Mechanics of a project

My new project seems an excellent time to walk through a way to think about a large long-term research project (it’s always nice to have a handy example!)

Tea ball with a mix of herbs and dried flowers, cracked slightly open.

Step one: What am I trying to do here?

I described a lot of this in my previous post, but I want to turn out articles that take on the core theories behind what a given plant was used for, and provide more information about them, in a way that allows people to figure out where the information comes from.

(As I said, there’s nothing wrong with intuitive response – but it helps a lot to know what’s underlying it. A lot of our intuition is built on our experiences and the connections we’ve made between our experiences, so knowing what’s influencing that is pretty helpful.)

It’s also really helpful to know where a particular idea comes from if you need to make an adjustment. For example, if you need to substitute a herb you’d use for a spell (you can’t get it, or you’re allergic to it, or some other reason), wouldn’t you rather have a detailed idea of what people think about the alternatives? Too often, people put a whole lot of things together, while forgetting that ‘herb that does passionate lust’ is possibly a different flavour (magically speaking, and possibly also physically) from one that is known for helping build a long-lasting committed relationship.

Why do I want to know about the source?

I don’t believe that older sources are better. A quick look at medical history suggests why learning things is so powerful and important! But I do think knowing where our ideas and information comes from is very helpful, in figuring out what it means to us.

I want to look at the sources to figure out where they came from, and to begin to understand the other associations. One common one from the Middle Ages is the question of why certain figures (Mary is a common one here) are so commonly shown in certain colours.

In Mary’s case, it’s a particular shade of blue. She’s painted in that shade, because it was an incredibly rare and expensive colour to make at the time. So the same way you might put gold leaf on the most important pieces of art, you painted that shade of blue to demonstrate how something in the picture was important or central or most honoured.

In this day of other options for colours, maybe that reason for choosing blue is less relevant than the fact that we know psychologically it is calming, or that it echoes water, or some other reason. (Probably, given colour symbology, multiple different reasons.)

Step two: What do I need?

I need some sources. My idea, to start with, is to pick a number of well-known plants and culinary herbs, things that are widely used and pretty widely documented. (There are whole books devoted to roses, for example!)

And then check out those items in a selection of well-known sources.

This means I need to collect those sources, which will fall roughly into three groups:

Early sources

By which I mean mostly Classical sources – Greeks, Romans, and maybe some Medieval and Renaissance texts. These are things that largely predate our understanding of modern medicinal uses. (In other words, some of their medicinal uses worked, but they might have the wrong idea about why. In other cases, the suggested things and their uses are just bizzare. Want more about this? Listen to just about any episode of the podcast Sawbones…)

Early modern sources

In the 17th to 19th centuries, you start getting a more systematic review of medicinal uses – but of course, you see less discussion of magical uses. However, many of the herbals of this time included folklore and stories. A great example here is Nicholas Culpepper, whose Complete Herbal is a classic in the field. This exists as an ebook on Project Gutenberg, which has the advantage of being searchable.

Modern sources

There are of course dozens, hundreds, of modern resources out there about these topics, from a variety of different perspectives (medicinal herbalism, magical herbalism, religious and magical sources, folklore collections, and many many more.) Making sense of them is baffling.

Obviously, I’m not going to read every modern source – my time, my library, my available ability to hold things in my head won’t allow it. But I can look at a few of the most widely referenced ones, and look at what they talk about, and try and track down stories. For example, Scott Cunningham’s Complete Book of Magical Herbs doesn’t have citations, but I can use it to help me look at stories to trace backwards. I won’t be able to figure out sources for all of them, but I can do some.

Step three: Make a plan

Identify some widely referenced sources, and see what a handful say about each plant, and then follow stories from there. For example, Culpepper, talking about saffron, says: “It is an herb of the Sun, and under the Lion, and therefore you need not demand a reason why it strengthens the heart so exceedingly.” From there, one can follow some notes about where it comes from, how one recognises a plant suitable for use, and so on.

I full expect that sometimes later research will turn up new information or new sources to explore. But one of the things I want to do with this project is model how a long-term project can go, how there often is a spiralling pattern to the work, where you come back to things over time as you’ve learned more or have a new way to connect them.

