The research is the easiest. The outline is the most fun. The first draft is the hardest, because every word of the outline has to be fleshed out. The rewrite is very satisfying.
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I went and looked at one of these great cathedrals one day, and I was blown away by it. From there I became interested in how cathedrals were built, and from there I became interested in the society that built the medieval cathedral. It occurred to me at some point that the story of the building of a cathedral could be a great popular novel.
People are much more complicated in real life, but my characters are as subtle and nuanced as I can make them. But if you say my characters are too black and white, you've missed the point. Villains are meant to be black-hearted in popular novels. If you say I have a grey-hearted villain, then I've failed.