Update Research Plan and Timeline

Written By: Jayne McGarvey

Covered In This Lesson:

  • Include New Information in Your Timeline

  • Update Your Research Plan

  • What To Do Next


Before we go on, let’s recap on where we are in the Green Room Research Roadmap.

Stage 2 of the roadmap was all about choosing an Irish ancestor (or couple) and then planning your research around this couple. We used the following worksheets to capture our plans and discoveries:

Here in Stage 3 we are looking at researching the area of immigration of your ancestor. In the last lesson, we examined how to:

  • Uncover the general history of the area of immigration of your ancestor and
  • Discover which record sets may be available in that area to further examine.

In this lesson you will update your Timelines and Research Plan to include newly discovered information and further local record sets to examine.


Include New Information in Your Timeline.

(We already covered the topic of how to construct a basic timeline for your ancestor in this lesson of the Research Road Map.)

I may sound obvious, but it is important to continuously update and review the chronological information contained in a timeline for your ancestor. Look carefully at the consistency between any new information you are planning to add and the existing confirmed facts/speculative guesses already on the timeline.

Analyse your timeline for any possible gaps or inconsistencies. Gaps in your timeline will suggest areas for further research.  (Note: Mike wrote an excellent letter here demonstrating how to “restart your research” using questions derived from gaps in your timeline.)

As an example, if your ancestor has moved location between events, such as a 10-year census period, try to find records to populate this gap in your timeline. Examples of such information sources might include:

  • Street and trade directories.
  • Minor court events.
  • Applications for permits and licences.

When I research the gap between events, I often look carefully at the geographical distance between these events – and then:

  • Calculate potential routes between the places in which the events took place.
  • Explore what transport might have been available at the time.
  • Consider how long it would have taken to travel between event locations.

These sort of research questions that spring from your timeline are especially important for events such as immigration and migration.

Examples of inconsistencies that may be highlighted when you examine an updated timeline include inconsistencies around your ancestor’s employment. An illiterate labourer may hold a variety of labouring jobs over many years but he/she is unlikely to suddenly appear in a later census as a doctor or accountant!

If you notice that your ancestor left an area, think about some of the factors that may be behind his/her departure. A farmer may give up a leasehold to purchase a farm 20 miles away or may have been enticed to migrate much further. In the U.S. the search for better and cheaper land kept many families moving west, sometimes multiple times. Always consider the wider events of the time period and the type of lands that were opening up. In the era of homesteading, families travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles with the hope of acquiring free land.

In summary, whenever you do find potential new information, check it carefully for inconsistencies. These may reveal additional interesting facts about your ancestor or confirm that a record does not belong to your ancestor but to someone else who has the same or similar name as your ancestor.

Note for More Advanced Researchers: Timelines can become cluttered with information as you research the minute details of one ancestor’s life. For this reason, it can be helpful to split a timeline into “layers” of detail. Layer one should contain an overview of the major events (the simple timeline that we cover above). Then, as necessary, create additional sub-layers chronicling the events pertaining to a specific year, event or time period within your ancestor’s life.

For example, if your ancestor was involved in a detailed litigation case, layer one of your ancestor’s timeline might contain the start and finish dates of the court case in their appropriate chronological sequence.  The Court Case sub-layer would then contain the detailed specifics that pertain to the case.  This way, other events such as the birth of a child are not “obscured” by the litigation proceedings.

Also, it can occasionally be useful to build separate POTENTIAL TIMELINES where you can study a number of potential events in chronological format alongside confirmed events. This is a good way of highlighting events that do not match up – such as your ancestor seemingly marrying a couple of years after she died or having a second marriage before the death of the first spouse (not so common back in the day!).

If you do create a potential timeline be sure to clearly label it as a working draft (or speculative tree) of potential events.


Update Your Research Plan.

In Stage 2 of the Research Roadmap we looked at “Planning Your Research“. At that time you completed a “Research Planning Worksheet“. 

In this part of the lesson we look at ways you may now wish to update that Research Planning Worksheet based on your discoveries as you progress with researching the life and times of your ancestor following immigration.

The main sections of your Research Planning Worksheet included:

  • Stating a “Working Hypothesis” to guide your research.
  • Setting Research Goals.
  • Selecting a Strategy for researching potential Record Collections in the area of immigration.

