the information in these sources with what you already know, fill in the blanks in your family tree, and look for clues to more answers to the puzzles of your past.
8. Organize your new information.
Enter your findings in family tree software programs or on paper charts (make sure you note your sources). File photocopies and notes by family, geography or source so you can refer to them again. Decide what you want to focus on next.
9. Plan your next step.
Family History Detective: A Step-by-Step Guide to Investigating Family History by Desmond Walls Allen (Family Tree Books) is an excellent book for helping you start your genealogy search. You’ll find this and more beginning genealogy tools at Family Tree Shop.