My name is Jim, and I'm addicted to doing research.
There. I've said it and I'm not sorry, either. When I'm cured of this addiction just put me in the ground because I'm done.
How bad is my research addiction? Let me tell you my shame. For a while I played an online game called "Supremacy 1914." It's a strategic-level game supposedly based on World War I (although the actual gameplay is a lot more mobile than the actual Great War). As the game progresses, you can build factories and accumulate resources needed to construct more powerful weapons and vehicles for your armies.
The most powerful weapons are battleships (at sea), and railroad artillery pieces (on land). Because they're so powerful and expensive — and because of historical precedent — players can give names to their warships and superguns. At one point I was playing the game, and my starting nation was Romania. I did well in that game; Romania conquered the Balkans, expanded north into Austro-Hungarian territory, and worked out a partition of Turkey with the aggressive Egyptians.
My mighty Greater Romania could afford battleships and railroad guns, so I started building them. Which meant I needed to come up with names for them. For the battleships, it was obvious: I named them for Kings of Romania, and rulers of Wallachia, the predecessor principality of Romania. But for the cannons, I wanted something cooler. I wanted dragons.
So I spent more than an hour cruising the Web, hunting for the names of mythical Romanian dragons to use as names for cannons. In a game. Note that most of the other players didn't use the name function at all, or gave things names like "Battleship 1." Nobody cared about this but me, but I wanted to get it right.
But research also pays off in more than wasted time and abject geekery. A few years ago I was writing a novel about spies investigating supernatural goings-on in Ireland during World War II. I needed some non-supernatural pretext for the American government to send their team of investigators to Ireland. I read book after book about Ireland during "the Emergency" as the Irish government quaintly called it.
And then the answer dropped right into my lap. The wartime American ambassador to the Irish Republic was David Gray, Eleanor Roosevelt's uncle. Mr. Gray was apparently a rather ineffectial ambassador — and a devotee of Spiritualism. He had seances with an Irish medium and talked to famous dead people including his relative by marriage Theodore Roosevelt.
Perfect! An ambassador chatting with dead Presidents with an Irish national would be an obvious security leak worth investigating (and one worth investigating secretly to avoid embarrassing the Roosevelts). It could lead my characters into a web of real (well, "real" in the story, anyway) supernatural goings-on.
There's another example in a project I'm still working on. I'm sending some characters on a long space voyage to rescue an isolated outpost, but when they get there the outpost has mysteriously vanished. I thought of simply inventing a star system, but then one afternoon I spent several hours skimming through a database of exoplanets — real planets astronomers have identified in other star systems.
A few of them have even been given names, because even astronomers get tired of talking about worlds called "NLTT 41135-b" or "HD 87646A-b." One of the named systems is 55 Cancri, which has recently been rechristened Copernicus, after the pioneering cosmologist. Its planets have also been given names, honoring other astronomical greats: Janssen, Galileo, Brahe, Harriot, and Lipperhey.
Harriot caught my attention, because the astronomer Thomas Harriot was an Elizabethan-era scientist, a friend of Walter Raleigh . . . and the chief scientist on Raleigh's expedition to Virginia in 1585. That expedition scouted out a colony site on Roanoke Island, which was settled by a follow-up expedition in 1587 (which Harriot was not part of). We all know what happened to that colony, right?
Actually nobody knows what happened, except that the Roanoke colony disappeared mysteriously before the next expedition could arrive in 1590. So the planet Harriot is a perfect place to put my own "Lost Colony." (Actually I'm going to use an imaginary moon of Harriot, since the planet itself is a Jupiter-sized world where humans can't live.) I never would have found that without doing my homework. When you make stuff up, you're limited by your imagination. But real history can be crazier than anything you can imagine. When in doubt: research!