Observation Journal — Five Things to Steal, cosy crime edition

The observation journal, here, shows traces of comfort viewing in my house. In particularly, my housemate and I got deep into Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators and Rosemary & Thyme, two series I’m fond of for very similar reasons: They have a light touch with the ridiculous, but a keen awareness of it; they have vigorous interpersonal relationships without romantic tension, and they are about people actively going into business partnerships and dealing with the consequences (which more often involve mysterious murders than tax returns).

Given that similarity, I’m surprised by how little overlap there is in the things I admired in each show — although taken together, they are a list of elements I’d love to try and include in a hypothetical cosy crime show.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Shakespeare & Hathaway

Double page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a fly. On the right, a densely handwritten list of "5 things to Steal from Shakespeare & Hathaway"
Left: Cashew pesto and ominous clunking, and a picture of a fly
  • Strong visual associations for each character — Frank’s untidiness and Luella’s Barbie-pinks (and Sebastian’s magnificence). There’s a note that says “vivid, characterful, delightful”. At the time, the offices of Shakespeare & Hathaway reminded me of the Boffins’ sitting room in Dickens Our Mutual Friend, but the technique also has a lot in common with the clear colour-coding of families in Bridgerton. It’s highly stylised, but for that reason it can be attractive and charming, and it’s an effective shorthand.
    • *An art/writing exercise: See end of post.
  • Vigorous platonic found family — neither particularly functional nor dysfunctional, but comfortable and not putting up a facade
  • Unfashionableness of characters (which ties into the strong visual simplification). Frank and Luella and Sebastian are in their own ways odd, either from not caring, or from intense caring, or from pursuing a non-standard approach to fashion. It adds the sense of openness between the characters, too.
  • Ongoing fiction that no-one in the area recognises or notices Luella’s very distinctive car. It’s just a faint ridiculousness that everyone goes along with, and adds to the sense of a little intense world. It’s not magic, but it’s heightens the sense of fiction.
  • Low-key superpowers — each character is slightly better than average at something which you might be justified in not expecting (if only based on what’s common on tv). Luella is not presented visually as the sort of character who is good with numbers and memory, but she is; Frank outpaces suspects regularly; Sebastian is very flamboyant for someone whose disguises are so thoroughly believed. Among the characters themselves, it is never a big deal — it’s just them. It adds a sense of kindness and possibility that I think might be lost if it was acknowledged.

All of this tied into a few patterns of things I’d been enjoying recently:

  • surfaces (honouring and using them)
  • vividness and colour
  • playing things straight and very low-key
  • people who are good at their jobs

Rosemary & Thyme

(I do like this blue — these borders have previously appeared in Framing Devices and Stories in the Ornament)

Double page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a pigeon near a cafe table. On the right, a densely handwritten list of "5 things to Steal from Rosemary & Thyme"
Left: Breeze and sun and a man warbling like a bird and carrying a skateboard. Also a drawing of a pigeon.
  • A job which is an excellent reason to be in other people’s worlds and lives, which is useful for an episodic mystery. I was thinking of this because of having a lot of tradies in the roof and under the house at this time last year, although I’ve also connected it to Lord of the Rings, Gilmore Girls and abrupt intense proximities.
  • Early easy friendship –> going into business, and the structure this gives not only to character and relationship arcs, but also to plot possibilities and parameters. It’s something I like about Kiki’s Delivery Service, too.
  • Two Bad Mice as a character/relationship template. There’s a sense of glee and amusement, significant glances and body language that only they can read, mischief and trying to tiptoe out of trouble. It’s also a template that adds a lovely over-the-top-ness to bits where characters are in the background.
    • *An art/writing exercise: See end of post.
  • The freedom of having characters ‘of a certain age‘. They have a degree of freedom (hard-won) to simply be, not to have to be discovering themselves or transitioning between life stages, or bounded by obligations, but with the confidence and freedom to be flirtatious, etc. It’s just kind of nice.
  • The appeal of the settings. Beautiful buildings, ridiculous privilege, excessively sweet villages, acres of gardens (all moderated, of course, by crime). This felt connected to the power of an aesthetic in stories — settings that are compelling enough to do half the work of dragging the viewer (or reader) in and keeping them there. “A want to be there and a place to be drawn into.” (In part, this is a good reason to keep checking that I’m writing things I like).

Writing/art exercises

  • Surroundings: In a written or drawn sketch, show a character’s personality only through their surroundings. Then try showing the effect of that character’s presence on another person’s setting.
  • Dynamics: Pick a scene in your story or genre that might have background characters (the Proximities post talked about this, too). E.g., the christening in “Sleeping Beauty”, the bystanders at the airport during the climax of a rom-com… Think of a famous couple (not necessarily romantic —Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner work). Give two of the background characters that relationship dynamic. Do a quick sketch (drawn or paragraph) of the scene, and see how it changes.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — unsubstantiated manifesto

This observation journal page features strong but deliberately not particularly thought-through opinions — and also a council employee dancing dramatically with a whippersnipper.

Double-page spread of observation journal. Left page contains lists of five things seen, read, and done, and a tiny pen drawing of a box with flowers on the sides. The right page is a manifesto described below.

The exercise is from Elizabeth McCracken, who tweeted:

"I gave a new assignment to my workshop: write a short manifesto of things you absolutely believe about fiction without caring if they're wrong or apply to anybody else's work."

I enjoyed this type of manifesto much more than some introspective ones (see: Manifestos (ugh)). It’s rather fun being unreflectively and unsupportedly opinionated. Here’s the list as it stood then (with some commentary):

  • Art should be just absolutely infested with so-subtle-its-invisible allusions & references & foreshadowing. [I don’t like doing puzzles, so I kind of hate this as a viewer, but as long as I don’t expect anyone else to pick up on them, it’s an excellent way to add texture.]
  • Movement trumps accuracy. [I went to the She-Oak and Sunlight exhibition and just sighed a lot at hurrying flecks of people busying themselves across canvases in one or two smears of paint.]
  • Expression ditto.
  • Aesthetic is king. [Guillermo del Toro makes movies for illustrators]
  • Keep it chatty. [An excuse or a philosophy?]
  • Space should be filled with a network of bits.
  • Tinier is easier (it isn’t).
  • With enough SIZE or REPETITION anything can become fine art.
  • The soul of most composition is just this: be deliberate.
  • Why realism, though?
  • Texture and colour like icing is a heaven closed to me. [I write so I can be painterly — there are passages in Flyaway that are deliberately me using e.g. Tom Roberts’ palette and light.]

Revisiting this after almost a year, I don’t think my feelings have changed significantly (although some are being tested, though not threatened, by recent projects). However I’ve been thinking more about them, ever since writing them down. Some have turned into exercises and workshops; some have helped me make clearer decisions; some are lessons I never learn.

Here is another element that emerged from the journal! It’s a tiny note on which jagged leaf shapes were most fun to draw (at least in ballpoint pen).

Cropped section of the left page of the observation journal, with tiny jagged drawn leaves loosely coloured in green water and a note that says "Discovered [picture of loopy jagged leaf] is more fun (& easier) to draw than [long sawtooth leaf] or [rounder jagged leaf]"

Together with some ornaments from a summary page, these leaves made it into the May 2020 calendar (also demonstrating repetition, small drawing, and filling up space with bits).

A pattern of unicorns, stars, and vines with small jagged leaves, on a twilight green-blue background
The design is available on Redbubble on cushions, throws, clothes, etc, and on Spoonflower as fabric and wallpaper.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — do it for the aesthetic #3

This page of the observation journal is an further follow-up to the previous two pages playing the impact of an aesthetic on a story idea ( Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic and Do it for the aesthetic #2).

Double page spread with purple borders. Small handwriting. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a mailbox). On the right, the aesthetic exercise described in the post.

Left page: Frying ham, apparently, which seems out of character. Also the eternal feeling of futility that arises when there is so much to do other than making things (to be fair, it was April 2020, but of course Brisbane is going into another short sharp lockdown today).

On the right page, I was (literally) mixing things up a bit. First I made a table with four columns

  1. AESTHETIC — I created these by choosing three elements at random from the observation pages (the left side pages).
  2. GENRE (some favourites)
  3. MOOD (the first ones that sprang to mind)
  4. CHARACTER (again, chosen from the observation pages — they are very useful for these sorts of exercises!)

The game was then to choose one at random from each column, and work out how it could be made to work, and notice how each element pulled against the story. Some examples: “high fantasy in a brooding suburban utopia” starring “walking girls”; “an elegiac junior sound & fury” featuring a radio announcer; and “a mystical Gothic of wildlife and, incidentally, murder” about an officious clerk.

Things I learned:

  • This was quite fun, as with all recombining. At the time, I was beginning to feel tense about not actually making anything with some of ideas. However as I revisit them, especially in light of other journal activities, I find there are many sparks of interest and possibility there, and a couple of ideas I want to pursue. And of course, just having fun is nice, too.
  • But as I review these pages I’ve also noticed some of these elements have got — indirectly — into other projects (a few of the crime/gothic aesthetic bits of this are definitely in something I’m working on at the moment. And the lessons of this page — the vigour of some of these elements, and the degree to which I have to wrestle a story to an aesthetic — are also ones I’ve been consciously using on a current comic project (of which more in the fulness of time).
Right-hand page of observation journal with very small handwritten version of table described in this post.

Art/writing exercise: (This is really quite short! You can just read the bold bits. Everything else is elaboration and alternatives).

  1. Make your table, with a column each for Aesthetic, Genre, Mood, Character. Try to put at least 10 entries in each column, if you’re going to use it a few times. Below are some notes on ways to fill each column:
    1. Inventing aesthetics:
      1. If you want to do it exactly the same way, start by making a list of 5 things you’ve seen, heard, and done today. Choose three things at random from that and use them to create an aesthetic. E.g., from last Friday I could choose “Red striped umbrella by work ute”, “wide low small planes” and “Zoomed into confirmation meeting” which might give me “moiré-print airline graphic design”, which I swear is a thing (stripes + video = moiré; moiré + planes = flashbacks to airline blanket patterns).
      2. An alternative way: Look around you and pick random things around you — I can see a judgemental porcelain figurine, a waterbottle and a crime novel, which gives me, let’s see… Tudor riverside Gothic. (Or if you don’t want to do the full word-association process, just hyphenate two things in your field of vision, e.g. folk-art robotics). You can be ridiculous here — a great many things have the potential to be a vivid aesthetic. (Folk-art robotics! Outsider-art AI!)
    2. List genres. Pick ones that you find interesting or likeable, and maybe the opposites of some of those. Or search online. If you only work in one genre, that’s cool — consider these all hyphenated subgenres of that one.
    3. List moods, as above.
    4. List characters. These are really just types, or people-who-do-x.
      1. You can find or invent them from a list of observations — last Friday, for example, gives me “Middle-aged man on scooter with go-pro on helmet”.
      2. Or you can mix and match in the same way as for the aesthetic: “carbon paper” + “once you’re there, you’re locked in” give me a greyed-out office worker, while feathers without a bird and people pulling faces after an uncomfortable experience give me enchanted swan-girls who do NOT enjoy the transformation experience.
      3. Alternatively, you can list the great stock characters of your favourite genres (miserly uncle; brave governess; dashing cavalry officer, etc).
  2. Pick one at random from each column and make a sketch (drawn or written) of a key scene from this hypothetical story.
    1. If you’re stuck for a key scene, it’s okay to rely on cliches.
      1. Ask yourself what sorts of scenes does that genre almost always have (or get ridiculed for having?). Is it the equivalent of a chase-to-the-airport scene in a rom-com, or a “Fools! I’ll show them all!” from a pulpy science fiction novel, or even a bored-in-the-car opening sequence from the start of a YA fantasy? Take that, and apply mood, character, and aesthetic.
      2. Or do the same with a character (judgemental barista? elusive bird-girl?) or mood (does “elegaic” suggest someone standing on a balcony staring sadly into the rain? does philosophical suggest someone smoking a pipe?) and go from there.
  3. Notice what is happening as you try to make the elements work together:
    1. Can you make the elements work together? Why or not? What gives? What — for you — exercises the strongest pull on a story? (It’s the aesthetic, for me, followed by the genre.)
    2. If you do this a few times, what patterns emerge?
    1. Try swapping out just one element. What shifts?
    2. If any of the stories spark into a bigger idea, can you identify what made that spark?
    3. Which individual elements do you like (or loathe!), and want to use (or avoid) in future?

