If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
~ Albert Einstein
I love research. And not as a tool of procrastination (I know your tricks)! In order to write believable fiction, your details must be accurate. This allows the reader to relax and enjoy your story or enter into the fictive dream, if you prefer. Whether writing about our present world, the past, some future world or the sweep of time as in Cloud Atlas, think through the details that surround your characters. For example, if you have a miner in your story, learn some geology so you know about the rocks and structure of the earth the character experiences in their work. For the past, look at the work Hilary Mantel did in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some, like Publishers Weekly, found a “distracting abundance of dizzying detail,” but I’d rather err on the side of too rich a world than one in which the reader loses confidence that the author knows what s/he is writing about.
Google is your friend. Look for established sources: libraries, universities, even the Discovery Channel and so on. You already know there’s a lot of hooey out there. Double check! Challenge your preconceived notions and don’t only look for things that confirm your bias. Be open.
It’s invaluable to know how to use a physical library properly, so if you don’t know how, plenty of libraries offer free orientations. Just as you would not use random notes found on the floor of an actual library for facts, don’t accept an amateur online site without checking credentials and confirming the information. There are some great amateur (in the best sense of the word) sites out there and the credible ones cite their sources.
Don’t confine yourself to the internet (as I said, I know your tricks!) Get out and meet people. For the most part, we all love to be asked about our area(s) of expertise. Find out ahead of time whether they expect to be paid or not. Most will give you an hour or will meet for coffee or lunch if they have the time; if they don’t have an hour, they might answer a few questions by email. Obviously be respectful of others’ time. Librarians (city, law, medical, university, etc) know how to find all kinds of things. Ask for their help. Also, you never know who an expert may know or how it may later pay off when you want an endorsement for your next book, a mailing list for book signings, or a few friendly faces to show up at your book reading. Give back, exchange favors, add them to your acknowledgements page. Send a thank you note. It sounds so basic, but good manners are refreshing.
Do you have any stories about research or particular methods that work for you?