Mixed with the plants and stones, I also want to highlight useful books, or at least books that are relevant to the project, putting them into context of why they were writtten, what kinds of information they’re interesting and useful for. High on my list is Victoria Finlay’s Color: A Natural History of the Palette which is a fabulous look at stories and information about colour.

Challenges of research

Wrapping up this post, I want to talk about a few challenges of research.

The biggest one, I suspect, is going to be variations in names. In books written before we had species names for plants, they can get referred to in a wide range of ways. Sometimes the names are consistent through the centuries, but often they’re not. I’ll have to do some digging and hunting to figure out what the references might be in many cases.

The other big challenge I’ve discussed above: so many sources, so little time. The only way to do this is to do things in a manageable chunk, and remind myself (and everyone reading) that I can and will come back.

Planning a presentation

One of the things about research is that sometimes you want to tell people about it (or need to tell people about it.)

The details of what makes a great presentation depend a bit on what you’re doing and who you’re presenting to, but since I just did one in March and I’m preparing another one for early June at work, now seems a good time to talk a bit about my process in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

Skills and tools : Glasses and pen resting on sheets of printed music

Preparing in advance

Among writers, one of the commonly phrased distinctions is between plotters (people who plot their writing in advance) and pantsers (as in ‘writing by the seat of their…’, who make it up as they go along.)

I think there’s something similar with presentations. I’m the kind of person who starts thinking about what I’m doing months in advance. I tease a friend who starts thinking about slides a couple of weeks in advance, if that.

On the other hand, if you’re putting together slides, you do need to leave some time to do that, because the process of making the things always takes longer than you think it’s going to.

(Or is that just me? I don’t think it’s just me.)


One of the biggest factors in presentations is the question of time, so that’s where I always start.

There are different styles of presenting – some of them are about personal preference, some are about the style asked for in whatever you’re doing, and some are a mix. Obviously, if there’s a set format (like pecha kucha, which is popular in tech conferences and some library settings)

The presentation I did in March was just me for a full hour, so I had a lot of freedom about how to structure it. The one in June is a panel discussion where I get maybe 15 minutes. Obviously, there’s a lot of difference in how much content I can fit.

Some people do relatively few slides, and spend a lot of time on them. I more generally prefer very brief slides, with about 30 seconds on most of them and lingering on them. (I usually fall into this, though it depends on the presentation.)

Another factor is whether the slides are getting distributed after. If my slides are mostly for the presentation factor and not getting distributed as notes afterwards, I usually go for fewer words (and I also generally do a text-based writeup – I often do this if I have lots of links or things I want to explain briefly.)

If my slides are the principle information people are getting, then I’ll use more words, and I’ll structure it so the slides and presenter comments sections cover the key information, and then I can share the notes and people can make sense of the content.

Arranging material

I find it really helpful to set up slides and then move things around as I develop the presentation. It usually looks like this:

1) Pick a theme if I need to (work makes this easy: there’s a set one we’re supposed to use.)

2) Set up the title slide and a slide at the end for questions and contact information. With professional presentations, I usually know what the title is by this point because I had to come up with something for the program.

3) Make a slide for each big point I want to make.

4) As I work through the content, make additional slides as I need to break things down more, or need more space. Doing this by clumps of content works best for me.

5) Periodically review the entire deck and see what needs to be moved around, or duplicates itself, or needs a bit more expansion.

(In the slide deck I’m currently creating at work, I realised that I really needed to back up and explain things for two slides before I got into the content, to put something in better context. I don’t want to dwell on it in detail, but I need to remember that most people in the room don’t live and breathe the details!)

6) Somewhere in here, putting some images in is good.

I’m not a visually driven person – I’m just as happy with well-chosen text-based design (like a big word or short phrase on a slide, with maybe some additional text below)

But other people like images, so I look for ways to include them (and then include alt-text and other appropriate captioning and description for accessibility.) The current presentation has images of the people and places I’m talking about. If I’m just looking for decorative images, Unsplash is a great source for public domain images.

7) Edit the presentation to a reasonable length

For me, this is no more than one slide per minute, and I may make further cuts depending.

8) Time the presentation.

This is when I run through the presentation (usually two or three times) to get a sense for timing and what information I need a bit more time on or what can be cut or combined.

