Historical Research For Writers

Researching is a skill that surprisingly few people have. If you do have it you should definitely put it on your C.V.; good research is often the thing you do not see, but the want of it is blindingly obvious. This is especially the case when you write historic fiction, or you’re writing about cultures and people you don’t know anything about.

Research isn’t about consuming every piece of information you can find on your topic; it’s about knowing what is and isn’t important. You can learn this by taking a degree of some sort (History in particular will smack you in the face with research skill requirements before you’ve even finished the first year… hoo-boy that was a learning curve, I can tell you), or you can piggyback my History degree; go on, I don’t mind. I’ll share some of the pearls I’ve discovered while cracking open every proverbial shellfish on that metaphorical beach.


Know Your Books

We’re writers, ok, I get it. I Get It. You want to read a super old, musty book and feel the thick, alien paper, and smell the centuries on it…

But these books are WILDLY out-dated. Hugely so, even when they’re less than one hundred years old in some cases. For example, The Problem of the Picts was published in 1955, but today is considered so obsolete as to be of use ONLY to historians and archaeologists, and only then as a contrasting study for those wishing to write about how far we’ve come. The answer? A hell of a lot; in the 67 years since this collection of essays on archaeological practic, Pictish culture, language, architecture, and art was published our conception of the Picts has evolved beyond all recognition.

The lesson here is that old books have their place; they can show you what the author at the time, what society at the time, thought to be the case. If a history text is older than 100 or 150 years old you may start to notice that the style of writing is less rigid, and by the time you’re reading something 200 years old or over referencing of sources becomes a sideline (or nonexistent) activity. A historian would treat these as unreliable materials; contemporary works have value because of their proximity to the time period, modern works are valued because they apply all the available techniques.

Everything else varies.

As an author you don’t need to know all this, per se, but it helps to understand that you should be sticking to more modern texts, or that you can return to the seminal primary sources.


Technology is Your Friend

If you have an encyclopedia which covers the relevant time period throw it out the window… haha, no, don’t do that; you’ll kill someone. But seriously, don’t trust encyclopedia; they age poorly. If you want to do surface skim research just use the internet. In fact, for much of the research that authors do online sources are the best sources;

  • They’re up to date
  • They are often written in less flowery, dense language
  • You can do a pinpoint search with ease
  • They’re free

Even if you need or want specialised, academic sources you can often find them through Google Scholar. Remember that book, The Problem of the Picts? When writing an essay discussing our development since it’s publication I made more use of an article by Steven Driscoll found on Google Scholar than I did of many books from the University library. The internet may be full of misinformation, but if you look in the right places you can find exactly what you need quickly and easily. Consider;

  • Google Scholar
  • Foundation/trust pages for specific historic places or events (e.g. the Highland Clearances webpage, or the website for Stirling Castle)
  • Wikipedia (to an extent, but be sure to fact check)
  • Pinpoint searches, e.g. “when was X invented” or “what did Y do with Z”


Note-Keeping Tips

When researching you should keep notes as you go; make sure you keep a note of which book the information came from and which page you found it on (this will be a God send if you have to double check the information). When keeping notes most people make the mistake of writing down every single fact that they come across. This is time consuming and unhelpful.

When taking notes you need to keep two things in mind: your question/topic, and what kind of information will be relevant to it.

You should think about;

  • What events are key to your story
  • How important wider context is (i.e. will what’s happening in France during the period affect your characters as much as what’s happening in Germany?)
  • Whether or not you need a chronology and what events should be present on it (for example, if you’re writing a story about Jewish people escaping/hiding in Nazi Germany the dates/chronology will be more important than if you’re writing about someone who happens to live through the highland clearances but is not affected).
  • Details of material culture, e.g. clothing, architecture, pottery. These will likely be more important to the authenticity of your story than things like medieval warfare tactics or the foreign policy of the country your characters live in.

Keep your notes concise and in bullet points for quick reference; you could consider colour coding, too, for ease.


