Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid. — John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima
I used to say that the reason I loved to write fantasy was because I didn’t have to research anything to make a whole story. I’ve since decided that’s not exactly true.
Everything in my stories comes from something else, and same for you. Our brains collect an store and shuffle and recombine, and no matter what you’re writing, the job is easier with a greater supply of raw material.
The point is to stay open, and keep shoveling stuff in. And that’s anything you enjoy. As writers, we enjoy one of the most unique of realities: no rabbit trail is ever wasted. No time dinging around on YouTube or TVTropes.org, no random novels that I start and keep me entranced enough to finish.
It’s all fodder for writing.
Confession time: I am a chronic non-finisher. I have (At least) 6-8 books going at any given time. Most are non-fiction, granted, so they aren’t necessarily gripping page-turners, but they interact with a sort of synergy that gives me new or deeper insights than either author might have had in mind, initially.
There are probably dozens of books I’ve never finished, but none of them was wasted. I believe that our brains are so amazing that we never really forget anything. We may not have it at command, but it’s always there, waiting to be brought back with the right hook.
The same thing happens with life and fiction and non-fiction when you stay open and let the ideas mix and mush. All of my stories contain cross-cultural marriages as a sort of microcosm of of the differing approaches to life we bring to relationships.
The stories themselves are mash-ups of traditional tales from different cultures. And all this came from reading broadly, and enjoying the movies and TV shows I do.
My advice: embrace your loves. Follow your interests: this book suggests that getting ahead in anything is largely a question of endurance, and we’re all more likely to stick with something we find interesting.
As to the how of research, I am a big proponent of the dive-in-and-swim mode of research.
You might say my research style is opposite of my plotting style.
You see, I know a lot about a lot of stuff (you probably do, too: it’s part of being a grown-up), so I can make a lot of reasoned assumptions where I don’t have facts at my fingertips, and failing that I can make most of my story hinge around human interaction that will be the same almost anywhere you find humans.
The trick comes when you want to do technical writing or (as I am learning in my novel this year) mystery writing; where the answers hinge not just on quirks of human experience, but also on physical laws of the universe or items of expertise in a specialized world like dog shows.
In these cases I tend to work from the broad to the very specific.
For example, in a mystery, there are the classic motivations to consider: jealousy, fear, extortion, greed, anger, etc.
Motivation may help pin the perpetrator, and that (working backwards, as we may, creating the story) can shed light on method, since knowing who’s responsible narrows down means and opportunity.
Once the broad strokes are identified, I can now consider where specific detail-searching comes into play.
I have a niggling memory of a news clip describing special visas for girls freed from the sex trade. The goal is to reduce the hold their captors have over them to keep them from coming forward or seeking help.
Since my story is set largely in London, I began my research by looking to see if there’s any sort of analogous safeguard in the UK. What I found is that the state of the courts is currently in something of an overhaul, and more research is needed, but I also confirmed that the discussion about “modern day slavery” is also happening “across the pond,” so my premise (a teen-Sherlock television episode where the characters are facing the questions of human trafficking) does fit, and I am now reading the public report from the Center for Social Justice.
“It’s okay, I found it on the internet” is becoming much less of a joke than a reality these days, and especially as we prepare to dive into a month of unbridled creation, the facts are guidance at this point, more than boundaries.
If something comes down to that tight of a specific, it should be something researchable in the midst. The point at this stage of the game, is not to stress about details that are not inherent to the core of your story, and if you’re not sure what’s at the core, some quick Googling will get you started. There’s no shame in internet research, especially at this stage in the process.
If you have (or guess you will have) serious questions, don’t hesitate to get on the internet and search for what you want to know (the NaNoWriMo forums are also a great place to fish for leads).
And if you’re really adventurous, you can use the internet to track down phone numbers or email addresses for experts in your area of facts for you your novel. That is, you could ask a sculptor or a garden-designer if they were willing to answer a few specific questions. You could call the business office of a police station 6 states over and (if they have time—preparing your questions will help them trust you) verify how they do things in their neck of the woods where your story takes place.
Just, don’t be afraid to ask questions—of yourself or anyone else. Questions can be the best way to make progress on a problem.