Researching the Novel

Salman Rushdie

Lesson time 11:32 min

Go beyond the internet when conducting research for fiction. Salman shares ideas for where and how to look.

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Topics include: Make the Past Accessible · The Alien Nature of Thought in the Past · Find a Historical Character Who Speaks to You · The Value of Libraries · Imagination Is a Wonderful Weapon


[MUSIC PLAYING] SALMAN RUSHDIE: Try to learn. You know, try to learn. The more you learn, the more will be at your fingertips to use. Writing books is like an education that never ends. It's always trying to increase the sum of what you know so that you can use it. [EXOTIC MUSIC] Probably the most directly historical novel that I've written is The Enchantress of Florence, in the sense that a lot of my novels deal with more or less contemporary history. But this deals with 400 years ago. And in the famous sentence of L. P. Hartley, which is the opening line of his novel "The Go-Between," he says, the past is another country. They do things differently there. And that's a thing you always have to remember. When you're going into the past, people don't behave like they behave in the 21st century, you know. And they don't think like that. So to do the research about the social circumstances of the period, and the political and cultural events of the period, I mean, that's hard work. But it's relatively straightforward. The hard bit for an imaginative writer is to imagine yourself into the thought processes of people who don't think like you, you know. Not just pre-Freudian, but a long way before that, you know. People whose way of-- cast of mind is very alien to you even. You know, and then to try and humanize them. Try-- to try and give them a life on the page with which readers can identify, rather than thinking, those people are too alien for me to identify with them. So I'm writing about the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, second half of the 16th century. And for me, yes, I mean, there's a lot of material about his reign. Because he was a very big historical figure. But the thing that interested me was a complexity in him, which is that he had begun to think what-- in a way that we would now call humanist. He had begun to think about human individuals and their rights and their sovereign powers as individuals. So on the one hand, he's thinking some quite modern thoughts. On the other hand, he is completely an absolute ruler. Everybody does what he says or else. And he has no desire not to be an absolute ruler, you know. He wants to be that. But he has these other thoughts. And I thought that's-- that makes him, to me, really interesting, that there's a contradiction in him. So that's what you're looking for. I mean, you can do the-- as I say, you can do the research stuff. That's fairly mechanical. You can read the books and find out what the world was like and what-- how people dressed and-- and how the court was arranged and so on. But to find the interior truth, you know, that's what-- that's what took work. The big problem of history and writing about the past is it's hard to find a way of making that accessible to readers in the present because of the alien nature of thought in the past. And yet, you-- and yet, what you can't do is make people in the 16th century think like people think today, because t...

About the Instructor

To the delight of readers across the globe, Salman Rushdie’s genre-defying novels have brought surreal and magical realms to life for decades. Now the Booker Prize–winning author teaches you the art and craft of storytelling. Learn how to draw from your own experiences to build vivid worlds, authentic characters, and complex plots. There are extraordinary stories that only you can write—start sharing them.

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Salman Rushdie

Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie teaches you his techniques for crafting believable characters, vivid worlds, and spellbinding stories.

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