Wow, my last real post was at the beginning of August, and now it's September. I knew I was letting things slide, but this is ridiculous!
I recently read Writing the Novel from Plot to Print by Lawrence Block. One of the things he said made a lot of sense to me is that if you realize your subject is too far away from your experience to write convincingly there's nothing wrong with figuring out some way to bring the story closer to home.
I tend to get frustrated because I'll come up with an idea and just know that no amount of research is going to make me able to write it convincingly. I once mentioned a trunk novel where part of the story took place on a ship. I've been on rowboats and motorboats, but I know nothing about actual sailing. My plan was to take sailing lessons, only that didn't work out.
Now, I could have look at diagrams and read old captain's logs and really get a sense of sailing that way. But another thing I could have done was change the setting. My story took place on a small island so my heroine would be trapped (the idea was to be Gothic) but surrounding a castle by an ocean isn't the only way to make it remote. I could have set the castle on a crag, or in the depths of a dangerous forest or swamp.
I think you have to have a certain amount of confidence in yourself to research a setting or plot point. If in my heart of hearts I was convinced that I couldn't write my story without actually spending time on the water -if I didn't feel that I knew what I was talking about- how could I convince my readers?
I had an idea for a story once that had me looking for information on crafting bronze swords. I didn't feel like I had to take up sword-making in order to understand what I read. I'd previously taken a couple pottery classes, which gave me a feel for what goes into hands-on work.
When I first started pottery I was given a textbook. There was a lot about glazes and chemical reactions, but all it did was show me that I knew even less about pottery than I thought. It wasn't until I was halfway through the first semester that I had a clue what the writer was jabbering about. If I'd tried to write about a potter based on text-books I would've gotten halfway through that book, then decided to give up and hide under my bed forever.
Research is a tough subject because it varies from project to project. How much you need is however much it take to feel confident in your work.