Observation Journal — Little Groves

This observation journal page was an exploration of what I like about “little woods and wildernesses” in art and stories and life, and as art and stories.

I’d found one on a walk — a stand of she-oaks in a flood reserve, dense and insular — which led to this page and the June 2020 calendar: Ominous Groves.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a cake server. On the right, thoughts on groves.
On the left, an exercise in describing the day’s clouds: furled, fogged, shirred, ruched, rippled, and the crescent moon diffuse through them.

So I went in pursuit of the idea, in search of no grand conclusions (at this point) but trying, I suppose, to find the way in.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on small forests.

Their origins (for me): CS Lewis and Robert Frost and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Jane Austen and Susan Coolidge and Midsomer Murders, T. H. White, ballads and fairy-tales and home and backyards and parks and childhood. Not Tolkien, whose sense of forests is vast, but Baynes’ illustrations for Tolkien.

Four ink drawing coloured in greeny-blue. A ruined castle behind trees. Two women circling a stand of trees. A statue carrying a jar and a statue of a dancing faun among trees. A skull below and a ghost within a canopy of trees.
My favourites (now more muted) from the June 2020 Calendar

A few points:

  • The pocket-sized-ness of them, and the way they fit into unexpected pockets of the world. (And their ornamental possibilities).
  • Their closely-bound contradictions — pretty but wilderness, ornamental but feral, good but not tame, small but eternal, tiny but encompassing.
  • The existence of an enclosed world, contained, self-possessed and possess-able, cut off from other concerns and yet full of its own rustling existence. Set apart from the outer world, in terms of light and shade, temperature and inhabitants and sound. Different from the staginess of more flamboyant settings, with which a grove might seem to have more in common.
  • The necessity of finding a gate into them, and that they are (after all) bigger on the inside.
  • Their function as a gate to other worlds — forest as psychopomp.
  • Their opacity — their threats and secrets and how they function (small as they are) as a weighted point on the world.
  • What they mean to time — separated from it, bending it, a place where time might be lost, or a treasury of lost time.
  • What is beneath them — from what soil they grow, and what happens among their roots, and how they pin layers of time and worlds together.
  • That they can function as a shorthand for stories (I realise this isn’t a novel idea, but I need to stumble into thoughts for myself) — their function and structure, metaphorically, but mostly their enchantment.

At the time I felt I hadn’t got very far with this look at groves (although the calendar is not nothing!). But in retrospect, particularly in the light of some projects I’m working on now, revisiting this page has brought several ideas (for and about stories) into focus.

And I do like them!

Observation Journal — story structures

An observation journal page from my birthday last year, in which — while very full of cake — I attempted to think about the shapes of short stories (written and drawn).

Two-page observation journal spread. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a sketch of a birthday balloon in a bathroom sink. On the right, densely handwritten short story thoughts.
I do rather like those scribbly bird frames on the left

All that needs to be written about story structure probably has been. Personally I suspect that, as with art composition, “be deliberate” does a lot of the heavy lifting. (That said, Kim Wilkins (through the University of Queensland and the Novelist’s Bootcamp) and Angela Slatter have taught me most of the practical side of structure, and I recommend both).

But (to the despair of friends and mentors) I understand things best by thinking/blundering my way into them, and sometimes the act of reinventing of the wheel is more valuable than the individual wheel itself. This page began a series of exercises tinkering with how stories work in my head.

First, I applied observations to a structure:

  • I drew a table of the second-most basic story outline: Beginning — Middle — End.
  • Next I filled each cell randomly with observations from some of the left-side journal pages.
  • Then I thought about which ones felt like a story, and what sort of moods/actions were happening in the sections.

Then I made a list of those moods/actions. Some were suggested by the table above (e.g. a beginning in which something is squeaking in the breeze felt a bit ominous). Some I’d observed in other favourite short stories. Here’s the (non-comprehensive) list:

  • Ominous
  • Formation of goal
  • Inkling
  • Foreshadow doom
  • Meet-cute
  • Fragments
  • Situation
  • Door
  • Metaphor
  • Suspicion
  • Compounded
  • Quiet progression towards goal
  • Red herring
  • Proceed towards doom
  • Complication
  • Facets
  • Failures
  • Something [gets] through
  • Peel back
  • Twist (of plot or knife)
  • Achieves goal
  • Solution
  • [Evade] doom
  • HEA [Happily Ever After]
  • Whole
  • Success
  • Pushed back
  • Truth & consequence

Finally, I rearranged those elements into a story outline: Beginning — Middle — End. I made notes on what stories (existing or otherwise) those evoked. For example, “Foreshadowed doom — Facets — HEA” suggested a sort of Sliding Doors / Run Lola Run situation.

