Asking the Right Question: Part 3

Picture this scene: you absolutely love chocolate cake and have decided to bake your own. You’ve even bought a cake tin especially for the purpose. You’re thrilled. You can’t wait to get started. Whenever you look at the tin, you think, “that’s the chocolate cake tin”. It’s become so fixed in your mind as the chocolate cake tin that it doesn’t once occur to you to use it to make other flavours of cake: lemon, coffee, blueberry, vanilla…and so there’s a whole load of things you end up missing out on.

The same is true of research questions. If we become too narrowly focused on our research question, we can become trapped in a rut and fail to see the bigger picture. We may even end up missing relevant information which could be really useful in our research.

Let’s think about this some more…

Find the Right Tool for the Job – Then Use It Well

Previously, we’ve looked at what a research question is and why you might need one in Part 1, and thought about what the scope of your question should be in Part 2. We moved from the Haystack to a Polished approach to make sure our question was the right tool for the job: that it was capable of directing us to the right resources for our investigation.

Forming a question, though, is just the beginning. Just as owning the world’s best woodworking tools won’t suddenly make you a master carpenter, having a useful and well-considered research question doesn’t guarantee that you’ll automatically do the best research. You have to use the question in the right way for it to help!

So as well as thinking, “Is this a good question to ask?” we also need to be thinking, “How will I use this question to shape my research?”

So let’s think about the interplay between our research question and our search strategy.

Would simply having these tools turn you into a master carpenter? No, but correct usage, perpetual learning and flexible thinking could… Image: Neal Wellons, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Show Your Question Who’s Boss

A good research question is there to guide – not force – you through the research process. Remember that you’re the active partner in all of this. Even a good question applied too dogmatically can hinder rather than help.

Suppose you’re trying to find a birth record for your ancestor, Diana Elizabeth Forsyte. You’ve developed a question and now you’re starting to do the research. What aspects of your search might require some flexible thinking? Here are some suggestions…

  1. Transcriptional Errors: How do you know that the transcriber has read your ancestor’s name correctly and typed it into the database without error? Maybe a transcriber has misread Diana’s surname as Forsyth, not Forsyte?
  2. Variation in Name Presentation: Are you making too many assumptions about how Diana’s name was registered originally? “It couldn’t possibly be her, I’m looking for someone called Diana Elizabeth!” Perhaps Diana was actually called Elizabeth or Beth or Bessie on some records? Or did she switch the ordering of her names sometimes and appear as Elizabeth Diana? You’ll need to bear these variants in mind.
  3. Variation in search algorithms: Search engines on different sites use their own algorithms to determine your search results (as well as employing different transcribers!). Rival sites usually provide different results in a different order: be prepared for some scrolling and refining at this stage. One site may cause you to miss a result which is obvious when searching with another provider – especially if you’re too blinkered in terms of what you’re expecting to find.
  4. Gaps in the underlying record or index: Perhaps the search provider has not yet transcribed all the relevant entries for a particular time window. Or maybe some of the original records were destroyed? If you forget to check for index gaps, you may falsely assume that Diana wasn’t born in England or Wales.

Allowing your research question to dominate to the exclusion of all else can cause as many problems as having a question that’s too vague. Keep your mind open to the possibility of individuals not appearing the way you’re expecting, and you’ll be poised to find new routes through those brick walls. You’ll be in control, rather than your question calling all the shots.

If you’d like to see how this might work with a real research task, then read on…

The Return of Charlotte Oliphant

Do you remember Charlotte OLIPHANT from the PEARSON family tree? Let’s take another look at our research into her and see how our focus might need to adapt as we use our research question.

A pedigree diagram of the Pearson family, showing George Pearson, born in 1886, who in 1908 married Charlotte Oliphant, born in 1879. They had three children: Henry in 1909, Margaret in 1910, and George in 1914.
The PEARSON family of Carlisle, Cumberland, England. Charlotte OLIPHANT, who married into the PEARSON family in 1908, is our person of interest.

We were asking the question:

WHEN and WHERE did Charlotte OLIPHANT (b. 12 April 1879, Carlisle), later PEARSON, die?

This question has given us a clear objective of locating Charlotte’s death, starting within English civil registration records. But if we’re showing this question who’s boss, we need to remember that Charlotte’s name and other details may not appear in this precise form within the records.

Our question leads us initially to the England and Wales Civil Registration Death Index. For a bit of variety, and to open this up to people who don’t have commercial subscriptions, I’m going to show some of this as FreeBMD searches.

A search result pane from the genealogical site FreeBMD. The researcher has looked for Charlotte Pearson deaths in Carlisle from Dec 1929 - Dec 1979 but there are no positive matches.
A FreeBMD search for Charlotte PEARSON’s death in Carlisle over a fifty year period draws a blank. What should we do next?

Running this search in the death indexes, it seems that Charlotte didn’t die as a PEARSON in Carlisle over 1929-79 (N.B. You should also make yourself aware of possible gaps in your index though!). Could she have died elsewhere in England or Wales instead?

These are just some of the results in the England and Wales death indexes for Charlotte PEARSON over the period 1929-1979. An extract eliminates these systematically (e.g. by age) to create a smaller pool of possible candidates.

A broader search for all registration districts gives you well over 100 results – a lot to work through! To be thorough, I’ve taken an extract of all the Charlotte PEARSON deaths over this period. (I’ll look at extracts in more detail in a future blog post, and I highly recommend Helen Osborn’s book, Genealogy: Essential Research Methods, which covers the process in depth).

