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25 Sep 2010

The written word is back: in praise of letters

I tread a different path from Churchill's daughter Lady Mary Soames, who recently eulogised the late letter, whose estate has been entailed to its fast thoughtless cousin, E Male.

I have had some success in contacting family relatives by letter, from across the chasm of time, and a couple of hundred miles and several regional accents in space. It can take as little as half an hour to find a cousin on the internet these days, and yet you can make your letter look as if you've been scrabbling through gravestones and quaint newspaper cuttings to beat a path to their door.

People will on the whole be very happy to have a letter from you, but it may take time to reply, and they may never get round to it. It could take a couple of years for a reply to arrive, perhaps from a grandson or cousin who is given the letter at a later date.

I might upload some sample letters that have worked, to this blogosphere. However, there is no template. Success could be as high as 70%, and it depends on a few factors:

1) Making sure the letter is properly personalised, tailored to the recipient. I tend to do a slightly different style for men than I do for women.
2) Making sure you have the right address and that the recipient is still alive and is in fact the person you seek.

3) The letter needs to make sense to the person receiving it, which means:
• Giving a bit of a handle on what kind of person you are through tone of voice, old world courtesy or by clearly siting yourself at the friendly end of the inquisitive/psychotic spectrum
• Mentioning some names, places or an occupation which will ring bells with the recipient and put them at ease, or give them a warm fuzzy glow
• Remembering that people are enormously trusting and won’t doubt you, particularly if you are penning your letter by hand with a British residential return address
• Avoid starting your letter with ‘Dear Mr Starcher, I am studying all the Starchers in Englandshire, and my book is priced keenly at £19.95 making an enormous coffee table gift for you and a loved one’... or anything that looks like a sale/con/chain letter

4) Leave the door open to future communication, but don't indicate that you expect anything. Make some options for their response subtly apparent: they can email back, use the self-addressed stamped envelope, 'add to the tree', write back a short note, pass the letter on to cousins who ARE interested, or they can decide not to get in touch at all. Once you've established contact, do maintain it, and be prepared for a second wave of revelations. You might find sending out a questionnaire could be useful. I’ve never done this myself, but , but I've seen examples where it has worked. Questions might be: What was your father's occupation. At which addresses or streets did the family live? What did your parents do during the War?

5) Select your target carefully: there are myriad considerations. Do you write to the eldest or youngest child, man or woman, those living near or far from the ancestral homeland? Are there any upsetting facts which will determine to whom you write and what you tell them? The ideal candidate is about 40, has watched Who do you think you are? has seen the Genes reunited ads on Friends reunited, is female, has a parent living (perhaps nearby), has time to answer your letter, has a working computer (or no computer at all), is at home a fair bit, isn’t busy when your letter arrives, lives near to the ancestral homeland but not in it, has occasion to have pleasant recollections of impressions of the past, and has a story of their own that they can (proudly) tell. They might also be interested in history, or they might live near good walking country. I found a piano teacher living on her own in the Peak district, and I was sure she would reply, as indeed she did. Our ideal correspondent needs not to have inherited property by stealth, else they possess the parallel attribute of barking frostily at callers ‘how did you get this number?’

6) If you must call, get ready for rejection, and run through roleplay endlessly until you feel sick. I've done this twice as an adult and felt very ill before and elated after. The two key people I called were fairly useful (invaluable at the time), but in hindsight I’d picked the wrong targets. Write letters instead.

Good luck with your letters - I'm sure they will go down very well.

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