This page has been useful for a number of reasons:

  • It kicked off an occasional series of thoughts on plots I like (more to come on this).
  • It’s been helpful for teasing initial ideas out into more of a story shape.
  • It’s been useful for adjusting and restructuring ideas.
  • It’s a reminder of the importance of movement, because at the very least the story has to get from one mood to the next.
  • It gives me a working framework that I understand from the inside out.
  • It’s helped me get a lot better at reading stories and noticing what the author is doing, and talking about it.

WRITING/ART EXERCISE

  • Pick a few stories (written or drawn or a single very narrative illustration) you like, or have encountered lately.
  • Think of how they start, continue, and finish. With a lot of illustrations and some very short stories, some of those aspects are implied.
  • Jot down a list of the big mood/effect/movement of each section.
    For example, I’m looking at the cover of Dungeon Critters right now, and you could say that it starts in ominous shadow and proceeds through vigorous confusion into overwhelming luminousness. Or perhaps it begins in a cavern and proceeds through a fight through brambles to threatening reward. There isn’t a correct answer — it’s a matter of how you see stories.
  • Now pick three entries from your list (or mine above) and assign them to “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. (You can read anything as a metaphor.)
  • Consider whether you know any other stories/images that would fit that model?
  • Could you invent a story that would suit that shape? If you’re stuck for ideas, pick something innocuous you’ve seen today (a deliveryman? someone making toast?) and apply it to the story. Do a quick sketch (written or drawn) of the idea.

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 — staring at sentences

On these observation journal pages, I got further into first sentences — specifically other people’s (previously I’d been playing with hypothetical ones of my own).

It is difficult to say what makes a good first line, since I suspect the answer is that it is followed by a good book. So this exercise was, first, one of readerly appreciation (and a very enjoyable and soothing one — I highly recommend it).

But I think (or hope) the closer you read something the more the patterns of it get into your bones and thoughts.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a drawing board. On the right, densely handwritten notes analysing sentences.

So here I was breaking down some of my favourite first lines to see what I liked about them.

It looks complicated, but that’s because it’s crowded. The process itself (adapted from a style analysis exercise in a grammar course I used to tutor) was simple:

Continue reading

Observation Journal — on editing

This week of the observation journal featured a few reflections on editing (I’d like to think I was on a roll, but I had submission and uni deadlines). See previously: notes on editing “Not to be Taken” in Observation Journal — Application to a Story, and editing checklist.

Double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and one, and a drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it. On the right, "Some 2am editing observations".

I know that some people hate writing and love editing. I don’t understand this. You get to just make things up when you’re writing, and there’s trackable progress and a definite end point! I find editing hard work (with too-infrequent flashes of gold), and I have to keep reminding myself that I can still just… make things up. This page wasn’t an attempt to solve that problem, but I wanted to at least record how these editing passes got done, in hopes I could find some patterns later — a sort of prelude to a project review, or a fragment of one.

Key editing lessons (from these stories):

  • Efficiency is not the same as efficacy.
  • If there’s a worse and more urgent task on my desk, I will in fact choose to edit. Deadlines help, but they aren’t fun.
  • When I’m reading over a draft, I often write questions to myself in the margin. This is rarely helpful. What is helpful is to force myself to write an answer to the question then and there — or at least to write the question and then give myself three mock solutions/phrasing (even if they’re bad ones). I can change my mind later! But at least there’s something to work with.
  • I need to start in order to let things begin being done. 
  • It seems smart to deal with issues in batches! But I won’t. Starting at the beginning and nibbling through is excruciating, but I will do it. (See efficiency vs efficacy, above).
  • The necessity of rolling slowly through.
  • The (eventual and occasional) magic of momentum.

These two projects predated the journal and these were interim edits. One project is out on submission now, though. The other is a story within the novel I’m working on for uni, so… one day.

