Conducting research abroad


Even with the wealth of information online, many researchers still travel for work; not all libraries or museums have digital catalogs, and some resources simply must be visited in person.  As you can imagine, this presents some unique challenges, especially if you travel to places that use languages other than your own.  

Here are some recommendations for conducting research abroad:

Keep a translation app handy

While a translation app doesn’t replace the benefit of having an actual human translator, it can help alleviate some of the stress of navigating through a foreign catalog. Google’s translation app, for example, can translate words in real time using your phone camera; you just hold it over the text you want to translate (or take a photo), and it will translate the words for you. You can download the languages ahead of time, in case you have limited internet access. 

Study their cataloguing system

Classification systems vary internationally, so this is one thing you can study ahead of time to be more prepared when you get there. When in doubt, check their library website.

Reach out ahead of time

Communicate with researchers, locals, or scholars in the region you’re visiting. They may offer to help with translation, or help you navigate through local collections.

Document your findings the best you can 

If you’re visiting a library or museum temporarily, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to bring their resources back with you. Be ready to document your findings thoroughly: take pictures, scan documents, and record ideas so that you don’t miss anything when you return home.

Visit locations to get a sense of space and layout

If you're doing research for a historical novel, for instance, be sure to spend time visiting the places featured in your story. Knowing what your characters would have seen firsthand will give your story depth and rich details, and you can ensure that you're using factual information since you'll be at the actual location yourself. Writing about the Roman Colosseum, for example, is much more interesting (and easier) when you've seen it yourself, to accurately capture the scope of it.

Learn more research tips and tricks in The Citizen's Guide to Research, out now!

Thinking like a historian when writing historical fiction


You don’t have to be an expert historian to delve into historical research. Learning how to be a thoughtful and clever historian takes years and years of practice. But you can start your journey by understanding how to think like a historian.

Always consider context

The old adage, “hindsight is 20/20,” can be a detriment to historical storytellers. Challenge yourself to think about events or interactions not from your modern perspective, but using the details you uncover from your research.

Be mindful of your sources

Different sources covering the same era or event can tell wildly different stories. Consider the 1940s — a New York newspaper covered WWII far differently than a German publication. Investigate multiple sources to see what unique perspectives you can find and use in your story.

Draw conclusions with evidence

If you have a hunch that a certain character would react in a certain way, use your research to support that behavior. This helps you think more objectively about context, and can also fuel your narrative.

Ask specific questions

Being specific will guide your research process. If you’re writing a book about Ancient Rome, that’s a huge topic and can be overwhelming! Focus your questions based on your story or characters, such as: what did teenage Roman girls in wealthy families wear during the summer months?

Research topics from different perspectives

See what you can find out about the same events from the perspective of multiple characters. For example, what would a married Roman woman talk about while watching Gladiators battle in the Coliseum? What would a Gladiator in slavery think about as he is sent into the arena?

Download the free guide, Researching Your Historical Novel, by clicking below!

How to do research for your National Novel Writing Month project

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It's almost November, which means it's almost time for one of my favorite events of the year: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I've written about NaNoWriMo preparation before, but I want to go into more detail about actually doing research for your project.

It's not just historical novels that require research; every novel and writing project requires some research. A science fiction book may include research about spaceship design; a fantasy novel may include research on mythical creatures. I've participated in NaNoWriMo about five times (winning twice), and I can tell you firsthand that the month goes by FAST, so the more you can tackle ahead of time, the better. Since it's the first week of October, it's the perfect time to knock out your research before November 1.

Below are my tried-and-true research tips for your novel, regardless of genre or topic.

Start with a thorough outline

Not all writers use outlines for their books, but it makes a huge difference during NaNoWriMo; the two times I "won" were because I had very clear outlines, so every day was just a matter of "filling in" the outline. An outline will also help you identify the parts of your story that require research. 

You can outline digitally, or get out a big piece of paper and just start writing down the main plot points of your story. (Here's a great resource on what your outline should include.)

Prioritize your research points

Your outline should reveal the parts of your story that need research, and you'll want to make a list of what research you want to tackle first. Research is often overwhelming to writers because there's just so much of it to do, so take it piece-by-piece.

Consider the following:

  • What are the "big picture" details in your story? For instance, what's the location or era/time that you need to study? 
  • How will your characters interact with their world? You'll need to research the day-to-day details, such as clothing, food, architecture, music/art, and cultural events. 

Start with the "big picture" details. What is the most important research you need to do before you can actually start writing? Start broad, and you can drill further as you go. 

