Advice on Starting a Living History Group
[This great article was originally written by Matt Amt of LEGIO XX, Maryland and it soooo good, I just had to use it! Perhaps people will actually follow some of these guidelines and improve the hobby... Not to sound arrogant, but I look at tons of reenactor websites and agree with pretty much all Matt says here about these sites--they need work. Marsh]
If it is YOUR group, then YOU decide how things will be done, and you should only enlist people who will cooperate with your vision of how the group should operate. But, you have to pay attention to your members -- don't try to force something on the group that no one wants. You may have to modify your goals and methods now and then, but in a real democracy you and your ideals could be trampled too easily. If your group should eventually become solid and set on a path you like, you might then decide to let someone else lead; but if you start with a democracy and lose control, you will never regain it. A democratic form of rule is also conducive to factionalism and long meetings.
Publish a newsletter regularly, at least every TWO months. If the majority of your members have email you can do an electronic newsletter and save stamps. Or, you can have frequent and regular get-togethers--monthly, weekly, whatever--for eating, making gear, or just talking. Regular contact is essential in keeping the group (and yourself) motivated and informed.
Keep decent records of members, associates, FINANCES, etc. Keep copies of all your correspondence and email, so you know what you've said to whom.
No one wants to be in a group that never does anything. If there are no multi-period events accessible, contact local historical sites and ask about holding events on their grounds, either just your group or with others, your period or not ("timeline events" are always popular). Ask any teachers you know, or children in school, if you could do a demo for their class (5th to 6th grade is best, but try anything once). Contact the Classics departments of colleges and universities for demos or any classical fairs or conventions they may sponsor. Before you do, however, find out about local weapon laws--some brilliant politicians would rather arrest teachers and reenactors for carrying swords than punish real criminals. You won't have to advertise much to line up more demos than you have vacation time for.
Getting a group dressed, equipped, and active takes TIME, money, and effort. Armorers in particular are notoriously slow to fill orders. Some recruits may get frustrated waiting several months for equipment, others may simply lose interest and drift away. As the group becomes more self-sufficient you may be able to entice them back, but generally the people who are serious about the impression will never quit. Alas, very few of the people who contact you about joining your group will actually become active members.
And finally... BE AUTHENTIC!
Authenticity shows professionalism and dedication. It is essential that everything we show to the general public be as accurate as we can reasonably make it. Do your best not only to maintain your historical accuracy, but to improve it. Many people have gone before you, wasting time and money on inaccurate gear, and have ended up replacing it. You can avoid repeating those mistakes by finding out where and how they got their better things. Don't rush out and order junk from a catalog just because it looks "pretty good" and is readily available. RESEARCH, learn what is right, and make the effort to do things right the first time. You won't regret it.
Some Extra Tidbits and General Thoughts:
When choosing a unit number, taking the designation of a unit which actually existed will probably give your group more respectability than making up a number.
The Unit Website
How did reenacting ever manage without e-mail and the Internet?? It sure is a mystery to me! Having a website is certainly not vital to being a group, but it Definitely does make your group visible world-wide. A growing number of potential reenactors have access to the Net, and they are looking for YOU. So here is some advice from Quintus, author of the Legio XX website, on just how to make a great website -- even if you aren't a techno-weanie. Remember though, these are just my personal opinions and taste, but if you peruse my website, you'll see that they add up to a very clean and usable site.
Backgrounds, Colours, etc.
Personally, I can't stand black backgrounds, colored text, or complex background images that make it hard to simply read the text. Things like that also make it real hard for the visitor to print the page to read offline! There are some nice subtle backgrounds out there, and they are fine if they add distinction and taste without being distracting. Make sure the text and links on each page are big enough to read easily. I also prefer to use standard blue-hightlighted text for links to other pages, since it stands out very clearly, rather than little clickable images or buttons. Every such image simply adds to the download time for a page, if only a little. There is also a commercial site whose buttons very cleverly mask the names of the pages they go to, so you can't see which one to click for which page! Be careful how you design such features, and don't be a sucker for unnecessary gimmicks.
Frames--Tool of the Devil
I don't really like "frames," either. All they do is reduce the usable area of the screen down to a 3x5 card. And usually the top section is just a gaudy title bar, a complete waste of space. Plus you only see the URL for the main frame, which I find annoying because you can never see (or refer anyone directly to) the URL for the page that you are on. Sidebars for links at least have some use. I always have links on each page so that you can get from it to almost any other page, though there are a few parts accessible only from the main page or one of the Handbook pages. DON'T just put "Next Page" on the bottom each page, forcing the viewer to go from one to the next rather than allowing them to skip around as they please.
Of course you want to put a little thought into a logical organization (though the liberal use of cross-links can make it all tie nicely together anyway). And make SURE everything is spelled right, especially the foreign language terms! Plurals can be particular troublesome, but triple-check them. Errors and confusion give a very amateurish impression.
A Final Note
A number of other people have borrowed pictures and text from my site, and that's fine as long as the credit is readily visible. Let me know what you need. Links are certainly fine, even to specific pages of the Legio XX site. Heck, it saves typing... But really, get photos of yourself, your gear, and your group online as soon as you can, so that viewers of your website will see YOU. (If they want to see me they'll come to MY website, eh?)