Alternative Sources

There are some things that academic texts cannot give you a feel for, or which will be better illustrated by alternative sources. Speech patterns, for example, or architecture can be better grasped out with the local university or college library. You can consider the following options to supplement your more academic resources;

  • Movies or TV Series in the same time period or place
  • Books dealing with similar themes, countries, or based in the same time period
  • Visiting places you mention first hand
  • Talking to experts in the field; many academics will be happy to answer questions if you approach them politely and with the understanding that they are busy people.


How Much is Too Much?

This is a hard question to answer as researching for a novel is wildly different from researching for an essay; you will pass on much less to the reader when writing a novel than when writing an essay.

What they have in common, however, is that it’s important for you to know and be familiar with the largest part of the issue. In both case you would need to know about WWII, for example, the start and end dates for all major parties involved, the key battles, the key figures, and the kinds of equipment available to people then. Unlike when writing an academic essay, however, writers producing a novel might need to know how the rationing system worked on a day to day basis, what foods were most commonly found and which were very rare, what the average worker earned, and the common fashions of the day.

As a basic benchmark, however, you consider perhaps reading a basic, high-school level educational text, a novel written in the same period, and perhaps watch any available documentaries which cover the period in question. After this point you can rely on on the spot research for minor details. If research is getting in the way of actually writing then you should definitely call a halt and move on; you can always go back to fill in gaps in your knowledge later.


Historical research is not only a good tool for writers, but is a skill that can carried across to other jobs; it requires the ability to prioritise information, recognise reliable sources, and deploy facts in effective ways. This is a skill well worth developing, but remember that it should be secondary to actually writing your novel. 


Image Source; http://teralynpilgrim.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/how-to-use-historical-research.html



Hannah Baker; A Masterclass in Unreliable Narration

Thirteen Reasons Why has gained a lot of interest, seen much scrutiny, and been pulled apart by some of the very best.

I don’t claim to fit that category, and so I’ll slip carefully past that issue and focus on what I want to say. I’ve talked more broadly about the series and book in the past, and touched briefly on Hannah’s character. What I want to talk about here has much more to do with Jay Asher’s skill, and the unusual way in which he employs the good old fashioned “unreliable narrator”.


What is/what makes an Unreliable Narrator?

Most obviously this is a narrator who cannot be trusted fully for one reason or another. It might be because they are relating events that happened long ago, like in The Good Solider, or because they are relating someone else’s story, like in Wuthering Heights, or because for one reason or another what they are saying can no longer be verified.


An unreliable narrator may be driven by self-preservation, desire for revenge, love, hate, or denial.


Clay and Hannah

Thirteen Reasons Why is actually driven by not one, but two unreliable narrators; Clay and Hannah. Clay is an unreliable narrator because he see’s everything through a blinkered lens; he filters every reaction, every statement through the quest to understand what he personally did to be on the list. For this reason he fits the mould, but is not the main focus here; Clay is unreliable because he is preoccupied, and because he doesn’t understand or know every detail of the story we are experiencing through him.


Hannah is a much more unusual and interesting form of the convention; she has set herself up to be an unreliable narrator in order to sow the same doubt, paranoia, and hurt as she felt herself amongst those she holds to be guilty. Before we go forward I should disclaim that this is only my view of her as a character; other people have their own interpretations and I have no doubt that they are all valid. However, I cannot help but see some premeditation in the damage and chaos that Hannah causes to those who hurt her.


Unreliable Narration and Masterful Manipulation

I hold that Hannah Baker is a) the ultimate unreliable narrator, b) a realistic anti-hero, and c) the engineer of her own status as such

Consider two extracts from the novel;

“And this time, I was going to be in control of how people saw me.” (Pp 19.)


“Step-by-step. That’s how we’ll get through this. One foot in front of the other.” (Pp 54)


Hannah wants to align herself with each person as they listen, be on their side so that, when she spills their secret betrayals, when she exposes them to others and makes them pass it along, they feel the same upset. So that they understand not only her truth and their part, but so that they run the gauntlet too.

