Writing research is the cornerstones of good story telling. As a writer of science fiction, fantasy and creative non-fiction, research is important to the story writing process. I create entire worlds, often with technology that is not commonplace to the everyday reader, but which needs to be understandable to them in order to enjoy the story from a myriad of researched details from many sources. I tend to not research my stories before I begin writing. I like to let my characters to shape the way the plot will go. Once my rough draft is completed, it is at that point that I fill in the necessary details that embellish my stories and allow it to conform to historical events, customs, and locations. As I write my rough draft, I leave document notes in Scrivener to make sure that I double check historical details, research technology or cultural viewpoints. When I am in the revision stage, I will fill in those details to the story, enriching it and gaining word count in the process.
The first way that I research a topic is to use wikipedia. I do not use the information that I find there as confirmed facts, but it is a good way to see how the information in question is viewed by the public. Because what is found in wikipedia is written in by anyone who wishes, it is usually not the best place to find facts. However, at the bottom of the page in wikipedia are the sources where this author had gained their information. It is these websites which are the ones I use to research my facts. Often times, these sites will be from universities, libraries or societies that are experts on the subject matter.
What you want to find are primary sources of information. People that know the information first hand and then write about it. Biographies, archeology texts, scientific studies and reports are all good primary sources. A secondary source would be a paper about a historical figure written hundreds of years after the man or woman in question was dead and all information taken from other sources to compile into the text.
After wikipedia, I research topics by buying a book on the subject, preferably a primary source book, but secondary is acceptable depending on the topic or availability of the subject. For each container universe in a story series, I tend to purchase at minimum a dozen books to support my research. I go through each of these books and write notes from them that I feel are useful. It is the notebook of notes that I use while writing, but I like to keep the original book handy on a nearby shelf or in my kindle library in case I want to double check a small detail.
Another way I research is to take a class on the subject. This method takes longer and time dedication, but often times an instructor can shave off days or weeks of search by providing you with an overview of the subject. The included list of further reading or links on the web to accelerate your research. For me, the savings of time and to have someone to ask questions of is often worth the price of the class.
One of the more powerful ways to research is to experience the activities of your characters in a personal manner. For instance, I took a semester course in fencing in order to get a feel for handling a sword. I am not by any stretch of imagination a good swordswoman, but by taking the course I learned what muscles I would use in match, the basic moves of fencing, what it is like to be in a modern fencing tournament, and most importantly, what it feels like to be a person who is fencing. I have taken courses in sailing, horseback riding, dancing, metalsmithing and other activities that all combine to give me a feeling of what skills a person in a fantasy setting might feel on a day to day basis.
I also take trips to locations that are similar to ones that I’m writing and take photos and notes of the places, trying to take in the feel of the place more than the facts. These sensations are easily applied to characters that I am writing about. Google can always tell me the facts, but it can’t always provide the little details that the experience itself does. Whenever it is possible, I recommend that you experience the activities your characters would, or at least a safe close approximation.
Hand in hand with travel is Google Earth. Using this application you can zero in on most places on the planet, you can check street names, landmarks, and develop walking, driving and public transit routes. This can be helpful when writing about a place you have never been and discovering travel times between locations or the appearance of buildings in the area. While it is always preferable to visit the location and gain the sights, sounds and smells of the place, Google Earth is a handy substitute that lurks inside your computer, always at hand.
Writing research is a necessary part of creating a novel. Some genres take more research than others, but ultimately, every story needs facts to help flesh it out and ground it in a semblance of reality. How much is too much? Only you the author can decide. I believe that the key to keeping your research in control and not overwhelming your story process is to do most of it after the rough draft is completed. Do not allow the small details of history to swamp your original plot. If you keep this in mind, you should have an effective course of research using the above tools.