Advice, Methodology

Overwhelmed by your research?

Researching your family history is a large undertaking. It is not uncommon for researchers to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it from time to time. Here are four strategies to help get you back on track.

Take a break

Put your research aside for a while and give yourself time to recharge. You could take half an hour and go for a walk, take a day, or weeks or months. Whatever time you need. Do not let yourself feel guilty for doing so.

If the reason you are feeling overwhelmed is that you just returned from a break and are having trouble determining where to start, then try one of these other strategies.

Break it down

Any large object or project is easier to manage if you break it down into smaller pieces. Never try to tackle a difficult research problem when you are feeling overwhelmed. Go for small wins to build your confidence again.

  • Focus on just one person for a while, or one family group, or one time period.
  • Write down three tasks (yes, tasks, not research questions) and complete them. When they are done, write down three more.
  • Spend time on something in your family history that you really enjoy – even if it is just reading old newspapers.

Get organised

The feeling of being overwhelmed will lessen if you organise your research and have a plan for what you want to do next. However, getting organised can seem like a huge task in itself, so you should break it down into manageable chunks and plan to address it over a period of months.

  • Print out a copy of your family tree and review where you are up to. Are there any obvious gaps that you need to focus on?
  • Conduct a Tree Health Assessment (THA) of your family tree to determine which parts you have substantiated and which parts need more evidence. You can download instructions for a THA on my Free Stuff page.
  • Review your research goals and identify your objectives. Which aspects your research are the most important to you?
  • Prepare research plans for the families that you want to research next. The blog series that I wrote on research planning will give you some ideas for this process. Search ‘research planning’ in the search bar to the right of this post.
  • Organise your papers, your files and the research that you have already done. Aim to do a bit of maintenance each time you sit down, or set a regular day – weekly, fortnightly, monthly. I have written many blog posts about this topic. You can find them by clicking on the Maintenance category to the right of this post.

Get help

Learning how to do something better is a great way to feel more in control. There are a lot of great lectures, workshops and books out there that provide guidance on the research process. Look for ones that are relevant to your research and your skill levels, or ones that seem like fun.

You can also get help by visiting a family history library or archive, joining a family history Facebook group, or by employing a professional genealogist.


How should you document a broader search?

The FFANs principle neatly categorises the people in a broader search as family, friends, associates or neighbours. Family can be included in your family tree, but how should you document research into friends, associates and neighbours?

What information needs to be documented?

First we must consider the type of information that needs to be documented. We are researching FFANs because that research may provide information which contributes to the history of someone in our family.

The key information, therefore, is:

  • name of the FFAN
  • vital dates and locations (birth, marriage death)
  • name of the person in your family that they are connected to
  • nature of the connection
  • information obtained from researching the FFAN that is relevant to the person in your family
  • source citations for that information.

Research plans

Including FFANs in research plans helps you focus your research on specific research questions that are necessary to progress your research and identify which FFAN is most likely to provide the best information.

You could include FFANs in the research plan of the ancestor that they are connected to. For example, I create research plans in Excel and add extra worksheets for FFANs. One worksheet lists all potentially relevant FFANs, then worksheets are added for more detailed research about those which have the potential to yield useful information.

Alternatively, you could create separate research plans for each FFAN or group of FFANs.

Family trees and associated documentation

When you research family beyond your direct line, you should add them to your family tree as this identifies their relationship to you. Friends, associates and neighbours can also be included in your family tree as unlinked individuals. You can then add their families, if that information is relevant to your research.

Another option is to create separate family trees for different family lines and for friends, associates and neighbours. I personally do not like having multiple trees. Family history software and online family trees have tools to help you with your research and I find that these tools work better if the people are all in the same tree. Having them all in the one tree also keeps all the information together, which minimises the risk that you will lose information or forget about some of the people that you were planning to research.

You should also extend your organising system for associated documentation to include FFANs. For example, I organise all my files by paternal and maternal sides, then by surname. I store documentation about FFANs under the surname that they are connected to.

How do you link FFANs to your ancestors?

Regardless of which approach you take to research planning and family trees, you need a system to document who each FFAN belongs to.

Using unique identifier numbers greatly assists this process. Family history software automatically adds a unique identifier number to each person. If you do not use software, you can set up your own manual system. The numbers are used to distinguish between people of the same name and as a short reference to a person.