Create a research schedule

Once you have a sense for the research you'll need to do, come up with a reasonable schedule. It's impossible to knock out all your research in one day, so make a plan to tackle a little bit over the span of a week (or a few weeks). I always recommend going into a research session with a specific goal in mind. Your schedule should include the specific research questions you plan to tackle every day. For instance, researching the clothing worn by a battle nurse in World War II is a specific and attainable goal to meet in one research session.

Spend an afternoon at the library

It's tempting to conduct all of your research online, but I highly recommend committing an afternoon to a library visit. You'll have books and librarians at your disposal, and you can knock out some of the "big picture" details of your research. If your research includes studying places or architecture, scan or take pictures of the images you find in books.

Annotate your outline with your findings

Rather than documenting your findings separately from your outline, add your findings directly to each part of your outline. I love using writing apps such as Scrivener, which makes it really easy to create folders of research and link them to chapters. For the book I'm writing this November, I have folders for each of my main characters and locations in the book. In each folder, I've added the research images and documents that correspond to each. Then, I made folders for each of my planned chapters, and I put the documents into each relevant chapter. 

If you don't want to shell out the $$ for a tool like Scrivener (although I highly recommend it, especially for research-intensive projects), you can use a free service like Google Drive. Create a folder that contains the doc in which you'll write your story, and then create a folder for each chapter/part of your book. These folders will grow over time, but it makes it easy to quickly reference the research you need in that particular chapter. 

I also recommend using Pinterest, especially for your web-based research. As you're doing research on the web, create Pinterest boards for your chapters and characters, and save your findings straight to your board. You'll also have a visual moodboard of your story, which I find really helpful.

I'll be writing more tips and tricks for conquering NaNoWriMo, so stay tuned! Have you announced your novel yet? My username is AshleyWarrenResearch, so be sure to connect with me!

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Picking the right survey tool for your research project

If you're preparing to collect information from people as part of your research project, you'll likely discover that there are dozens of digital tools and services to use. 

If you’re not sure what type of survey tool/service works best for you, here are some things to consider:

Does the tool let you ask different types of questions?

Depending on what you want to collect from people, a service that lets you create a variety of question types — multiple choice, short answer, radio buttons, etc. — would be best suited for this.

Is the tool easy for others to access and use?

If you want a ton of great results, make sure that your survey doesn't have friction — meaning, any obstacles that prevent them from easily completing it. Stick to tools that have a simple design, and offer mobile-friendly layouts. Most form tools generate a simple link that you can post on social media, text, email, or share with others however you wish. Be sure to test it yourself to ensure that the survey/form link works! Also test to make sure it's legible and simple to type, select checkboxes, and submit the response.

How do you plan to analyze your results?

Do you want the service you’re using to do some of that work for you, or do you plan to just analyze it all your own way? Or, perhaps both? For example, Survey Monkey has some analytics tools so you can get a general idea of how people are answering your survey.

How do you want the data?

Do you want to be able to export it as a PDF, or download it as a spreadsheet that you can then analyze in Excel/Numbers/etc.? 

How confidential is the information you’re collecting?

If you’re asking about very private or personal information, first of all, consult with a lawyer or a research ethics governing board. But after that, make sure the service stores the data in encrypted databases. I’ve personally never had to worry about this but it may come up in some of your research!


My personal favorite form/survey tools are Google Forms, which is totally free and part of the Google Drive suite, and Survey Monkey, which has some robust features, although some of those are premium. There are many great survey tools out there, though, so pick the one that works best for you!

The Citizen's Guide to Research

I am really excited about the launch of my new email series, the Citizen's Guide to Research. I've been working on this for months! From my experience as an educator, journalist, and maker, I know that many people are daunted by research and data. If you're not in academia, the world of research and science seems like an utter mystery. It's been my goal for many years to come up with a way to make research more approachable for the public. It seemed like a great time to launch this new effort.

This guide is a weekly, bite-sized lesson about research sent straight to your inbox. It provides some easy, actionable steps that you can take to become a smarter, savvier citizen.

Lessons include:

  • How research is reported in the media;
  • How research is conducted;
  • How research is published and funded;
  • How to access published research;
  • How to interpret charts and graphs;
    and more, including interviews with researchers from all disciplines. 

The series is totally free, fun to read, and all you have to do is sign up here:

Name *

The Researcher's Pledge

Regardless of your political values, I think we can all agree that last week's United States presidential election impacted many of us deeply. Many of us researchers felt betrayed by the way data was used during the election season. The world relied on it, and we were surprised and shocked by the reality of it, which told a very different story. I wrote a post on Medium about the importance of making data more inclusive so that we can better measure and account for the nuances of politics. 