Jay Asher masterfully created an unreliable narrator who manipulates the reader as well as the protagonist. Clay’s presence on the tapes and his obvious confusion as to why illustrate this perfectly; we want to believe Hannah so badly that we doubt him. Her testimony paints him as more unreliable than he actually his, or more deliberately unreliable I should say. And then she tells us, and him, that he honestly doesn’t belong on her list, not in the same way.  She manipulates Clay and the reader in one deft stroke, with one simple addition and omission, and of course this means that it’s Asher who does this.


This is why I wrote this article; it’s not about the prose or even the story. It’s about the technique. This is slight of hand done with aplomb; this is magician level deception in writing, and this is something we all need to learn from.

To use one narrator to mislead another, and by extension the reader, is not unheard of and it’s certainly not unique (consider The Historian, for example), but it’s unusual enough that it bears consideration. How can we learn from this, and what, as writers, can we do to incorporate the same cleverness into our own works?


Why it had to be so

Ask yourself this and be honest in answering; if Clay had hurt Hannah, if he had been responsible, would you have put the book down? Perhaps not. Would you have cared so much about how he dealt with it? Probably not.

And if Asher had written this from Hannah’s perspective, from the meeting with Jessica to her suicide, would it have been as compelling and satisfying (albeit horrifying)? No. Definitely not.



Because we tangle ourselves as much in Clay as in Hannah; we want and need him to be either innocent or guilty depending on our own gut feeling (just the same way that some of us will instantly suspect either Justin or Bryce). It adds a layer of tension and a different element of potential loss to the narrative. This kind of layering is unusual and complex, but when it’s done well you get this effect; this I have to know but I don’t want to know, this don’t ruin them for me but destroy them completely if you do kind of effect. Clay had to be a saint or a devil, and Hannah had to be intangible because they cannot share the stage all at once.


Unreliable narration is the cornerstone of many a fictive genre: mystery, crime, and romance to name a few. In fact, to a degree most narrators are unreliable, but it’s this deliberate undermining of their credibility that draws a line between the narrator who is unreliable because the author doesn’t quite know what’s happening as they write, and the narrator who is unreliable because the author constructed them to be so. 

If anyone asks you what makes a good unreliable narrator, direct them to this book.


Image Source; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1hoi2KsB5U




Thirteen Reasons Why; unreliable narration, constant progression, and mental illness in fiction.

You can’t discuss 13 Reasons Why, the book, or the hit show, without nodding to the discourse that surrounds it – this much is a given.

Everyone from the guardian to tumblr users have said something about it, and it generally goes something like this;

  • It’s a revenge fantasy
  • It legitimatises suicide
  • It lays the blame at the feet of others unfairly
  • It glamorises the reality of it.

And all but one of these points are, bar one, bullshit in my opinion. 13 Reasons Why is a revenge fantasy, but that has much to do with the type of character Hannah Baker is; she’s a dramatic, hurt, intelligent, sensitive, and very ill young woman, but (this is key) I don’t think she was mentally ill, not in the clinical, irreversible sense.

Anyone who has watched the suicide scene would be hard pushed to say it glamorises suicide, and if they do they’re talking shit. It’s unpleasant to watch, it hurts, it’s definitely trauma porn; it hooks you by being too awful to bear, and if 13 Reasons Why has a real Achilles heel it’s that it exploits the romantic-tragedy view that modern society already hold regarding depression and suicide.


13 Reasons Why is not pleasant, it’s not fun, and it’s ugly; that’s the way it should be. The theme, for those in the know, might as well be “there but for the Grace of God go I”. 

There but for the grace of God would have went I (if that makes sense). When the support mechanisms aren’t in place, when people are lonely and desperate, when trauma is heaped on cruelty suicide can often be the result, and as a person I’m sick of seeing people who lose their fight with bad situation classed as selfish, weak, or attention-seeking. There but for the grace of God… that’s what anyone who has been depressed thinks when they see this, what anyone who has loved someone who is severely depressed thinks when they see that scene.

