Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From A Cafe

I was being silly on this page of the observation journal, choosing Five Things to Steal from a cafe I was in (Bean — now closed, alas).

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

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a backpack with a box of books in it. Notes on a cafe I was in

I began this flippantly, although I was curious to see what else the activity might work on, and how ideas pinched from a setting could be reworked into art or writing or life.

The answer was: very well. I had to moderate a strong inclination to turn everything into a metaphor. But very interesting things happened when these points of inspiration were applied to or ran up against other patterns and fascinations I’d been noticing recently.

Handwritten notes on things to 'steal' from a cafe

Here are the five:

  • Shrine to the mundane / honouring the ordinary (old furniture, paintings of little things)
    • as an image, as a concept, as a reminder when writing, as a way to arrange my bookcases
  • Trellises (being used in the cafe to display art)
    • as a practical solution, as a metaphor for showing the underpinnings of a world etc, the use of lattices to connect worlds (Deep Secret, etc)
  • Cheerful / cosy bunker
    • a reminder (since my house isn’t arranged for looking out of easily) that it can be done by having lots to look at inside and many small spaces, as a story setting/mood/aesthetic, in art as a cavern drawn with no reference to externalities (an inversion of the little groves)
  • A particularly vivid blue/green in some paintings — in the background, in pupilless eyes etc
    • a reminder of some people I’ve known with vivid/striking/unsettling eyes, a pattern of outlining things with other things and/or outlining an absence (with a Midsomer Murders connection, of course)
  • Fake leaves everywhere — kitschy but oddly cheerful
    • a reminder to put more foliage more deliberately into images, and to consider plants as part of various aesthetics

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Think of a space you’ve recently been in (the less obviously inspiring is sometimes better) or look are the place where you are right now.
  • Find five things about that space that you would like to steal — textures, colours, shapes, approaches to interior design, noise, atmosphere, etc.
  • For each, list at least three different ways you could incorporate it into an illustration or story. Try pushing past just representing an object/using the setting (but do that, too!). Could you approach it as a metaphor? How would you insert it into an existing idea?
  • Choose a few of those ideas and do a quick treatment/sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus: Do you notice any habits/patterns in what you chose, or how you adapted them? Make a note — you could try leaning harder into those tendencies, or flipping them. Did some of the ideas spark more than others? What did they have in common, and can you actively pursue that when coming up with ideas in the future?
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a backpack with a box of books in it
Here is my backpack with a box of Flyaway in it.

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From The Art Gallery

This page of the observation journal is a reflection (nefarious) on a visit to QAGOMA (the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a running lizard, notes on things seen at the gallery

The Five Things To Steal exercise is a useful way to quickly make notes on and tease inspiration from specific books, movies, etc. But I’ve also found it a lovely way to approach a broader experience — in this case, an art gallery.

It’s a good way to capture a substantial (but not overwhelming) handful of impressions, and speculate on what to do with them.

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

Handwritten notes on 5 Things To Steal From QAGOMA
  • The sense of being parachuted into someone else’s visual memory: a sense of slowly descending into a landscape belonging to a particular artistic vocabulary.
    • This was in relation to a Mavis Ngallametta exhibition — I’d seen the paintings in small reproductions, but that was nothing like the experience of simultaneously looking up at and floating down into their enormousness. And simultaneously being reshaped to fit into them.
    • I wrote a bit more about this vs writing in my post about Travelogues: All the shapes of the land.
    • It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about again more recently — it seems like it should relate very much to map illustration, but I love it as an example of lowering readers into a world.
  • The scrolling effect of the repetition of a long cabinet full of ceramic forms like water plants and coral and fungi.
    • This is for the reminder to use repetition, but also the appeal of long decorative bands.
    • (Like the notes on the camp dogs, below, this fascination continues to get into the calendar patterns.)
  • The mundane writ large, gaining weight and honour and importance.
    • This is about the value of the everyday, yes, but also of the contribution detail and texture and focus have to making something feel mythic.
  • Sunken garden, mirror pool, bronze figures, water dragons — a particular enchanted aesthetic.
    • (This is a description of the gallery cafe.)
    • I’ve noted it as a potential aesthetic for a large project I’m just now editing. It managed to completely flow off the back of that story, but I’m hoping it will pool in the next project.
  • The Aurukun camp dog sculptures, for a large number of repetitions that are entirely individual and have very distinct personalities. (And I mean, look at them.)

I enjoy looking back at these five-things-to-steal posts, finding my way back into an experience of something, turning over fascinations to see how they’ve grown or what’s grown under them.

