Observation Journal: Industrial Fabulism

On this observation journal page l was looking at the idea of industrial fabulism.

A few weeks before this, I noted I was interested in the “fabulist-practical and the industrial-fantastic”. This is something that appears in articles in car magazines at mechanics’ offices (often very romantically written) and in some of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, in collections of rural inventions and the science columns in 19th-century periodicals and in Cold Comfort Farm, in Longitude and Apollo 13 and Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange.

It was also a choice I had to actively make in Flyaway, choosing to underline the reliability of beauty by describing aspects of even mechanical detritus as worthy of notice. And it runs throughout Travelogues, much of which involved processing an industrial landscape through the language of enchantment. I touched a little on that in the post All the shape of the land: “a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.”

Extract from Travelogues

So on this journal page, I was identifying that particular aesthetic and its appeal. Some points:

  • It is more of a mode/style/setting than a genre.
  • It relies on and seeks out beauty in machinery:
    • It is realism in service of fabulism.
    • There’s a conscious effort to enchant.
    • Lyricism is used to deal with industrial objects and surroundings.
    • It’s an innate aesthetic — not adding a gloss of beauty to the mechanical/industrial, or bolting ornaments on, but seeking it in the objects themselves. The industrial can even be what adds beauty to the fantastic.
    • It represents a society without a division between the technical/technological and the fantastic.
  • It is not the same as clockpunk/steampunk/dieselpunk.
    • There can be overlap, but there is an effort to distinguish itself from the usual genre markers (e.g. going for a blue tint instead of sepia).
    • It leans on machinery more than the fantastic.
    • It often avoids the obvious supernatural/fantastic altogether.
  • Its appeal for me includes:
    • It is anchored in the real. The enchantment is integrated into reality/realism, OR the fairy-tale is anchored by the industrial element.
    • As mentioned above, it’s an integrated/innate aesthetic.
    • It’s designed to be actively attractive.
    • The cliches and stereotypes of the industrial (especially as opposed to the fantastic) are well established, so I need to consciously choose to use the mode, which can make writing in it a pleasing puzzle. (Swapped descriptions, e.g. light vs tin cans, and switched stereotypes are useful for this.)

Observation Journal: In-world surface patterns

This observation journal page features a little exercise in thinking through some thematically appropriate in-world surface patterns for fairy tales.

I’d been making notes, on and off, reminding myself to pay attention to the surfaces of things (in writing as much as drawing), not to forget the human urge to ornament surfaces, the narrative usefulness of surface ornament, and had played some sketching and writing games varying surface detail in stories. (It ties a bit to thoughts on staginess and strong aesthetics too, of course.)

On this page, I picked a couple of fairy tales, and just leaned into what might be story-appropriate ornaments.

First, for Cinderella: pumpkin-coloured brocade, silks hand-painted with vines and doves with beaks the colour of blood, jacquard in gilt & grey like the scales of a lizard, wigs fantastically styled into bowers and coaches, or featuring a real clock that struck the hour.

The second half shifts through several stories:

A deep blue overdress stitched with a full of snowflakes, thickening towards the hem so that no blue remains visible. A bed carved by a master-carver with castles and briars and a girl going off sturdily on some adventure. The back of a rocking-chair carved with a comfortable-looking wolf.

It is all self-referential, but to an extent that adds to the depth and concentration of a small world — and the details could be swapped out where breathing room is needed.

I discovered my default mode was direct references to the story, or foreshadowing. But as I pushed it further, it became wider references to the shape of the world (the importance of glass to fashion at that moment, the tales told within the world). And that of course lets you push further to ask: Who makes these things? What fashions prevail? Who is responsible for the glass, with or without enchantments? Who put these stories in the carvings?

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick a fairy tale (or another story you know well), and a key (or favourite) scene from it.
  • Make a list of important objects and colours and themes from the story as a whole. (Pumpkins and glass and lizards? Newspapers and bicycles and dogs?)
  • Consider that key scene. Where could you add surface ornament? Wallpaper and clothing? Graffiti and paint jobs? Jewellery? T-shirt logos?
  • Make a quick sketch (drawn or written) filling those surfaces with story-appropriate designs, as thematic or literal as you like.
  • Where do they add to the story? Where do they raise questions about the world? Where do they overcomplicate things, or make the world too small or self-aware? Do you like that artificiality, or want to open the world up? (There’s not a wrong answer here, but it’s interesting to feel out the edges of your preferences.)

Observation Journal: Tinkering with story engines

Around this point in the observation journal, I spent quite a few pages tinkering with how ideas worked — which ones appealed to me, and where they might come from, and if I could deliberately recreate the process. I wasn’t so much trying to write a story as watching myself work, looking for the little epiphanies that make a story emerge, and tricks I could use if I got stuck on something I was writing.

However, some of these exercises led directly to projects which aren’t finished (or aren’t published) yet, so I haven’t posted the pages. Others, like the blue page below, led to stories which have evolved into something unrecognisable. And some (like the pink page) didn’t work, for reasons which were also interesting.

This first page combined several previous exercises, and revealed a bit more about the aspects that were useful (for me) and the ones which didn’t work the way I do.

