All posts by Penny Stratton

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About Penny Stratton

A veteran of the book publishing industry, Penny Stratton retired as NEHGS Publishing Director in June 2016; she continues to consult with the Society on publications projects. Among the more than 65 titles she managed at NEHGS are The Great Migration Directory, Elements of Genealogical Analysis, Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, and the award-winning Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts. She has written for American Ancestors magazine and is a regular poster on Vita Brevis. With Henry B. Hoff, Penny is coauthor of Guide to Genealogical Writing: How to Write and Publish Your Family History; she is also the author of several Portable Genealogists on writing and publishing topics.

Selecting images for a family history

My late mother-in-law, with her father, in 1927.

How do you choose photos for a family history? Someone recently asked me that excellent question. She happened to have dozens, if not hundreds, of photos and didn’t know how to start. I had never really come up with guidelines for selecting photos, but as I answered the question, I realized that I do have some rough rules of thumb: Continue reading Selecting images for a family history

Rules of engagement

Like Alicia Crane Williams, I have been inspired by the fifth anniversary of Vita Brevis to think about the writing of essays. When I first began contributing to this blog, I wasn’t sure if I really had anything to say – and, if I did, whether I could say it within the allotted word count.

As it turned out, I have come to relish the discipline of writing to the suggested 400- to 500-word count. I now recommend it to anyone who wants to get started in family history writing: pick some aspect of your family history and write 400–500 words on the topic. It’s only about a page to a page and a half of text. Continue reading Rules of engagement

Finding Lempi’s ring

Juho Matalamäki outside his house in Teuva, Finland.

Sometime in 2014 in eastern Finland, Toivo “Topi” Pränny was researching his great-great-grandfather, Juho Matalamäki. As a boy, Topi lived in what was once Juho’s house and had heard many stories about him, passed down from his grandmother, Lempi (Saksa) Riihimäki. Googling Juho’s name, Topi saw a photo he had never before seen, showing a white-haired man with a straggly beard sitting on his front stoop, wearing traditional boots called lapikkaat. The photo accompanied an English-language article by someone searching her Finnish roots.

Juho was my great-grandfather, and I am the author of that article, which appeared in American Ancestors magazine in 2013. Continue reading Finding Lempi’s ring

Modern-day melting pots

A loaf of nisu

“How is your celebration of the holiday influenced by previous generations?” asked a recent survey in The Weekly Genealogist. The first item in the list of answer choices was “I serve food or drinks that are traditional in my family.“ I quickly checked it off, as I was in the midst of baking, making sure that my kids would come home to the seasonal treats they – and now their spouses – expect.

One thing I have baked at Christmas in recent years is nisu, a sweet Finnish bread I remember eating at the home of my Finnish-born grandmother, known to all her grandkids as Mumma. When I visited Finland in 2012, a second cousin (granddaughter of Mumma’s sister) served it to me, and the scent of the cardamom took me back to my childhood. Continue reading Modern-day melting pots

The genealogist’s friend

Shortly after I began work at NEHGS about ten years ago, we went into all-hands-on-deck mode. The occasion was the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference, which was in Boston that year and bringing many visitors to the building. A newbie, I was assigned the non-genealogical task of welcoming people at the door. The first person arrived, pulling a wheelie bag behind her. “Hello!” I said. “May I store your bag?” Everyone froze. A hushed silence fell. Finally someone clued me in: “Penny. That’s her research!” Oh. Continue reading The genealogist’s friend

Writing family history

Hints for Success

I recently saw an interesting infographic about writing success. Although the focus is on writing novels, several of the hints apply to writing a family history:

  • read more
  • write, write, write
  • read your work aloud

Let’s look at each one of these in turn.

Read more. When you undertake a family history, you’ll be drawing information from various records and notes and documents. But how do you write? How do you put one word in front of the other as you collate all the facts with family lore and contextual information from other sources? Continue reading Writing family history

What’s in a (family) name?

My grandmother Sylvia Mae (Turnbull) Rohrbach.

I have always enjoyed musing on names and their origins. The dictionary we had in my childhood home had a back-of-the-book listing of “common English names.” I read it voraciously and repeatedly, making lists of potential names for my future children.

As it turned out, my husband and I chose family names for our children, so all that dictionary research was unnecessary. My daughter, Emma, was named for her great-grandmother and great-great-great-grandmother, and my son, Samuel, for my father and great-grandfather and great-great-great-grandfather. (See “The Name Game.”) Continue reading What’s in a (family) name?

Richard Brunton’s family registers

BRUNTON_OL_32_Goodnow_Fig.3.10-VBPOST
Courtesy of Tracy Goodnow

Over the centuries, families have kept their own records of their history – by writing it in family Bibles; by sewing it into samplers and other needlework; by having it engraved onto objects; and sometimes by writing it into preprinted family registers. NEHGS has launched a new database of family registers that have one thing in common: all were originally engraved by English-born Richard Brunton, who lived in New England in the years during and after the Revolution. Continue reading Richard Brunton’s family registers

A good index guides the reader

Penny at podium_croppedYesterday, Alicia Crane Williams wrote about the steps she takes when indexing the Early New England Families Study Project, showing the extensive work that makes it possible for us to find ancestors in database searches. But what if you’re not creating a database, but writing a book instead?

In the course of your research, have you ever picked up a family history and, to your dismay, found no index? With this experience in mind, if you are writing a family history, you must have an index for your work—at the very least an every-name index. Continue reading A good index guides the reader

Loving Register style

isaacson christmas
Register style would help clarify family groups among descendants of my grandmother (seated, center).

I simply love Register style as a way of presenting descendants of a particular ancestor. Chris Child’s recent post made me realize just how much I love it. It is such an elegant and efficient way of presenting genealogical information that I wish I had invented it. Continue reading Loving Register style