It is undoubtedly one of the coolest, although not one of the most talked about, parts of being a writer that we get to learn so much. And legitimately! Even writing fantasy, we end up needing to know about the Crimean war, or how botulism works, or what the mechanism behind fusion is.
I know, every profession has some degree of life-long learning to it, but the sheer variety of information that you get to learn as a writer is hard to match. I think research librarians and quiz-show question writers probably beat out writers for this random knowledge, but they’re just about it.
I really think Wikipedia is one of the best things to happen to writers. All that information, right at our fingertips, and linked! That’s the wonderful and dangerous part. Sure, I may start out wanting to know how neurotoxins work, but then I get started clicking links and find out how a bunch of other toxins work, and then how anti-venom works, and then I read about scorpions because they are creepy and awesome, and then…
You get the picture.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Besides being cool as hell, this is highly necessary. For a group of people whose existence centers around telling lies (which is what stories (the fictional kind) are – they’re just lies that tell the truth), we’re amazingly (and appropriately!) worried about things being realistic. Even in the more speculative of the speculative fiction genres, realism is important. Hell, it might be more so, because you’re already asking the reader to believe so much that it has to sound well thought-out, and the details that they can relate to have to be believable.
So when designing a political structure, for instance, it really helps to understand what has been used in the past. Your alien or fantasy race may not be human, but if they’re human-like then their governments and societies are probably similar in some ways (though different in others, of course). And if they are wildly different, you have to know what they’re wildly different than. Wildly different than your culture, the one you grew up in and know so well, that affects all your worldviews (it does), may still be remarkably similar to someone else’s culture. Humans have a wild variety of ways to organize themselves and try to get along.
The science and physics need to be good too, and this is a particular pet peeve of mine. I’m not talking about Science Fiction stuff, either. Know how long of falls people can survive, how planes (and flight in general) work, how people get injured. This is important.
Plus, “I’m researching!” is the equivalent of “I’m compiling!”. It’s productive and necessary, but really just a fun way to goof off for a while without feeling bad. And on that note, I think I need to go read about Mayan gods, or maybe more about fire. Fire is cool.