9) Save in all the formats

Having had enough glitches, I bring a copy on USB, save a copy in a format I can get to via Google Drive or email, and usually save a copy in an alternate format (PDF) as well in both places. Just in cases.


The actual process of presenting is pretty straight-forward:

1) Test the technology early.

The conference in March was great – they let me get in the room, get my file on the computer used with the projector, all when I first arrived. Sometimes that’s not possible.

2) Get to the room before my presentation with plenty of time.

I usually do a quick pause by the bathroom, make sure I have water, and then go there without lingering after the previous section. (If there’s 15 minutes between presentations, this usually works fine: I’m there at least 10 minutes in advance.)

3) Get the slides up, and any handouts out where people can get them. Check if there’s any introduction happening, and if so what I need to do about that.

(In professional settings, this usually involves correcting how you pronounce my last name. People insist on making it French. It hasn’t been French since the Norman Invasion, in terms of it being my family name.

4) Do the presentation.

I don’t get stage fright (there are advantages to growing up with a theatre professor and performer and lecturer as a parent), and I’m not really experienced in how to deal with it if you do.

But this is the point where you need to do the thing or you’re not doing the thing. If you think doing the thing is going to be a problem, sorting that out in advance is usually better if you can.

5) When you’re done, share whatever you said you’re going to share.

This might be your slides, a handout, a text version of the presentation, or something else. It might be passing out business cards or contact information.

Looking Ahead to Research : part 4

Welcome to my last part of planning research. I’ve talked about breaking down projects into smaller pieces, but it’s often really helpful to have some examples, and that’s where this post comes in.

I’ve talked in the previous parts about asking questions about what you want to do and how you’ll know when you’re done. Here, I’m going to write out some of my answers for two projects, so you can see how that works.

You’ll want different questions for different kinds of goals, but here’s a list to get you started.

  1. Is there a specific thing I’m trying to answer?
  2. What do I want to do with the information when I’ve got it? Am I going to use it myself? Share it? Develop it further in another project?
  3. What do I already know about this topic or thing?
  4. What resources do I have access to? Do I have any particular limitations I should be thinking about (like needing specific materials or having language limitations)?

Rocks at the edge of the sea, at twilight.

Goal 1: Learn more about astrology

One of my ongoing goals is to learn more about astrology. It’s part of a larger and longer goal to dive more into the myths and stories and connections about planets and stars and constellations, and how the macrocosm and the world we live in interact.

(But that’s a huge project, so I’m starting with the astrology part.)

Do I have a specific question I’m trying to answer?

No, this is a project that’s about larger-scale mastery of knowledge.

What do I already know about the subject?

I’ve been generally familiar with astrology (especially in its applications for religious witchcraft and related magical work) for years now, and I’m also somewhat familiar with broad changes in the topic over time. I’ve read several introductory books, and I’ve been reading about a dozen blogs and other regular sources about it for the past six months or so.

What are my limitations and resources?

Time! Always time. This is a project that will do better if I spend time with it regularly (like reading blog posts, or learning about particular current aspects), so I should make time for it at least every few days, as well as longer stretches for deeper reading.

For resources, I feel pretty happy with the current books and materials I have, but I need to start by sitting down and reading them in more detail and working from there. I’m sure I’ll find more things as I keep reading, but I don’t feel like I’m really missing major resources right now.

Framing my goal

I would like to get myself to a point where I can read detailed analysis and understand it, or look at the current chart for the sky and understand some ways to approach patterns that are highlighted.

I’d also like to build up a particular understanding of the planets, in an astrological / mythic sense. I’ve had an increasing interest in building some regular practices around this, but I need to learn more to make some things click into place for me.

By Samhain, I’d like to have worked my way through the three or four books I want to read, the detailed analysis of my chart I got last year, and establish a regular habit of checking in on current transits and possible effects. By then, I’d also like to develop some regular spiritual practices that build on astrology.

To make progress on this, I should spend 10-15 minutes more days than not, plus find time for an hour or two each weekend, and for reading things in amongst my other reading time.

Goal 2: Recipes and food

Food is hard, sometimes.

