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.