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — do it for the aesthetic #2

This page of the observation journal is an immediate follow-up to/variation on the previous page (see Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic).

Double page spread of observation journal, handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture (of biscuits). On the right, a chart of a story structure with drawn and handwritten notes of people in Victorian settings.

I’d wanted to try the exercise (tracking through a story from set-piece to set-piece) from the previous page, but with more elbow-room.

The aesthetic/thematic structure I was using here was from my notes on Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and other things that tell you what they’re doing.

HINT (before inciting incident)—playESTABLISHplay (this is kind of the middle half of the book, keeping the aesthetic in play)—EXTRA (this is round about the big crisis)—business—(after the main ending) FLOURISH

Densely hand-written page with a chart of a story structure with drawn and handwritten notes of people in Victorian settings.

I drew a timeline and jotted down a few notes for each of those stages, e.g. “eccentric/museum overdecorated, perfumed, scented smoke, etc”. Then I began sketching little settings and scenes and people, along with additional notes — everything from detail it was hard to draw (“illuminated corsage” — a real thing from the era), to bits of dialogue (“this requires a clocksmith”).

I’ve noted that I’d like to develop the idea of this structure a bit further. But simply sketching out an idea — getting it on paper at all and (for me) especially as pictures — helped develop new ideas, and much more specific ideas. “Blossoming velvet” and “cloying” becomes a picture of a particular ornamental birdcage, the silhouette of dresses evolves, facial hair is acquired, hairstyles rise and fall, poses are struck. But throughout, having a clear aesthetic made me stay on track.

After this, I did keep playing with questions of a key aesthetic (more in due course), but lately the drawing-a-prose-idea has also been an interesting line of enquiry.

Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic

On this page of the observation journal, I was playing more with the question of whether (and how far) an aesthetic (in the pop-culture sense of a distinct style/mood/mode) can drive a story.

Two densely handwritten pages of the observation journal, with a green watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a bottle. On the right, thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

Left page: Butterflies, neighbours, and forgetfulness.

What I was elaborating on:

I’d been using the observation journal to think through why certain ideas appealed to me, and why certain projects seemed to just work, while others dragged. A point that kept emerging was the sense of the heavy lifting a really clear aesthetic or style could do. Here are a few posts about that:

In this post, I wanted to dig in a bit deeper.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

The process:

  1. Selecting elements:
    1. I chose three elements from the habits and resistance exercise (e.g. “vivid”, “emphasise less obvious part”, novelise picture”). I was just using these as guides to suggest an idea.
    2. Then I picked an aesthetic. In the first case, it was a brilliantly-coloured feverish Victorian setting (the second one was nautical-piratical). I define aesthetic pretty broadly.
    1. I also picked a literary key — something to tune the idea to. In each case I picked a main or obvious reference (e.g. Dorian Gray) and a secondary reference that was either less obvious or contrasted intriguingly (e.g. a line from Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait”). I wasn’t trying to be wildly original here — the intention was just to ride along with the aesthetic and see how far that got the idea.
  2. Mixing a plot:
    1. Using those elements for the base idea, I outlined a very rough possible plot. (Note: This is almost always faster with a brand new idea I haven’t committed to yet.) I just outlined a few points:
      1. Main Idea (someone who frames enchanted portraits)
      2. Point of View (flamboyant detective)
      3. Turning Point 1 (detective compromised)
      4. Turning Point 2 (trap sprung by unexpected person)
      5. End (twist)
  3. Identifying possible set-pieces:
    1. Rather than (necessarily) scenes, I made a quick list of visual situations and motifs that caught the right aesthetic. (e.g. poetry salon, gilt and glass and velvet frame shop, hothouse of tropical flowers).
    2. I included a contrasting note — e.g. against the overwrought decadence, one “knife-sharp and bare rooftop” scene.