Research is my absolute passion and, I feel, my purpose in life. My love for research has lead me down a path of literacy activism, most recently volunteering in the refugee resettlement program in my city. I care very deeply about the ethics of research and journalism, and the people who are impacted by these ethics. I'll admit that I felt helpless last week, scared and worried for the state of the world. And like many, this kicked me into action. Research and data are becoming more and more important, and since there's just so much of it, researchers and librarians and information scientists are more important than ever to help make sense of it all. 

So I created the Researcher's Pledge to commit to using research for good, which consists of the following commitments:

  • I commit to making my research open and accessible to the general public;

  • I commit to making my methodology inclusive, to the best of my ability;

  • I commit to being transparent in my methodology and biases;

  • I commit to holding journalists and researchers accountable for flawed or misrepresented data;

  • I commit to holding high standards for peer review, both for my own research and the research I cite;

  • I commit to collaborating across disciplines to conduct research beyond the confines of the Ivory Tower;

  • I commit to educating and empowering my community to understand and interpret data and science;

  • I commit to adhering to strict ethical standards that protect and prioritize the safety of the subjects of my research;

  • I commit to using my research to enlighten, educate, and inform.

Above all, I commit to using the research process and scientific method for good.

If you're a researcher, scientist, writer, genealogist, etc., please take the pledge. You can also download the badge to display on your social profiles.

Why the #DeathPositive movement is important for public research

This year, I've been learning more about the movement of "death positivity," thanks to researchers on social media. For the unfamiliar, "death positive" refers to a movement to make death a less taboo subject (especially in western cultures). According to Order of the Good Death, this includes open discussion about death, and the surrounding issues that arise with the physical and emotional impact of death. 

This movement is comprised of people from a range of background and interests, from death doulas to writers to morticians to researchers. What these people have in common is that they use social media to share their findings and careers with the general public, helping to remove the stigma from things like autopsies, cemeteries, and grief.

When academics and researchers share their research with the public, it removes some of the divide between the general public and the ivory tower. Giving people a look into jobs and field work they may not have the chance to see firsthand includes people in the process. Using social media as a platform to share research, especially on complex topics, is a great way to inspire people to get involved in a cause, and can have a real impact as people turn their interest into action.

Here are some Death Positive research projects you should follow:

The Order of the Good Death

This is a collective of academics who research death-related topics. Together, they educate the masses about death and try to draw new people to the Death Positivity movement.

Death, Scent, & the Live Girl

This website is run by Nuri, a PhD student who studies the intersection of death and fragrance. It's absolutely fascinating, and Nuri regularly posts about history, death acceptance and how scent impacts life (and death).

So, for this holiday in which death and its surrounding rituals are celebrated, peek into the world of death positivity. I guarantee it will give you a new perspective on life, too!

Happy Halloween!

Creating your family narrative

In honor of my new e-course launch, Genealogy 101, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek into a small part of this course: creating your family narrative. 

People do genealogy research to learn more about their family, their culture, their heritage, and their identity. In the genealogy community, I see a lot of focus on filling in the branches of a family tree. And that's certainly important, but it's not the end-all-be-all of genealogy. It can also cause discouragement when you can't piece together all of the puzzle pieces. Instead, I encourage genealogists to focus on writing a family narrative. 

What is a family narrative?

A family narrative is a creative interpretation of a person's life. This can take the form of a memoir or biography, in which facts are elaborated on with speculation or relevant details. Or this may be more in the realm of historical fiction, where you would use what you know about this person to craft a story. Research is the first step for this: the goal is to contextualize an ancestor, and that still needs to be rooted in real details and facts about their life. Knowing when they were born or where they lived can help you delve into the history of that place and time. 

Why is this important?

To truly understand more about who our family is and was, it's important to think about context. Without talking to the actual person, narrative is a way to think about life from their perspective. The more details you have, the richer your narrative will be. A narrative is also a great teaching tool. Think of parables, fairytales and campfire stories; these types of storytelling continue to be used to pass down stories and information from one generation to another. 

A family narrative doesn't have to be long or complicated. You don't have to be a skilled writer to do it. It's a fun way for you to delve into a moment in history that, in some way, helped shape who you are. To get started, grab a notebook, and use these prompts as a guide. 

Start your family narrative by following along with these writing prompts:

  • Who is your narrative about?
  • When and where were they born?
  • What are some notable world events during this era that may have impacted their life? (Tip: Think about wars, inventions, technological advancements)
  • What are personal challenges this person may have faced because of their identity?
  • What kind of food do you think this person may have cooked or eaten?
  • What kind of music may this person have heard or liked?
  • Who may have been important people in this person’s life?
  • Think about this person at age 16, or age 32, or age 50. What may have changed about the world that impacted their life at different ages?
Want to learn more about your family history? Register now for Genealogy 101.