This is going to be a class I'm teaching at Atlantian University in October, tuned especially for performers. And we've covered this ground here before, when mstreight asked me how he could be a better game master.
But here we go. High-level, 4 W's:
Why are you doing this research?
Chances are, you are an amateur. That means only that you are doing this for free, with no one demanding a product from you. You get to decide what you're doing. Only you.
So before you get to "what," ask yourself, "Why?" There is no One Right Answer. You can have different answers for different research projects. Here are two of my own examples:
Project: Textile Arts
Yes, I'm interested in some of the textile arts! Why? I want to be able to make reasonable-looking, period bands, drawstrings, braids, and other useful string-like objects to enhance my "kit" (garb and associated stuff). That's all. I do not want to become a textile expert, or a weaver of beautiful narrow wares, or otherwise deeply involve myself in string. I want basic proficiency and a reasonable hope that what I've made is fairly period.
Project: Anglo-Saxon Performance
Why? I have developed a deep fascination with Anglo-Saxon poetry and its possible modes of performance. I want to make a really good stab at re-creating it. This is a project that keeps taking me deeper and deeper into research. Every "really good stab" reveals some new piece of knowledge which I hadn't considered and have to master, and then apply to my performance.
If I loved textiles as much as I love performance, every new woven band might lead me to more research, too. But I am frankly not as interested in textiles. I am happy with just enough research to get me to "good enough" in that field. I don't want to be Mistress Megan. Mistress Megan has no interest in being me! And that's okay.
What do you envision your end result will be?
"What" is of course somewhat tied to "why," especially when we're talking A&S. You expect to get "what" you're working on! But as you get deeper and deeper into your research, you will likely find your "what" getting more and more sophisticated. For example:
I envision my end result will be some tablet-woven bands and maybe some braids, made as I need them. Hopefully, I'll have the money to buy real wool, linen or silk thread to work with. But cotton is what I have in the house, along with some polyester silks, and they're better than nothing.
The above "what" reflects my very shallow knowledge of textile arts. I don't know enough to specify anything more than that. Which, given my "why," is okay.
Now let's look at the other example, as I might have stated it three or four years ago, when I wrote this:
I envision my end result will be some alliterative poetry recited from memory to harp or lyre accompaniment.
That is, after all, the most basic statement of what Anglo-Saxon performance probably was. That statement reflects my level of research at the time. It looks a lot like my current "what" for textile arts.
Today, my "what" is much more involved:
I envision my end result will be:
- An understanding of all five Sievers types and the ability to use them in poems
- Understanding the differences in poetic constructions used at different times, and the ability to use those
- An improved word-hoard with more kennings and stock phrases
- The ability to improvise alliterative verse on the spot (even if it doesn't adhere to the verse rules as strictly)
- The ability to improvise sung or chanted tunes for these poems
- The ability to accompany those tunes with a strummed lyre or plucked harp
- Understanding the musical theory of the time and composing appropriately
- Using the Anglo-Saxon poetic framework to express a wide range of topics, emotions and themes, but keeping them appropriate to the culture
- The ability to make the performance relevant to the modern SCA audience
And yes, that's at a high level! A statement like "An improved word-hoard with more kennings" is an awful goal-statement at a lower level; we'll see why later. But it is all right for a higher-level motivational summary.
The more I got into my primary research area, the more "stuff" I found to work on. My original "what" still applies, but now I have a much deeper understanding of what underlies that "what," and I find it useful to actually enumerate the pieces that make it up.
When and where?
To guide your research, you should have an idea of the scope you want to address. Medieval Europe? England before the Conquest? The kingdom of Wessex during the 9th century? London, 875 - 900 CE?
It's very common to start out with a broader reach when you're first getting a feel for a topic, and then to narrow down as your interests lead you to a more specific time and place. Or, some people love being generalists, able to trace evolutions of or draw parallels between beads/gowns/poems from different times and places. You get to pick your own scope. Just remember that you have X hours in a day/week/month to devote to this. In a given amount of time, you can deepen or broaden your knowledge. Over years and years, you can certainly acquire deep knowledge on a broad range of topics, but in the short-term, it's usually one or the other. Look to your "why" and your "what" to decide which approach best suits you.