One of the most interesting aspects of being a writer is that you find you have to do a lot of research into things you never thought you would need to know about. As a result, life is rarely dull. There is always something you need to research for the book you're writing now, or for the next book, or even the one after that.
Sometimes what you need to know is not even particularly crucial to the plot, but if you get it wrong, the reader will notice, especially if it's a children's book. Children are extraordinarily perceptive, and will be incensed to discover that their favourite author has slipped up on some detail about which they know more than he/she does. It would be a great shame if they decided to read no more of your books because of it!
Among other things, I have had to research the following:
The average life-expectancy of a goat
What the Anglo-Saxons used to catch fish
What transport was used by Roman ladies travelling long distances
When glass was first used for windows
The exact price of a train ticket for a specific route in the year 1940
Whether school dinners were available in Mousehole in WW2
How to fly a hot-air balloon
What the inside of a pyramid looked like
What the inside of a Romany gypsy caravan was like in 1912
No matter what sort of book you are writing there is always something you need to find out. Several of the above concern historical accuracy, which is only to be expected if you are planning a historical book or series. But some are not, eg the life expectancy of a goat. (I needed to know whether someone would recognise the same goat after a number of years – or whether the goat would recognise him. The answer was about 30 years, as far as I can remember. The story was never published, so the information was never put to the test.)
Sometimes the research can make for a fascinating day out, or part of a holiday. In the past my husband has been happy to accompany me to a Roman Enactment day in Caerleon, to Mousehole in Cornwall to check where the school was, to a Tutankhamen exhibition in Dorchester and to an Anglo-Saxon village in West Stowe. Having to find out specific information made all the trips more interesting, and it was useful to be able to discuss them afterwards. Of course if your book is set on another planet, a fantasy world or some distant country that it's not possible or financially viable to visit, there's a limit to the amount of physical research you can do. In this case you have to rely on:
a) the Internet (thank you, Google!)
b) books (thank you, libraries and bargain bookshops!)
c) television and DVDs (there are some fantastic documentaries out there, as well as series set in the same place and/or period as your book, for atmosphere etc.)
d) talking to people who know. (Which was where I found out about the train ticket - the man I asked was a train expert, but although he didn't know the answer himself, he knew a man who could, so found out for me. Thank you, Alan.)
Names too need some research. Although many names come and go in popularity, I suspect there were no Tiffanys in Victorian times, nor many Tryphenas in the classrooms of today. It’s also important to know when certain names came into existence. For example, the name Wendy was invented by J M Barrie for his play “Peter Pan” in 1904, so could not have been used before that date. Lists of the most popular names for babies in any one year is invaluable, and can always be found on the internet. I also have several books of baby names which give the dates names were first used, as well as popular names from other countries. Sadly The Guinness Book of Names, which I use most, is now out of print.
Many writers will tell you that they love doing research – and they are right. Unfortunately it can be so seductive immersing yourself in the world of Tudor England, or railway trains, or Florence, that the research becomes an end in itself, so that you keep putting off the actual writing of the book. And of course not everything you find out can be used – if it was it would make for very heavy reading. By including just the right amount of research, the reader knows that you know what you're talking about but are not hitting them over the head with every single detail.
(All photos from Wikimedia Commons)