So, now is the time to get out that research planning worksheet and review each of the following sections:


Step 1 – Review your Working Hypothesis.

(Quick Reminder – We covered the concept of  Working Hypotheses here in the roadmap).

Examine your working hypothesis and ask yourself the following:

  • Can you now confirm “facts” in your current hypothesis by newly acquired documentary evidence?
  • Can you add any additional relevant facts to your hypothesis?
  • Do you need to change any information in your hypothesis?

Update your working hypothesis as necessary.


Step 2 – Update your Research Goals.

(Quick Reminder – We covered the concept of Research Goals here in the roadmap).

  • Tick off any goals you have achieved.
  • Note any goals that you have not been able to achieve and note why you have not been able to find the information. An example reason may be that a specific record for your ancestor was held in a Court House that was burned during a War.
  • Look more closely at any research questions that cannot be answered by asking your original question and ask yourself whether there may be an alternate route to some or all of the information e.g. if Civil death records did not start until a few years after your ancestor died might there be other records available such as a Will, a headstone, burial records, an obituary, or a change registered to a land deed?

The further back in history we research, then the more difficult it can become to uncover evidence for exact dates for events that occurred in our ancestor’s lives. When this happens, it can be very helpful to try and create as narrow a timeframe as possible around when the event happened.

Let’s take an example:

  • You have calculated that your ancestor died around the 1860s but cannot locate a death certificate because civil registration of deaths did not start until the 1870s in the place your ancestor died.
  • You do know that your ancestor last applied for a gun licence in 1862 – so he was alive at that time.
  • The farm deeds were changed into the name of your ancestor’s son in 1867 – this most likely happened following your ancestor’s death.
  • You can establish from these facts your ancestor most likely passed away between 1862 and 1867. Additional research of more minor events may help you to narrow the timeframe even further e.g. to somewhere between 1865 and 1866. This “narrowing” would be a very useful outcome from your research.


Step 3 – Revise your Record Research Strategy.

(Quick Reminder – We covered the concept of Record Research Strategy here in the roadmap).

Take a few minutes to note which strategies worked well, which partially worked and which strategies did not help at all.  

Note: When dealing with online record collections it is often possible to access the exact same collections via several different search sites such as Ancestry, Family History, Findmypast or Roots Ireland. You need to be aware that each site has its own “quirks and perks”. Filter A may work more effectively for surname X on Site Y, but filter B may be a more efficient choice on the other research site or for a different surname. In Irish family research, surnames that begin with prefixes such as “O” “Mc” and “Mac” can provide their own set of challenges especially if not all of the family use the same prefixes all of the time.

As an example of these search differences, Findmypast has an option to sort search results by chronological order – which is not available on Ancestry.  On the other hand, Ancestry automatically sorts results by what they consider to be the most relevant records that most closely match the criteria you have provided. 

Also, the search results you achieve on research portals will vary depending whether you undertake a “broad” search across a range of records or focus on a “specific” collection  to research. If you search Findmypast via “All record sets” (broad), rather than an individual collection (specific), you will have more filter options to choose from as you begin your search:

Awareness of such tactics may save several hours of time and frustration further down the line when you next review these collections.


In Conclusion – and Over to You.

Five or ten minutes spent updating your timeline, working hypothesis, research goals and record search strategies while looking for inconsistencies will help keep your research on track. You will be more confident that you are following YOUR family ancestor and that you have the correct facts moving forward to the next phase of your research.

Over to you now – have a look at the “What To Do Next” box below. Also, if you need help reviewing the information you have located or wish to figure out potential avenues of research for difficult to find information – then we’d love to hear your questions and thoughts. See the “Have a Questions Link further down”.

What To Do Next:

  • Update your Timeline – noticing gaps and inconsistencies. These will provide useful triggers for further research.
  • Update your Research Planning Worksheet – the Working Hypothesis, Research Goals and Record Search Strategy sections.
  • Share your discoveries/questions in the Ask the Genealogist section of The Green Room for feedback (see link below).

In the next lesson we move on to Researching the Records in your ancestor’s area of immigration.



Click Here To Ask Our Genealogist a Question Related to This Module.



Related Resources.

Downloadable Worksheets: