I’m starting to think there are two kinds of research — or rather, a spectrum with two ends. Quite possibly it’s a more multi-directional spectrum than that, but there are two ends that seem particularly applicable to my life.
The first kind is reading for facts. This is the type of research I did all the time for the Onyx Court books: I’m writing about a specific thing, and so I need to know stuff about it. What route did Elizabeth I’s coronation procession take? Where were the imprisoned members of Parliament held after Pride’s Purge? When did somebody calculate the moment of perihelion for Halley’s Comet in 1759? What actions were taken by Fenian terrorists in the later Victorian period? This extends to more general questions; a lot of my reading was to fill in broad topics along the lines of “what was life like in this period,” not because there was a specific detail I knew I needed, but because I needed a large mass of specific details to draw from in shaping my plot and laying out my scenes. And often one of those elements would suggest a new dimension to the story, so then I’m off down a new fact-reading rabbit hole; rinse and repeat until my deadline starts breathing down my neck and I have to quit adding to the pile.
The other kind of research is one I used to do all the time — but I didn’t really think of it as “research” back then. It was just, y’know, my life. I took an odd assortment of classes and read an odd assortment of books, and they all poured material into my head, and out of that came stories. This is reading for fodder, and I’m finally back to doing it, because I have several projects in the hopper that are all secondary-world, as opposed to urban fantasy (the Wilders series) or historical fantasy (Onyx Court) or what I think of as world-and-a-half (Memoirs of Lady Trent, halfway between historical and invented). It isn’t that I won’t wind up using specific details out of what I read; the difference is that in the end, I’m not actually writing about those things. Lately I’ve been reading a book on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, the Mahabharata, a book on the Sumerians, a bunch of Wikipedia articles on ancient Greek philosophy and society because I finished Jo Walton’s The Just City. Am I planning on writing anything set in Georgian England, Tokugawa Japan, ancient India, ancient Sumer, or ancient Greece? Not necessarily. But it’s all going into the mental compost heap, to intermix and break down and become fertile soil for ideas.
Some subconscious part of myself feels like I’m skiving off of work reading these things, because it’s been trained by nine books of historical or quasi-historical fiction to think the only real research is the kind done for facts. I need to do this, though, or else the worlds I invent will stay firmly in the box of “modified analogues,” places that can easily be mapped to single real-world origins. I need to throw a bunch of different things into my head at once, so that I come up with a society where there’s a deified emperor (a bit Roman, a bit Egyptian) and a caste system (a bit Indian) with a meritocratic way of changing your caste (a bit Chinese) and a clockpunky tech level (a bit Italian Renaissance) and so forth, without it being straightforwardly any of those things. If they wind up having an architecture a little bit like Tokugawa Japan or a schooling system like ancient Sumer, it will be because that happened to click into place, not because I had to use one of those societies for inspiration.
As I said at the beginning, these aren’t clearly divided types. “What was life like in this period” is closer to being a fodder-type question than “how rapidly did the plague take hold in 1665,” because it’s designed to help me come up with ideas for that specific period. And you’ll see the Mayan calendrical system with a minor fictional paint job showing up in Lightning in the Blood because years ago I read about it for fun and wound up incorporating it into a story more or less wholesale, complete with fiddly little details about Year-Bearers. But it helps me to remember that fodder-type reading is a form of research, and one that’s very necessary for my job.