A while back I talked to a woman with German-Russian roots. She knew that was her heritage from family tradition, but hadn't yet linked into any ancestors. If you are in the same spot, here are some tips from my own experience. I realize that many of you are way past that point, but hopefully this will be of benefit to someone who is just getting started.
When I began looking for ancestors in my late teenage years, no one even knew my grandmother's given name. I did know my grandfather's name and my grandmother's maiden name. That was my starting place. Luckily, she died in the states so I was able to locate my grandmother's death certificate with the information I had. That's when I realized that a death certificate can give you a great bit of information to get a good start on your research. To make it easy, I'll list some of the things you can learn from a death certificate. (Keep in mind that only the death information will be a primary source, but the secondary sources can give great clues.)
1. A place of residence is listed. This can help in locating obituaries, probate records, etc. When I found my great-grandfather's probate record it helped fill in his story a little, since I knew virtually nothing about him.
2. The person's parents are often listed. In my case, that meant I had another family name to start checking out. Before that time I didn't know my great-grandmother's given or maiden name.
3.If the person served in the military, it is sometimes listed. In the case of an uncle, also a stranger to me, I began to find many service related records that amazed me. He really excelled, and I would never have known that unless I had found out about his military service.
4. You can find out names of other people who are related to the deceased because someone, usually a family member, provides information for the death certificate. In my experience, I knew so little about my uncle that it was great to get his wife's name.
5. If you get the spouse's name from the death certificate, then you have a clue to begin looking for marriage records.
6. You gain information on the person's employment. I loved finding out that my great-grandfather was a carpenter.
7. Birthplace is important. Even though the death certificate is not a primary source for birth information, it sure helps to know where to start looking for it.
8. You can gain valuable medical information for your family's health history.
I know that this list is not complete, but it's some of the information that has been valuable to me in my family research. Even though my dad's generation was the first in my family born in America, I could get a start from his parents' death certificates, which eventually got me back into Russia. If you comb over a death certificate carefully, you will find many clues to get a good start on your search.