Genealogy research is distinctly different from life story writing, but genealogists often unearth interesting facts that can shed new light on their own life experiences. I recently interviewed Michelle Ule, a New York Times bestselling author and speaker, who writes inspirational and historical fiction and is currently finalizing the biography Mrs. Oswald Chambers: The Woman behind the World’s Bestselling Devotional, which can be preordered now. She is also a longtime genealogist who self-published a family biography titled Pioneer Stock and is currently editing the life story of her grandfather. I think you’ll find her genealogy tips and surprise findings quite interesting. Prefer to listen to the interview? Click here to access the recording.
Dalene [D]: Welcome, Michelle, and thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
Michelle[M]: I’m happy to chat with you, Dalene.
D: So with my audience being primarily life story and even family history authors, I thought I’d start out by asking why you think family history and life story writing is important.
M: That’s actually where I began. In my case, the grandfather biography I’m updating was written twenty-seven years ago to celebrate my grandfather’s 100th birthday.
D: Oh, wow!
M: And my end of the celebration was to write his history so I interviewed my aunts, my uncles, my cousins. I had a whole lot of material. I did auxiliary reading to put his life in context. He was an immigrant from Sicily prior to WWI and our family got our citizenship as a result of his service in the Army during WWI.
M: I sent everyone this long questionnaire and this is why it’s important, to answer the question. My aunt didn’t feel up to writing those answers down so she read the questions into a tape recorder and sent me a tape.
M: I found that tape three years ago, long after my aunt had died. And it was such a great gift to turn it into CDs and give it to her daughter and granddaughter, as well as other family members, so we could hear her voice again, telling family history stories. We all cried.
D: Yes. And it’s priceless, really.
M: It really is. I was at a conference this weekend, talking to a woman who had a fantastic story and I said, “You need to tell those stories. Next time you’re riding around in the car by yourself, turn on your recorder on your phone and tell those stories for your granddaughter who has already told you she loves hearing your stories. Fifty years from now we’ll be long dead but she’ll be a woman remembering her grandmother and she’ll be able to hear your voice tell those stories of inestimable value.” And the woman began to cry! [laughs] So, yeah, tell your stories into your phone. If you’ve got it, turn it on! [laughs]
D: That’s true! I mean, everyone has that technology today. You don’t have to go out and buy a separate recorder or anything. It’s right there on your phone.
M: Yes. I have an iPhone and I can send that recording to myself in my email and then I have techy relatives who will turn it into a CD if they want one. But all of those stories are now on my computer and, which is backed up by Mozy every day, so I’m not going to lose them. And there they are. It’s such a blessing; it truly is wonderful.
D: Yes, it is. Good! I encourage my clients whenever I do speaking engagements, I also encourage them to speak it as well. I love written stories, but there is that element of connectedness when you actually hear the person’s voice. So, it’s…
D: …important to have both of those.
M: The other thing is, I have not personally investigated this so I may be speaking a little off the cuff here, but perhaps you know this, Dalene, there are transcribing systems out there that your voice’s recording could be transcribed and written down. So you could get a two-for. A transcription – a written transcription – and you could get a recording with the actual voice. There’s…I’m sure there’s costs to that, I don’t know what they are. I just type. I can type very quickly.
M: I just listen and transcribe very fast, myself.
D: Right. I know some people use the Dragon Naturally Speaking, which is pretty common and affordable. Of course, you have to go back through it and check for grammar. There are going to be some inconsistencies there, but that is another way to do it as well.
D: So, I was curious along the genealogical aspect of it because I am not a genealogist. I have some family members who have done research and so forth, but I haven’t delved into it all. But for me, family history is almost synonymous with genealogy, at least whenever I do a Google search or look it up on Amazon, it always brings up family history books.
D: Do you think genealogical research has a role to play in life story as well?
M: I think that it can. I wrote my grandfather’s biography then I realized my paternal grandmother would want her biography written and I did hers as well. And to put her life into context, she was born in 1905 Utah. I went back to Utah to visit a great-aunt who had been a genealogist. This part of the family was part of the LDS church. And the LDS church has an enormous database of genealogical research that they use with conjunction with their faith.
