1. Don’t believe everything you see in the movies.
In almost every case, historical accuracy was not the point of the film, TV show or novel; entertainment was. Don’t be confused by them. Base what you do and say on solid research, not TV, movies, or novels.
2. It will take time.
Building an impression takes time. It takes time to do research, to get clothing, to learn what the period was like. Like all beginners, you will be in a rush to “master” your new hobby, and that is great! Take the time to do it right though, if you do you will save time, money, and a lot of frustration.
3. Hook up with an established group.
The value of being a member of a living history group can’t be overstated. Most groups, whether a reenactment unit or a historic site’s volunteer group, have experienced members who will be more than happy to aid you in your research and making choices on what to buy (thus keeping you from buying things you don’t need or really can’t use). Groups sometimes have things to loan – clothing, etc. – on a short-term basis. This helps to get you out and participating in the activities until you can buy them for yourself.
One other advantage to being a member of a group is that they often are the only way you can take part in events. As a result of today’s law suit-happy society, most event organizers are requiring participants to have liability insurance that will cover their activities at an event. Often, personal liability policies, unless you work with your agent to make sure, will not cover some of the activities at events. Many groups carry a group liability policy that is specifically designed for living history / reenacting activities.
4. Have a long-term goal.
Figure out what impression you want to do and why you want to portray that person (there were many more “lower class” folks then there were “upper” or “middle” class). For many of us, our visions of the past have been formed around what we see in the movies and on television where the people of the 1700s were all ladies and gentlemen or those in the 1860s all lived on plantations. The truth of the matter is that throughout US history, the vast majority of people were farmers or other forms of “common” laborers. Our impressions need to reflect the common-place rather than the exception. (More on why you want to do this in the next rule.)
5. Start simple.
Remember that when you are just starting out, your knowledge of the period is probably limited. The higher your place in society, the more you have to know. If you are representing a farmer or a teamster (wagon driver) all you really need to know about is period agriculture or about horses, mules, oxen and wagons. On the other hand, if you are representing a wealthy upper-class Virginian in the 1770s, then you need to know about how to run a plantation, 18th century bookkeeping methods, (quite different from today), as well as all the political aspects of the American colonies and the relations between the major countries in Europe. In the beginning, keep it basic, you can go up in class later.
6. Do the research.
Read, listen and ask questions. Most reenactors love to talk about what they do and where they find their information. Most are also willing to share their research with you, as long as you show that you are trying to do research yourself. Just remember, in the modern world you don’t like it when someone is constantly borrowing your tools or asking you to do their work for them. As long as you are bringing information to the conversation, even if it happens to be something that others already know, it shows you are trying to do the research and others will willingly share with you.