Here are all the stages/exercises, with links to some related posts (I’ll add more if I find them):

  • Idea: First, I picked three things at random from preceding observation pages (here: arcane symbols, working blocks, using a laundry rack as a laptop stand — pic). Then I used those three to come up with a base concept (using household objects for arcane [vibes?]).
  • Aesthetic: I then picked an aesthetic. The three objects themselves suggested a down-at-heel contemporary tone, which I wasn’t feeling. So I flipped that into something smokier and Victorian. (On the second page, I chose both a colour key and a place-aesthetic.)
  • Swapped stereotypes and cliches: Next, I chose some of the obvious stereotype pairings (mundane/magical and wizard/housewife), listed some associated words, and swapped them. So the housewife becomes mysterious, aloof, and robed in velvet and the house is a site of arcane ritual and (apparently) carpets, while the wizard is cheerful and stout with a clean apron and magic is associated with domestic work.
  • Contrasts and impetus: Then I started feeling for where the pressures behind the story might be — where the points of tension and conflict come from. In this case velvet-draped darkness and sunny good-humour seemed an amusing contrast at least — perhaps one hires the other and must deal with the unexpected consequences. A cheerful wizard takes on a morose relative as housekeeper, or a Gothic housewife hires an inappropriately upbeat necromancer to reanimate someone who died.
  • More flipping: I also tried looking at what they might want and what could stop them — picking the obvious goals and obstacles and inverting them. This was fun but the standard question of a character’s goals and motivations has never felt instinctive for me (and generally aggravates me) — I’ve tinkered more with that question since.
  • Structure: It wasn’t quite shaping into a story yet — there are some notes there reaching toward story-shapes and styles of humour that might match the idea. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and The Enchanted April and Lolly Willowes. On the second page I more deliberately chose (at random) a sequence of story moods and used it to suggest how a story might take shape, which helped a lot, and when I came back to expand the (unrecognisably altered) version of this idea, I used that approach to expand it.
  • Finally, the point of this exercise was not to write a story but to watch how I work. (See e.g. the questions at A tremor in the web.) So I made a few notes on where the idea sparked or why perhaps it didn’t. The main lessons were:
    • I continue to enjoy mixing/matching/flipping in order to come up with an idea. This remains consistent, and fun for roadtrips.
    • An idea isn’t enough without a story shape to flow into.
    • The aesthetic has to appeal to me (or be made to appeal).
    • An idea, story shape, and attractive aesthetic aren’t enough (without e.g. extreme outside pressure) if it isn’t a type of story/genre I care to write. This was in relation to the second page, which turned into more of an experimental romcom idea.

Observation Journal — variations on descriptions

This observation journal page has what is now one of my favourite observation journal activities. It’s a chance to be poetic and/or silly, a splendid vocabulary workout, and also intellectually soothing enough to do late at night.

Variations keep emerging, but this is one of the first I tried (and is particularly useful for exploring variations on a central theme). It was preceded by “One of these things is quite like the other ones” — an arguing game (see the end of The Emma Heist).

Observation journal spread, densely handwritten, pink watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a rock grown into a tree. On the right, lists of swapped descriptions.
Unicorn piñatas and bougainvillea-shrouded statues, glittering cats, finger limes, and a rock grown into the fork of a tree.

The basic idea is to pick (at least) three nouns. One noun is “it”. Next, describe that noun using descriptions more commonly used for (or words more commonly associated with) each of the other nouns. I try to get at least 10 descriptions for each of those two reference words.

So on this page, I wanted to write some descriptions of light. But I keyed the descriptions to the way I might ordinarily describe (a) water and (b) tin cans.

Handwritten page using terms associated with water and tin cans to describe light.

So, for example, describing light using terms I associate with water, I get:

  • light rivered and pooled
  • sunlight that eddies around your ankles
  • buildings an archipelago of shadows in the swift, bright tide of autumn
  • tepid, stagnant light in the parlour
  • a chill trickle of moonlight

And for “tin cans” there is:

  • a hard enamel of light
  • jagged edges of light
  • corrugated and smoke-rippled autumn air
  • the light had a clean, crimped quality, as if the town had been sealed against contamination
  • a chill bright day kicked ringing like a can along the street

It is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, but also surprising. It pulls out unexpected metaphors and similes, it forces me to look with new eyes at the reference terms (how many thoughts do I associate with tin cans?). It tunes aesthetics (industrial beauty? aquatic moods?) and begins to build little worlds (how does light work in this place, and how do people interact with it?). And changing my perspective on the first term (light) in two different directions sets up echoes and comparisons and resonances.

Related posts and writing:

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick three nouns at random — common ones you can see around you, or try a random word generator.
  • The first noun is the one you will have to describe (or illustrate).
  • But first, look at the other two nouns. Think of their characteristics, and things you associate with them. It could be words or cliches, myths and moods. Or it could be shapes, textures, colours, weight and movement.
  • Now look back at your first noun:
    • Writers: Make a list of descriptions, metaphors, similes, etc describing the first noun, but using those associations from the other ones. (I like to try to do 10 descriptions for each of the reference nouns).
    • Illustrators: Try to draw the first noun using the (textures, colours, associations etc) of the reference nouns (one at a time).
      (NB. If you’re using more conceptual nouns, you might have to get particularly creative — but feel free to limit yourself to visible, concrete nouns. Drawing a fox using textures (for example) more associated with a staircase and velvet is a rather different artistic proposition to illustrating the idea of a program using imagery you associate more with hope and intellect — although both are quite possible.)
  • Take a step back and notice how the activity went. Where were the surprising resonances, the difficult mismatches, the things you began to notice about any of the nouns? Where did you push against your default settings? How are the two different directions different, and what did they reveal about the core idea with which you began?

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 — 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.