(You can also see I made these notes at 2am and on the wrong page, which is where numbering the pages for cross references comes in handy.)

Tiny biro drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it
Tea Rex mug (it’s the General Eclectic one)

Observation Journal — Food as Magic and other quibbles

In this observation journal spread, I was working out some recent feelings about food as magic (vs food in magic).

Two pages of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of me reading on the couch. On the right, a chart of thoughts about food.
Made a new multi-ribbon bookmark for the journals

Food thoughts

I can’t remember specifically why, but magical food had been bothering me. I must have read a rash of enchanted-food stories around about then. Some of which were great! if you wrote one of them I would probably loved it! But there were some patterns which didn’t appeal to me personally.

For some reason, while I love food in stories about magic, I’m extremely picky about food-as-magic, food-magic, literalisation of Proust, etc. It’s weirdly personal and unhygienic, and intimate, and extremely decadent, and in a romance it competes with other elements with the same issues.

Also it makes me feel inadequate and afraid for cakes. I’m still stressed about that episode of Tremontaine, in which food was not magic (good!) but was elaborately-constructed and in peril (I can’t handle it! I can’t watch cake decorating shows where they have to deliver the cake!).

But I do like food IN fantasy, and books generally — good plain food and comically bad food and food as simple decadence and food as care and competence, and food fights, and knowing the cake will survive to be eaten. (I can even forgive cake destruction if it’s early and an inciting incident and heavily flagged). “Lots of food and lots of fighting” as someone (Norman Lindsay? the internet is not helping) said of children’s books.

One of the funnier things to me, looking back through this, is the clear formative fingerprints of various stories. Good plain food is certainly a reference to Narnia and other post-WWII children’s books (although in that regard can I draw your attention to the existence of this Anthony-Bourdain-in-Narnia fan fiction?) — and indeed earlier books, with bland nursery food and the Bastables stabbing a pudding to death with their forks. “Why am I so annoyed by men who make omelettes?” is traced back to Sabrina (the 1995 movie). And lovely as Chocolat is, the food fight in Hook for some reason filled the spot in my heart the subtly-magical chocolate might have taken. (Inconsistently, I am quite okay with magic food in Alice in Wonderland and The Magic Faraway Tree but I suspect that’s because the food isn’t any weirder than anything else that’s going on).

Almost-immediate edit: I am now thinking of all the magical food I do like. I think there’s some similarity to how I feel about historical settings and very-near-future astronaut stories, which is that the non-magical version is already so interesting that my tastes incline towards it, unless the context or writing is doing the work to pull me away. Maybe.

Observation journal thoughts

This is one of those journal pages looking for patterns in things that had been interesting or bothering me. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for here, so it’s a very loose collection of thoughts. You can see me finding the boundaries of my likes and objections as I work through them — noting a dislike of a certain type of decadence, and then realising I liked other ways of showing decadence, which started up a list of things I do like.

However, recently, I’ve started reading a few books that I ought to like, but which manage to land just outside what I do like. So I’ve been more deliberately feeling for the boundaries of tropes and motifs in this way, and trying to find out if there’s any common features to that dividing line.

It’s an interesting exercise. It’s useful to know what I like, so that I can steer towards it, and I enjoy refining those definitions. But finding out what I don’t like is useful too — not just for avoiding it, but for the challenge of working out how I could (for example) write food as magic in other ways, and trick myself into liking it.

Trying to write on the sofa with a bad back.