What I learned

  • This aesthetic framework is a useful way for me to think about stories. It’s also a lens that lets me try out and understand other people’s thoughts about story structure better.
  • The observation journal continues to be a very useful way for me to chip away at little questions and concerns, and find my way into them.
  • As with most mix-and-match games, this was both fun and quite fast, but could have used more space (in fact, I tried it again the next day, with more art — I’ll post that soon).
  • I could feel how the aesthetic picked up the idea and set certain story-gears turning and catching. I’d like to trace more clearly where that happens, but it needed a bigger page.
  • Having that contrasting secondary aesthetic, like a note of a contrasting colour in a painting, was appealing. I wasn’t sure how much it added to the feeling of the story, but it definitely added to the creation of ideas. Setting up the opposition of an overheated drawing room and a cold roof automatically teases out things that could happen to bridge the space between those settings.
  • I think I could use this to start working out a story (as here). But even just doing it as a game now and then has made me a lot more aware of what I am doing with the aesthetics in other projects, and which ones I like, and how to use them to come up with or deepen ideas.
Tiny pen drawings of women in late Victorian evening gowns near a fern, a woman in a travelling outfit by a gladstone bag, an Oscar-Wilde-ish gentleman, and a collection of clocks and broken ornaments.
Some sketches made the following day

Activity/exercise

  • Make a list of aesthetics you like, or hate, or have seen recently, or found in a list online, or can invent by hyphenating two things in your field of vision — Regency Romance, Nordic noir, 1970s beachside, Horse & Hound, midcentury Elvish (I’ve seen this in a nightclub), a particular Instagram filter…
  • Pick two that are fairly different.
  • Sketch (words or pictures) a quick setting that suits each (a room, a poolside, an arrangement of scenery). You can be obvious, and even cliched, as long as you really commit.
  • Consider the sort of story which might let you move from one set to the other. What moments or characters or actions emerge to fill that space? What happens if or when trailing elements of one aesthetic brush up against the other?

Observation Journal: Surfaces

This observation journal spread was concerned with “Five thoughts about surface texture/decoration”.

Two pages from observation journal. The first has five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of an ibis. The other has thoughts on surface texture and decoration.

Generally, the “five thoughts on…” exercise was a good reminder of he little push than an (even arbitrary) structure gives (a) at all, (b) to dig deeper, and (c) to begin forming coherent ideas.

Close-up of the right-hand page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on surface texture/decoration.

The thoughts, part of an ongoing preoccupation:

  1. People Decorate Surfaces. It appears (with often-self-conscious exceptions) to be a fairly basic human urge. Decorating surfaces in a picture (written or drawn) therefore helps create a sense of humanity, and that a place is lived in by humans. This is something I have to remind myself of fairly often. Museums are excellent for this.
  2. Leaving out surface texture and decoration can make the storyteller’s job harder. Even thoughtful texture helps objects to do/explain more (see: movie effects documentaries generally). Ornament takes it further.
  3. Ornament = personality, context, worldbuilding, culture, backstory, stories within stories, foreshadowing, etc, a sense of pattern and therefore law/lore built into the structure of the world.
  4. Cheating. Texture and ornament conceal wobbly lines, hide problems with perspective, can overrule detailed linework, etc. Opposition between texture and structure can create interesting effects (I admire this but struggle with it).
  5. Unifying aesthetic. An overlay of textures, patterns, and/or ornaments can have a structural/thematic role. Connections and echoes and tinting.
  6. (bonus) Care & detail & depth. High production quality can help create the impression of overall quality — this effect is often temporary. However, seeing that someone else has taken care over making a thing can sometimes make a viewer realise it might be worth taking the time to look/read/watch that thing.
A very small pen drawing of an ibis running off with a slice of bread.
Ibis stealing a piece of bread