I also like this little list of things seen on the same day (from the left-hand observation page — that structure is based on a Lynda Barry exercise, see more on this page: observation journal).

Handwritten list of things seen during the day, including wildlife and art exhibitions

I like the specificity of it, the way that makes the everyday remarkable, the way the list of disparate things forms into an impression of a day, the weight of wistfulness of the absence of jacaranda flowers under the painting where they are sometimes scattered.

Illustration/writing exercise:

  • Go to an exhibition or art gallery (in person or virtual). Roam around it idly.
  • Then think of five things you would like to pinch from it.
  • Then ask yourself why — what about that artwork or approach to curation or unexpected lighting appealed to you?
  • Then make your heist plan: how would you steal each of those effects for your own art/writing?
  • Do a little written or drawn sketch of a way you might incorporate that aspect.

Terrible tiny ballpoint sketch of running lizard
terrible lizard sketch, water dragons do not look very like this

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Porco Rosso

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from that delightful Studio Ghibli film Porco Rosso, which at the time of these notes Grace Dugan and I had just been to see again.

Porco Rosso poster — pig with goggles, scarf, flight suit in a red plane, giving a thumbs-up

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

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of crow on a McDonalds sign. On the right, notes on Porco Rosso.
everything lit golden, then frosted with blue light

I made these notes the day after the Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders post, so you might notice recurring characters.

Tiny handwritten notes on Porco Rosso.
  • Reliance on/use of very particular visual language to carry weight of story forward, while story is doing finer work.
    • (Language of Casablanca, etc, here — and I compared this to Sunshine on Leith which lets expected cliches do a lot of quick lifting for characterisation.)
    • I really liked the idea of making a choice of a very distinct aesthetic pay its way, and also to use it as misdirection to conceal a secondary story which is happening in the clues.
    • I made a note to practice writing scenes from different aesthetics (which I was already doing — see posts on aesthetics).
Tiny ballpoint sketch of feet in heeled shoes walking away from a wine glass on the floor, and a mouse running past it with a coin
Adding an era and setting aesthetic to the previous page’s mouse
  • A story that subtly passes a baton — the role of main character gets passed over and someone else ends the story.
    • Here it’s Fio, who was always the narrator — and it’s worth comparing to Nevil Shute’s No Highway (filmed with James Stewart as No Highway in the Sky), which ends with the narrator’s attention already being turned to new safety complications, and taken away from the winding-up of the main story.
    • I like the potential for combining this with an apprentice/journeyman/master transition (as noted on the previous page).
    • And also a connection to stories where a minor character gradually increases in importance, with a note to play with that in pictures.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people fighting with "somewhere they still..." written above.
somewhere, they still…
  • At some point, heroes and villains being rolled together to be allied in gentle nostalgia, and bundled away together into the past as time accelerates.
    • There’s a note here about the passage of a time/dream being the plot rather than the characters.
    • The trick of playing with this is not to be too easily merely sentimental.
    • That sense of the focus of a camera receding on (ex-) main characters.
    • And then the eternal charm of an entirely isolated independent hotel/island/refuge. The last homely house, little groves
Tiny ballpoint sketch of (possibly) a shadow among trees on a tiny isalnd.
  • A character exists who is, incidentally, probably something significant (e.g. a spy), and that is never addressed by the plot.
    • Such a good trope.
  • Two characters from separate strands of plot who only meet at the very end of a plot, and become instant friends.
    • (Or instant-ish, with respect to Oscar Wilde.)
    • Another variation: where their later relationship has been hinted (allusions, or the story is in flashback), but because they still only meet at the very end you never get to see any of that later connection.

At the bottom of the page, you can see I’ve made a little list of ways to explore some of those fascinations further.

Art/writing exercises

For general five-things exercises, see the end of the previous Five Things to Steal post.

Here is one way to turn a fascination into an activity of your own — basically a situation generator or a make-your-own Mad Libs:

  • Pick a story mechanic you find fascinating/a trope you like. (I find it easiest to limit myself to a certain genre).
    E.g. here, the baton-passing between two characters.
  • Identify the variables.
    Here, two characters/roles and a metaphorical baton.
  • Make a short list of possibilities for each variable. I usually try for at least five of each, often limiting it to the genre, but not always.
    With the example above, it would be two sets of five character roles/jobs (apprentice, journeyman, journalist, head of guild, patron, etc), and then five ‘batons’, which could be e.g. pursuit of justice, delivering a message, investigating a mystery, etc…
  • Mix and match.
    By the end of this story, a wealthy patron who has been investigating a mystery eventually passes responsibility for that to an apprentice cabinetmaker. Or vice versa.
  • Make a few notes (drawn or written) of characters or scenes this suggests.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow sitting on one arch of a McDonalds sign.
Crow at McDonald’s

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from Midsomer Murders. (The show has shown up in this category before — see Five Things to Steal: Cosy Crime Edition.)

