I keep hoping that eventually the Random Thursday series will evolve into a sort of "ask me anything". I get such great blogging ideas when people give me prompts. And sometimes -- as in this case -- it pokes me to get something onto my website that has been languishing in almost-done-land for too long. (Although in this case, it's been languishing in "I'm going to set impossible standards for doneness land".)
Last week, when I posted my "how does she do it?" essay, fighter_chick
asked: What's your process for creating a well-researched SCA art project? Do you write up timelines and project plans? How long do you spend on research and testing phase? Do you do project books? Do you do something else entirely?
I fear this is going to turn into one of those "Argh, you're completely intimidating!" explanations, because I once wrote up a rather exhaustive explanation of my process in the context of a research project that was very much on the extreme end of complexity and effort. So I'll start off with a simpler version.
A big part of the answer is that I almost never start a historic art project from scratch. It's a bit like the answer to "how much research did you do for the Alpennia books?" The answer is either, "surprisingly little" or "I've spent my entire life on it." I have a compost-heap brain. I love looking at Big Pictures and learning a superficial amount about a broad interconnected set of topics. All those little individual facts and images settle into the compost heap and start to turn into mulch. I may forget that I know them. I may forget where I've seen them. (This is the "decomposition" part of the compost heap.) But at some point a seed falls into the heap and starts to grow.
This is the tricky point in the process. Because of the way my learning process and my memory work, I probably won't be certain about the specific details, dates, locations, etc. of the project-idea that just sprouted. But in the same way, I can be fairly confident that my rather amorphous "big picture" understanding is sound. When I go to start tracking down those details and to firm up the specifics, I may be tweaking details, but I rarely discover that I'm entirely on the wrong track.
Again, it's a bit easier to give examples from my fiction: when I started developing the plot about alchemical synthesis about magical gemstones for The Mystic Marriage
, I had only a vague notion of the history of alchemy, the chemistry of gemstone synthesis, and the traditions regarding the magical properties of precious stones. But I knew that these fields existed. I knew that these concepts would work in the general historic milieu I'd developed. And so when I started the detailed research, I didn't have to make significant changes in my overall plan.
But the question had to do with more tangible projects, so let's take a look at a fairly simple one. A couple years ago, I wanted to enter a competition for "woodworking: tools". My constraints were that it had to be possible with the relatively rudimentary woodworking skills I have (without looking utterly amateurish), and with tools that I either already owned or would continue to have a use for. And I wanted to create something that I'd actually have a use for. This is where the compost-heap brain comes in: I let my imagination drift around thinking about wooden tools that I might have a use for in my SCA life. This means that I was thinking largely about the fields of textiles and cooking. (So, for example, a carved wooden cooking implement would have been one possibility.)
I love reading and collecting archaeological reports about everyday material culture, especially some of the less common materials, so I had a pretty good mental image library of surviving wooden implements to contemplate. And the concept I decided to pursue was a simple standing band-loom. I knew of one surviving example (from the Oseburg ship burial, which had a large variety of textile equipment), and I knew that the general structure continued in use at least through the 15th century because I'd seen a lot of them in manuscript images during a previous research project on textile work-containers. (I.e., what sorts of containers are people using to hold their paraphernalia when doing textile work of various sorts?)
Since I had that previous project to build on, it was a simple matter to pull up all the collected manuscript images of band looms, as well as going back to the same research sources to find other examples (that hadn't happened to include work-containers). And it was similarly easy to go online and find images and diagrams for the Oseburg band loom. The essential first step was simply knowing it existed and knowing what keywords to use. This is an example of how my research tends to have a long non-specific "tail" and then a relatively short, intense, focused pre-implementation burst.
After that, it was a matter of analyzing the structures of the looms and developing a design that would fit my practical needs, both in terms of manufacturing skills and for use. (Some of the examples were definitely not portable, and I wanted something that could be broken down and transported to events without disturbing the work-in-progress.) From that, I came up with a basic design concept and drew up some initial plans. Then I went lumber shopping and modified my idea slightly based on existing available lumber and hardware. (One non-historic aspect was using a carriage bolt in the bottom of the pillars to fix them to the base for easy dis-assembly. This substituted for a permanent mortise-and-tenon joint in the original.) Here's my LJ write up of that project.
To answer the specific questions:Do I write up timelines and project plans?
I have timelines in the sense that I'll often have a target event for which I want something complete. But I don't tend to do interim timelines. Anything that would require that sort of interim structure better not have an overall deadline! For any project that requires any sort of engineering (whether it's furniture or costuming or whatever), I've generally been sketching out ideas repeatedly for years before I get around to making the thing. I'm a compulsive doodler. I generally know I'm ready to work on something when I always end up doodling it the same way. That doesn't always mean that that's the final concept, but it means I've got a clear idea in my head. My garden plans work this way too. If I've doodled the same garden design for a year or so, I'm ready to start digging.How long do I spend on the research and testing phase?
Anywhere from decades to days. (See previous comments about "how long have I been researching Topic X?") I'll confess that I often don't do much in the way of "testing" other than concept sketches. I have the great good fortune to have a knack for visualizing things that are going to work without having to do proof-of-concept versions. This saves me a lot of time. I don't tend to think of it so much as an innate skill as being part of that general amorphous "big picture" awareness that takes account of material properties on an almost subconscious level. (I'll make a side note here that this same "general amorphous big-picture awareness" is also what makes me so good at my Day Job doing industrial failure analysis.)Do I do project books? Do I do something else entirely?
I don't tend to do formal project books as I go along. I may intend to, but then I get immersed in what I'm doing. I try to remember to take in-process pictures, but I'm not always good about this. I will usually try to do a detailed write-up at some point (not always when the project is complete) simply because I like sharing my experience and knowledge with other people. This often takes the form of a long, rambling, overly-detailed brain-dump. I'm going to link to one of those at the end. I do tend to organize my on-going research electronically, because it often involves scans and clips of images, or notes from reference books. Before I got quite so paperless, I'd have file folders full of xeroxes and sketches and notes. I've worked on converting those, even sometimes just by dint of scanning in the contents of the folders to pdfs so I don't lose track of them.
OK, ready for the overly-intimidating example? This question reminded me that I once put together a long rambling web article subtitled "anatomy of a research project" that goes into excruciating detail on how my mind tends to work. It walks through the process from initial observation (that then got buried in my notebooks and memories), to stimulus for further research (a random question on the internet that tweaked my memory), to how I approached looking into the question further, to my standard approach of data-collection and pattern analysis, to my experiments with turning all that research into physical artifacts. I think it was close to 20 years between the initial observation to the final write-up, but a lot of that time was spent in composting.Here's the link.
A bunch of the image links are currently borked and I need to go through in detail and trouble-shoot them (and if I'd gotten started last night, I might not have finished until dawn), but the text is all there and enough images to show what I'm talking about. I'd put the article together originally for a series of classes, but then had gotten stalled on putting in on-line because of questions on how to handle the images. (I'm a bit uncomfortable about the fact that I'm just going ahead and using my collection of scanned images, although they're all of historic objects, not of other people's analysis or work.)