Rabasa’s Rules for the Literary Researcher

Don’t miss novelist George Rabasa’s superb essay in The Huffington Post on the effective use of research for historical fiction. It’s one of the best treatments of the subject that I’ve come across in a long time.

Excerpting from his contribution to Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop, Rabasa offers a list of what he calls Ten Exhortations for the Literary Researcher. All ten rules are gems, but four in particular ring  true for me:

* Keep in mind that someone out there reading your book knows more about your subject than you do.
* Don’t worry too much about that person.
* Don’t confuse facts with details. Facts are stones. Details are wings. The astute researcher smells out the telling detail like a pig rooting after truffles.
* Whenever you don’t know something when you’re writing, make it up. You’ll be surprised how true it is when you check later.

And here’s a prescription by Rabasa that’s sure to raise the hackles of those who want their historical fiction to lean more towards history and less towards fiction:

My last point is that as much as I value solid research, the novelist shouldn’t let reality get in the way of a good story. Facts are overrated. A writer’s view is necessarily personal. The rivers in the landscape bend to his or her purpose. The lives of the rich and famous can take delightful turns in the service of fictional mayhem and scandal. On the other hand, if you’re writing about opera singers, death row inmates, crooked accountants, or native speakers of Catalan, you’d better get it absolutely right. You’ll be surprised how many readers you have when the mail comes in deriding you for inaccuracies in the depiction of brain surgery, tightrope walking, or murder by gunfire, poison, or pillow.

3 Responses to “Rabasa’s Rules for the Literary Researcher”

  • Glad some of my comments made sense to you. One point I like to make, and which often gets me into trouble, is that all good fiction is “historical” fiction the year after it’s been published. That is, it reflects its time and freezes the moment for future readers. John Irving’s “World According to Garp,” John Updike’s “Rabbit Run,” Don Delillo’s “White Noise” are examples that leap to mind. On the other hand, few genres beat the thrill of the time travel that true historical fiction offers, and the light of understanding it can often shed on the present moment.

  • Great advice!
    In ‘Partners’ I moved the assasination of Police Constable Jack Lawton a few weeks so that it would fit in with my story. In ‘Homesteader’ I moved a stage coach robbery a few weeks for the same reason.
    Most people – even those who read Canadian history – didn’t know that those two events happened, never mind when. And historical facts helped to entertain, even when the timing was changed slightly.

  • Thank you!
    I’m in the research stage of a new book revolving around a real character from the 17th century, and have an obsessive fear of being caught out in some small error. I worry that this will hamper my ability to shape an effective plot.
    You’ve encouraged me to ease up a bit and allow myself to create a great story around the few known facts, Fortunately there’s a lot of ‘gray area’ to work with.


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