I’ve got some specific medical things that both mean I need to eat sensibly and regularly, and that I’m sometimes too tired to cook, or that something that was food last week totally doesn’t look like it this week.

I’d like to figure out better solutions for this, especially things that require shelf stable ingredients (or freezer ones) or things I always have and minimal prep, as well as meals that work well for me that are slightly more effort. Currently my recipe notes are all over the place, a bunch of them are heavily aspirational (lovely idea, but realistically, I’m not going to make that thing that takes 10 steps very often)

Do I have a specific question to answer?

I’d like to come up with a set of recipes or foods that make reasonable meals (by my definitions) with some seasonal variations.

What do I already know?

I have some foods that work pretty reliably for me, and ditto some recipes. My notes on this are scattered around, and it’s hard to see patterns.

What are my resources and limitations?

There’s a lot of help out there! I know where some communities are that talk about the combination of things I’m trying to solve, there’s a few books that are useful, and some other resources I’ve got bookmarked.

(Also, so many recipe bookmarks.)

One of my big limitations is time – both in the sense of time to work on this in a structured way, and in the sense that there are a limited number of meals in the week to experiment with.

Framing my goal

Over the next three to six months (so by the end of June or so), I’d like to come up with a list of foods for different meals and circumstances (i.e. lunch at work has different options than lunch at home) so that I can look at a list and make choices.

I’m still thinking about what format I want that information in – whether that’s a ring of index cards, or something on the computer, or something else. But I clearly need a more useful format.

I’ll know I’ve finished this project when I’ve got a process that works well for me, and a range of foods to draw on that fit my specific needs.

To make progress on this, I probably need a chunk of time to get my notes in order, and I may need to play with some different ways to organise what I’m doing.


I’ve got one more kind of project (research for an ongoing writing project) to talk about, but the more I write this post, the more it’s clear that should be its own thing. I hope this gives you some ideas on how to break down the project a bit.

What is remembered lives: research connecting someone to their ancestors

Last spring, I did a presentation at Paganicon about research relating to ancestor work.

My full notes from that presentation (including slides) are up on my Seeking site, but I thought Samhain (at least where I am) was a good time to talk a little more about some aspects of things I brought up there.

Image saying "Research: what is remembered, lives" with a photograph of pomegranates, one whole, one sliced in half.

I’m focusing here on the complexities of history, and will come back and do an article series on academia and its research goals sometime later, but if you’re curious about that, go look at the notes from the presentation.

Why do we care?

One really good question with any research project (or really any project) is figuring out why we’re putting time into this thing, and what we hope to get out of it.

For some people, ancestor work is part of their religious practice (or at least possibly part of their religious practice). Sometimes that’s about blood relationships or relatives we knew directly.

For some of us, it can be about more distant relationships, or interests or skills we have in common, or about individuals we want to connect with for other reasons. For example, I honour a historical figure – Hypatia of Alexandria – as an ancestor of profession, in work that’s about intellectual curiousity and learning.

(This can also be a really good solution if you’d like to do ancestor work, but the ancestors whose names and identities you know are not necessarily people you’d like to interact with more, for a variety of reasons.)

Sometimes, historical research is also important for understanding the history of ideas.  My good friend, Kiya Nicoll, has been doing a lot of research about this recently as it relates to the soup that makes up the Pagan socio-cultural movement, and you can read more on her website and here’s a graphic that gives an idea how complicated some of the relationships are (you’ll want to zoom in) and one more specifically about religious witchcraft. Note that this is very much a work in progress, so things are still being edited.

So many kinds of history

One of the things that fascinates me about historical research is that there are so many more goals and desires in it and ways to approach it than just ‘write a an academic paper’. (Frankly, I think that’s often one of the least interesting ones.)

I like to say that research is a conversation with the world and with time. There are some fixed points we know about (when we know a specific thing happened, or someone did something) but there’s a lot of space around that for things that are much more varied and complex.

My history has popular non-fiction in it. It has musicals. (Hello, Hamilton) It has historical fiction, and historical mysteries, and fantasy novels modelled on historical events. It has reconstructions of food and drink and clothing. It has walking tours and public history events and podcasts and websites. It has rituals and meditations and trancework. It has family photographs and stories from the community, customs and memories.