Writing/Art exercise

  1. Think of your favourite genre, and five things you love in it (tropes or images or motifs or poses — written or drawn). Maybe it’s magical food and books about writers with writers block, and enchanted portals that get closed forever, and the erosion of once-beautiful buildings, and the inner lives of serial killers — you do you.
  2. Pick one of those. What are some versions you have seen and love? What are the important aspects? Are there any patterns to what you like about it?
  3. Are there examples of it that haven’t worked for you, or can you imagine an example that wouldn’t work for you?
    – For example, I like food in fantasy, and I like books about hilariously horrible writers, and magical portals, and beautiful buildings, and crimes being solved — but it takes a lot to make me like the versions listed in paragraph 1 above!
    – For artists: Later in the journal I try this with images, too. It’s a little easy to mock women on cliffs wearing shawls and staring into the distance, but if they can see something approaching, or there’s a sense of urgency, like she’s just run up the cliff, or she’s doing more than just clutching her shawl mournfully, I will happily plunge back into that particular angst.
  4. Just feeling out the edges of things you like can be useful. But if you want to go further, pick one of those versions you don’t like, and see if you could push it further, and how far you would have to go to make it charm you again.
    – For example, I like flamboyant over-the-top caricatures of writers. I tend not to like books about writers with writers block. I might like a book about a writer with writers block, looking for their muse, if they were only pretending to be a blocked writer and were just trying to infiltrate a literary festival in order to commit dreadful crimes. Or even better, if they were actually an undercover detective infiltrating bohemian society in order to thwart a murderer!
    – And while I now quite want to read or write this, I’ve also learned (or emphasised) that I like characters being consciously and flamboyantly unlikeable for Reasons, and ridiculous secrets, and exposes of literary foibles, and unlikely Rube-Goldberg detective plots, if the characters are sufficiently outrageous.
  5. Do a quick paragraph or pencil sketch, to catch the idea, and so that, if necessary, you can say you did write or draw something today.

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 — Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

I’d been using the observation journal to think through the patterns in all the Regency reading I’d been doing in early 2020 (see the previous post on Ridiculous (but charming!) situations).

Over the following weeks I pursued it further — first, simply making a quick list of things I personally did and did not like, and then having far too much fun listing Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities.

1. Likes and dislikes

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, with a picture of someone walking; A list of likes and dislikes.
Crows really do fly like hand shadows

Some of these are quite picky, and many are indefensible.

  • A set way of writing love scenes vs a bit of variety and personality. (But I prefer fade-to-black.)
  • Implausible/unexplained perfumes vs scents that reflect the character’s life and something of their character.
  • Silliness and slapstick vs characters who are very earnest and unaware of the ludicrousness of their situations.
  • Satin and ruffles vs muslin and gauze.
  • Unconvincing stock characters vs absolute commitment to a stock character.
  • Unnecessary angst in the face of obvious love vs love followed by complications vs late epiphanies but without angst.

And of course, all the versions I don’t like can work for me if they’re doing it with absolute defiance and/or doing two things at once.

There’s also a note there, semi-related, from when I ran into Lou on a walk that day and we discussed bathroom breaks in books and where, for example, (as in Diana Wynne Jones) they can highlight relative wealth, etc.

As with the unsubstantiated manifesto, I like making lists of opinions without having to justify them. It’s fun, but it’s also a good way of finding things to play with, either in the observation journal or to see what I can do with them in a picture or a story (how would I describe satin in a way that doesn’t offend my sensibilities?). It’s also interesting to see where my limits are on tropes I broadly like (e.g. descriptions of clothes) — this topic comes up again later in the journals.

2. Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, and a photo of a camera tripod setup, and a list of unlikely abrupt intense proximities
The Home Ice Cream Van gave form to our days

Back in the Ridiculous (but charming!) situations post, I realised all the situations I listed shared “a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity”. So on this page I just made a list of some of my favourite abrupt intense proximities from romances and rom-coms. Occasionally these are a meet-cute, occasionally they’re a whole subgenre — and they’re not exclusive to romance, of course. Most also work for buddy and odd-couple drama/comedies and for horror stories.

  • Trapped by a storm
  • Locked in a cupboard
  • One bed 
  • Everyone thinks we’re [whatever]
  • Blackmail you to help me
  • Responsible for your safety
  • Joint responsibility for someone else
  • Unwilling guest/host
  • Parties to an arrangement
  • Civility does not permit me to depart
  • You have foisted yourself onto me and now I am not sure how to get rid of you
  • Injury compels me to stay here
  • It is efficient to pursue our parallel interests together
  • Hired to provide a professional service
  • Arrangement of convenience
  • Sibling/ward/friend’s friend
  • Mistaken identities
  • Mistaken personalities
  • Vehicular accident/transport issues
  • Task to complete together
  • Only doing this as a favour for someone else

After that I played around with a few elements, to see what happened to them as they turned into a story. I flipped expectations (see The Caudwell Manoeuvre), ending up with a rough uncivilised Beauty and an elegant, modest Beast, and tried picking an aesthetic or a setting, e.g. a bed and breakfast, or folk horror (why not both?). I’d already been playing with those approaches, of course, but adding a situation kicked the process forward a few steps.

