Here is what I do regarding research. I locate as many books on the area, time period, whatever it is I am researching--medicine in 1893; women in medicine between 1850-1900 for instance. I like hard books I can hold in hand and mark up. Let us say, I have found ten books on my topic -- Chicago in the 1890's. I read the first chapter or two of each book, and I cull the dull and difficult to follow ones. No sense in reading any other author who cannot make it clear to me. Let's say I am left now with four books on my topic, and six have been pitched aside. Now I go in depth reading those four. As I read, I mark up anythig that leaps out at me as fascinating....of possibly use in my fiction....say how the Mayor of Chicago was assasinated on the last day of the Chicago World's Fair when at the height of his popularity due to the fair. That's of interest, and it warrants conversations among my characters in my novel. As I am reading, I HEAR my characters kicking over issues and problems (I call it sitting about the cracker barrel and jawing about it -- whatever it is). If I hear my characters in dialouge over material I am researching, I quickly jot down lines and hold these for the moment in the book where they may be used or come into play. I can keep a file on these on the computer. I yellow highlight every area of the book that "speaks" to me--that says, "use me, take me! Here, here! You highlight far more than you will ever use, but you go back to the highlighted areas as you are writing the novel to remind yourself of this "gold" you have already taken time to mine, and you try to use as much of it as possible without "forcing" it in. None of it should feel forced or awkward but a natural extension of the concerns of hte charactres.
It's really about weaving fact into fiction; knit one, pearl two....and the dramatic story must always take precendence over the facts and the research. Gone With the Wind and John Jakes novels are examples of wonderfully wrought dramatic (Romantic) stories set against a BACKdrop of history. The Civil War is always there, just over Scarlet's shoulder, along with her newly acquired tast of poverty and hunger, but her romance with Rhett is always in the FOREground. The scene in which Rhett saves her from a burning Atlanta, their wagon with the "lovers" silhouetted against the fiery buildings at night is a visual example of what I am talking about.
I'm also quick to get into writing the book AS I am doing the research, to keep it all intersting. What I maen to say is that I start the first few chapters as I am researching, and this keeps my head in on the "fictional" world even as I am reading and filling my head with the "factualy" world of the non-fiction author who has so kindly provided me with fodder, matter, and truths too dear not to pass along to my readers who love grim, dark humor. Some critic once called me a grim, dark Carl Hiasen. I take that as a compliment.
Gee...and now I hope for heaven's sake you have learned that you don't have to go off for years or months at a time, bury yourself in resources and research, and use that as an exucse for putting off the dramatic story you want to tell about Scotland or Prague or Iowa during the Civil War or some futuristic world wherein Robots are having babies and are bothered to their fibernets by knats and fleas.
Happy Writing -- keep the faith and the passion --
http://www.harpercollins.com/ -- for City of the Absent (preorder now!)
http://www.robertwwalkerbooks.blogspot.com/ -- for Psych 101 for Writers & Their Characters