So I was writing a letter back to a kindly acquaintance of mine who asked me about my research process, when suddenly I realized that more than one person might possibly want this information. And thusly and thereforth and herewith, here you are! I present it to the world at large. My handy dandy little guide to my research techniques, to do with as you please.
Hey there [REDACTED],
Apologies for my reply having taken so long, I'm up against [REDACTED BECAUSE I HOPE TO GOOD LORD I’LL BE UP AGAINST DIFFERENT THINGS ONE BRIGHT DAY BUT MEANWHILE HERE ARE SOME RESEARCH TOOLS].
Anyway, I'm pretty experienced at this, so do feel free to contact me about it. I begin with what I call macroscopic research--and let's use THE GODS OF GOTHAM as a reference here for the rest of the email. First I attacked all the non-fiction books I thought relevant, particularly more focused ones like EROS: CITY OF WOMEN and FIVE POINTS by Tyler Anbinder. I like to get a wider map in my hands before exploring the streets and poking under the dirty crates, if that makes sense? Get a good handle on the religion, politics, social shifts, mores, etc. Once you have read multiple works regarding the same time period that focus on different social perspectives, you'll start to have a much better handle on what people thought and felt and where the divisions lay. Obviously with our example, Irish immigration, female rights, dire poverty, and racial intolerance hovered around the top of my list of priorities.
After that, I do microscopic research, and that's the fun part. You can find this in any number of ways. To stick with our example, I read every page of the Herald newspaper for the year 1845 on microfilm--when Timothy is walking past a half-price medical leeches ad on the Bowery, he's really walking past a half-price medical leeches ad on the Bowery. Op-eds, advertisements, current events, all of it, the whole parade of daily news was invaluable. Diaries are also super rich in life and color, particularly in reflecting the ways people wrote and spoke.
Additionally, I always return to my macroscopic research materials and plunder their indexes: where did they get all this very authentic and academically documented information? Quite often I can find the original sources as easily as entering it into books.google, but even if the piece in question is tougher to track down and I need something like JSTOR, that's a fun treasure hunt. You'll find slang dictionaries for practically every era as well, because people have always been fascinated by the organic nature of language. You just need to do a little digging for them. I adore vintage restaurant menus and cookbooks particularly, when you're wanting to evoke taste and smell. Lyrics of popular music can be insightful. What would they hear as they walked down the street, what would they smell, what was the wind full of?
The important thing to remember about not going down the research rabbit hole is that the only information that TRULY matters at the end of the day is what evokes feelings in your protagonist. Please don't have the plucky young chambermaid clinging for her very life to the back of the carriage tell me when the bridge they're careening over was built, or by whom. She doesn't know, and she doesn't give a fuck. (Or if she does, and she wants to be an engineer, then I want to blurb this book.) Please don't have your conflicted tomboy secretly-female blacksmith apprentice tell me about her lady love's Parisian tailor, she doesn't know anything about Paris or tailoring. DO, however, have her daydream over the chemisette under milady's daringly plunging neckline. Because she’d be a real idiot not to.
Does this make sense? In Timothy's case, he's very brief about clothes and architecture, silent about sports and popular entertainment, detailed about social politics because he cares, and truly passionate about whether or not the City Hall Park fountain is functioning, because he and I both detest fountains that don't work.
Hope this helps, and rooting for you! [NOT REDACTED BECAUSE I’M DEFINITELY ROOTING FOR YOU]