I looked for two streets in affluent towns north of Boston, MA., one Indian Reservation (also in the U.S.), and my town in Costa Rica.
If I know nothing about a subject, I'd never consider writing about it.
If I know something about it and have an idea where I want to take the idea, I'll write about 50 pages carefully noting on the computer page that I need some research there. (I usually just punch in 999 knowing that I can hunt and find where I need information. After about page 50 I will write a rough outline. More often than not, I can pick up right where I left off.
Most "setting" reserach should wait all the way until the next draft, unless you actually plan to go to a place before you are finished the draft. Looking it up while writing, or worse, making a sudden vistit to Mexico City or Tokyo to get the right ambiance can slow you a lot.
And any kind of distraction slows the flow of the story. In my early days, it was amazing how many times you have to look up the same things. Now, I make it a point to keep either a side file on the novel folder in my computer, or to make notes about what I know, what I've decided, and what I need. It saves a lot of time.
Google is good, but imperfect. Even when you think you have the perfect source, something may be wrong.
Wikipedia is OK, but very, very imperfect.
You might want to use the old newspaper guideline. "It ain't news until we have it from two verifiable sources ... three is better."
Go to the places? By all means do if you can, but it is amazing how many photos you can get of this that and the other. But its not just the photo or the description but the sense of the place.
If it's your first book, it is best to write about a place that you know and to write straight through. What you will get is practice, which most new writer sorely need. I had alrady written 5 novels, including one that was 800 pages before I was finally published.
The old straw "write what you know," is good for your first attempts. It gets less important as you progress in you writing career. The more you write, the more you teach yourself, and ultimately, the more you know.
A bummer of a comment is coming up.
Stop reading this is you're easily discouraged.
It's a long and slow road from page one to the end, and sometimes an even slower road from the end to "I'm satisfied," and could be a longer road yet fropm "I'm satisfied" to someone else's, "I want to publish this."
Writing is easy with a basic education. Writing well is very difficult even with a good education. There is so much to learn and you never stop learning and all the time you are practicing your craft.
Good luck, hang in there. If it doesn't work out, you are not alone. Be satisfied that you tried.
One more thing: if you never stop trying, you never fail.
I planned to get rich writing a long, long time ago. I'm still trying, so I haven't failed.
Write as long as you love the work involved.
Well put, Jack, especially the last part. Good advice for all.
I'd like to add one caveat to the Google/Wikipedia research comment: even when getting two sources--which, when in doubt, you should aways do--make sure they aren't getting their data from each other, or from the same third source. The Internet breeds information incest, so be careful if it's something important.
I research as I need it.
For instance, my first book a crime thriller based in the town where I live about an attorney with a good deal of courtroom scenes, I did very little research as I was writing it. Why? I live in the town where I it is set so I was already familiar with the locale. The courtroom scenes, legalese and attorney specific information, as I work in the legal field, I already knew the specifics. Now when it came to the scene at the county jail, a phone call and discussions with some of my deputy sheriff friends, and I had what I needed.
On my next book that I am starting, there are some historical facts and information that I need. I placed a call to the local museum and found a curator of one of the exhibits that was an expert in the field I was going to be writing about. I've found that if you locate an expert and reach out to them they are more than happy to assist as you need. Just make sure to thank them in your book.
I use internet research as a last resort preferring to talk to a live person and if I need more information, I ask them to suggest other experts.
Reading through the various approaches here it appears mine is slightly different so I will share it. Although considering I'm only really taking my writing more seriously now, I'm open to criticism.
I come from a science background and as a result tend to want actual data and information to educate myself about a topic. In this way I don't run off of impressions or other fanciful things we often see in books or movies. My usual story ideas and synopses come first, which then gives me likely characters, which then gives me enough information to start researching in earnest. Often times I will just gather information and archive it. I'm not sure if people here are familiar with referencing software, but I use Endnote, which can store keywords, overviews, entire documents (word, pdf, etc) and then be searched when needed. In this way I have most information at hand when I'm writing or creating a scene in order to get it right.
Another point I'd make is that I hate the needless exposition in novels. Describing accurately the streets that you drove down, as if you were giving directions and landmarks, is boring. Whilst it is important to capture the scene enough for the reader to picture it in their minds eye, I'm sure that they would prefer a map book for directions, not a novel. As a result, I find that research for specifics is only important to an extent, especially as it relates to character and how they would process things.
Some research just kes us feel better about the project. In m next novel, I have a character who is an ice cream man with a wild west fixation. I spent some time researching models of ice cream vans, types of ice cream, machines, prices etc. Ultimately, the character us not overly concerend with s occupation, it has a small part to play in terms of who he is, so much of the research is not needed.
It is never wasted, however. It helped me build him as a character. I know where and why he got the van and how much he paid for it. None of it is in the novel. But I knew it and that made me confident.
Internet is king, however. I can research in hours, matters that would have taken days before.