Writers will often tell you that research is not necessary or that you should do all your research before you even type the first letter. While both of these approaches are valid, my approach is just different. As a writer of primarily fantasy, research is extremely important in order to get my setting, culture, and overall worldbuilding believable.
1. LOTS AND LOTS OF RESEARCH
I tend to do more research than is actually necessary. Generally, when I have a topic I want to write about, I look at the lore surrounding the creatures/beings/humanoids I want to use as characters. From there, I research names that come from that culture, find ones where the meaning reveals some aspect of the character, significant or otherwise. I compile a list of names that is too long to contain all my planned characters, that way I have a multitude of names to choose from, and I won’t have to look up more names if I decide to add a few secondary characters.
Once I have my base culture figured out, I take some time and ruminate on in what kind of setting I want to place my characters. The last story I wrote, the characters were extremely poor, living in a shanty type of slum. I looked up some images from around the world, basing the design of the setting on those photos. This is where a program like Pocket or Evernote can come in handy. Instead of having bookmarks on your computer, you can save your reference pictures to Pocket and Evernote and they can be looked at on your phone or tablet so you can write anywhere.
In the last story, I wanted to have the imperialistic culture be similar to the Victorian Era, though it takes place far away from the earth and many millennia in the future. Again, I looked up reference photos of common dress, especially for high-class women, basing my descriptions of their dress on those pictures. This method is effective especially for someone like me who has troubles describing places and objects without reference pictures. I can see it clearly in my mind, but my fingers don’t like to communicate with my brain well, and what comes out tends to be a mess of unnecessary adjectives. I’ve gotten much better with my concrete descriptions by first finding references. Even artists use references.
I do so much research, in fact, that I’ve completely used up two Moleskine notebooks, and I don’t even use most of it.
2. Don’t necessarily have to do it all at once.
I have never done my research all at once like some writers recommend. There is a fluidity to my style, following the ebbs and flows of my mind. By laying out all the research in advance, I find that the creativity and inspiration have disappeared along with my excitement. Half of the time, I don’t even know where my story is going; it is rather dull to set out on the journey with knowing exactly where you will go, what you’ll see, who you’ll meet.
A lot of published writers recommend doing all your research ahead of time because they find that stopping in the middle of your first draft to look up the composition of gangs (personal experience) is uncomfortable and will disrupt their flow. While I see where they come from, my style allows for such pitstops.
3. Handy-Dandy Notebook
I am currently on my third notebook of research. I take “field notes” while people watching, hoping to find some unique characteristics for a character, or unusual dialogue I wouldn’t be able to think of by myself. I highly recommend people watching. You can learn so much about humans that you’ll never manage to glean any other way. Keep a notebook with you at all times so if you come upon something interesting, you can immediately write it down. No matter how much you believe you’ll remember it, you won’t.
Disclaimer: These are just my techniques and what works for me. Do not take this as Gospel truth because I’m only human. Each different method has value and don’t be afraid to blend or alchemize different techniques. Find what works best for you.