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.

ICYMI: The Name Game

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 4 February 2015.]

Bonus note: Vita Brevis blogger Penny Stratton is retiring from NEHGS today after ten years on the Publications team. In honor of her departure, I asked her to pick a post to run again. The finalists involved one about apostrophes; one about changes in technology during her career; one about her late father; and the one here—about family names. Penny will continue to do occasional work for NEHGS and promises to contribute more posts to Vita Brevis, and to continue to correct grammar and punctuation in whatever publication she is handed.

The first Emma, Emma (Byrt) Powell.
The first Emma, Emma (Byrt) Powell.

When my daughter was born, we chose the name Emma for her. Like many first-time parents, we considered and discarded many names. But we kept circling back to Emma because it’s a family name, and it follows an interesting pattern:

Emma Powell, born 1836 in Bristol, England

Ella Byrt, born 1860 in Chicopee, Massachusetts

Emma Ladd, born 1886 in New York

Ella Clark, born 1915 in Richmond Hill, New York Continue reading ICYMI: The Name Game

ICYMI: Planning an ancestral trip

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 7 October 2014.]

Penny at podium_croppedLast week, I was happily recalling my 2012 trip to Finland, specifically a visit to my ancestral village, Teuva. I had the great good luck to meet cousins there and see the land that my ancestors farmed – and even the foundation of the tiny house where my grandmother grew up.

When first planning that trip, I had no idea how to proceed. I could look at a map and find Teuva – and the nearest train station with a rental car facility – but I had no idea how to go about identifying living relatives. Continue reading ICYMI: Planning an ancestral trip

Proofing your family history

Penny at podium_croppedThe Grammarly blog (Grammarly.com) recently had a post on proofreading your own writing. Among the suggestions it makes are two that I’ve made myself over the years:

  • Read it multiple times.
  • Read it tomorrow.

These recommendations are particularly apt for family histories, which are chock full of names, dates, place names, abbreviations, and special formatting that just cry out for at least several thorough reads. When I am editing or proofing a family history – mine or someone else’s – I often read through it once for sense and grammar, and then skim through once each for the following: Continue reading Proofing your family history

Writing family history from A to Z

Penny at podium_croppedWhen writing your family history, it’s important to decide what to omit. This almost sounds like perverse advice, doesn’t it? And yet, when I read a recent New Yorker article on that topic by John McPhee,[1] I realized that omission is an essential part of the process of all writing: whether it’s a letter, a memo, an essay . . . or a family history.

McPhee describes the process of writing as selection. You begin, he says, by choosing “one word and only one from more than a million in the language,” and then you choose the next. Continue reading Writing family history from A to Z

What’s in a photo?

Ella 1
Click on the images to expand them.

I have been looking at lots and lots of photos lately – mostly of my mother-in-law, Ella Mabel Corke. Her recent death at 99 – almost 100 – prompted a sifting of hundreds of photos. Ella’s family always seemed to have a camera at the ready, so her long, full life is well documented pictorially. I found myself studying two particular photos closely. Continue reading What’s in a photo?

Objects and their history

Penny at podium_croppedRecently a colleague mentioned a web-based series of interactive discussions called “Windows to the Past: Discovering History Through Tangible Things,” in which “participants will assess fascinating objects . . . to see how any material thing, when examined closely, can be a link between the present and past.”

Reading this description made me think about how often such items turn up in the family histories we hear and read: the piece of jewelry, the silver, the diary, the clock, the clothing. . . Continue reading Objects and their history

The Stratton Files

Penny at podium_cropped[Editor’s Note: Penny Stratton is one of the most prolific and popular bloggers at Vita Brevis. The following are some excerpts from her posts between January 2014 and February 2015.]

From Capturing the Recent Past: As I revise the new NEHGS Guide to Genealogical Writing (2014), I’ve been thinking ahead to a future project of my own: writing my family’s history. Having edited and produced a number of compiled genealogies at NEHGS, I have the genealogical format down cold. That’s the easy part. But what will I include for narrative information, to help bring the stories to life? Continue reading The Stratton Files

“Remember your ancestors”

Brunton Front Cover-smaller“Remember your ancestors.”

So read the words atop a family record engraved by Richard Brunton in the early 1800s. It is that admonition, which speaks directly to the NEHGS purpose, that led us to have an interest in Brunton – now the subject of a new book written by art historian Deborah M. Child: Soldier, Engraver, Forger: Richard Brunton’s Life on the Fringe in America’s New Republic.

Over the centuries, families have kept records of their history: in pen and ink, in needlework, and now in printed books and in electronic media. Families have kept these “documents” not just as cherished mementos of loved ones, past and present, but also as the “central repository” for the vital records of the family and its members. Richard Brunton – an English soldier who deserted during the American Revolution and made his home in New England – was a trained engraver. During the years when he was traveling throughout New England practicing his craft – sometimes even in the production of counterfeit bank notes – he was, in his own way, at the vanguard of the business of producing family register forms, something that would only increase and become more commercially viable in the following decades. Continue reading “Remember your ancestors”

Writing family history: Start small

bigamist in bunch coverEarlier this year, I read a blog post by the New York Public Library titled “20 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Family History.” Always on the lookout for new ideas to work into our seminars and webinars on writing and publishing, I read it eagerly. One particular thing caught my eye: a quote from John Bond’s Story of You, saying, “You are doing a service by leaving a legacy, no matter how small or large.” I’ve thought about that quote a great deal, with a specific focus on the word small.

Starting small is great advice for the family historian looking to write and publish. I’ve spoken with many people who struggle with just how to get started. They might have years’ worth of data, in paper files and electronic files. How should they organize it? What should be their focus? It seems such a daunting task that they simply can’t get going – or can’t complete what they’ve set out to do. Continue reading Writing family history: Start small

The 1920s, the ’20s, the twenties: writing dates

Penny at podium_croppedA few months ago, we agreed that apostrophes do not belong in plurals: To make a plural, generally you add an s or es. No apostrophe. The same rule applies when you are referring to a decade, say, the 1920s. It is absolutely fine to put a letter after a number without an apostrophe between.

If, however, you decide to drop the 19 from 1920s, you would insert an apostrophe to show that something is missing: the ’20s. (After all, that is one of the apostrophe’s jobs: to show that something has been removed.)

You could also spell out the abbreviated form as “the twenties,” keeping it lower case unless you are talking about the Roaring Twenties, a distinct historic era. The Chicago Manual of Style,[1] NEHGS’s style guide of choice, says, “Decades are either spelled out (as long as the century is clear) and lowercased or expressed in numerals.” I’ll repeat: As long as the century is clear. In genealogical writing, we’re often discussing such long spans of time, and precision is so essential, that we will probably always want to use the form 1920s, to distinguish the twenties decade from the 1820s or the 1720s or the 1620s—and soon from the 2020s.

Here are some other basic guidelines for writing dates: Continue reading The 1920s, the ’20s, the twenties: writing dates