Monday, August 31, 2015

An Interview with Laurie Sleeper of Tall Trees Genealogy

One of the 2015 Gena and Jean sponsors was professional genealogist Laurie Sleeper, JD, MFA of Tall Trees Genealogy. Laurie is an attorney with a degree in Creative Writing. I sat down with her to learn more about her interests and tips for genealogy.

Gena: How did you first get interested in genealogy?

Laurie: I grew up knowing quite a bit about my mother’s side of the family because my uncle was a serious genealogist. In the 1980s, he self-published several lengthy volumes of family history, reflecting at least 30 years of dedicated research (while working full-time and pursuing his interest in music as well!). But I didn’t know much about my father’s side of the family. Since my last name is Sleeper, I wanted to find out why! I tape-recorded an interview with my grandfather L. Jack Sleeper while I was in high school, as well as wrote letters to family members asking for information. Although I’ve had a couple of different careers—lawyer, writer, full-time mother—I’ve always returned to genealogy. I’m so excited that genealogy is now my career!

Gena: What is your favorite part of research?

Laurie: I love trying to glean every bit of information from the records I look at, trying to see how all the pieces fit together to help me learn more about the person I’m researching. I like to imagine the time and place the person lived in, the various societal influences and constraints, the reasons he or she made certain choices—while non-genealogy enthusiasts might see old records as boring, I see each one as bringing a person back to life. Someone who might have been forgotten is now remembered.

Gena: You’ve attended a number of genealogical institutes; why would you recommend that experience?

Laurie: When I first decided to become a professional genealogist, I knew I had to broaden my knowledge and experience. I’ve treated my self-education like grad school, attending a variety of institutes and conferences to get up to speed quickly so that I know I can give my clients the best service possible. I love the institutes specifically because you choose one course in which you focus intensively on one topic for the entire week. It’s a learning environment that we adults don’t get very often once we enter the real world. And it’s fun! It’s like summer camp for adults. Several of my closest friends are people I’ve met at the institutes.

Gena: Can you tell us about DNA and genealogy?

I’m so excited to include DNA analysis with my traditional genealogy research when I can. I know people are sometimes disappointed with their DNA test results, but I think it’s because some people think it will produce magic. The important thing to understand about DNA and genealogy is that your test results are like any other genealogical record or document. DNA can’t solve any problem by itself, it has to be analyzed in conjunction with traditional genealogical research. DNA is a record that has newly become available to us, which is why there’s so much focus on it right now. If you have older relatives or are part of the oldest living generation in your family, please consider taking a DNA test (or two)—you will personally be contributing to the record of your family’s history.

Gena: Family historians sometimes have a hard time writing a narrative after researching. What do you recommend to help non-writers to be able to tell their family stories?

Laurie: Writing can be hard for the best writers, so don’t feel bad if you struggle with finding the right words. Start small—instead of trying to write an entire book, try just one scene or one story. Pretend that you are telling your story to a friend or to a younger relative. Think about how you keep listeners engaged when telling any kind of story. Try talking into a digital recorder, or record yourself talking to someone else. Use your imagination, and remember that people a hundred years ago were not that much different than us. If your ancestor was the youngest of eight, what impact might that have on her perspective? If a father died young, how would that feel for the oldest son who had to become the man of the family? Learn about the history of the time and location where your ancestors lived—it’s important to know about weather, crop failures, wars, etc. Stop and think how that would affect you, because it probably affected your ancestors in a similar way. But most importantly, don’t worry about how “good” your writing is, just write it! You are the one who is rescuing your ancestors from the passage of time and memory, and even if your writing feels “clunky” to you, it’s critical that you record what you’ve learned so that future generations can learn from you.

You can read more about Laurie on her website, Tall Trees Genealogy. Her website is currently under construction but you can still contact her there. 

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