You could use your master list of research plans to provide cross-referencing between ancestors and their FFANs, as demonstrated below.

Example master list of research plans using unique identifier numbers to cross reference to FFANs.

Another option is to add information about the FFANs and their connections on the profile of the relevant ancestor. Ideally they should appear with the information about the shared connection. For example, I added each of the men who were executors of John Townson’s will to my family tree as unlinked individuals, and then I added their names and unique identifier numbers to the fact about the will on John’s profile. I can use this information to search my tree by their names or their identifier numbers. Adding information about their connection to John on the profiles of each FFAN also allows me to trace that the link back to John.

DNA matches

DNA matches can be treated as FFANs, because the DNA results suggest that they are probably part of your extended family. DNA matches should be added to your family tree, if you have sufficient information and they are relevant to your research.

If you know, or think you know, the most recent common ancestor between yourself and your DNA match, you could include that DNA match in the research plan of that common ancestor. You could also list the DNA matches on the profile of that ancestor.

If you have not yet identified the most recent common ancestor, you might find it useful to have a research plan for a group of DNA matches who appear to be related to you in the same way, or have a DNA research plan for each of your four grandparent lines. A single DNA research plan would also be feasible.

You might like to read a post I wrote a while back, Research Planning with DNA.

Case studies, Methodology

Finding answers in a broader search

Researching someone’s siblings and the witnesses on their birth, death or marriage records is often sufficient. However, in some cases you need to conduct a broader search.

I suggested in my previous post that you need a broader search if:

  • the sources reveal gaps or inconsistencies
  • the sources do not provide the necessary information to answer your research questions, or
  • you have tested your DNA.

One of the best examples I have of the need for a broader search is my five times great grandfather, Captain John Townson.

John Townson was a member of the NSW Corps and arrived in Australia on the Second Fleet in 1790. He had two daughters. I am descended from the second daughter, Sarah Griggs. He was first stationed at Rose Hill (near Parramatta), then on Norfolk Island. He lived for a while on land granted to him in Sydney, in the area now known as Tom Ugly’s Point, and later moved to Tasmania where he received further land grants.

The standard birth, death and marriage records yield little of any use, which is not unusual for such records at that time. Plus, he never married and so far his baptism record has not yet been found. Despite his participation in the early history of Sydney and Norfolk Island – he was Lieutenant Governor there for a few years – there are few sources that refer directly to him. And despite claims of some researchers that he was baptised in Yorkshire or Shropshire, the evidence does not support either.

John’s life story is full of gaps and inconsistencies. To conduct a reasonably exhaustive search and gather sufficient evidence to substantiate the details of events in his life, a broader search is required. Fortunately, John has a ton of family, friends, associates and neighbours.

Research goals, questions and hypotheses are important for all family history research, but they are particularly essential when you research beyond the direct line because you need to place some limit on the research and give yourself something to focus upon, or else your search becomes endless. In this case, my research goals for John are (i) to find evidence of the date and location of his birth, and (ii) to better understand his role in the early history of Sydney and Norfolk Island, and his potential involvement in the event that is usually referred to as the Rum Rebellion.

Missing birth information

Missing information about the birth of an individual is a good example of when you need to extend your search beyond your direct line. It is not enough to search for their birth and baptism, nor to research their parents. You need to research the entire family group. Researching siblings provides more information to help confirm whether or not you are searching in the right place and time, and whether you have correctly identified the mother.

A broader search of John’s family has revealed records such as wills, divorce records for his mother from her first husband, a baptism record for his older sister and business records for his father. Collectively these sources provide circumstantial evidence that John was born before May 1760, probably in London or Richmond (in Surrey). I live in hope that one day I will find his baptism record.

Historical events

My research into the historical context of John’s life is ongoing. I have a timeline of his life in an Excel spreadsheet, with columns for his friends, associates and neighbours. This helps me identify shared events or experiences and target sources about those who may provide a useful insight into his life.

Extract from my spreadsheet about John Townson’s FFANs in the NSW Corps

For example, John came to Australia on the Scarborough with John Macarthur, about whom much has been written. They both had strong connections with Parramatta and had many shared friends and associates. One shared associate was Captain John Piper, the man after whom Point Piper in Sydney is named. Townson and Piper were stationed at Norfolk Island at the same time, and Piper was the executor of Townson’s will. The NSW State Library has papers about Macarthur and Piper, waiting to be explored for references to Townson and insights into his life.

