Things I had to look up today (so far — the day is still young) for writing-related research:
1. loincloths (for women)
2. kopi luwak (cat poop coffee; processed in the bowls of the civet and harvested from their feces)
This is all very, very tame. I think most writers probably earn a spot on some government watch-list for our online searches; mine have included everything from making bombs to assembling guns, disposing of bodies, bull-riding, giving birth in the wilderness by yourself (I discovered there’s an actual reality show about just this thing, which is a little too much nature, thank you), how much sperm a dragon might produce, setting broken legs, determining how long it would take to starve on the open sea, various infectious diseases (such as lycanthropy), how many mice would it take to make a fur hat, mermaid sex, spontaneous combustion — you know, normal stuff.
Google is magnificent for this sort of thing. So are libraries and librarians, but some questions are more embarrassing than others. From the list above, I think you can probably guess which ones I’d rather not discuss out loud.
All of which matters only because, as writers — and, hopefully, for non-writers as well — there’s no such thing as too little curiosity. In fact, the more curiosity, and the weirder it is, the better. You never know what’s going to be useful. And don’t wait until you have an idea, either. I love used bookstores (well, any bookstore), and prowling the non-fiction sections — history, science, etc — for all the fascinating and incredibly specific subjects that some lovely individual(s) researched the hell out of. Whether it’s the history of salt or the class politics of shopping malls in Latin America, fill your head with information. Read the newspaper. Watch documentaries.
Research can spark inspiration, just as much as inspiration necessitates research. It’s part of the fun of creating worlds and characters, and stories!