NaNoWriMo ’16 Prep #3: The Importance of Doing Research … Later

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If you’re more prepared for NaNo this year than I am, you’ve probably clocked some research time about subjects you anticipate needing for your story. Good for you–you can sit this lesson out.

I want to talk to the people who haven’t started yet.

Here’s my advice: DON’T. We’ve only got a few days left, and research is a rabbit hole that can become deep quickly. Don’t fall in just yet–your remaining prep time is probably better spent brainstorming or outlining. (Or taking a break to recharge from whatever you were writing before, totally valid use of time.)

But how can I write about something I know nothing about?

You can’t, not effectively. But NaNo is all about teaching us to embrace the wild ride of the first draft: word vomit and clunky prose and half-baked ideas we get to develop as we go.

NaNo is not the time for research. I repeat, NANO IS NOT THE TIME FOR RESEARCH.

In an old, old plot bunny I have squirreled away, I wanted to write a pirate story. I know a handful of nautical terms, acquired through osmosis mostly while watching movies, but without a solid understanding of ship construction I couldn’t identify which sail is which or how many masts a certain type of ship has or which ropes do what. It’s specialized branch of knowledge I simply don’t have, but would be vital to an author whose characters are going to sail the high seas.

If I were writing that story for NaNo this year–I’m not, but if I were–I’d be completely out of my depth whenever I needed technical information. It happens to everyone at some point, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But when you come to a part where you need that information, don’t stop writing to head to Wikipedia. I know it’s tempting. I know you want to get it right. I know you want to give yourself a break from writing to read up on something interesting.

Don’t give in.

You’ve got a few choices of what to do instead.

  1. Do your best with what you do know. Write the scene anyway and accept you’ll end up correcting parts of it later when you have your facts straight.
  2. Write a brief summary of the scene for your future self, explaining what you need to research in order to write it properly during revisions. This won’t help your word count as much, but it’s an option when you truly don’t know enough to fake it, and it heads off the frustration of scrapping large sections of your draft later if you got something fundamentally wrong.
  3. Make it up. In fantasy settings, there’s stuff you can fudge instead of using real-world analogues. In one NaNo novel of mine, rather than use actual plant names for the things my botanist character studied, I created an entire set of flora out of nothing. Pro: You can’t get it wrong. Con: Naming that many new objects can be exhausting for you to write, and even more exhausting for a reader to read–use this strategy with care as part of your worldbuilding regimen.

If you go with #3, best of luck, get writing and don’t stop.

If you go with #1, #2, or a combination of both as the particular scene requires, you’ll need a way to mark the sections of your draft you know you need to fix later. Since my most recent novels don’t involve characters doing any kind of research themselves as part of the plot, my Ctrl+F key term was just the word research.

That won’t work if you’ve got scientists racing to find the cure for some deadly plague, or students doing term papers, or professors working on grant proposals.

An article I read years ago (sorry, no source on this, I couldn’t find it again) suggested the key term TK to mark problem spots, because it’s quick to type at only two letters, and it’s an extremely uncommon letter combination in standard English. (The article only suggested the surname Atkins as containing it, and I have since discovered the botanical term catkin.) I never got in the habit of using it myself, but it definitely offers a speed advantage.

Other possibilities include triple question marks (???) or [notes set off with brackets] as both easy to search for and distinct from regular text.

I also suggest keeping a separate note file to list research topics. How detailed it will be is a personal choice, depending on your level of organization, but even a bare-bones list is a start. At the end of a writing session, open up your notes and add whatever issues came up in what you wrote, whether it’s as simple as what’s a mizzenmast or as structured as Chapter Ten, page 117, Two masts on the ship break in a violent storm. Which ones would cause the most damage? How many are left, and can the ship sail effectively with what remains? What do I need to change, if anything, to make this scene plausible?

When the draft is done, you’ll have a comprehensive guide to everything you need to research. At that point, you can block off time to study up before revisions.

Remember, NANO IS NOT THE TIME FOR RESEARCH. DO IT LATER.

No need to feel guilty, fellow NaNo-ers: this is a case where it’s not procrastination, it’s budgeting your time wisely. Get out there and write! (…in six days.)

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