It's been a while since I had to do anything resembling serious research for a book or story. Much of what I write leans heavily enough towards science fiction and fantasy that I can, in the main, get away with maintaining an idea file as opposed to having to do any actual research. Years ago - by which I mean decades - when I first started my idea file it was little more than clippings from the pages of Popular Mechanics. They had a section in the front that was all about upcoming future tech, and I found it inspiring enough to clip them and save them. I have no idea where that folder disappeared to over the years, but that was my first effort at keeping ideas from outside sources together in one spot.
In the intervening years, the internet has made it a little easier. I have a folder of bookmarked stories and reference web sites that contain items I might one day use, or have an ongoing need for (such as a story done by the Boston Globe on the future skyline of Boston). Most of those, however, are reference materials. The kind of thing I consult when I need to verify something, or have to put a little dose of realism into something.
For the current project, however, I'm back to actual research. This is a warm-up for the next project, I think, which will require much more hard research and possibly note-taking. That's the next one. For this one, I'm essentially browsing through a number of resources, tracking down ideas and concepts while I play around with various plot elements and characters. I'm looking for things off the beaten track, too, which makes it a bit more interesting (and also challenging).
In some ways, the internet makes this a lot easier. I am in need of monsters, and a quick Google search for "monster encyclopedia" netted me a number of places to start. All neatly categorized and organized alphabetically, too. This makes it nice when I have a rough idea of what I'm looking for, but there are drawbacks. I have books on my shelves that are the print equivalent of a lot of these internet sources (if not quite so complete and thorough) and what I find useful about them is being able to grab one and sit down with it over lunch, browsing through the pages to see what catches my fancy.
It's also easier to set a book aside on the desk, and write something with it open. For some reason switching back and forth between program windows just doesn't flow as smoothly for me, and something always suffers in the process.
Then, of course, there is the siren call of all those linked items in an article. It's far too easy for me to go wandering down the digital rabbit hole chasing link after link. In a book this is much less of a danger, in part because it means flipping back and forth, and in part because I have noticed that in books they are more likely to offer a brief explanation. On the web, the tendency is just to provide a link, and assume people will click it if they want to know more. Which, of course, I do, and hence the passage of hours before I realize just how much time I've spent.
However, while that doesn't help my productivity, it does satisfy my curiosity and desire to learn. Sure, it adds to the already massive library of useless and random items stored in my head (picture that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only bigger. Much bigger.) but I operate on the philosophy that, as a writer, I never know when one of those little nuggets might come in handy. Details count, after all, and even if something doesn't become a major plot point, being able to flesh out the small stuff makes the big stuff better.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have more research to do.