So, your novel’s central character needs to know how to sail a boat but you get seasick having a picnic on the beach. If you want your story to be believable, what do you do?
Perhaps you have to write about cats for your local newspaper? You are a dog person. Where do you start?
If you write, at some point you will need to learn more about a subject. Readers are astute and woe betide the writer who tries to skim over the surface. Someone will always find you out.
Information, then, is key and some research skills are therefore a must. They are not rocket science, but you do need to understand what you want to achieve. Basic questions to ask when researching are those you would try to answer for any non-fiction article, namely Who? What? Where? Why? When? How? Finding the answers to these will probably give you the information you need to be able to write convincingly in your field.
A good place to begin is to look at current writing on the subject. In the case of sailing, is there a ‘how-to’ that will give basic terms understood by sailors the world over? Is there an organisation in the cat world that might be able to point you in the right direction? A quick look at Google for each of these brings up WikiHow (http://www.wikihow.com/Sail-a-Boat), complete with diagrams and a step-by-step guide to sailing. Talking to a sailor armed with this guide is bound to be productive. The Cat Writers Association (catwriters.org) by its nature will be full of specialists. Surely a member there could help? Both these websites can be used as starting points for further research, either by talking to someone who knows the subject, or for further reading.
A good research library will give you the benefit of working with trained staff who will be able to help you track down other works to complement your research. They know their catalogues and the way their automated systems work, so who better to help with obscure references?
Academics, museums, archives and, increasingly, living history or re-enactors, can all aid research, giving an immediate idea of life or experience in a given time or situation. Talking to those who have studied in-depth, as well as those with first-hand experience, is useful for background information, as well as solid basics.
Research often leads to questions. If your character is sailing a yacht in 1930, why not find a vessel from the period so that you can see for yourself the designs available at the time? If you are unsure just how small a six-week-old kitten is, find the nearest animal shelter and see for yourself.
Good research will take a writer to new places. It will open up networks and new friendships. It may be hard to see the wood from the trees amongst online search results but perseverance is key. Attention to detail will bring its own rewards and readers will be enchanted.