M: I wanted to understand when my grandmother’s family came to America. And that happened within the mid-19th century but it was part of the movement across the country where they pushed carts across the country. And so, but as a result of that, I got to thinking about my own grandfather – the man she married – who was a mystery. And we only knew that he was vaguely related to Abraham Lincoln.
M: Well, that’s a nice little nugget. I have Abraham Lincoln’s eyebrows! So I’d like to know how I’m related to him! [laughs]
And, so, that’s why I began the genealogy hunt. Prior to that, I hadn’t done any genealogy. And this is in 1994-1995, before you could get online with Ancestry and so forth. And that opened up an enormous story. My book Pioneer Stock is his family history because it went all the way back to 1627.
M: My mother was born in Sicily. I’m a first-generation American on my maternal side, but I’m DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution] eight times over and founding family of Virginia on my grandfather’s side.
M: Who in my family knew that?! Nobody. And that was a fascinating search. It took me five years to do all that research and to write the book. Again, before there was availability online so I was in libraries and looking at microfilm and microfiche and thinking I was out of my mind, as did many family members. But I came up with a really great story and a whole deeper appreciation for American history because I can put family members to a lot of events of American history. For the good and the ill.
D: Yes, yes. There’s always good and bad.
M: And quite revealing because…because we’d always heard of this Lincoln connection, I assumed I was like Clara Barton – you know, Union supporter, handsome not beautiful, efficient, organized. No, no, no, no, no, no! I’m a descendant of Scarlett O’Hara!
M: Red hair, three husbands, slaves and the whole thing! I mean, it was like, horrifying! And that was very interesting to learn and it changed how I saw myself a little bit. The slave stuff was horrifying and sobering and provided quite a lengthy conversation among my family members. I mean, my great-great-grandfather owned thirty slaves at the start of the Civil War. He was Abraham Lincoln’s second cousin, we think. It’s all hazy, because it’s through Abraham Lincoln’s mother, and that’s hazy. So maybe I’m related to Abraham Lincoln, maybe I’m not. We’re going to say we are, just because we can. Maybe. Ha! [laughs]
D: Maybe. [laughs] It’s close enough.
M: There he was, a colonel in the Confederate Army and his cousin, in theory, was President of the Unit… of the Union Army, President of the United States. Odd to think about, really.
D: It is. And, like you said, the fact that one part of your family are immigrants from Sicily and then the other as American as American can be. So that is really fascinating.
M: Yes, yes it was. The other interesting thing, though, is you do family history – or as how I did family history – I learned a lot about the times. So that I could, again, put it into context. And I learned that slaves in the South didn’t have last names. You could tell if they got along well with their masters, if you will, by whether or not they took their masters’ last name after they were freed.
D: That’s true.
M: To the good of my family line, most of the people that they owned used the name Hanks after the war. So that was, there was a small, tiny, microscopic consolation in that.
D: Right. Well, you mentioned that you had interviewed family members, especially with your grandfather’s, for his 100th birthday. I’m just curious: What were their reactions when you asked them to interview? Were there ones that didn’t want to be interviewed? Were there ones that said they didn’t have anything worth sharing? What was your experience with that?
M: Well, as I said, my aunt was happy to talk into a tape recorder; she didn’t want to write anything down. My uncle – her brother – said to me, “I thought you were writing a story about my father? Why are you asking me all these questions about my mother and the family history and all this other stuff?” And his wife – my other aunt – laughed and said, “Let me take the phone away from Frank. You can talk to me.” [laughs]
M: So that worked well. All my cousins were happy to tell stories about our grandparents. That was wonderful. Generally speaking, I’d say my family, at least, on both sides was happy to tell stories and to hear stories. Certainly I can be sympathetic, though, that some people don’t want to talk about what happened. Particularly if they have a grievous story.
One of my relatives is married to the relative of Holocaust survivors. I knew her parents, and asked her mother who was a very chatty woman, “Please tell me the stories.” She was going to be dying in a couple of years; she had a congenital disease that was going to kill her in a couple of years. She knew she had limited time.