No one of those things gives the whole picture – but different parts can illustrate different things, and let us see different aspects more clearly. Sometimes it takes designing a historical dress or pair of shoes to realise what that meant about what people did in those clothes, which things were easy and which were challenging. Sometimes looking at the food customs tells us things about what abundance felt like, and the change of seasons. Sometimes fiction lets us immerse ourselves enough in the time and place to start asking different questions or explore different issues,

My day job as a librarian is about 1/3 history by our statistics, questions about the institution I work for, people associated with it, and questions from children or grandchildren of alumni – people where the stories passed down in the family aren’t available any more, and they’re curious about the family history.

Every time we get one of those, I learn something else, because even if they ask something we hear a lot, their particular question is a little different from everyone else’s. And I learn from what they bring to their questions.

Complications in history

There are so many complications in doing history. Never mind doing it well.

Missing pieces:

Most potential sources didn’t survive for us to study. Some cultures didn’t write much down or sources didn’t survive. Some kinds of material require too much time or too many resources to use. (What gets funded is often determined by other needs than doing great history.)

Example: The Etruscans didn’t leave much written material. They have some gorgeous art, but we have to guess about what some (a lot of it…) of what it means.


All people – and all sources – have biases. Some are obvious. Many aren’t. They’re still there. Biases are often present in multiple layers of history. They affect what was recorded, when, what was preserved, what gets studied.

Example: Myths being written down after an area had become Christianised: some things may get left out or changed to fit the preferences of the majority culture. Someone studying those writings may also bring their own biases about how to translate words or ideas, or what they mean. Religious topics are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this.

No ‘right’ answer:

Good research is often more about the questions than the answers. It’s also about remembering what we don’t know and can’t find out. It can be very easy to think there’s a right or wrong answer, and it’s usually not that simple.

Example: Some of history is facts (the dates of events we can document in multiple sources), but the why and details are often a lot more about interpretation.

Different priorities:

How we do history has changed over time. Previous scholars may have ignored important things or inserted biases. We have new tools, new science, and less destructive methods of investigation.

Example 1: The excavation of Troy was done in a way that we’d never do now (hopefully!) but it destroyed the probable layer that existed during what came down through myth as the Trojan War.

Example 2: Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess and nun. She wrote some amazing works of science (and is one of the earliest authors to describe both migraines and female orgasm.) For a long time her music was ignored because it wasn’t like what other people were doing. Here’s Sequentia singing O Virga Ac Diadema.

Practical limits:

Time and money are not in infinite supply! Access, funding, tools and skills available for analysis all depend on a lot of factors researchers may not be able to control. New tech tools are great, but have costs or a learning curve. Some places are heavily affected by war and civil unrest. Confidential information may exist, but not be usable.

Example: There’s a classic core work of astronomy from the 10th century that was only translated into English in the past five years – no one had put together the language skills and interest in the topic to that degree before. The work is known as the Book of the Fixed Stars in English, and you can now read a translation for free thanks to the work of Ihsan Hafez.

Legal limits

In more recent years, a lot of information may not be available (or at least not yet).

Privacy laws affect what information is available. These include things like delays in release of census data, or laws limiting how health information educational information are shared. (In the US, that’d be HIPAA and FERPA, but European privacy laws are often much more restrictive than the US.)

Stigmatized or minority communities, conditions, or backgrounds sometimes had very little information kept, or only from some points of view…

Names are challenging

Common names or name changes can make it incredibly hard to figure out relationships.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Smith, and her first name was pretty common when she was alive. My maternal grandfather legally changed his name five times for complicated reasons involving assimilation into his local culture and laws changing. Both of these make it really tricky to do genealogical research that goes beyond those people.

People also often write or interact under other names – and if you don’t know those names, it can be hard to track them down.

Example: We had an example at work where a researcher suddenly realised the person she was researching had used a pseudonym for some of his writing, and there was a massive trove of articles she hadn’t looked at closely yet.

Curious about historical research?

I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to attack a historical project – it’s part of my consulting services. This can be a fairly quick round of helping you figure out where to start, what resources to check first, or it could be more involved research consulting. That’s up to you!

If you’re curious, check out my consulting page, and describe what you’re interested in.