Some authors cringe at the word"research." Margaret Mitchell spent years researching the characters and places for her epic novel Gone With The Wind and it shows. Besides being an incredible character study with several intertwining story lines, it is historically accurate enough to be used as a lesson in the history of the turbulent times during the American Civil War. Born just thirty-five years after the war, Ms. Mitchell grew up hearing Civil War and Reconstruction stories from elderly relatives who had lived through those times. Her research began with those childhood memories. As an adult, Margaret Mitchell spent more than ten years doing additional research while mentally putting her novel together. Her research definitely paid off.
Harper Lee spent eight years working odd jobs to support her research before she finally showed the string of stories that was to become the great To Kill a Mockingbird to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott. Another two and a half years of rewriting and refining followed. I read both books when I was eleven and was hooked by the sheer power of the descriptions of people and places.
While most authors don't spend the same amount of time as Mitchell and Lee on today's novels there are certain things that need to be clear and true when writing a book. One thing is for certain; whether your novel is set in a not-too-distant past, a historical time, a modern city, or a fantasy/paranormal setting, grounding your story in good research is crucial for immersing your readers in the characters and places. As just about every writing professor will tell students the three basic elements of any good story are plot, character, and setting.
All writers have an idea of what the main character will look like and how she or he will act. Give your character an entire profile; name, coloring, hair, ethnicity, and where he or she was born. Do the same with all other characters that will be in your story. A mental image is a writer's best tool. Readers also will be better able to visualize the characters through your descriptions. It is sometimes said that writers live in their own world and that should be taken as a compliment. This is your craft and you are creating a world where your characters live.
Researching a novel depends very much on what you are writing about. A good example is that if you're writing about characters during the fifteenth century, spending time online, in a library, or a museum of art will be worth your while simply to get a feel of that time period. This works equally as well with any theme you will be writing.
Practical experience can be an enormous research asset, too. To understand the complexities of being a private investigator I interviewed several PIs and actually went on a stake-out with one. This helped bring my character Cate in the Cate Harlow Private Investigation series to life. I also place much of the action in the books in NYC, a place I know well.
Don't discount memories of childhood as a research tool. While those memories may only be a catalyst for a fictional story, you may want to write down them for a start and then weave a tale using them in your book. The great thing about memories is that it is personally identifiable; they are what you saw, felt, and heard and some of your characters are already begun. With some embellishment on the author's part, a story is born.
Writing paranormal, horror, or fantasy? You have more leeway here but you still need to research your genre and engage your audience. Old TV shows and movies are great for this. X-Files creator Chris Carter was inspired by shows which featured elements of suspense and speculative fiction, including The Twilight Zone, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. When creating the main characters, Carter sought to reverse gender stereotypes by making Mulder a believer and Scully a skeptic.
The idea for Buffy the Vampire Slayer came to Joss Whedon directly from his aversion to seeing the Hollywood formula of "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie". Whedon said he wanted to subvert the idea and create someone female who was a hero.
Gene Roddenberry used his flying experience as a pilot during WWII, and his researched interest in possible future technology, along with a desire to one day explore space, to create Star Trek. A writer's mind constantly collects information and keeps it there for future reference. Just about everything authors do can count as research for our books.
Refining, rewriting, making it the best your novel can be is your goal. A well-told, believable story, whatever the theme may be that is appealing to our readers, is the end result we all hope to achieve. Keeping everything in perspective, the whole point of research is not to drive yourself crazy before you begin to write, it is simply another tool in your writer's repertoire.