UTILITY PATENTS: Granted for new and useful procedures, machines, articles of manufacture, or new and useful improvement of manufacture
DESIGN PATENTS: Granted for new, original, and ornamental designs for articles of manufacture
PLANT PATENTS: Granted for the invention, discovery, and asexual reproduction of a distinct and new variety of plant
"Prior Art" refers to any information available to the public that might invalidate a patent application. This information might include approved and grated patents, patent applications, published journal articles, public demonstrations of a device or process, and so forth -- as long as it was made public. Remember the purpose of a patent search is to ensure that your process or device is truly novel and non-obvious. Use the keywords you used when describing your creation to look for patents on processes or devices that resemble your creation.
1. The item or process it describes is NOVEL: unique, new, unlike anything else on the market
2. The item or process it describes is NON-OBVIOUS: A person familiar with items or processes in the same field must find that the item or process is sufficiently new or unique that its creation is not so obvious that anyone could create it
3. The item or process it describes has UTILITY: How useful is this item or process likely to be in a particular industry?
4. The item or process it describes has PATENTABLE MATERIAL: The item or process must be something that patent laws can actually protect
5. The item or process it describes is SUFFICIENTLY DESCRIBED: The person applying for the patent must describe the item or process to a level that will allow others to recreate, test, and use the item or process
All applications for patents begin with a patent search. You need to do this in order to determine if your creation is indeed new and unique, or just an imitation or recreation (however unwitting) of something that already exists. There are many ways to begin a patent search, but almost all begin the same way: with a thorough descriptions of the thing, device, or process you want to patent. You may want to use a thesaurus for this.
Break down your item or process into individual components. For example, if you wanted to patent a tool that mowed your lawn by shooting a cutting laser across it, you'd want to break the lawn mower into its components: the laser itself, its housing (the box or case in which it sits), the targeting device, and so forth. You also want to think of some additional terms that describe your device's purpose: lawn, garden, mower, cutter, etc. Write down the terms for later use.
The USPTO offers a brochure detailing the seven steps that need to be completed for a successful patent search. The brochure is linked here; you may want to print it for easy future reference.