Practical advice and encouragement on taking the first steps in exploring and recording your family tree.

Everyone who has done some work on their family history has had the same experience: meeting people who tell them how much they wish they'd taken an interest in their own family stories before it was too late.

Of course it's never too late. But the longer you leave it, the more you will miss out on the chance to record memories and information from elderly and seldom seen members of your extended family.

One of the most common reasons not to start is not wanting to buy or learn to use the latest genealogy software programmes. That's no excuse! All you need is a pen and paper, and some time to contact members of your family.

Start with what you know

Even before picking up the phone, you should start by drawing the family tree you already have in your head – yourself, your parents, children, siblings, uncles, aunts. Include birthdays and wedding dates if you have them, and any maiden names you know. You'll be surprised how the piece of paper you started with isn't big enough, even with what you already know.

This exercise may also remind you of parts of your family that are surprisingly close to you – maybe one of your four grandparents – about whom you know next to nothing. Good. Now you are beginning to understand what gaps you really need to fill in, and you will start having ideas about who in the family might be able to help.

You will quickly see that what has been talked about as 'the family' is really a network of different families. Female family lines tend to get downplayed as they usually don't share your surname. But of course, you are just as much a part of your mother or grandmother's family, as the more familiar-sounding family whose name you carry.

It's a beguiling process. You will soon find that it's one you never finish, because the more work you put into it, the more 'leads' you have to follow up. But every additional hour you spend on it adds to what you have already done.

Start your system

Unless – and this is a final, heartfelt point – you fail to keep safely the work you have done. That's where an online genealogy programme comes in useful: it is the receptacle for your work, keeping it in a neat, easy-to-copy and systematic form. To begin with, a family history folder in a safe drawer will do. But soon you will need a system: that will be lesson two. Congratulations if that is now your problem.