And I said, “Just tell me the stories. I will write them down and I will give them to your only grandchildren after you’re gone. Just so we know.” And she just said, “You know, I know, Michelle, that you are trying to be kind but I just can’t go there.” And that is what happened with that story. I don’t have those stories for my nieces, which is too bad, but…
D: But it’s also important not to push.
M: Yeah, and the horror of that family – her husband’s twin sister was in England at the start of the War. She came back to Hungary to be with her family. She and both her parents were killed at Auschwitz.
D: Oh, my.
M: My sister in-law’s father was scarred from, yeah. That was terrible what happened to him.
M: He didn’t talk about it very much and we only know a little bit here and there. It’s not my story, so I have to respect that completely.
M: And I do, of course. They were wonderful people and we loved them. And we’re just so sorry for the suffering in that family. But again, that makes the Jewish situation in central Europe during WWII close to home because it was close to home. It is close to home. It’s part of our family heritage, even though I’m not Jewish, I’m not an LDS member, I am Sicilian. [laughs] Can’t help that! [laughs]
D: [laughs] Well, speaking of genealogical research, I know from great-aunt’s experience doing a lot of our family’s research that you can go down a lot of rabbit trails and get lost in the process. And I was wondering if you have any tips for people who are wanting to do some research for a book or their life story? How they can limit their search or at least focus their search?
M: I think it’s helpful to start with a couple of questions. What exactly do you want to know? I wanted to know how were we related to Abraham Lincoln. Because of my mom being an immigrant, I wanted to know when did my family cross the ocean? What year was that?
I had no idea I was going to go to the beginning of America! I mean, I thought I’d go…well, you know…I didn’t know how far. I was shocked I went so far. You really need to decide in your mind what it is that you really want to know.
Also, in my personal case, I was looking for some family-of-origin issues. Why did one of my parents behave the way they behaved? Was there a family reason why? There was. And I feel pretty confident I learned that reason and therefore I was better able to understand that family member and to forgive them for some of their behaviors because they came from a family line that had some…difficulties that reflected in the way they parented. Not my own parent, but further back.
Both of my grandparents on one side of my family lost their mothers as children. My grandmother was eighteen months old when her mother died in childbirth. My grandfather was nine when his mother died, but she’d been in a tuberculosis sanitarium for most of his life. And that reflected on their ability to parent well. They just didn’t have that…. You know, you learn how to parent, basically, from watching your parents and they didn’t have that. They had lots of aunts and uncles and cousins, but not that mom.
That made me understand why they behaved some of the ways they behaved and that was healthy for me personally, because I didn’t judge them as a result of that. I recognized that that wasn’t their fault and I could love them despite of that. I don’t know if that’s a good answer or not, but I did have some specific questions I was looking for. And they were all answered.
M: Some were good. Some were bad. But there you are. That’s life, right?
D: So while you’re doing your research, what are some ways you keep it all organized?
M: I have bins of genealogical material and I think I had sixteen binders by the time I was done. But again, I was doing research before computers. I also have many, many files and folders on my computer of additional research I did online.
I think I indicated to you I did all my research before the Internet became popular; I had never looked at Ancestry.com until two years ago. And the only reason I signed on was because I was writing this biography of Mrs. Oswald Chambers and one of the questions about Biddy was: Where did she come from to become the person she did?
She was born in England so I got an international of Ancestry, which was expensive. I think it’s $200 for six months but in my case, it was a business expense. And I did phenomenal research just by using Ancestry. I could not have written the book without it simply because they post the primary source documents, which for a genealogist and for a biographer, were of immense value.
I started my book by doing a genealogical workup of Biddy and learned her mother was a poor relation and how that reflected on how she viewed things. I was able to use the phone book to cross and discern where people lived and moved, passenger information – that’s the only way I know Biddy was 5’5″ tall because in her 1908 immigration papers to the United States, she had to say how tall she was, she had to say what her complexion was, the color of her eyes, how much money she had in the bank, her previous residence, her next residence. These were all keys I used to trace her in the United States and also back. I also used that same information in tracing other people in her story which built up a bigger picture and enabled me to see who she was.
