When I was a child and a teen, I did all my writing at white heat. (I can almost never do this anymore; however, I still create plots on the fly.) I didn't stop to labor over much of anything, such as revision. Or research. I didn't know research was needed. Oh, when I set one of my teenage-era novels in Chicago, it niggled at me that maybe I needed to know something about Chicago. But I figured, Nah. It's a big city. I can make it up. Because with fiction, the belief goes, "you can make it all up." I hear this from students fairly often. Research and facts are important for nonfiction, but fiction sets you free in that you can write whatever you want and nobody can say it's wrong.
Fiction requires research. Big time. Historical fiction may spring to mind as the most obvious example. Here, research is required not only to portray the historical period and events accurately, but to help you with character motivations (what events shaped these people?), the zeitgeist of the time (were people optimistic? pessimistic? religious? freethinkers? altruistic? looking out for #1?), and finding exciting plot events. If you begin your research by reading two or three good general histories of the period, that may be where you find your real story. And fascinating primary sources such as diaries, newspapers, and letters can give you the voices, everyday details, and priceless anecdotes that breathe life and veracity into your story.
But historical fiction is far from the only genre that requires research. Really, all genres do. From police procedurals to legal thrillers to multicultural books to books set in foreign countries, to stories featuring figure skating, lacrosse, coin collecting, wilderness survival -- any specific pursuit or setting, they all require research if you're to make your story honest, plausible, and worthwhile to those readers who know more about these topics than you do. Writing, even fiction writing, is actually a wonderful way for the writer to remain a lifelong learner.
So...does loving research (call it loving LEARNING) give one a serious leg up in becoming a good writer? Yes, I believe it does.
What about high fantasy? Suppose your story is set in a world wildly different from Earth, and your characters aren't of any recognizable earthly species? Can you make "everything" up in that case? I have two thoughts. One is that even if your characters aren't human, your readers must be able to relate to them. Fiction is an emotional/soulish/spiritual experience, and your protagonist's emotional progression must be comprehensible to your audience. Which means, if your characters are experiencing conflict and loss of certain types, and you need help in understanding the stages people go through in these situations, yes, you need research. Research into humans will help you with your not-human-but-relatable characters. My second thought is yes, you can make up your entire fictional world -- BUT, if you want readers to understand and feel grounded in your story, you have to create a world that has its own facts, organization, society, and ways of life. A world that makes sense and is consistent on its own terms. You may be the creator of the facts in this world. But facts there will be, and you'll need your own record of them so YOU can look them up when necessary!
I'm glad that if I ever need to research contemporary fifth grade, there's an elementary school right down the block. :)
Do you like research? What's the biggest or most unusual thing you've ever researched? The smallest?