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"Write what you know." This is one of the most oft-repeated—and confusing—bits of advice for writers. If what you know is plumbing, does that mean all your characters are doomed to be plumbers forever? I think not. I prefer to write what fascinates me. Sometimes that means writing what I know, and sometimes it means writing what I want to know.
Hallelujah for research.
My process is fairly unstructured. I like to do the bulk of my research before I begin. I allow myself to follow any tangent, no matter how seemingly irrelevant. I read books I normally wouldn't, meet people I usually don't run in to, and discover brave new worlds online I never knew existed. I subscribe to magazines that aren't strictly necessary and Google more than is good for me, all in the name of research. I'm like a sponge, absorbing information, never quite sure how or if I'll use it.
Research fills my well of creativity with details, images, and sensorial experiences. Often, it's not even visible in the script in any direct way. Instead, it seeps into the characters and the story, lending them depth and authenticity. Research isn't about unfailing accuracy. It's about learning enough to create a cohesive and believable story world.
The trick to research is finding the right method and the right balance that works for you. Too little research, and your story might seem superficial and implausible. Too much research, and you risk turning your script into a litany of facts or procrastinating so much that you don't write altogether.
Research first, then put it away and write. Or write first, and then supplement what you've written with research. Both methods are valid, so use whichever one works best for you.