I have always enjoyed learning new things. I can spend hours looking through books on multitudes of subjects and finding out new facts and information. When I am cooking I will watch shows on P.B.S. or National Geographic. (This is one of the few times a day I watch television and shows with no real narrative are preferable if you watch in 10-20 minutes bursts of time.) Learning about weather patterns in Ancient Egypt, the type of wildlife living in the Antarctic, quilt makers patterns from 18th Century America, or the newest discoveries in astrophysics could all spark a story idea.
I try to mentally store all of the information, ideas, and images hoping that one day I will be able to use that tidbit of knowledge.
Most books require research to make them accurate, even if you are writing science fiction or fantasy; these story worlds still need to feel believable and logical to the readers. Most works include at least one or two aspects outside of the author’s personal experiences or knowledge. This information—these details—help to get the readers wrapped up in the story.
Accuracy and Efficiency are important parts of this process, especially when a writer moves from “brainstorming” to drafting out a story idea. Where to find information, particularly if you want to research online for the sake of efficiency, becomes an issue with the first aspect—accuracy. How can a writer determine (quickly!) that the information he/she finds online is accurate?
One of the first sites that will come up in any search is Wikipedia. Please do not get me wrong—I like this site; however, it does have issues with accuracy because of the editorial policies. I know that the creators of the site are working on this, and I hope that they can resolve it very soon because it really is a fabulous idea. For the sake of efficiency, once all of the accuracy problems are resolved with the site it will be wonderful.
To demonstrate an accuracy issue—I looked up Regency-style clothing on Wikipedia a while ago hoping to learn more information on how the items were constructed. According to the entry I read, lady’s dresses were fastened with zippers during this era, despite the fact that “hookless fasteners” (as zippers were once called) had not been invented until the late 19th Century and were not popularly used in clothing until the early 20th Century. A small detail to be sure, but one that would throw a reader completely out of a story world set in the early 1800s.
So—what are the options?
Like many writers, I start “collecting” web sites for topics that I may one day use. (For Regency and Victorian fashions, one site I like is http://www.victoriana.com/Regency-Era/ It has some lovely period photographs and modern equivalents. Another site http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/category/regency-period/ belongs to a fellow blogger here on WordPress and has one of the best bookmark pages on social customs in the Regency Era. I highly recommend it.) Obviously keeping an organized bookmark tab is vitally important; alas, I am not that organized on a day-to-day basis, so every month or so I go through and put the new discoveries under the correct heading in my bookmarks. It makes it easier when I need to find a fact about something. If you can organize as you go, accessing it when writing becomes easier for you—streamlining the writing process.
For new research, try using an academic search engine like “Google Scholar.”
The articles and e-books pulled up by this search engine will help writers go as in-depth as they need into the field. With my example of the Regency period—there will not be many web sites with drawings or pictures of clothing, but if you want to research the social and political implications of the high-waisted gowns versus the prior eras fashions, you will find dozens of academic-style articles, complete with discussions of the visual motifs represented by the fashion in the novels of the era.
Accuracy is then covered, but efficiency needs to be addressed. It is very important to figure out what information you need, and then move on to writing. A writer does not want all of his/her time committed to finding details that will never make it to the manuscript page. Prioritize the research time so the information needed is captured first; but do not feel bad if the temptation of a fascinating fact causes you to just sit and read. In my experience, all writers love to read.