Where do you start with a layout?

For a beginner, the key is to keep it simple.  Whilst it is not a bad idea to have an ultimate plan or rough idea what you would like to do, taking it one step at a time I think is the way to go. If you aim too high too early, you may get bogged down with problems and frustration and still be a long way from being able to enjoy running trains.

Kato Unitrack and T-TRAK

If you are new to modelling, I think Kato Unitrack makes an excellent starting point.  It's not the cheapest, but it is simple and portable -  you can set it up and pull it apart in a matter of minutes. Everything just plugs together. The track elements snap together, wiring plugs into small track sections and plugs straight into the Kato throttle unit and power supply.  The Kato starter kit has all the essential components and you can get add-on packs to expand or buy individual components.  Buy a fold up tressle table from you local hardware store and the whole shebang can be easily packed away when not in use and quickly set up when you want.

Check out the T-TRAK standard for building some simple plug and play modules with scenery.  This is a fairly new standard, originating in Japan where finding space for larger layouts is     difficult. Whilst still considered too toyish by some traditionalists, I think it is an excellent starting point that lets you grow at whatever pace you want. Build a few modules without scenery to start with so you can run some trains. Then do the scenery one module at a time as time and skills permit, while still having somewhere to run your trains. You can easily redo it if you're not happy with it. The carpentry and electrical work is really simple and, from personal experience, very forgiving if your skills are not fantastic. You don't have to stick to the standard but you can use it as a guide. Sticking to the standard means you're using a known tried and proven process so you can't go far wrong. These modules sit on a table (that fold up tressle table mentioned above) with the track sections simply clicking together. This is ample strong enough to hold the units together. 

As an in-between stage, I have used a baseboard made of 900mm by 600mm MDF, split lengthways and attached a circuit of Unitrack using 282mm radius curves (same radius as the T-Trak inner track). I use this as a convenient test track. The two halves snap together like T-TRAK modules. 

Scenery and other stuff

I recommend getting hold of a copy of "N Scale Model Railroading - Getting Started in the Hobby" by Marty McGuirk (a Model Railroader book published by Kalmbach Books, I got mine from Train World in Melbourne). It is American but has lots of worth while tips for beginners. Even with this, you'll probably forget half of it and make a few mistakes along the way and when you're half way through, you realise there is a simpler way and it's in the book!  The book covers scenery techniques and many other aspects of modelling including layout planning, tracklaying, wiring and train control and modelling locomotives, rolling stock and structures.

You can use the T Trak modules to practice scenery techniques and then move on to a bigger layout, using more conventional track and electrical connections. An 1800mm by 750 mm MDF or plywood baseboard with pine framing for strength (seal by painting top and bottom) gives space for a very serviceable layout but is still small enough to store under a bed or behind a door.You can put this on the fold up table you used for your T-TRAK.   Re-read the book for tips on using flextrack or get some advice from your local model shop. You can make layouts smaller than that though they can become restrictive in the functionality and in the length of train you can run but if it suits your needs, go for it.

By now, you're well into running a variety of Victorian trains on a layout of your desire. Of course there are always more things you can do regarding your layout and your rolling stock, limited only by your personal desires, budget, space and permission from the Manager of the home.