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist; also Midsomer Murders TV sketches)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a person listening at the door. On the right page, notes on Midsomer Murders, with some sketches.

(Also a continuation of vaguely Minoan-inspired border design.)

As ever, this exercise was both useful and soothing. And also as ever, I enjoy murder mysteries for the narrative hijinks they permit far more than for either the murder or the mystery.

Handwritten notes on Midsomer Murders, with some sketches.

The sense of someone being gradually taught (and learning) the next stage of their profession, and being somewhat supervised but also getting to be clever occasionally. Why? The charm of the learning-of-a-craft and the romance of the acquisition of competence. (Related: The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World.) (There’s a note here that says “nb also ducklings” and I’m not sure what the context of that was.) This was also connected to previous notes on the charm of listening to apprentices inserted into the ceiling of my house: Sparks and Navigable Worlds and Improbable Inventions.

Ballpoint drawing of man in coat demonstrating magic to short apprentice while woman with apron looks on assessingly
master & apprentice stories vs journeyman & apprentice stories — with magic

Endlessly stable central family never entirely uninvolved. I’d already been thinking about this more broadly (see Favourite Tropes About Families) and it would show up again.

ballpoint sketch of people at a table, formless figures looming in background
a family calm in the heart of chaos and/or ghosts

Good Guys defeat main Bad Guys but minor Morally Questionable Guys get away with a small windfall easily overlooked by the other parties. E.g. Sackville-Bagginses.

Ballpoint sketch of mouse carrying coin and "secondary story in details of image gets richer over course)
a tale of one bad mouse

Someone whose tall stories/colourful background turns out to have been completely true. (Less Big Fish and more flashmob society funeral). The opposite of secrets — the truth not believed/credited.

Everyone has a secret and not all is murder. I’d also recently read Kate Milford’s Greenglass House, so it’s cited here.

As usual, most of these include notes on how to adapt/adopt an idea. The “why” dot-point in the first entry was worth doing, and I’d like to do it more. And several points of fascination would show up in other entries.

Art/writing exercise

Basically, this is a way to take contained, useful notes about something you’ve seen/heard/watched/read. But it’s also an excellent way to identify fascinations, activities, and creative puzzles that you want to pursue (and to always have something to say about a topic).

  1. Think of something you’ve seen/heard/watched/attended/read etc. You don’t have to have liked it.
  2. Think of five things you could steal (i.e. learn, adopt, adapt, try, not plagiarise) from it.
  3. For each, if you want, dig a little deeper. Why this?
  4. Then for each, make a note on how you’d ‘steal’ it — how you’d adapt it into your work or life or a particular project. You don’t have to follow through on it, as the thought exercise alone is quite useful. But you might!
Ballpoint sketch of person listening at a door
Listening? In my living room, anyway

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Observation Journal: 5 Things to Steal from A Surfeit of Lampreys

This observation journal page is a list of 5 Things to Steal from Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (previously mentioned here: Read and Seen — August to November 2020).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations and a sketch of toilet paper rolls, and notes on Surfeit of Lampreys.

It continues to be a good way to quickly process thoughts on a book (and other things). Five is enough of a stretch if I’m stuck for thoughts, a reasonable distillation if I have too many, and sufficient to fill a page.

As usual, I expanded each note of something I’d like to steal by outlining how to “steal” it— that is, how to adopt or adapt a trick or trope or glancing idea into my own illustrations or writing. This both gets it out of anything in the realm of copying, and pushes me to actually record if not begin working on some ideas and next steps.

For example, for “a family impervious to dramatic events”, there’s a reminder to play with the idea of “hauntings fail to break through squabbles”, and also to try a picture of “person walking like that photo of girl in street but unruffled” (presumably, given the broader context, surrounded by ghosts or monsters).

