Observation Journal: Tables and other locations

Note: I’ve put together a draft introduction to the observation journal here: Observation Journal. Comments and further questions are welcome.

This instalment of the Observation Journal features an earworm from Emma, and attempts to categorise and summon stories.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, handwritten notes set out in tables, considering places, items, and stories they suggest.

Left page: Tension about uncertainty, which was about to get a whole lot worse.

Right page: This is an approach I had used before to conjure and categorise memories of family stories from different houses I’d lived in — I’d been discussing it with my mother, trying to convince her she had more family stories to write down.

The right page of an observation journal spread, with handwritten notes set out in tables exploring different uses: rooms of houses, genres and rooms, objects

This applies equally to images as to written stories. And quite possibly to… music or interior design or who knows what else. Crochet, for example, instantly has different connotations in a lounge room (granny-square blankets over the back of the sofa) vs the smallest room of the house. But, as usual, adapt to your field.

  • The most non-fictional version is a way to collect/collate stories/images.
    • I draw a table, and on the horizontal axis list houses we’ve lived in, and on the vertical axis I list all the usual (and a few peculiar) rooms. (This version is abbreviated).
    • Then I go through thinking of circumstances that belong to each type of room in each house — the strange black-and-white faces on the wallpaper in the Oxley bathroom, and teaching ducklings to swim in the claw-and-ball footed enamel tub out west; the sooty water flooding the kitchen from the hot water box in the stove, and the endless recurrence of the liquorice icecream tub at college.
  • The next approach involves using a similar table to analyse and/or generate stories/images.
    • Horizontal axis is genre and the vertical axis is a known story.
      • Then focus on what elements could be enhanced (or changed).
      • For example, a fabulist approach to Cinderella might focus on the version where the mother’s ghost is the benefactor, rather than a fairy godmother, whereas a horror story might really enhance the comeuppance elements (eyes pecked out…). A dieselpunk retelling, though, might incorporate elements of The Fast and The Furious.
    • Variation: Horizontal axis is a room and vertical axis is a known story.
      • Focus on the parts of the story that do, or would, or could take place in that room , or how that room would function in that story.
      • For example, a staircase in Snow White might be a place for escapes and listenings. In Cinderella, it could be for drama and display. You could use stone steps in Little Red Riding Hood in an illustration for a descent into shadow in the forest, whereas in Rapunzel staircases indicate a degree of irrevocability and inaccessibility. But in Rapunzel a kitchen scene might be for hunger and greed, whereas Cinderella’s would be all banquets and steam.
  • I then tried another variation, where the horizontal axis was an object and the vertical was a location.
    • This was useful for analysing the interactions of elements and tropes, and is also fun for coming up with new ideas — or for obvious resonances to play with or flip.
    • For example, a carriage in a cottage situation suggests a excessively grand visitor, whereas at a castle it suggests arrival at an ultimate destination. A carriage met on the road, though, has echoes of threat and Death, while in a village it conjures (for me) ideas of judgement and estrangement (possibly because of Stray Bats).
    • You can also see an incredibly tiny set of thumbnail sketches there, using this specifically as an art exercise, but they’re so small I can’t quite work out what they meant.
There’s definitely a carriage.

As I used the approach(es) on this page, it was particularly useful for:

  • Accessing memories
  • Sorting existing stories.
  • Generating ideas.
  • Considering and reflecting narrative associations.

But I also really like its possibilities for considering a couple of other preoccupations, in particular:

  • How stories are affected by landscape.
  • How time affects narrative.
A pen drawing of a lady cleaning a window

EDIT: I recently (in July, I think) read a post by a romance author (I think) about using the likely locations in a novel to come up with plot elements/solutions, but I can’t find it. It resonated nicely with these ideas, and if I find the link I’ll post it. UPDATE: Found it! “A Plotstorming Technique” by Jan O’Hara on Writer Unboxed, in which she uses an inventory of settings to solve plot problems.

3 thoughts on “Observation Journal: Tables and other locations

  1. Pingback: September post round-up | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal — a tremor in the web | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation journal: creative superstitions, and working in distracting times | Kathleen Jennings

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