Using my knowledge of Charlotte’s presumed DOB, I can eliminate many of the entries from my extract based on age at death. Comparing remaining entries against the National Probate Calendar over the same years, the matches drop away until there don’t appear to be any good matches on our list for Charlotte PEARSON. What should we do next?

Using the National Probate Calendar alongside a death index extract can be a great way of eliminating non-match results. Source: Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1995)

If we were too focused on the specific question we’ve set ourselves, we might say, “I’m looking for a Charlotte PEARSON and she’s not died in England or Wales. I need to look elsewhere.” This might make us shift our focus to another country, such as Scotland. But we’d be missing something.

A wedding ring, pictured atop a religious text
Consider marriage name changes if you are unable to locate a woman within a particular record set. Image: Jo Christian Oterhals, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What our searches have shown is that Charlotte’s death, if it did occur in England, was not registered under the name PEARSON. Looking again at the family tree, it seems that Charlotte was only fifty when her husband George died in 1929. What is the most likely reason for a woman appearing under a different name during her adult life? Marriage.

Introducing the Sub-Question

This hypothesis extends our view of our original question and introduces a sub-question: “Did Charlotte PEARSON née Oliphant remarry after the death in 1929 of her husband George?”

Marriage certificate for Charlotte PEARSON, widow, and George SCOTT, widower – March 1933. GRO ref: Q1 1933 Carlisle 10B 706.

Let’s go to FreeBMD and use its marriage index search. Oral history suggests that the family was tied to Carlisle, so we’ll bear that in mind as a possible remarriage location. If we look for a marriage for Charlotte PEARSON in Carlisle, any time from Q4 1929 onwards, we obtain 2 results: one with a middle name (we might need to bear this in mind too, even if we’re not following up on it right now) and one for a basic “Charlotte Pearson”: ref. Q1 1933 Carlisle 10B 706. Spouse SCOTT.

This is a fantastic lead to follow, but needs firming up if we’re going to accept it. Think about context: what record set are we likely to find the newly-married Charlotte in? The 1939 Register.

Husband and wife of six years, George and Charlotte SCOTT on the 1939 Register, living at 38 Currock Road, Carlisle. Charlotte’s date of birth is an exact match for her birth certificate. Source:, RG101/3048G/021/13

A quick search of this set turns up Charlotte and George SCOTT living at Currock Road in Carlisle – the very address listed on George PEARSON jnr.’s marriage certificate – and with Charlotte SCOTT’s date of birth an exact match for our existing info for Charlotte PEARSON. We have found her!

With our sub-question resolved, a death search for Charlotte SCOTT proves more fruitful and we locate her death in Carlisle in 1956. GRO ref: Q1-1956-Carlisle-1A-57.

If we’d been too blinkered and let our question dominate our thinking completely, we might not have considered a remarriage for Charlotte. We could have easily been led down a rabbit hole of searching only for a Charlotte PEARSON death instead of considering the most likely alternatives. Charlotte was there in Carlisle all along, but under a different name and with a new spouse.

If we repeat our search of the death indexes, but this time looking for Charlotte SCOTT and searching over the period 1933 – 1979, we find her entry very quickly in 1956. The corresponding certificate matches for names, addresses and other details so it’s definitely a match. Our initial research question wasn’t enough in its own right: we needed flexible thinking and perseverance too.

Do You Have the SAID Elements?

Using your question well is a balancing act. The question acts like the climbing frame for your research: Structure and Direction. Once you’re climbing, you have to make the effort to hold on as you climb, to change direction when needed and to watch where you’re going if you’re going to reach the top. As the researcher, you provide the Innovation and Action.

The SAID components of a good research process: Structure and Direction from the research question, alongside Innovation and Action from the researcher.

When we were working through the Charlotte OLIPHANT problem, we established a sound question that provided direction and structure. Our question only took on value when it was actually used – we had to take action. When we couldn’t find Charlotte’s death as a PEARSON, we had to innovate and consider how else her name might appear in the records and why. Furthermore, our initial question was refined enough to contain cross-referencing details (Charlotte’s DOB) which helped in triangulating between records to confirm a positive match. We didn’t get caught in a Haystack!

Together, these four elements (SAID) help to support a healthy research process – two elements from you, and two from your question. Next time you hit a brick wall, check whether one of those four things is missing: perhaps making up the missing element will help you break through!

6 thoughts on “Asking the Right Question: Part 3

  1. Hi Sophie. Thank you for these ‘Asking the right question’ posts, and especially this latest one. I’ve been researching my family history off and on for over 40 years and now I’m enjoying going back over handwritten notes from conversations with my parents, grandparents and other relatives, that are making me challenge some previous conclusions. Your reminders (and Helen Osborn’s book) have made me slow down and focus. As with so many online search experiences, it’s very easy to go down rabbit holes and forget why/where you started!

    1. Hi Penny! Thank you so much for your kind words – I’m really glad that my Questions series of posts has been useful. And Helen Osborn’s book is a big favourite of mine – it is an absolute gem, isn’t it? Would agree with you that the digital evolution of genealogy has really changed the search and research experience: I think we’re all tempted into being led astray when it’s so easy to click from one page to the next in an instant.

      Would love to hear how your current research works out and if any research questions you come up with help with shaping the way forward. I hope it all goes well!

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