Start with the easiest pieces first, the border.
One strategy used by puzzle enthusiasts is to create the border of the puzzle by gathering all the outlining pieces. In most cases, this can be the easiest way to start because these pieces have a straight edge and sometimes contain writing in the form of copyright information. Essentially, this is beginning with what you know and working from there. In genealogy, we sometimes get so excited about a research project that we forget to begin with first things first, home sources. Home sources can be anything from a marriage certificate stuck in a scrapbook to interviewing your parents or grandparents. It can be easy to dismiss this step and think that no one in your family has information pertinent to your research. Afterall, wouldn't they have told you by now since they know of your interest in genealogy? Don't assume that just because you're the family historian that family members are going to provide you with that old document that is packed away in their attic. In one research trip I took to Texas I met with a distant cousin who told me that she would bring some family papers to my hotel room so I could copy what I needed. Mixed in with newspaper clippings and various documents was a letter from my 5th great grandfather dated from 1847 in which he documents his children's birth dates and provides details about his day-to-day life. This cousin had no idea that this letter would be important to me. Because she hadn't recognized the name on the letter she had put it in a shoebox under her bed. Even if I had asked for old family letters, she most likely would not have thought of this document. The lesson for me was to ask everyone for information and don't assume anything!
Piece together images by grouping like colors
You could consider this two separate steps. In the beginning of a jigsaw puzzle you might gather all the obvious colors that make up one of the images in the overall picture. Then you might go on to gather all of the pieces that make up a larger image in the picture, like the background.
In genealogy, you want to start your Internet search with some of the better known genealogy websites. I usually begin with familysearch.org. First do an initial search on your ancestor's name but then go on to the library catalogue and search for surname books. Then do a place search and look at what books are available for the area you are researching. Don't limit your research to just a state, click on the button labeled "related places" then choose the county you are researching. Sometimes you can even get resources for a specific city.
Now that you have searched for your ancestor at familysearch.org go to one of the well-known commercial sites like Ancestry or Genealogy.com. If you do not have a subscription to one of these sites, your local family history center does and you can use their computers to search these sites. You'll want to use these sites to put "flesh on the bones" of your ancestor. Follow your ancestor through the U.S. federal census, gather information on vital records, and if applicable, trace military service. Put together a timeline and plot out the dates in your ancestor's life including when and where you have found them in the records. Cite your sources so that you or another researcher can go back and look up what you have found.
As you continue your Internet research you will want to add websites to your repertoire that provide more information about your ancestor and the places they lived. One good example is the US GenWeb (www.usgenweb.com). Look up the state and county that you are researching. See what records volunteers have added to that site. Continue with such websites as those for state archives and library's. Genealogy Today's databases are also a good source for a variety of records that can add details about your ancestor's daily life. If you are unfamiliar with genealogy websites, check out Cyndi's List (www.cyndislist.com). She is the indexer of all genealogy sites. Another resource for learning about genealogical websites is Family Tree Magazine. They periodically list the 100 best websites and publish special issues that can help you become more familiar with websites that will strengthen your research.
After your Internet search you will want to go to ordering pertinent microfilm, writing letters to genealogical societies and courthouses and maybe even visiting ancestral homelands. All of this research will provide more color to the overall picture of your ancestor's life.
Are you a color person or a shape person?
When my six year old and I were putting together a puzzle last week, I noticed that we have two very different strategies in how we approach the puzzle. He looks at the shape of the individual piece and works on where that shape fits in the overall puzzle. I tend to look at colors and try to put together individual sections of the puzzle based on what color that image is.
We too as genealogists have different strategies when it comes to approaching and writing up a research project. I have found it extremely useful to have family and friends review what I have gathered and written about an ancestor. This helps us to make sure that what we have written appeals to and makes sense to non-genealogists who might be interested learning about grandma but don't want to read too much research.
I recently put together a history on my 4th great grandfather and some of his descendents. I asked a few family members, including my mom to read the rough draft. My mom doesn't enjoy genealogy but I thought it would be valuable to hear when she had to say. She pointed out to me an omission in a census for my ancestor that I had never noticed before. I had become so familiar with the research that I hadn't seen that one of the ancestor's children were missing from a census enumeration.
Share your work with others and let them make suggestions and comments. This can be extremely beneficial. You may choose to elicit suggestions from others in various ways including sharing rough drafts of an ancestor's history, publishing information on a website or putting your thoughts and ideas down on an online blog. Whatever way you choose to do it, find ways to incorporate the suggestions and knowledge of others in your work.
Unlike the 300-piece jigsaw puzzle that my son and I put together, genealogical research rarely feels complete. There are always questions that arise or information that surfaces after some time. While we may never answer some of the questions we seek to uncover , we can continue to work our strategies so that we keep adding pieces to our puzzle and end up with a picture that resembles the life of our ancestor.