Writing a novel isn't easy. It takes knowledge, patience, and time. It takes research. Research is a really dangerous thing. I've seen, time and time again, writers who get so caught up in researching for their novel that they never get around to writing their novel. This is both a guide to condensing researching and a set of tricks and tips you can use to avoid falling into the dangerous black hole of research.
What is Research?
Research is the act of purposefully trying to learn about a subject. It's the art of getting your facts right.
Knowledge about a subject helps add reality to your novel. It helps you suspend disbelief when you do, purposefully, break the rules of science. Most people won't be able to distinguish fact from fiction when your fiction is full of facts.
Research is an extremely dangerous trap.
When to Stop Researching
This is a ‘it depends' answer. My general rule of thumb, however, is to stop researching when I have the absolute bare minimum to bullshit the subject. That's right. When I'm drafting, I bullshit as much as possible. I have a hypothermia patient? I go to wikipedia, read the page, and bullshit it. I have someone who is suffering from blood loss? I look it up on the google. More accurately, I look up the conditions for someone to die from blood loss, and I look up the normal conditions of a person with normal blood levels. I look up the symptoms of blood loss, and I roll with the punches.
Each one of these subjects takes me no more than ten or twenty minutes. I take notes on the type of research I need.
Fix the Errors Later
That's right. Bullshitting your research is fine in the rough draft. Bullshit your heart out. Get the draft on paper.
Fix the errors later. That's what editing is for.
You should research the absolute minimum to write your draft zero, which is what NaNoWriMo is all about — it's all about writing that draft zero.
You can fix the errors and do you research when you decide to seriously pursue the novel. Then you might spend hours on the symptoms of hypothermia to make certain you get it right.
A Note about the Rule of Thumbs…
… did you know that most people believe the rule of thumb was coined as a method of men avoiding charges of abuse from beating their wives and children? If a lash mark was smaller than the width of a thumb, it fell under the rule of thumb, and did not count as abuse.
This is an example of research in application. No one actually knows the origin of the rule of thumbs, and it was never officially in any law that a man could use his thumb as a method of determining whether or not his corrections of his wife or children was legal.
It makes for a nice story, though.
The interesting thing about my knowledge of the rule of thumbs? It took me less than five minutes to obtain, and another two to three minutes to verify the source.
Research doesn't need to be time consuming. It can be condensed. It can, when you're working on a draft zero, be rushed.
So how do I research efficiently?
It takes knowledge to seek knowledge. Some of you might be wincing right now. I don't blame you. Until I figured out that a jack of all trades was better than an expert in one subset of knowledge, research got to be a lot easier. I'm not specialized in much of anything. I know a little more about horses than the average joe, because I really love horses, but I am not a super star on any subject.
I have a broad scope of general knowledge, however. Most of it I picked up from working as a freelance author. I had to be flexible and learn a lot, because I wrote about something new each and every day.
When you first start out, it might feel like you're attempting to climb Mt. Everest. (29,029 feet above sea level, tallest mountain in the world, located in the Himalayas. Its summit marks the international border between China and Nepal. 26,000+ feet is considered the death zone.)
It took three minutes to get that information on Everest. I googled “Mt. Everest”, opened up wikipedia, and also checked out some other relevant websites.
I picked out the most important details, noted them, and went on my way. Now I know that if I want my characters to be at high risk of death, the closer to the 26,000 point they reach on the mountain, the more likely they are to die. That's conjecture. I made an assumption due to the naming of the zone, and the probability of death as climbers reach that point.
It's an aptly named zone. Those who haven't spent 40-60 days of acclimation in mountainous terrains can die up there, and fast. Wikipedia says the time to lose consciousness in the death zone is 2-3 minutes.
Everest, you're mean.
Reading about the death zone took an extra three minutes, including the write up.
Thus the nature of the research trap. I wanted to learn the basics about Mt. Everest, so I had a look. Then, I saw something interesting: The Death Zone.
