My 3 Tips On Researching Family History – Carol Baxter

Have you watched Who do You Think you Are? Did you want to know how the show’s researchers traced their subject’s ancestors? And have you ever wondered how you too could one day trace your family history?


If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then you’d want to meet our guest blogger for February, Carol Baxter.


Writing The Russian Tapestry, I had very little information on Marie and Alexei other than anecdotes recited around family dinner table, obituaries and a few dusty photos. All of Alexei’s diaries had been lost and out of his nine medals, my husband’s family only had two. In my blogs on Marie and Alexei, I’ve written how I used what little information I had to arc their character.

So it was with great interest when I first met Carol at 2014 Book Expo Australia, where she was one of the presenters. We then met a year later in August where we organised three events with her for her latest book, Black Widow.



Pursuing thieves and murderers through the ages is just an average day for the history detective, Carol Baxter. Like Dr Who, she hunts ordinary individuals who unwittingly had such an extraordinary impact on their world that the consequences changed the course of history. Then she brings their stories to life as historical ‘true-crime thrillers’. She is the internationally-acclaimed, award-winning author of five such works of popular history.  Her fourth book, The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable, was published internationally by Britain’s Oneworld and was praised by the London Times as being ‘as lively and readable as a crime novel’ and by Britain’s Independent as ‘totally irresistible’. Her fifth book, Black Widow was published in June 2015 and received four stars from Good Reading magazine. She has recently been commissioned by Allen & Unwin to write a sixth book. Carol is also an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New England and a Fellow of the Society of Australian Genealogists. She has written three genealogical ‘how to’ books and teaches researching and writing skills at genealogical and historical conferences on land and on international cruise ships.


Here are Carol’s Three Tips on Researching Family History


  1. Start with yourself and work backwards

 In my years as a genealogist, I’ve had many people say to me that they are supposedly descended from someone important and that they want to work out which branch they descend from.

It is important that we start with ourselves and work backgrounds when we trace our family history rather than attempt to trace descent from a particular person. We have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on; that is, each generation doubles the number of our ancestors.  Conversely, a couple can have many children (one of my ancestors had 22) and each of those children can have many children of their own. So, while we only have eight great-grandparents to trace, our great-grandparents might have hundreds and hundreds of other great-grandchildren.  That is why it is easier to trace ourselves backwards than to attempt to trace all of a person’s descendants in the hope of finding out that we are one of them. Moreover, if we are truly descended from someone important, we will come across that connection as we undertake our research.


2. Be wary about family stories

 We must also be very wary about those tales of descent from the famous or infamous. Families only repeat the ‘good’ stories about their ancestors (I’ve written books about two murderers and those stories definitely did not pass down to their descendants!). Also, families often tweak those stories to improve them.

In fact, many family stories begin as speculation but within a few generations have become fact. Just imagine how easily the following could occur:

Generation 1: ‘My horse was stolen. I wonder if the thief was the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt?’

Generation 2: ‘Thunderbolt probably stole my father’s horse.’

Generation 3: ‘Thunderbolt stole my grandfather’s horse.’

The following is classic example of a ‘tweaked’ family story. My great-grandmother wrote a family history in which she stated that her grandfather was Count Fabian of the celebrated Italian Fabians. In fact, she passed the surname Fabian to her children in the form of a middle name.  When I researched my family history, I discovered that her ‘celebrated’ grandfather was in fact Thomas Fabian, a hair-dresser from Portsmouth, England.

So treat family stories with a grain of salt. Remember, we are all driven by ego and want to make ourselves look better in our own eyes and those of our families and friends.

3. Annotate every source

 Make sure that you write down the source of every piece of information you find, whether it be a book, a birth, marriage or death certificate, or some other primary or secondary source. Unsubstantiated history is mythology! You might as well be writing fiction if you can’t show where you obtained your information. And you will feel like an idiot if, ten years later, you wonder where it came from and can’t remember. And you will look like an idiot if someone asks for your source and you can’t provide it. Annotate everything.


What did you think? Was the information useful? Would you like to contribute to ‘My 3 Tips’? I’d love to hear from you.

Drop me a line at the comment section below with your views and suggestions for future posts.

Till then,

Happy Reading!!


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