Writing/art exercise:

  • Think of a story-scene in a place built or occupied by people.
    • It can be from a project you are working on, or from a story you like.
    • If nothing springs to mind, pick a fairy-tale scene: perhaps the main room of the bears’ cottage from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.
  • Sketch the setting quickly (using words or pictures).
    • Perhaps it’s a small room, thick plastered walls, low beams in the ceiling, a wooden table with three chairs, a pot-bellied stove, a windowseat. (Or it could be the economy cabin of a plane, or a cave used by climbers, or…)
  • Now walk around the setting. Consider each surface. How might the people who use this place (or have used it) have decorated or textured each of those surfaces?
    • For example, the top of the table is probably deeply fluted and grooved by being scrubbed, its legs have been scuffed by kicking claws, and the low stairs are dipped from heavy use. The beam in the low doorway has a cushion nailed to it because bears sometimes forget to duck. The cushion is a less-washed version of the ones in the window-seat: brightly but clumsily embroidered. Someone has scratched stick-figures into the plaster, close to the floor. There are geraniums in the window, obviously (it’s a cliche for a reason), and the curtain is a tacked-up piece of… hmm, what shall it be? Samples of rich cloth a salesman carried? (And what happened to the salesman?) The shelves in the corner are lined with newspaper, some of which gives glimpses of alarmist reporting about human children rampaging in the forest. On the sides of the kitchen cabinet is painted a history of how the bears came to live in this place, and on a cheerful checkered cloth on the table is a half-whittled spoon, with “just right” worked into its twisted handle…
  • Look for places where the story starts to grab hold of the textures, or vice-versa.
    • Above, the clumsy embroidery gave me a feeling of personalities, and the vanished salesman suggested a little background mystery, which could both threaten and explain the unattended child about to feature in the story.
  • Look for places where you could make the details do double-work.
    • Could a pattern foreshadow or link to a later part of the story? Could an ornament or texture hint at a detail about the broader world? What fabric pattern or graffiti or stamped grip or commercial label could make the unfolding story better or worse for the reader, whether through secrets or deepened affection or a deeper awareness of the meaning and consequences of the actions?
  • Bonus: Look at your setting again and start changing aspects of the surfaces.
    • See how each element changes the possibilities for the story, and where they begin to force changes to other elements.
    • Or pick a different emotion/aesthetic/genre and see how you could change the textures to reflect that.
    • For example, perhaps the furniture is of highly-polished dark wood, upholstered with stiff green velvet (worn but carefully mended), lichened with antimacassars and starched doilies, and the walls whitewashed so that the low sun casts every little dimple in the plaster into long shadows, and only useful herbs grow in the window box, and there is a painstaking and pious sampler on the wall, and a single book on civilised housekeeping, and a portrait of the sort done by travelling painters in which extreme care (if mediocre talent) has been applied to try and make three bears look like three very stiff and sober humans.
  • Finally: In a finished project, a little can go a long way. There are other artistic considerations than how to treat the surfaces, and too much detail can be overwhelming (and sometimes none is needed at all). But the exercise of thinking through the surfaces of a scene can bring its people and possibilities to life.

Observation journal: mercurial eggshells and stolen words

The activity on this observation journal spread started with a prompt Kim Wilkins uses in her writing classes and workshops: finding the beautiful words that create the feeling of what you want to do. I adapted it here to physical projects/business proposals: I was putting together a worksheet for my creativity students, which they could use to put together later business documents, and I wondered if I could adapt Kim’s activity for these projects.

Two handwritten pages from the observation journal. The left notes 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a picture. The right page contains notes on lush/key language.

I started out by just making a list of key words for aesthetics I wanted to evoke when describing the project. The initial pull of the exercise was very practical and businessy, which was NOT what I wanted to achieve. (It was a useful lesson for me, though, because I knew I’d have to talk the students through that barrier.)