Art/writing exercise

  1. Think of a classic type of situation in your favourite genre (the discovery of the body? the re-emergence of the monster? the race to the airport?) and make a list of some versions of that situation you’ve seen. (Or use the list above).
  2. Then make a list of settings — genre-feasible or not, as you prefer!
  3. Pick one of each at random and sketch (words or pictures) how that situation would work. How would a “chase to the airport” scene work (or what would perform the same function) if you were setting the story on a steamboat? How would the “discovery of the body” work in a bridal fabric store?
  4. See what you learn about what makes those types of situations work for you, and/or about the setting.
  5. Variations: Try it in different genres, or pick the standard characters involved in the situation and flip their descriptions (an aloof, intelligent witness and and an emotionally-overwrought detective?).

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: Ridiculous (but charming!) situations

This page of the observation journal is the result of reading Regency romance novellas and discovering a pattern of things that amused me far too much.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. On left, five things seen, heard and done, and a bad pen drawing of a kookaburra with "how do kookaburras" written under it. On the right, a list of romance situations.

Left page: Forgetting how to draw a kookaburra in spite of having just seen one, and making my housemate watch The Ship Song Project video. Also a note about the “charm of specificity”. That day, it was in relation to seeing a piano removal van, but it applies to most very particular things — shops that only sell sale signs, or industrial sheds advertising billiard table resurfacing. I think it’s one of the reasons the Caudwell manoeuvre works.

Right page: This is another take on finding out why I feel a way about a thing (see also: YA road trips; staginess; alt-DC rom-coms). 

For reasons involving April 2020 and a hospital procedure, I’d been on a strict reading diet of very light romantic comedies and Regency romance novellas. To begin, I simply listed ridiculous situations which kept showing up and which, for all their wild improbability, thoroughly delighted me every time they appeared on the page. starting with the classic “Oh no! I am trapped in a wardrobe with you, my enemy!”

I then listed what seemed to be the necessary elements of each (e.g., attractive enemy, unaware protagonist, potential for antagonist to discover them, wardrobe, reason to be in it).

Once I had those lists, patterns started to emerge. For example, all the situations shared a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity [Edit — I developed this further in “Unlikely Intense Proximities”]. On the other hand, there were two distinct orders of things: situations which moved characters from passion to love, and those which tended to move them from love to passion. There’s also a note there which says “for difference between romance and Gothic, consider each as it appears in Jane Eyre”, which I’m not sure is entirely substantiated, but is entertaining to consider.

Handwritten analysis of romance situations.

Here’s the full list (I developed it further later in the journal, but if you like tropes, I also tweet about them occasionally). A note: these are the patterns in the books I’d just read, not requirements — there are of course other variants.

  1. “Oh no! I am trapped in a wardrobe with you, my enemy!”
    1. attractive enemy
    2. unaware protagonist
    3. antagonist to potentially discover them
    4. wardrobe
    5. reason to be in it
  2. “I, a sensual — but repressed and terminally honourable — person am trapped in an isolated manor with you, a dangerously attractive (but terminally honourable) stranger! Oh no!”
    1. Sensuous, unusual, but trapped-by-circumstances innocent
    2. Stormy, unusual, but honourable (ish) second party
    3. Isolated location and weather
    4. Locals who could discover them
  3. “I have had a crush on a person for a long time, but now that it is about to be reciprocated I have matured enough to realise that it is you, stormy acquaintance, whom I really love. (Oh no.)”
    1. Innocent
    2. Object of attraction (unworthy but obvious)
    3. Object of affection (unconventional but harbours [own?] crush
    4. Time pressure
    5. A knowing and affectionate parental figure
  4. “In an unlikely turn of events I, an unassuming but fervent individual, am betrothed to the unsuspecting object of my affections, whose would-be-true-love is determined to part us. Oh no!” 
    1. Unassuming, passionate innocent, undervalued
    2. Societally valued object of their affection, apparently oblivious to value of protagonist
    3. Reason for Marriage of Convenience (class/$/reputation)
    4. Dashing rival (a close connection or sibling of protagonist) [not necessarily, see e.g. Heyer, but in all the ones I’d just read]
    5. A calm and functional marriage
    6. Bluff loyal supporter (optional)

Observation journal lessons:

  • Being silly when listing or classifying something generally pays off (see this list of paint personalities).
  • It makes it easier just to get a list onto the page for later analysis (and not worry about what form that analysis should take) — and often reveals patterns of how I feel about things.
  • It also catches the glee (or other emotion) I associate with those things, which makes it easier to use them for my own projects later.
  • Apparently I use the term “Cabot-ish” instead of “rom-com”.

