Oh yes, the wondrous world of research where you think you are looking up something on Victorian England and end up digging through the history of Sargon and his successor, Rimush. You pull yourself back to Victorian England and end up reading Bleak House and studying fishing cycles in the North Sea. Oh yes. Research.
I love research. I have a huge library of hardbound books, most of them history-related and a few science-related. I have quite a few travel books that go deeper into the ecology of a place rather than a list of the best hotels. Through them I study different types of habitats and the types of plants and animals you're likely to find there. Desert? What type of desert? Wetlands? Are they marsh, bogs, swamps -- what? Every type of habitat comes in various flavors, just as every ancient civilization had it's on, unique face. Once you move past the generic, you are likely to create something special and exciting.
The problem is that I rarely write anything actually set in a real-world place or time. That doesn't make the research any less helpful. Even when you're creating a world from scratch for your fantasy novel, it helps to know how things work. With that in mind, I don't devote my research only to when I need specific information. I read a considerable amount of history, science and anthropology just as a regular part of my reading material. I pick up things and file them away for later use, and while they sit around in my brain, they mutate and grow and sometimes entire new novels come out of the oddest things.
(Some predatory birds will not hunt within a certain radius around their nests, keeping the area clear of dead things. So a field mouse living at the base of the tree where they keep their nest is actually safer than he would be farther away. Oh yes, that's worked into one of my fantasy books when I created a culture for a non-human group.)
Specific research? If I don't have a book on something, I'll order it. That's a lot easier in the age of ebooks and my wonderful Nook. But even so, I'm likely to have something, somewhere on any subject I'm going to write about, especially since I have four sets of encyclopedias. Wiki? Yes, I'll look there for a quick answer, but I do a lot of my research the old-fashioned way with books and notes. Wiki is great for a quick answer, but if I want to go into depth I'll grab several books by different authors and get a good cross reference on things. I am most likely to find what I need in my own house, which helps. That's because I write about things that interest me. Why shouldn't I? I use ancient history to build fantasy and science fiction societies. I use real-world animals to put together something alien. These may not be obvious (and usually shouldn't be) in my work, but the background is there.
Here is a trick that might help you if you need to do research on some area that you know nothing about. Don't go look for the most extensive, scholarly work for your first time through. Look for something aimed at teens in school. This will introduce you to the basic facts and give you a list of things you can narrow down and research more carefully. You'll get far more out of a fast, easy introduction to a subject than you will to something boring an deep. Librarians can help you here. Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to collect large libraries that spill over into two houses (we bought the small house next door where Russ keeps his office and his American History books, which number well over a thousand on their own.)
A couple years ago I realized I needed some information on Egypt. I admit that Egypt is not one of my favorite ancient civilizations, mostly because it is the one studied most often in school and it got boring after awhile. Give me Elam or Akkad and I'm a happy little person. But I needed Egyptian information and I wasn't certain I would be able to find enough in my own library.
Half an hour later, I had more than 15 books sitting on my desk, all of them dedicated to Egypt, and I hadn't even touched the encyclopedias. I hadn't even realized how much I had collected down through the years until I needed them.
So my research routines are rarely fixed. I study all the time. At some point I might need to go and refresh my memory on some point, and it's always far more handy to have the books on hand rather than having to wait for the library to open and hope that what I need happens to be on the shelf. Besides, libraries have that distressing habit of wanting their books back.
Take notes. Get those wonderful little flags you can put on pages, marking something important (this is really nice if you own the books, so you can go back to that place as often as you need). If you are really serious about the research, use more than one reference because no book or website is ever going to give you the full story. Be careful of multiple websites because many of them are simply grabbing information from other sites, and there is no real research into credibility.
And if you are writing anything except nonfiction or historical fiction, remember that even disproved theories can be helpful to a writer. Think of them as little touches of alternate-earth possibilities. These can sometimes be great points where you start a culture for your novel.
Read anything that interests you. This isn't school and you aren't going to be tested. However, the more you are willing to learn, the better your writing will be. 'Write what you know' should really be 'write what you can learn -- and be willing to learn anything.'
If you want to get to read about other writers, check out the Merry-Go-Round Blog Tour. Be sure to read tomorrow's post by Sharon Kemmerer