Let me start by saying yes, writers should do some research before writing the final draft of their story. Note that I said “final”, not “first.” And what qualifies as “some” varies greatly depending on genre and reader expectations. So when writers ask “How much research do I need to do to write this story?”, I answer “None. Well, none initially.”
If you’re asking about research before you even have an outline or a first draft, you’re jumping the gun. Figure out your plot first and then apply the iceberg metaphor. (If you haven’t read my post on that, please do so, since a lot of my thoughts on this topic stem from there.) That will tell you what details you need to research and what broad strokes you can use artistic license for.
The last time this topic was discussed on LegendFire, the conversation moved away from the writer’s perspective onto the reader’s. The question morphed into “How accurately do readers expect me to portray X?” If you position your story as realistic – be it contemporary, historical, or hard science fiction – then readers will expect that everything (or at least the majority of things) that your story presents are probable for that scenario, down to the clothes your characters wear and the silverware on the kitchen table. This can be a daunting task unless you’re already well-versed in the subject matter, such as a particular culture, era of history, or field of science.
How do you learn what readers expect out of your story? You get feedback from other writers. That’s the only sure-fire way to learn what (in)accuracies readers will care about. Their critique will tell you what additional research you need to do before you consider publication. Trust me; critiquers who care about historical or scientific accuracy will tell you what and where you’re wrong. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but if you want to write a realistic story, then heeding their advice will help your story tremendously.
Don’t let research deter you from writing your first draft. Use what you know, make up what you don’t, and then learn as you revise and receive feedback. Realistic genres will naturally require more than fantastic ones, but your critiquers can help show you what readers will expect and what research you need to do in order to meet those expectations.
How do you handle research? Do you usually do a lot or little? Why? Does the amount change based on what genre your story is?