Somehow I recognised this as a reference to “An American Girl in Italy” by Ruth Orkin — here’s an article about it

The application notes are mostly shorthand references to various projects, but here are the elements of Surfeit of Lampreys that particularly struck me:

  1. The structure of a family impervious to dramatic events, continuing through chaos with only minor variations.
  2. Minor point-of-view character gets romance with charming dilettante for whom there might yet be hope.
  3. Several perspectives on the main characters (always fun), but leavened by an unfavourable view held by a sympathetic character.
  4. Magic (the supernatural) not directly affecting or even terribly relevant to story (see also Sayers).
  5. Clever, ridiculous, untied family, and benefits thereof (and difficulties of breaking in/exclusion? or do they adopt others freely?)
Tiny ballpoint sketch of couple with linked arms
have fun storming the castle

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Tiny ballpoint sketch of toilet-paper rolls
What can I say? It was 2020

Observation Journal — 5 things from WorldCon 2020 (mostly)

It’s about this point in the observation journal that I began adapting the “5 Things to Steal” model to catch aspects of broader events and conversations, or even just of a day. (See also: other 5 Things to Steal posts and more about using Austin Kleon‘s approach to ‘stealing’ in Bookmarks and Remarks.)

The approach: Sometimes there’s an overwhelming amount to report on, sometimes the details are vague. Either way, choosing 5 big things (and maybe an extra, as a treat) has become a good way to both record anything and make sure it is useful. I also made tiny notes about ways to try out/adapt the ideas.

These notes are from a day online for Worldcon 2020. The unifying interests had to do with textures and delicately-observed sensibilities.

  • Asking people about new projects/directions they’re excited for people to look at (or what lights them up about something they’re discussing) is a useful question for panels, conversations, etc.
  • Holly Black and Kelly Link discussed using tonal or textural overlays to guide decisions in a narrative/when writing. This is one of my favourite ways to approach writing and art (as you might have noticed) and such a concise way of expressing it. (Edit: it’s a bit like Variations on Descriptions / More Swapped Descriptions / More Mixed Descriptions, but at the story/scene level)
  • Holly and Kelly also discussed having a safety-net/backup ending in mind (when writing) in case of not being able to think of a cleverer one. (This amuses & delights me.)
  • Alyssa Winans’ compositions, especially illustrations with a central sublime glowing cloud, or a sense of rising scale and wonder. That was something I wanted to try more. Also the use of almost line-art surface textures in painterly works. (John Jude Palencar does this, too, and when I realised that it tripped something in my brain that resisted thinking in a painterly way.)
  • How the movie The Old Guard conveyed a sensitivity and affection in its characters that was not diminished by time or age. The default of many stories I’d encountered lately had been to make experience and age (especially long age) turn characters cynical. Seeing the opposite was powerfully pleasant. (Recently I’ve been talking about how much I enjoy stories where good people happen to bad things, instead of the other way around, and this is connected.)

(Part of the reason for posting these pages in retrospect is that I get to review them with the benefit of time, and also realise that what I liked about The Old Guard is what I enjoyed about Ted Lasso.)

Observation Journal: Notes on Kim Scott’s “Taboo”

Just some tiny trees

On these observation journal pages, I was thinking through Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (published by Picador in Australia and Small Beer Press in the USA). It’s a fabulous, distressing, gorgeous, angular, beautiful novel.

July 2020, and having difficulties remembering how to leave the house

I used the “five things to try/learn” template, which I usually call “five things to steal“, but in a novel dealing with the ongoing consequences of colonisation, theft, etc, that didn’t feel like the best word to use! I’d made notes on it as a reader elsewhere (and included it in this post on Tor.com: Six Stories for Fans of Beautiful Australian Gothic), but it is an intriguingly effective novel, and I wanted to learn from it on a writing level as well.

The basic structure of these types of pages is: list 5 things the work did that I want to understand, then quickly work out some ways I could apply those lessons to my own work.

These were the main points that struck me. Many of these overlap with the points and themes of the novel, but these notes were less about the experience of the book as a reader and more about the notable aspects of Scott’s writing, and how he made the book work.

  • The possibilities of point-of-view (see also By Whom and To Whom). There are some resonances between Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, in particular (with varying degrees of subtlety) the use of plural points of view, the commentary and involvement it makes possible, and viewpoints that take a long view through time. Scott is doing something particular with this, of course, and in Taboo it also emphasises the present continuous nature of what is framed as history.
  • The porousness of time. This relates to the point above, and the subject matter of the novel. But it was also a reminder that it’s easy, when drawing or writing, to create an idealised and soulless present, and erase the textures of the past and the possibilities of the future. Probably a life lesson, too.
  • The handling of groups of people. Particularly groups it would be easy to write as “ill-assorted” or humorously at odds, or just background. There’s a shift of focus from the individual and it’s really interesting to see how Scott handles that.
  • A plot that circles around to the starting scene. The anticipation, the meaning, the shift of viewpoint, the scene as a thing to wonder towards, the ways a repeating scene works in a story that operates through time.
  • Landscape as more than backdrop. The book is about (among many other things) relationships to country, so this isn’t a surprise. On a writing level, the tactile interactions of the characters with the setting were striking in a way they perhaps shouldn’t be.