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 — Blue bees and alt-DC rom-coms

On this page of the observation journal, I was again thinking through a pattern I’d noticed across a few books. It also features a blue bee sighting.

Double page spread from observation journal, handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture. On the right, a chart of ideas.

General journal notes: I occasionally use the journal to look a little more closely at something I enjoy. Some previous journal posts include The appeal of staginess, Breaking down patterns, and Things that tell you what they’re doing. I’ve since expanded it to look at, for example, the charm of tiny contained worlds in art — I’ll post that journal page in due course, but it led to the Ominous Groves calendar page.

In this case, I had already thought of a few key elements of the idea I wanted to analyse, so I went directly to thinking more closely about each of those. It’s a different approach to the central mind map and detailed tables I used previously, and was more useful for collating things I already wanted to say. You’ll see the note in the reflection area at the bottom says I’m still looking for a structure for these notes.

The purpose of these sorts of notes is to try to look under the hood of something I like (pictures or stories), and see what makes it work. And to find mechanisms and tools I can use to build or fix my own work.

But on to the question, which was — what is the appeal of romantic comedies set in an alternate version of Washington DC?

Handwritten observation journal page charting ideas.

Context: It was April 2020 and I was in Brisbane, Australia. I was thinking of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue, and Meg Cabot’s All American Girl, and the movie Dave (which I think I meant to write there instead of West Wing), and other fantasies of Washington DC. I was looking at reasons they appealed to me, and how they managed to feel “giddy, hopeful, charming”. And also, seen from outside the USA, these are a very strange genre. Finally, this wasn’t a critique of the genre (and clearly there is a lot more to be said!)— I was specifically looking for the elements which seemed to make it work.

Main points: There were six main elements that these stories seemed to share.

  • Power combined with equality
    • There is a fantasy of power
    • But also the stated aim of equality (even if there is also hypocrisy)
    • The characters in a relationship often hold some power, which makes them potentially equal, even if that power is knowledge or secrets
    • The story can play with ideas of power
  • A utopia, but with shadows
    • There tends to be a shining setting and a buoyant mood
    • There is a fantasy of the right thing having the potential to happen
    • But this state of affairs requires constant maintenance (which creates conflict without necessarily requiring an antagonist)
  • Privilege paired with obligation
    • This exists in tension with the first point (power + equality)
    • It permits fantasies of nobility and noblesse oblige in an American context
    • All the thrill of access and secrets and a sort of White House Gothic
    • The privilege is potentially fragile (not just birth, one hopes)
  • Unlikely proximity
    • Useful for the genre (meet-cutes, etc)
    • Characters are thrown together
    • There are many different interests in one place
    • Unlikely proximity is a function of the place as a constant, and a heightened mood, etc
    • It allows some small-town qualities without necessarily being weary of it
    • Rulers, the rich and famous pass through
    • Rarefied air and a small stage gives a city-state effect (and relates to privilege+obligation)
  • Beauty and brains
    • Attraction and attractiveness, yes, because of the genre
    • But brains & competence & high achievers because of the setting
    • And this means that wit and banter can become effectively action scenes
    • [I’m also intrigued, lately, by books which create a milieu where the physical or intellectual attractiveness of the characters is explained by the setting rather than by coincidence/the fact that they are main characters]
  • Learning curve and expertise
    • People are not (necessarily) born to this. There is always a learning/coming of age.
    • “Movement — country/America as a verb, not a noun” — I don’t remember what this means!
    • The learning curve contributes to the speed of the story and its arc
    • 4 years at a time, not generations [note: obviously there are dynasties, etc — this was in the context of the books]

It’s quite interesting to see which of these elements are shared with (for example) Regency romance, which these books occasionally remind me of (I did get into “unlikely proximities” on a later page). These alternative-DCs are the contemporary settings which most often feel to me like a Regency (but I have strange ideas about those). From a romance/rom-com perspective, it would be interesting to go back and look at the differences between this and Regency, and to see which other subgenres share the similarities. And it would of course be worth looking at the dangers, or what isn’t shown, and where books shift out of this genre when the fantasy of Washington starts to crumble, and how the genre itself changes.

