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...How in the hell can I check for shorts or trace circuits?...
I do 99.9% of my circuit debugging using both the following:
1) Self-powered test light
2) Non-powered test light
 

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... 12VDC test light... will only show a live circuit, not... tell me which is ground...If I rig up a simple continuity tester, you think that might work?..
> Hook your (non-powered) 12V test light to positive on battery, then probe around anywhere to find ground.
> Or disconnect both battery terminals; connect a self powered test light to negative battery lead wire, then probe around anywhere to find ground on a non-live circuit.

...how do I test the voltage amount? Admittedly all my meters are digital. Should I get an analog meter?...
> Connect meter leads to battery terminals... if you get 12V there, then there's typically not much need to check voltage anywhere else, just continuity.
 
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