Research. On this huge topic, I hardly know where to start.
Okay, focus, get systematic. With this book, Wormwood, I began the research with a couple of site visits, always (almost) fun. So I'll start there. One of the visits was maybe 25 years ago, to the Canterbury NH Shaker community--although maybe that was so long ago, it doesn't count. Or maybe it does, since it was probably the impressions I recalled from that visit that came to mind when I began thinking about setting a China Bayles novel in a Shaker village--impressions of peacefulness, order, cleanliness, serenity.
The most recent visit was in April 2006, when I was on book tour in Kentucky. I planned a day off (not an easy thing on a book tour!) and drove from Louisville to the Pleasant Hill village. I had my camera and a notebook and came away with photos, notes, and lots of ideas--there would have been lots more, too, if I could have stayed all afternoon. I left, not because I wanted to, but because there were tornados in the neighborhood (honestly!), which made me just a little nervous. I drove back to Louisville--and there was a tornado there, too, that night, just a couple of miles from my hotel. Not a good day for site research. Or maybe, in fact, it was a good day, for it reminds me that sometimes order and serenity are disrupted by uncontrollable events (an important reminder for someone who is writing a murder mystery).
If you're a writer (or you want to write), site visits are a good place to start. You'll run into things you'd never encounter otherwise. Who knew, for example, that when Bill and I went to the Royal Duchy Hotel in Princetown, on Dartmoor, in SW England, we would encounter a full-size poster of Conan Doyle--which would remind us that yes, indeed, Doyle had been there, writing The Hound of the Baskervilles. And that became one of our Robin Paige mysteries, Death on Dartmoor. Now, you can take the virtual tour online. (Yes, you can virtually visit the prison where Charles took the fingerprints of the inmates, and the church where he met Doyle, and the hotel where they all stayed--and you can listen to a lecture while you're watching. Pretty nifty!) Back then (way back 1998, before virtual Internet tours), we had to actually go there.
But even though you can take a virtual tour, that won't bring you the feel of the biting wind on your face, or the smell of the heather, or sight of the gray clouds racing across a lowering sky. (Or a tornado, as the case may be.)
So, do a site visit, if you can, with a camera and notebook. Give yourself plenty of time, and don't let your partner/spouse/friend hurry you along. Take the time to make good notes of everything around you: trees, plants, building materials, furnishings, vehicles, sounds, smells. Every place has a history. Get a sense (you can build on this later, in book-based research) of the history of the place, the people. What political/social events shaped it? What's the history of its natural environment? You can never tell when some little thing will turn into something important for your story.
Oh, and be sure to visit a local bookstore and ask to see books about the local area. When I visited Pleasant Hill, I browsed through shelves of books I would never have found elsewhere. I bought a big stack and had them shipped home, where at this moment they are scattered across my desk and the floor, within easy reach. I couldn't write this book without them.
From my log book: 8 writing days, 10,700 words. I finished a pretty solid draft of Chapter 3 today, and did some more work on the plot--both the back story and current story. (Yes, I know today is Saturday, but when I'm writing, I really hate to skip a day, because I forget where I am in the story. And since I know I'm going to have 70-some days invested in the writing part of this project, I'd rather they be as consecutive as possible.
And lo! earth yet shall blossom,
Though the brighter morn delays;
For God perfects the harvest,
Yea, after many days.
--Mother Ann Lee