When I sat down to work on my NaNo novel today, it didn't take long before I knew I was going to have to stop and gather some additional information. A large section of my story takes place in the second half of the 19th century in rural Vermont. As I began to write a scene set inside a barn, I wondered: What kind of clothing would these people have worn? What tools and implements would they have had available to use in doing their work? How would their lives have been different from ours in terms of opportunities and attitudes? What names were common at the time? So, I began combing the internet for the answers to these questions, sifted through the material, and decided what and how much applied to my particular characters and their situation. Due to the time constraints of NaNo, I couldn't spend a great deal of time on this, so there will be more to delve into when I begin the revisions after the holidays.
Attention to detail helps to ground your story in time and place, and makes it more authentic. A farmer from 1870 would not be listening to music on a boom box while hitching his cows up to electric milking machines. Boom boxes did not exist, and while attempts were made earlier in the century to develop a milking machine, the first successful one didn't appear until 1870. Therefore, it would be highly unlikely for a poor rural farmer in Vermont to have one in the first year of its existence. Nor can I have people wearing fabrics and styles that didn't exist in the 1800s. If my character is a farmer, I need to know what kind of farming was done at that time. For example, Vermont is known as a dairy state; but prior to 1850, Vermont was known nationally for its sheep farming. It wasn't until the middle of the century that sheep farming began to decline, and dairy farming took over. Public libraries and public education didn't come into being until the late 19th/early 20th century, so my characters can't go trotting off to the public library to check out a book, because such an institution didn't exist.
In addition to time, place, culture, and customs, it's surprising what your characters themselves will teach you. Tonight, one of my characters had to teach another the proper way to muck out a stall. Since I'm not an authority on stall mucking, it appeared I would also have to learn this skill. After doing another search, I can now state that I know the proper steps to take in cleaning out a stall, the order in which to take them, and the proper tools to use. I also learned what happens if you overfill a wheel barrow with horse manure and try to move it--unfortunately, so did my character.
Writing requires imagination, observation, discipline, and a willingness to be a lifelong learner. It's not enough to have a good plot and an interesting story. As the saying goes, "the devil is in the details," and an astute reader will quickly know whether or not you've done your homework.