Another re-post from the old writer's blog! Try to contain your excitement.
We all know the old adage, "write what you know." But with the help of a little research, you can 'know' just about anything. I'm not entirely certain that this is a good thing.
Research is a natural part of writing for me. I usually like to research every detail, right down to appropriate name meanings for my characters' pet toads, but not everyone shares in my psychosis. In fact, I feel this practice has the potential to get me into real trouble. For one, it can break up the flow of writing - if you get hung up on if Chicago bus drivers wear blue or purple uniforms, you might miss your hero's stop. For two, there are potential, ahem, legal ramifications.
In one of my stories the heroine has to type a letter for her boss, the assistant district attorney. I wanted to show off his clout, so I addressed the letter to a politician in my heroine's hometown ... and used the politician's real name and address. Later I realized this was a BAD IDEA (yes, all-caps are necessary to contain the badness of this particular idea) and changed it. On the other hand, no one wants to read that your hero attends Nondescript University in Nowhere Special, Nebraska, regardless of that fact that his major is Underwater Basket Weaving and he's secretly dating the captain of the football team. You just need to find a balance.
The internet is the double-edged sword of research. Obviously you can get the facts on just about anything from databases like Answers.com and Wikipedia. I also like to use Google Images to find pictures of my settings. But the ease of obtaining information can often lead you astray. A good rule of thumb: if it takes you more than five minutes of dedicating Googling to find something out, is anyone else going to get the reference? Unless you're writing Star Trek fanfiction, the answer is probably 'no.'
Also, never underestimate the benefit of life experience. All the research in the world is no substitute for visiting your setting or observing/working at your hero's job, if only for a day. If your hero is a surgeon or cliff diver or some other job they don't let you temp in, bribe someone with expertise into having a nice, long chat. I find that cookies and promises of a spot in the acknowledgments work wonders.