As a person I want to tell you all that when you read articles saying that this shunts blame from the victim to others, that its glamorising, is this; watch it. This is a narrative about a young girl who loses her struggle not because she is weak, and not because of small cruelties, but because all of the small unkindness’s were compacted by the fact that she witness,ed and then experienced herself, the realities of rape culture. Sometimes people are to blame for suicide, and very often it’s not only the person who holds the blade.


As a writer, this isn’t what I’m here to talk about (I could have fooled you, right?). I’m here to talk about the two things that were undeniably spot on in this story; the structure, and the use of an unreliable narrator.


Constant Progression

Narrative progression is key, in fact it makes the story, but you’d be surprised how many would be writers don’t realise this. Even academic writers (sometimes especially) have a tendency to forget how key pacing is; some stories can daunder, but most must be swift and relentless to keep the reader. Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why, got this so right that it brings a tear of happiness to my eye just thinking about it. They key is in constant progression throughout all elements of the plot. By this I mean that when Hannah’s story slows, Clay’s picks up the slack, and vice versa; the past and present move so well together in this book (and in the series) that they push and pull almost imperceptibly. There is no harshness to the sudden leaps forward, and the transitions to the past are more often than not seamless, but they move the story forward.

I could rant for hours on how poor use of flashbacks ruins perfectly acceptable fiction beyond repair, but instead I’ll say this; this is how you do it. If the reader must move back in time, the contents of the flashback should move the story forward. The only acceptable flashbacks are those which add to the story. Sadly for lovers of Austin the trend today is for lean, efficient writing that cuts to the bone of matters even when it sounds flowery ( a la Kevin Powers) so if you are writing to be published you may want to at least grasp the basics of this style before wandering away from it. Here’s how it works;

  • Gap in knowledge
  • Flashback fills the gap
  • Clay reacts
  • Gap in knowledge

And so on. Even when you move backwards in time, you must progress in the narrative if you want to create a story that keeps the readers full interest. From an editorial stand point you should be asking only one question to get this effect; “does this scene fill a gap?”

If it doesn’t, if the scene repeats knowledge, if you lose nothing by losing the scene, cut it out entirely.


The Unreliable Narrator

I can tell you that Hannah Baker is a subtle, but quintessential unreliable narrator, and this is only exacerbated by the fact that she is deceased during the entirety of the narrative, but first I want to rewind.

“Do you think it [13 Reasons] shows mental illness well?” 

A friend asked me this after we discussed the show; she had watched the show, I had read the book and we switched.

No, I don’t think it does, but not due to a fault in the writers execution. This may be controversial, but I’ll repeat it; I don’t think Hannah Baker, as a character, was mentally ill, and I don’t think Clay Jensen’s mental deterioration was caused by his implied pre-existing illness.

They were children, even at 17 and 18, who were dealing with things they never should have had to, and this affected their mental health. But I don’t believe that this book represents mental illness well, because what it represents is the justified distress and trauma that shitty people doing shitty things can cause to young people who are still finding their way

What this book does represent well is the myriad of ways in which mental health can be affected by things like loneliness, guilt, fear, shame, and bullying. Even a “sane” person will become paranoid in certain circumstances, if they are exceptional.

Hannah Baker’s circumstances were exceptional, and so they destabilised her. Through the narrative we see glimpses of her unreliability; the claim that Zach threw away her letter when he in fact had it in his wallet all along, for one. Asher deserves a medal, in my opinion, because Hannah is the perfect unreliable narrator for a few reasons. She was young, she was pretty, she’s dead, and, by all accounts, she was badly treated. We want to believe everything she says, even when some of her closest friends note her tendency to be over-dramatic; Tony Padilla, guardian of the tapes, so to speak, notes that if she was to be believed he was the only boy at their school who had not groped her or stared at her breasts.

Poor Tony, I could write a whole article on how he represents the ever safe “Gay Best Friend” who’s female friends use him as a safety blanket… but I won’t. Let’s skip that with the statement that I believe he’s the real hero of this story.