Some of this reading (and these thoughts) fed into my post on the romance of the navigable world, for Meanjin.

Go. Home.

Observation Journal: Breaking down patterns

I HAVE A BOOK OUT IN TWO DAYS! It was reviewed in the New York Times!

Ahem, anyway: Back to the post.

Throughout the observation journal, I’ve been trying to not only notice patterns in books and movies, but also to stop and break those elements down more. These two entries are an early (and intense — I was still on painkillers) attempt at formalising that a bit more. They are also a bit more negative than I enjoy being or reading — if I were to use this particular format again, I’d concentrate a lot more on really appreciating the purpose the common elements were serving.

In this case, I’d watched the opening episodes of a few YA-urban-fantasy-inflected series (Locke & Key and Ragnarok (and after this but it looped back in, although with some fascinating variations, October Faction). And this really isn’t intended as a criticism of those shows! The journal pages were more a working-through of what the shows were doing and why, from my own perspective and tastes and for my own purposes. This blog post is about working out a useful structure for doing that.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day, a cafe sticker, and some sketches of a dog and musrooms. On the right, a table with a detailed but largely illegible breakdown of patterns between shows.

(Left page: Rainy weather and my ongoing difficulties with collage and sticking-things-to-other-things. Also, I was disgruntled about something, so made myself look for things to put on the observation page instead, and was almost instantly rewarded by discovering a very rained-upon and even more disgruntled crow grumbling to itself in a tree.)

Right page: I listed:

  • Patterns noticed in the opening episodes of the shows. There were a lot, but I should not have been complaining because all these elements are usually indicative of a fun show ramping up. However, if you are interested, they were: family relocating (in car), to a place with family connections, to a house owned by their family, where people know them. There are two teenagers and one is wearing headphones, and they have issues with screen time and visuals (Ragnarok had an alternative take on this) and are messed up, but Family. The house they are going to needs to be fixed up, and the kids are down on the whole idea, but their mother is desperately upbeat about it (October Faction would be an outlier on the parental elements of this). Their mother will start renovating. There has been a recent traumatic death in the family, and there are awkward high school encounters, secrets are buried, there are Knowing Locals, and there is at least one more mysterious and dramatic death with pyrotechnics).
  • Possible purposes of the common elements. (This is definitely an element I’m including in my template for analysing things in future.)
  • Why I found myself resisting that element (in my defense, I was in pain and apparently uncommonly grumpy).
  • Possible alternative ways of accomplishing similar ends (in different media, and for my own projects — your mileage may vary).

The main conclusions are that obviously those common elements are there for a reason, but I enjoy them most when stories are conscious of patterns and really lean into them — this note with reference here to Set It Up and Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, in this regard).

The next day I tried looking at just one element: “the opening post-trauma relocatative(?) car trip”

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day, a cafe sticker, and a sketch of myself writing. On the right, a mind-map style set of notes about car trips in tv shows.

(Left page: In which noticing things continues to be soothing, but it’s more energy-efficient as a prevention than a cure.)

Right page: This time I was looking more at:

  • Purpose. Mostly it was the introduction of characters and the introduction, with and through those characters, to a place.
  • Examples and counter-examples and stylish examples. In a very different genre, UnREAL dealt with an in-vehicle character/place introduction fabulously (see the first 30 seconds of this clip), and of course car movies generally and movies with idiosyncratic cars have a bit more freedom to do odd things. And I do enjoy this Every Frame a Painting episode’s section on transitions in Edgar Wright’s movies (from 1:17).
  • What snagged my attention about the pattern, and whether cars were in fact the problem. Cars, which characters in many 20th/21st century American stories rely so heavily upon, only offer so much scope for the imagination — it’s interesting to compare them to the connection between trains and (especially British) boarding school stories, which at least let people and cameras move around.
  • Possible alternative visuals. This was getting closer to the “steal/repurpose” question, which I’ve usually found the most useful part of analysing things. Just a few notes and reminders here about cutaways and aesthetics and deliberately shifting viewpoint.

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!).