So, of course I started reading about the Death Zone. Because really, that just sounds really interesting.
I wasted three minutes. I doubled my research time, all because I kept reading about something I did not need to keep reading about.
And that goes against what I said before: Knowledge is needed to search for knowledge. If this is the case, why is reading about something I didn't need to keep reading about bad?
In the case of the Death Zone, I didn't need to know the information about it. I just needed to know it existed. I learned it existed by looking at the table of contents in wikipedia.
Knowing something exists is knowledge. Because I know it exists, I know I can find it again. You need to know how to find things. In order to do that, you need to know enough of the basics to make associations.
Let's revisit the blood loss example.
I have a character who has been shot or injured, and is losing blood. I want to know how to write this character, particularly their reactions as the blood loss worsens.
A good starting point for this research is “Blood loss symptoms.”
There are a hundred and ten different medical websites pointing out the common symptoms of blood loss. Most of them are trying to sell you drugs. Most of them may or may not be accurate. So, how do you know which sites to choose from?
.edu websites are a good start. Universities don't tend to put out false information. Government websites are also a good source, for that reason. (Or a well-known organization, such as WHO for disease research.)
If you can't find a .gov or .edu website, and wikipedia doesn't have an entry, check five or six medical sites and look at the common symptoms listed. They're probably close enough for you to bullshit the symptoms.
Mark it as needing research.
But, let's say you need to research the rate of blood loss from a neck wound. Things just got a bit more complicated. Just how do you find that information out?
Try googling for bleeding to death. You'll learn a fancy new word: Exsanguination. It's so fancy my spellchecker isn't even recognizing it in my browser.
Sanguis is a word for blood. Ex is out of. Out of blood. Latin, you're great.
So, how do you get the information you need? Glance over the subject headings, to start with. Look for things that are relevant to your search. If you don't see something relevant, don't read it.
This saves time and helps to condense the research process. I always read the first paragraph or so of a wikipedia entry, because that is usually the condensed version of a subject.
Well, crap. Wikipedia doesn't have a time frame for exsanguination. Well, if you read the first paragraph, you'll have learned that major trauma relating to exsanguination involves veins and arteries. It is considered common knowledge that there is a major artery and vein in the neck.
Checking the animal slaughter and blood drain section of wikipedia reveals the jugular vein and the carotid artery as the major neck culprits.
But, why would I have checked the animal section in this case?
Humans are animals, and we share a lot of characteristics with animals. The entry is short, and when you're trying to research quickly, if there is any relation to what I'm looking for, it's worth a skim.
In this case, I was rewarded with the names of the major body parts in the neck relevant to my interests.
So, what next? Back to google. That's right, ignore the links to jugular veins and carotid arteries. Wikipedia is all about details of certain things, but when you start getting into lists of things like specific body parts that aren't organs, they're usually stub articles. Stub articles provide a very, very basic bit of information, and little else.
Try searching for death severed jugular vein.
After all, we're looking for how long it takes to die if your jugular vein is severed.
Scroll down. Look for answers. Lots of information here, but the ask.com answer is concise enough to be usable: Approximately two minutes.
You're done. Once again, mark it for confirmation during edits, using medical websites or asking someone who knows. Move on.
The cycle continues.
The more you participate in the process, the faster you'll become at picking out the really important details. You may bounce back and forth between google, wikipedia, and random websites. But, when you get used to the idea that you can't just research entire subjects and expect to get anything done, you'll be well on your way to writing a story that is close enough to accurate. Close enough to fool your readers.
That's what this is all about: Suspending disbelief.
Condensing your research is easy. Stop reading when you have finished gathering the specific bit of information you need. Go write instead.
And keep a journal or notepad handy so you can keep track of all of the things you may need to fix when you edit your novel.
Use October to practice the art of research, so when November comes, you're only spending 3-5 minutes doing research on a specific subject instead of ten, twenty, thirty, or even sixty minutes researching things you don't need to learn.