And yet, Tony also states that the tapes, the reasons, were “her truth”, and this is the kernel of genius in Ashers character building; Hannah is unapologetic about every dramatic thought, every “why me” moment, and though many are 100% legitimate (the circulation of her picture, Courtney’s betrayal, Bryce’s rapes, yes plural), some are petty, but she explains why they are important to her. These reasons are her truth, but they gloss over the vindictive nature of what she has done.


Mental health, deterioration, and the Scapegoat

What has she done?

She’s scapegoated, of course, she’s given up a sacrificial lamb, but the magic is this; it’s not anyone on the list. Each person on that list did wrong her in some way, mull it over and I’m sure you’ll agree, even if it was in some minor way. The lesson, overtly, is that small action matter so much more than you think, especially to someone who is already struggling.

The scapegoat isn’t her counsellor, either. After all, he’s on the list; he was overwhelmed, yes, but he picked up on the seriousness of her situation. It’s not even Clay, who’s only slight (SPOILER) was to walk away when she asked him.


The scapegoat is Tony. Poor, beleaguered Tony who arrived at the scene, who was tasked with keeping her secrets and executing her Machiavellian plan. When critics tell you that this narrative unfairly blames others for suicide and frames it as a reasonable choice you can tell them that they’re almost right; all the people on the list failed Hannah, but Hannah failed Tony by letting him take the blame and burden on himself because she knew he would.

She did not knock on his door, but left the tapes and walked away, she left him to care for her parents, her plan, and to grieve her because she knew that he would do it all to the detriment of his mental health. That’s why Clay was on the list, too; she knew the story would hurt and unhinge the boy who loved her so much that he would have to act. You can see the deterioration in both boys, in different ways; Tony grinds down slowly, breaking only when Hannah’s mother presents him with her mind-map (SPOILER; this is a scrap of paper where she lays out all the people she feels have wronged her before recording the tapes. Those circled have a tape, those crossed out are off the metaphorical hook, and Tony is in the margins with a question mark by his name).


This brings Tony down because he has finally run into something that he has no explanation for; she planned for everything, but not this. The question of how she could have even considered him for the list breaks him down, and he talks to his boyfriend eventually. For Clay the constant pressure of wondering how he hurt Hannah, and the knowledge that other people know when he does not, pushes him close to a mental break down.


Hannah Baker is the hero of her own story, but if you look at it from Tony’s side of the tracks, or even Clay’s, she can become a borderline villain. From their view her actions, by this I mean the tapes, not the suicide, seem selfish, vindictive, and unreasonable. She wants the people who drove her to suicide to feel the weight of their actions, but she doesn’t care that the entirety of the burden falls almost wholly on the one friend who never failed her. This is why she’s compelling. She’s real, she’s flawed and complex and not always nice; Asher’s characterisation is flawless and heartbreaking because every character in this story could have been different.

The only true Villain, note the capital, is Bryce, and even he shows no signs of Evil Cackling; he’s an entitled, aggressive, privileged white athlete in a culture which idolises such people. Some might say that he never fully understood his crimes, but I beg to differ; he just didn’t think they mattered.


“Do you think it shows mental illness well?”

No, but I think it shows the minutia of mental health, how it can be torn down and messed up so easily in our teenage years. I think it displays stunningly real, horrifyingly believable, characterisation, and I think it’s the finest example of timeline jumping I’ve seen.

Yet I don’t like this story. I didn’t enjoy 13 Reasons Why, neither the book nor the series, and I think that’s a good thing. It may just be my own personal demons, but I don’t think anyone should enjoy this kind of story because it’s there to hold a mirror to us all, and I do mean all. It’s not just about the bullies and the thoughtless, it’s aimed at the Hannah’s of the world too because depression is, through no fault of the sufferer, a self-centred state of being, and that can be the hardest thing of all to face. Contact, and inclusion is often the start of the solution, and this is what 13 Reasons illustrates beyond any doubt; Hannah’s decline is not an inevitable plummet to a preordained end, but a series of short falls as each handhold, each connection is severed for one reason or another.

This narrative is well structure, well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, but if it were a plant it would be a cactus.

Image Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13_Reasons_Why