Above, the wedding party from my great grandparents Mary Katherine Stoppenhagen and Charles Werling. See more about them here!
1. Call Your Parents and ask for birthdays, marriage dates, deaths of any grandparent, aunt or uncle they can remember. These details will help you connect to the huge amount of established trees and fill in your own more quickly.
2. Check Your Spelling! I've found that many of my German and Dutch ancestors simplified or Americanized their names after emigrating to the States. Schroeder could be Schröder or Roush could be Roesch. If you cross check a name and birthday, along with some siblings or parents, you can confirm that name change and potentially find older generations using the earlier spelling.
3. Search Nicknames or Common Names. One ancestor I had trouble with is listed alternatively as Sarah and Sally/Sallie on census records. I believe it's the same person because she has a constant birthday, listed with same husband and same children over the course of decades. I ended up merging two different entries for the same person and I'm still working on tracking down her parents. It's not uncommon for people to go by their middle names either, so check those!
4. Use a Round About. If you're searching for someone and getting no leads, try looking up someone else in the family you've confirmed - a child or spouse, for example. Marriage licenses are great because a lot of them require the applicants to list their parents, including the mother's maiden name.
5. Google It. In my example above I was only certain of Ora's birth and death dates when I found her headstone. She was buried near her parents, so I was able to add them into the chart (and by add I mean I matched with existing data) and a whole new branch of my tree became available. The site that's helped me a lot FindAGrave.com
6. Cross Check Ages. It took a couple of different census records for me to uncover a distant grandmother had her child at 17. Presumably no father was involved because she lived with her parents and her son, and it appears the child took his mother's last name instead of the father. But how this was entered into the tree was misleading (and a dead end!) It took me a census record listing parents, daughter and grandson (with their ages listed right next to their names) to have the aha moment. She later married and had children with another man which complicated things a bit during my searches!
7. Search with Less Information. Sometimes you just have the wrong info and if you omit that from your search, you can sometimes find the right info. Try searching without a spouse's name attached, or no birth year (especially if you're really not sure)
8. Take Notes While You Work. Because I bounce around a lot on my browser, I keep the name of the person I'm working on right in front of me written down with any dates I might want to cross check. It's also really fun to yell out BINGO! or write it next to a big breakthrough!
9. Get excited... but not too excited. If you're connected to someone who might have a really extensive family tree, say the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith (we share the same Mayflower ancestor - Elizabeth TIlley Howland), then your chart is basically going to take you all the way back to the Bible. (FamilySearch is a free service provided by the LDS) I stopped clicking on ancestors when I got to Jesus times (literally.. BC!) because I don't have the ability to verify that info... I'm really not sure that's even possible. So get excited, especially for all of those written records that confirm things, but don't get crazy about finding your way back to Noah or Adam and Eve (unless you want to! You do you!)
10. Take a Break. Sometimes you'll feel like you're just going in circles or frustrated with missing info. Or maybe it's already 2am and you're wondering how you stayed up so late (because it's SO FUN! That's why!) Sometimes it just pays to take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes.
BONUS: Read the actual records - many of them have been indexed so they're easy to search and read, but if you're able to decipher the handwriting or scanning quality, check out the original document! I've had to download some and pop them into Photoshop to adjust the balance/make them legible, but it's worth it! I always knew Eva was a wonderful seamstresses and worked as a cake decorator but in this record I learned at age 18 she was a telephone operator!
Finally, it cannot go without saying how grateful I am for all of the researchers, my distant cousins and family members, whom I'll probably never know, who have updated and shared this information and connected the dots. I've probably solved two or three mysteries, but someone (many people!) set me up for success without even knowing it. I'm doing my part by adding photos and documents (like the ones in this post!) too in hopes of weaving a tapestry of my family history.