The right page from the observation journal, with notes on key language:

The first list is: Durable, Texture, Weight, Quality, Elegant, Subtle, Whimsical, Professional, Functional, Robust, Practical, Convivial, [versatile but don't like word], Pragmatic, Human.

The second, riffing on Arnold and Bishop, is: Monochrome, Elegant, Eggshell, Charming, Winsome, Sooty, Cotton, Scratching, Nib, Sooty, Lead-crystal, lustre, mercurial, gesso, porcelain, chalk, ribcage (diaphragm, space to draw in breath, oxygen), arranged, glint, awash, [vocabularies/], unnebulous

So I pulled down a few books of poetry and flipped through them until I found some pages that had the right feeling, and collected vocabulary from those — or used their vocabulary as a starting point for word-associations. “Specifically textured poems (Arnold & Bishop)” and “Attraction = v. physical words”, I’ve written here. (I should have noted the poems, but this definitely involved Elizabeth Bishop’s “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”).

The next step would be to change and refine these into phrases I wanted to use to describe the project in question, since the aim was to use the poems just as inspiration (but it was very late at night and I stopped here).

Writing/illustration/other exercise (with acknowledgement to Kim Wilkins, on whose “lush language” activity this is based)

  • Look at a piece of art or writing that you love, and pull all the adjectives (or other striking words) from it that appeal to you. They can be words contained in the piece, or ways you would describe the piece. Riff on those a bit further — do they suggest other appealing phrases. (Jaunty and dashing, well-sprung yet chaotic? Muted and mysterious, distant yet intimate? Spun-sugar and a foam of lace, with just a drop of acid? Crystalline, brittle, and weighty?)
  • Then do a quick sketch (written or drawn) that feels that way (try to avoid using the words themselves, especially if that could verge on actually stealing them)*. Alternatively, you could rework a previous sketch — this sort of approach can have an interesting unifying effect.
  • (Bonus note in case the answer is intriguing or useful: what sorts of words did you find appealed to you, and why?)
A friend wearing elf ears

*I use “steal” in the Austin Kleon sense. This is not advocating plagiarism!

Observation Journal — things that tell you what they’re doing

This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.

Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.

In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).

As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.

Observation journal page, densely hand-written pages with a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Some key points:

  • There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
  • It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
  • Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
  • That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
  • A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
  • And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
  • For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
    • My first note on it was:
      curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
    • But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
    • So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those):
      HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH

I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.

The taking of reference photos

Observation journal: chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess

This page of the observation journal, as well as featuring a number of local dogs, is a fairly standard way of sorting out ideas. But I wanted to put it up here because it’s the start of a series of thoughts on aesthetics.

Over the course of the next month or two of the journal the focus moves (via a few illustrations and a draft illustrated script) more onto short story structure. But it began with trying to understand what for me was the appeal of staginess in a few stories I’d encountered around that time (mostly movies, but a fair bit of Georgette Heyer, too).

It came down, broadly, to three things:

  • the aesthetic of the story-as-object;
  • the way the impact of something is concentrated when it’s given the weight of a fable; and
  • the importance conferred on something that is so clearly delineated and designated as existing

And it worked best (for me) where it was:

  • consistent; and
  • concentrated.

I keep saying “for me”, but that’s the point of the exercise, rather than a qualifier. There was something in all of these things that was similar, and that I wanted to get at, and try out, and steal or reverse-engineer or turn into something completely different. Whatever it proved about the movies I was looking at (although it did explain a few connections), it started me reflecting on the usefulness of a distinct aesthetic.

And here is a very woolly border collie.

I haven’t distilled this one into an exercise (for those, see art exercises/writing exercises). But broadly, I’ve found it worthwhile to dig into why I like the things I like — not just individually, but also when I start to notice patterns between them.

Stories/movies mentioned: Hilda, JoJo Rabbit, Wes Anderson (especially The Grand Budapest Hotel), Strictly Ballroom (especially the stage production), Georgette Heyer, It Follows, Guillermo Del Toro broadly, Anderson (which Anderson? I do not remember! I will edit this if I do!).