A) Listen. You’ll hear more than you dare tell (or write). It’s true every family closet has its skeleton or perhaps an entire family of them.
B) Ask questions. Someone is bound to tell you more than you should know. Keep in mind some of it may all be lies or at least embellished.
A) Get your hands on the oldest family Bible you can find. Turn to the middle section which lists births, marriages, and deaths. You may turn up a name you don’t recognize or a date that’s out of whack.
B) See B) in Resource #1.
A) Ask the family historian (every family has one) about their family’s war service. Go for broke--ask about the Civil War first. Keep in mind, if you’re asking someone about his own service, take your cue from him. He may prefer not to talk about it. Don’t push.
B) Unfortunately, all the sites advertised as “free” when you do an internet search are NOT free. You can search free, but the records themselves are held for ransom. Try to locate discharge papers and draft cards. Find a library/local genealogical group which grants free access to such genealogical research sites as Ancestry.com and go from there.
A) Look through old picture albums. If the pictures aren’t labeled, take them to the oldest living member of the family and ask if he/she can identify people and places (especially houses).
B) Search the internet for information about the places. Check out that county’s genealogical page. You might find a familiar name.
A) Visit cemeteries where family members are buried. Older cemeteries are best. Sometimes markers reveal a wealth of information about the person.B) In most states, death certificates weren’t kept until the early 1900s. Verify when they were kept in whichever county you’re interested in. If you can show relationship to the person whose death certificate you want to see or show cause for seeing it, you will find information such as the cause of death--which sometimes spawns more unanswered questions. (Most county clerks won’t charge you for a non-certified copy--or at least, not very much. Keep in mind, sometimes these records don’t reside locally but rather with the state, and the state Bureau of Vital Statistics isn’t always easy to deal with.)
A Word of Caution
Please don’t write true/tell-all stories about the recently deceased. Someone is bound to take offense, and rightly so. Besides, it’s not nice.
Even if you are writing about the long-dead, disguise names and places and skew your facts a little. It’s the right thing to do.
Be creative. If you’re a genealogist, like Sgt. Joe Friday you only want “just the facts”, but as a writer, you can take a little and do a lot. That’s what writers do, isn’t it?