Remember that you don't have to start with the perfect question. The questions you end up answering with your thesis statement should be the result of some trial and error; your question goes through "drafts," just like your project. With that in mind, here are some basic steps to follow:
1. Begin by picking a topic. What are you interested in? What do you want to know more about? Let's say you want to learn more about Tolkien's view of death in Middle Earth.
2. Come up with a "starter" question. This just has to point you somewhere as you read. You might ask something like, "How do the different races in Middle Earth view death?"
3. Do some basic reading. Pick a few reference materials that will give you an overview of the topic, one or two sources to give you an idea of what has been said about it, and re-read your primary text very carefully with this question in mind. The point is to give you some grist for the mill, some more ideas about where you would like to focus your question.
4. Once you've done some skimming, assess your question. You will almost certainly find that your question needs work. Maybe it's a dud question and you need to scrap it and start over; maybe it needs to be focused; maybe you need to change the terms you are using.
5. As necessary, repeat steps 3 and 4. This process of refining your question goes hand in hand with the first parts of the next step in research, which is listening to the answers. Use this process to come up with a final, refined question which is ultimately answered by your thesis statement.
An example: Your starter question was way too broad, so maybe you focused it by asking "What was the Gondorian view of death?" This question is more specific, but the answer would basically be a summary of your sources, not an argument based on them.
So maybe you asked next, "How is the role of death-worship in the fall of Numenor related to the role of death in Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings?" This is a much more intelligent question that provides some interesting scope for argument, but is still a little too broad and unfocused.
So you might finally end up with a question something like this: "What role did Aragorn play in redeeming the Numenorian culture's view of death?" This is a question that addresses a big-picture issue (the Numenorian/Gondorian view of death) through a very focused lens (Aragorn's role in Gondor in LOTR). It allows you to engage thoughtfully with a number of important scenes and sources and touch on several different related themes without getting sidetracked; the key concepts are very clear and the scope is just right. This is the kind of question you should be aiming for in your research.
Pay attention while you read your primary material! Read with a pencil in your hand - underline important passages, argue with the author in the margins, make your own cross-references as you go. If you have time, try writing out the structure of the author's argument, or the plot of the story; any and all of these things will help you become familiar with the primary source itself.
Then flip through the book again, taking note of what you marked, and ask yourself these kinds of questions:
The list could go on, but the point is to try to frame questions that drive you deeper into the text or its immediate context to look for answers. Let these initial questions lead you to answers that then lead you to sharper, more specific questions.
Listen to your professor in class. (No duh.) Learn to ask questions the same way he does - he's an expert!
Take notes of these things during lectures and recitations; they will help you shape your own research and show you what your professor is looking for in his assignments to you.
Talking your questions and ideas through with other people can often be incredibly beneficial - get other opinions! And don't just look for those that will echo your own - find people you know will engage with or challenge your thoughts. This will help you discard unhelpful questions right away, and raise new questions you might not have thought of on your own.
As you are formulating and revising your question, here are some criteria to keep in mind:
What are the key terms in your sentence? In the last example above, they would be "Caesar's second invasion of Britain" and "the fall of Rome." When you've identified your key terms, think through them. Is there a way to refine or focus or simplify those terms? What are the synonyms for them? How about finding the name of the Caesar, or using "England" instead of "Britain," or using "The Roman Empire" instead of just "Rome?" Write down as many different versions of that question as you can think of. (This is one of the many great reasons for keeping a research journal.) Those terms and their synonyms are what you are going to use in your search for resources, so the more options you can give yourself, the more effective your searches will be.
Note: There is a difference between refining your terms (going from a paper on "dogs" to one on "French poodles," for example) and just finding synonyms for them. Refine your terms first, if they need it, and then find synonyms for the refined concepts.
Interest and Relevance:
Is your question interesting? If you don't think so, nobody who reads your paper will think so either. Only ask questions you really care about knowing the answers to; otherwise, research is extremely boring and very difficult. If you are given a topic by your professor, decide to be interested in it. Your professor obviously finds it worthwhile, so imitate his enthusiasm and make yourself engage with it.
On a related note, to whom or what is your question relevant? To whom does the answer matter? Does it connect to things that are actually significant? My freshman year, I wrote a paper proving that Balrogs do not, in fact, have wings. Really, who cares? Only a particularly heinous class of nerd. The smaller your potential audience is, the less relevant or important your topic is. If you are writing a paper relevant only to your mom or your LOTR fan-fic writing group, you may want to re-think your project. And possibly your life.
In Anglo-Saxon Lit, one of our weekly assignments was to consider the words of Beowulf's comfort to Hrothgar: "Do not sorrow, wise man, for it is better that each man avenge his friend than deeply mourn." The professor asked us to answer a couple of questions: Was the poet portraying Beowulf negatively in this passage? How did it relate to the larger themes in the poem and/or the Anglo-Saxon notions of revenge?
Trundling happily along in my reading, I started underlining all the references to vengeance, and I noticed a cluster of them around this section. The conversation in question is directly preceded by the report of Grendel's Dam, who is first and foremost described as an avenger. You're almost clubbed over the head with it - she's the Avenging Vengeful McVengypants. Surely, I thought, it was no coincidence that this description comes RIGHT BEFORE Beowulf slapping Hrothgar on the back and saying "Bah, don't worry. I'll avenge him for you."
What, I asked myself, was up with that?
I skimmed the rest of the poem and formed a quick hypothesis (bad idea): The monsters in Beowulf were symbolic of Evil with a capital E, and the poet was deliberately associating his characters with them in order to show how far his culture had sunk into Badness. Was that hypothesis, I asked myself next, borne out by a closer examination of the text?
It wasn't. It was, in fact, a rubbish hypothesis. I raised the question in recitation and realized in the ensuing discussion that it was unclear, oversimplified, and hard to prove from the text, so I ditched it for a much more fruitful question: HOW were the monsters related to the other characters in the poem?
When I read with THAT question in mind, I made all kinds of discoveries. Before Grendel comes along, Scyld and Unferth are described in the same way he is. Before Grendel's Dam, we have the fight at Finnsburg, which is all about revenge for a fallen kinsman and the grief of a bereft mother. Before the dragon, there is the story of Ingeld and the Lay of the Last Survivor, both of which have to do with gold-lust. There was obviously a deliberate juxtaposition going on; I just had to find out more about it.
Armed with this evidence from the text, the questions I eventually took into my research were something like these:
Is there scholarly support for the idea that the digressions and the monsters are connected?
What is the nature of that connection and how does it relate to the larger structure of the poem?
What is Beowulf's role in this structure? Is he part of the connection, or outside it?
My initial question of "Huh. What's that all about?" came up as a direct result of a question the professor asked the class. I made the initial mistake of jumping to a conclusion before asking questions, which wasted time and frustrated my attempts at research. But a fruitful discussion with other people helped me discard my wild hypothesis in favor of better open-ended questions, so by the time I hit the library, I knew exactly what I was looking for.
The talented library team at Kuyper College is responsible for the structure of the ALEA system. Many thanks to them!