Another example is John’s participation in the event known as the Rum Rebellion. In 1808, a group of men, mostly members of the NSW Corps, mutinied and overthrew the Governor of NSW, William Bligh. After the rebellion, Bligh named John Townson as one of the conspirators, but his brother, Robert, was also involved and signed the petition against Bligh. Sources about this event are providing an insight into their motivation, which appears to have been about Bligh failing to honour land grants to them, and also other details of their lives.

My next post about researching beyond your direct line will discuss options for documenting the research.

A few sources:

NSW State Library, ‘From Terra Australis to Australia. The 1808 ‘Rum’ Rebellion’, (, accessed 28 May 2022.

Findmypast & British Library, British Newspaper Archive (, Proclamation by William Bligh, March 1809; Cheltenham Chronicle, Thursday 11 January 1810.

Frederick Watson, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1 – Governors’ despatches to and from England  (N.p.: Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament., 1914), Governor Phillip to the Right Hon. W. W. Grenville. (Despatch No. 9, per store-ship Justinian, via China; acknowledged by Rt. Hon. Henry Dundas, 10th January, 1792.) p.193.

Featured photo: Searle, E. W & Beatties Studio, 1848, Norfolk Island convict settlement at Kingston in 1848, retrieved May 28, 2022, from


How do you research beyond your direct line?

If just researching your direct line is the wrong approach to family history research, then how far beyond that line do you need to go and how do you decide who to research?

FFANs principle

Applying the ‘FANs principle’ involves researching the Friends, Associates and Neighbours of our ancestors. A variant of this principle adds an extra F for Family (the ‘FFANs principle’) to remind us to include the extended family. The FFANs principle is sometimes referred to as ‘cluster research’.

The basis of this principle is that sources about people associated with our family or a particular individual may contain additional relevant information that helps our research. This is because FFANs and our research subject may:

  • both have a relationship with the same person or person(s)
  • have participated in the same events, or
  • have a shared history or characteristic.

Shared relationship example: Siblings share the same parents. If the birth certificate of one child does not list the mother’s maiden name this information might be found on the birth certificate of one of their siblings.

Shared events example: Immigrants may arrive on the same ship. A diary by one of the passengers on a ship might provide information about the journey and their experiences, which can be extrapolated in a general sense to the research subject.

Shared history or characteristic example: If the research subject was a midwife, researching other midwives in the same place and time period might provide insights into their life and work.

Collateral research

‘Collateral research’ is similar to the FFANs principle, but it focuses only on researching the extended family. Specifically, people who are also descended from your distant ancestors – second cousins, fourth cousins once removed and so on.

Collateral research is fundamental to research that involves DNA evidence, as it helps to identify how DNA matches are related to the DNA test subject through a common ancestor. Once the relationship has been confirmed, the DNA test subject can then utilise the research of the DNA match (if available) to supplement their own research. For example, the DNA match may have photographs of the common ancestor that the DNA test subject did not have.

Family reconstitution

‘Family reconstitution’ goes beyond biological relationships and reconstructs all family units within a specific location. It has its origins in demographic research, but can be a useful tool in family history if you have difficulty identifying which person or family from that place are your ancestors, or if you need to clarify the relationships between different families. This method relies mostly on parish records, but can also be applied to census records and other sets of records that are spatially specific.

One-name studies

‘One-name studies’ examine all occurrences of a surname, even if the people are not biologically related. The objectives of these studies are to identify the origin of the name, relative frequency, distribution in place and time, patterns of immigration and name variants. Reconstructing families and the family history of all lines is not required but such information may be gathered during the study.  

More information: Guild of One-Name Studies.

Which technique and how far should you research?

The FFANs principle is often recommended as a strategy for ‘brick wall’ research, but I suggest that it should be a fundamental element of all research as it provides more information and increases the likelihood that the family history will be accurate. Collateral research is a subset of that approach and may be sufficient in some circumstances. Family reconstitution and One-name studies may also be appropriate approaches in specific situations.

However, you do not need to research every family member, friend, associate and neighbour. Nor do you need to research them to the same level of detail.

How far do you need to extend your research? As far as necessary to:

  • conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, and
  • answer your research questions.

