Tracing your ancestors is like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces have no partial designs or pictures on them, so it's hard to fit them together. Every once in a while you get lucky and one fact substantiates another. And unlike laying out all the pieces on the table before, you find that they're scattered all over the place. Even when you find a new piece to your puzzle, you must show that it's part of yours.
To avoid all the uncertainty and false starts of beginning on the Internet, begin with yourself. You already know about you and more or less who's related to you probably as far back as your grandparents–and in today's younger older crowd perhaps even your greatgrandparents. If you're lucky, you may still have all of them to interview to find out what they know about past family members.
You'll not only find out the pertinent birth, marriage and death dates, but details that go with them make your ancestors come alive. The more you know about all these people, the better. If some of the members of these three generations have died, find those who knew them well and speak to them. Take notes and more notes. Leave no stone unturned. While this sounds logical, you'd be surprised how many beginning family genealogists ignore this handy information.
But you have to be careful. Some of what you'll hear may be stories passed down from one generation to the next. Make sure you sort out the facts and corroborate them with other family members. One of the best times to do this is at family gatherings—reunions, holiday dinners, birthdays and anniversaries, even funerals. This last gathering may offer more information than the others because family members and friends of the deceased love to talk about their experiences with him or her. A funeral is a good place to sort out family members—which uncle, aunt, or cousin is which.
It's also important to work backwards, beginning with the person you know best, yourself. Basically, genealogy is the search for parents. You'll have your most luck doing that. Unfortunately, single people end up as dead ends. While failing to find the right dates in official records may make your family tree incomplete, it won't prevent you from finding your ancestors. Failing to find the parents of an ancestor will.
Once you have a broader picture of your family, complete with assorted stories and anecdotes, then it's time to begin searching vital records. Here, you'll be able to prove the information you received from your family members. Once you have complete information for two to three generations of family members, then it's time to move on the fourth generation and so on.
Finding bits and pieces of information here and there, especially on the Internet will only make putting together your ancestral puzzle that much harder. When you're working on your family tree, try to complete one branch at a time. Avoid trying to research ancestors on all sides of your family at once.
Now and only now is it possible to go online to see what you can find in other related family trees. If you are lucky enough to gain access to a related family tree, you might find part of your line interconnected or there may be a hint that your family group is an off-shoot. A good beginning will take you further than you could have ever gone in solving your genealogical puzzle.