If you are considering jumping into genealogy research, you probably have some bits of information already. Perhaps you found a dusty, old family Bible with names and dates handwritten inside. Or maybe a conversation with a grandparent has piqued your curiosity. My mother gave me a small folder of information her father had gathered in the 1970's. He was trying to find information about his father's father, and he got as far as his grandfather's Civil War discharge information. That is where my journey began.
The first thing you'll need is a place to record your information. I began transferring my family tree from Family Tree Maker to WikiTree recently, and I am not looking back. I absolutely love WikiTree. It is an online family tree that is absolutely free. Simply upload a gedcom of your family tree, or begin entering your information manually. I have opted to enter my ancestors one at a time, doing research at familysearch.com and on the Internet as I go. You won't find a more fun, collaborative environment in which to grow your family tree. And you'll be challenged to hone your sleuthing skills, collecting sources and tying up loose ends. You can find them at wikitree.com
Ancestry has stopped supporting Family Tree Maker, but another company has stepped up and taken over. Find out more here.
You can also save your family tree online at familysearch.com. This site is maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons). As you may already know, they are geniuses at genealogy research for their own reaasons, but we all get to benefit from their expertise at no charge. The great thing about keeping your family tree at FamilySearch is that you can add sources to your tree quickly and easily for free - census documents, marriage records, etc. - all free.
If you're not using a computer to store your tree, you can print free forms here. You can store your family group sheets in a binder with tabs between families. Create a system that makes sense to you so you can track your information and maintain your connections as you add more data.
Once you have a plan for storing your information, start with yourself. Fill out a 'family group sheet' for your own family. Records names, dates and places of birth, death, marriage, etc. Add pictures to the record, at least one good picture of each family member. You can collect more pictures and add them to the record as you go, Remember, someone in the future will look at what you've put together in awe and gratefulness for the ability to see into their past. Add whatever you would like to see if you were to stumble upon an old record of your family history. If you have access to birth certificates, marriage licenses, military discharge papers, wills, etc, include them in your records. Scan them into your computer and add them, keeping the originals someplace safe.
When you've finished your family group sheet, make one for your parents with yourself a a child. You'll probably have to talk with a living relative to get specific information. You may not know your parents' anniversary or the town where your father was born. A conversation can yield a wealth of data, so write everything down or record the interview. Even the 'family lore' can be interesting, and will add a richness to your record. It may even hold clues that don't make sense now, but will later on in your research. Don't miss a thing! The more complete your information is on each person the easier it will be to find the next bit of information.
Now that you have these family group sheets, take stock of what original sources you have and what you need to find. Search for what you need at www.familysearch.org/search. If you find a record that matches your family data you can attach it to your family tree quickly and easily for free. From here you can create family group sheets for each of your grandparents, filling in as much information as you can using family records and interviews, searching for sources at FamilySearch, and googling your ancestors. In order to filter your results when you Google an ancestor, try typing their full name then the word 'genealogy'. You can also try typing their full name then the years of their birth and death separated by a dash, like this: Sidney Leroy Carkin 1900-1970. You can search using the full names of a married couple: Sidney Leroy Carkin and Charlotte Lillian Oldershaw. Or you can search using a name, birth year, and place: Sidney Leroy Carkin born 1900 Groton, Massachusetts. What you're going to get for the most part when you Google your ancestors are other people's family trees which contain your ancestor. This is what is so fascinating and wonderful about genealogy - you are related to so many people! Someone else is researching the same tree from another branch, and you run right into each other! Be careful about adding information from other trees into your database quickly. If there are sources to back up the data or if it is someone you trust, go ahead. If you think it matches, but there is no data to confirm it you can write down or print the record (I like to select the text if I can and add it to the Notes section of my family tree). Make yourself a sticky note to remind you to try to verify the data when you have time.
You don't want to bounce around too much when you're doing your research. Rabbit trails abound, and they can lead you to some wonderful places. If you're working on a particular person or family, and you find an interesting path to follow that is outside what you're working on, you can make yourself a note to check it out later. If the rabbit is just too juicy to ignore, make yourself a note about what you are working on before you head down the trail so you can come back to it later. It is so easy to get lost following clues, jumping from person to person down a line then forgetting the original family member this line connects to. One way to track it is to jot down either on paper or in a Word document the names and possibly dates/places of each person you come across as you follow them backward. You will then have a list to lead you back.
Cyndi's List is the first place you need to go. This site contains a wealth of information and wil point you in the right directions. Start at the Beginners page linked here.
The U.S. GenWeb Project can be a valuable resource as you begin researching in various states and counties.
This wiki is a great place to learn how to do research and also has helpful links.
The National Archives Resources for Genealogists has lots of military records online.
Family Tree Magazine has articles and information that will help you on your genealogy journey. "25 Best Genealogy Websites" is a great place to start.
Find-A-Grave is a searchable database of cemetery records all over the U.S.
Family History Daily has links to lots of searchable databases.