Any source can contain errors, gaps and inconsistencies, so you need to gather sufficient sources to resolve these problems. In addition, different source types provide different types of information. Sources for a family member may not be sufficient to answer your research questions.

As a minimum, best practice involves researching entire family groups on your direct lines (i.e. the parents and all their children), not just direct ancestors. But how much research should you do on the family? Since the key to an accurate family history is the identification of the correct people and the relationships between them, start by examining the key vital records for each – i.e. birth death and marriage records. This may provide additional information, or it should at least provide corroboration of identities and family relationships.

You will need to go beyond these key vital records and research families in more detail if:

  • the sources reveal gaps or inconsistencies
  • the sources do not provide the necessary information to answer your research questions, or
  • you have tested your DNA.
It helps to think of FFANs in terms of their degree of connectedness to your direct ancestors

Extending your research beyond the family will be necessary if the sources about the family do not provide the information you need. For example, if you want to know more about the military career of your ancestor and none of the family shared that experience, then you need to research their military associates.

The key to identifying the relevant FFANs to research lies in your research questions and an analysis about the type of information that research into them might provide. Stay tuned for my next post where I examine this in relation to a specific ancestor of mine.

Photo: Squair family, from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists

Advice, Methodology

Three alternatives to publishing a family history book

There are many ways to compile and share your family history.


If you use family history software to document your research, you can easily compile your family history by using the reporting and charting tools in the software. The basic reports can be generated in a matter of moments, provided you have entered sufficient information to your family tree, such as source citations. With a bit more time, you can customise the basic reports and add extra content such as stories, maps and photo galleries. Through customisation, a report can be converted into a publishable family history book, if that is what you want, or you can keep it as an unpublished PDF document.

Table of contents for a family history report on Ivy Elizabeth Rusten listing ten generations.
Contents page for a standard report from family history software
Customise your report in your family history software to create a book

A lot of people use Ancestry to document their family history and the good news is that you can also generate reports and charts from that site. The LifeStory and Facts screens of individual profiles both have a print option, from which you can create a PDF document for an individual. The LifeStory is in the format of a timeline and it includes any photographs you have added to the Gallery for that individual. You can customise the LifeStory by editing text or by adding a biography. The Facts report includes any source citations you have attached to the information. From the tree view in Ancestry, the print option takes you to an external site, MyCanvas, which allows you to create a family history book based on your Ancestry family tree (for a fee).

The advantages of the report format of a compiled family history are that:

  • it is easy to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • it follows formats which are recognisable by other genealogists.

In my first article about compiling your family history I emphasised that there are different purposes for writing up your family history and different audiences. The report format is great for sharing your research with other researchers and for helping you analyse the research that you have done so that you can generate new research leads. Generally, report formats are not great for sharing your research with family, although the customisation options do go some way to addressing this limitation.


By comparison, a scrapbook is a great format for sharing your family history with family or non-genealogists. I use the term ‘scrapbook’ loosely to mean a document that is built primarily from visual elements, such as photos and illustrations.

You could, for example, include the following in a family history scrapbook:

  • a simplified family tree
  • photographs
  • maps
  • extracts from official sources
  • lists of children and family members
  • images of family letters, signatures, and other family mementos.
Example digital scrapbook page

Scrapbooks are more aesthetically pleasing than reports and convey information in smaller chunks, which means family are more likely to engage with them.

You can create a scrapbook in the traditional way, using an album and adhesives. However, I prefer to create digital scrapbooks.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • production of a digital scrapbook is cheap, you can customise it for different family members and you can make additional copies when needed.

Source citations are optional in a scrapbook, if the audience is family.


Creating a family history website is another fun way to compile your research and share it with others. Blogging platforms such as WordPress enable you to create a free (or low cost) website to share your research.

Your website can be anything you want it to be. A compilation of stories, photo galleries, family tree charts, surname lists and a way to communicate with family and other researchers.

The advantages of this format are that:

  • it is fun to compile
  • it can be updated as your research progresses
  • one website can contain elements for different audiences (both researchers and family).

Using a website to compile your family history does present a few challenges:

  • not all platforms allow family tree plugins
  • a website does not preserve your family history in the way that a published book or depositing with an archive does
  • information on a website cannot be printed unless you specifically include the means to do so.

Coming soon: More about the use of websites to share your family history.