Think of it like going on a date: you're trying to get to know the other person (your topic) without scaring them off because you're trying to talk about marriage, houses, and grandkids (i.e. your "real" research) on the first date. And, of course, once you've gotten to know them better, you're able to buy them gifts and guess what they would like, because you've taken the time to establish those little basic details.
Your textbook is helpful at this stage, for starters.
Honestly? This is the time resources that are otherwise verboten are useful. You know... Wikipedia, Shmoop, or even just whatever comes up when you Google for your topic. These are not the sources you're going to cite in the end -- you just need them to give you ideas in a simple and straightforward way.
If you want an option like Wikipedia but better, check out Credo Reference (linked below). It provides short synopsis articles from reputable encyclopedias, and even has a mind map tool to help you visualize how topics relate to each other.
Credo is an easy-to-use tool for starting research. Includes materials from over 650 reference books on a variety of topics in higher education, including art, business, history, languages, literature, science, criminal justice, and political science.