NaNoWriMo will start in just over seven days. We’ve talked about character, and we’ve talked about plot. Let’s talk about research. ‘Cause let’s face it: if you don’t start researching pretty soon, you’ll be out of time.
How much should you research?
This is always a tricky question. If you’re writing historical fiction, you’re probably going to need to do a lot of prep work before you start writing. The same goes for hard sci-fi. Honestly, if you haven’t already done your research or aren’t already very familiar with the subjects in these genres you want to write about, you may want to pick something different for NaNo.
Now, let’s say you’re writing mainstream, contemporary fiction. How much research do you need to do? What if your novel takes place in a town/state/country you’ve never been to? What if your main character has a profession you’re not familiar with? What if you’re a seventeen-year-old high school senior and your protagonist is a detective with twenty years on the job? What do you do then?
Two words: Fake it. That’s right. Just make stuff up. Here’s the thing: you probably know enough to get by. I’m guessing that if you’re writing in a particular genre, you’ve read at least a handful of books in that genre (hopefully more). You probably know as much about any of the subjects above as your average person. So to start out with, just make up whatever you don’t know. Reason out what’s most likely to happen in a given situation, and then look it up later. That’s what revisions are for.
Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any research at all and can just wing it entirely.
What should you spend time researching?
If your entire plot hinges on one particular fact, make sure you have that fact straight! There’s nothing worse than finishing a novel only to find that what you’ve written is completely implausible. Some genres are more forgiving than others, but for the most part, if something is impossible, your readers will have a hard time believing it works in the world of your novel.
Consistency is vital
Let’s say you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi or some other genre where you have to create your own worlds (or even if you’re writing a “real-world” novel that’s in a fictional setting). The most important thing here is to be consistent. Just because something has been entirely fabricated from your own thoughts and imagination doesn’t mean there aren’t still facts. The difference is that you’re the one who creates those facts.
Keep a running file of facts you establish in your story. This could be something you create ahead of time, using one of the many world-building questionnaires and guides out there, or it could be a file you add to as you write. It’s helpful if you make the file searchable (digital), so you can search for things as your file grows. It saves a lot of time over having to sort through pages of hand-written notes. Either way, make sure the notes you keep are organized and can be referred to whenever you need them.
As long as you’re consistent, you can create whatever kind of world you want. You can even be consistently inconsistent, as long as that’s what your reader is expecting and as long as it fits within the confines of the world you’re creating.
As always, if you have other tips on researching, world-building, or organizing your research, please share in the comments below!