I also, because the way Ancestry works, was able to connect with people…the descendants of some of the close people in her life. I corresponded with the daughter of one of her closest friends, the son of one of her closest friends, the great-great-grandson of the woman who brought her to America. I mean, wonderful resources. They had pictures, they had insights that rounded out my picture of Biddy very, very well. They made my biography much better.
D: And it’s so exciting when you come across those, I’m sure.
M: It absolutely is. And while I was there, since I had it on my computer, I also did a genealogical search of my Italian grandparents. I found my grandfather’s 1919 passport application, which included his picture, which I’d never seen before.
I pulled up a couple of things like that. The passenger on the boats that both of my grandparents took, my grandmother’s passport with the only baby picture of my mother (they were six weeks old when they left Italy), just stuff that happened to be on Ancestry [that] someone else had put up on Ancestry. I found my grandfather’s social security number, not that I really need that, but that’s interesting.
M: So, yeah. And Ancestry allows you to form your own family tree. You can only access them if you have a membership with Ancestry, but they stay up even if you go off Ancestry and then come back a year or so later. I haven’t figured out how to print out the family tree yet. I have the Family Tree Maker program. They no longer make that; it’s now owned by Ancestry, but I can plug my information into that and then I can print it out for my relatives, which I do from time to time.
D: I have that software as well. I purchased it for some of my commissioned biography clients. I’ve never done the genealogical research for clients, but if they have it available, I encourage them to include at least one of the basic family tree charts as an addendum to the end of their book.
D: Because it is so informative and helpful for future generations.
D: Well, I think that a lot of people who aren’t into genealogy yet, they think, “Oh, it’s just dry and bare facts” and “How do you put it all together?” But I think you’ve done a great job of showing us how we can turn that into a story and make us understand people even better as well.
M: Yes. And there are auxiliary helps as well. My family was going through some very difficult times at the same time I was writing my biography. My mother had died, my father’s health was collapsing, and there was a lot of tension for a variety of reasons, I can’t even remember why now. And sometimes we – my father, my brothers and I – would get together and they’d go at it and I would break and say, “Well, this news in genealogical research….” And they would all stop and look at me like I was out of mind.
I would tell some little story I had just unearthed and they’d all kind of sit there and think about it and then someone would say, “hmmm.” And then they’d go back to whatever they were discussing, but the genealogy – the family history – was one thing we had in common. Even if we were arguing about something else. And it would always bring the tension down in the room because it was a reminder of this is how we are united. It was very helpful. I felt foolish sometimes, but I’m glad I did it because it was a good, good discussion that had nothing to do with whatever else was going on.
D: One of the hidden benefits of genealogy. [laughs]
M: You know, really. You know I’d say, “Well, I know where the red hair comes from!” My brother’s daughters turned up with bright red hair, and we’re all like, “Whoa! Red hair? Who has red hair in our family?” It’s a genetic thing; you have to have it on both sides of your family. My sister-in-law has reddish-auburn hair, but what about us? And I was able to show through the genealogy that we traced from a woman in Ireland a few years ago. So maybe that’s why they’ve got red hair. Otherwise, I don’t know. [laughs]
M: They do look like my brother, so we’re fine there. [laughs]
D: Well, good. Thanks for clarifying that. [laughs] Do you have any other important tips you want to share with beginning genealogists or if there’s anything else that you wanted to share?
M: There are a couple of blog posts on my website. One of them gives you types of questions to ask. I wrote a blog post last Thanksgiving about getting the photos and one about bringing your family history discussion to Thanksgiving dinner. It can be hard to ask the questions and it’s always good to go to the five Ws and the H: who, what, when, where, why and how. And try to find conversation topics that people will want to talk about, want to discuss. That can be very helpful. If you go in with some questions, some people are going to bristle, but some people are going to want to hear the stories. Feel free to laugh. I mean, they’re your ancestors. You can’t hurt their feelings anymore, right? [laughs]
M: Laughs are valid.
D: Good. You mentioned your website. You want to share what that website address is, how people can reach out to you?
M: My website is http://www.michelleule.com and yeah, feel free to ask me questions. They can ask me questions on my website. Yeah. I would be happy to answer any questions.