The main writerly impressions I took from the novel: porousness, translucency, a shift of focus from the individual.

I definitely recommend reading the book to find out more: Picador in Australia and Small Beer Press in the USA.

Dog

Observation Journal — three thoughts about maps

This page of the observation journal is about maps, as well as about a specific book: Mark Monmonier’s Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Risk in America.

It was a fascinating book (and dense — it took a long time to read and absorb). Also, it was published two decades ago and I HIGHLY recommend reading technical books (outside of your own field) that are 20 years out of date — it takes the pressure off having to remember details accurately and is very useful for conversations at parties, because you can usually find someone who is willing to fill in the gaps.

Three map-specific thoughts on reading it:

  • Every map is rhetorical.
    • I had a very invigorating argument with someone on a panel, once, about whether a particular map could be considered as absolutely objective, and they just CAN’T. Especially military maps, which I think was the focus of our debate.
    • Every map exists for a reason, and makes choices, and needs artificially constructed skills to create and/or read it, and presents views and is intended to accomplish (or enable the reader to accomplish) a purpose. That’s their whole reason for existence! And their fascination, power, and possibility.
    • I’ve made a note here to play more with the idea of maps for hyper-specific purposes, but I’ve already touched on this in a few stories (“Kindling”, in which maps suppress the fantastic, and “The Tangled Streets”, in which maps are an expression of the fantastic), as well as illustrated maps. I approach book maps less as tools for physical orientation than as a pool of narrative possibility into which the reader is about to be pushed.
    • Related to this, and equally subjective: I often enjoy introductory descriptions of the location of a story (separate from character action) when (and because) it plays the same role as an illustrated map (of the type I like).
  • All maps are maps of where the dragons are (or might be, or how far they have been pushed back).
    • This is a more lighthearted argument than the one above, but I’m still prepared to have it.
    • I don’t know why I compared this to applying for grants.
  • That maps (like books) are pins stuck in time.
    • For some reason this thought linked to both the Muppets travelling by map and Connie Willis’ characters’ reliance on maps of where bombs fell in the Blitz in Blackout and All Clear. There was also a splendid website that let you go back to maps from specific years of Brisbane’s history and find photos of or from those places in a given year, but I can’t track it down.
Trees sketched for a new map, in progress.

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.

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Observation Journal — Five Things to Steal from the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre

On this observation journal spread, I consider Five Things to Steal from the National Theatre’s online broadcast of Jane Eyre, and decide I dislike watercolour pencils for all-over coverage.

Double page spread fo hand-written observation journal. On the left, things seen/heard/done and a picture. On the right, a list of 5 (actually 6) things to "steal" from Jane Eyre, with very tiny notes and elaborations.
Also a gecko landed next to my wine glass and I was attacked by chili fumes.

This page is another in the 5 Things to Steal series. In April 2020 I watched (with friends, some online) the National Theatre At Home’s Jane Eyre. It was fascinating and impressive, with many resonances with things I was interested in at the time, and am currently revisiting.

Handwritten observation journal page with a list of 5 (actually 6) things to "steal" from Jane Eyre, with very tiny notes and elaborations.

One of the main things that strikes me now is:

  • For all that comics creators like to talk about being able to use bigger budget effects than cinema, theatre feels a lot closer to comics than either books or movies do. Some possible reasons it gives me this impression (particular to me and full of generalisations):
    • The very present and obvious framing of it (panels vs sets).
    • The obviously external, sequential nature (page-bound in a way novels don’t always seem to be vs stage-bound in a way movies rarely are — although I love both when they play with those possibilities).
    • A simplification and stylisation of iconography (for clarity/communication/style in comics; for the same reasons in theatre but also sty
    • The clear visual riffing on a written-down script.
    • A conscious, sometimes self-conscious, use of (and even weaponisation of) the apparent limitations of the medium.

Some other points (phrases in bold are mostly so I can find them again):

  • Externalisation of thoughts in a way that was sometimes literal.
    • This can be fascinating or charming or shift point of view in strange ways — I was thinking of Calvin & Hobbes and comedy videos and (although I read it after this, I think) Paul Cornell’s Chalk. I’m getting interested in different ways of depicting points of view (in prose and images), so I’ll revisit this.
    • But I also like what it can do to the reality of a story — in the play, Bertha was often on-stage as a sort of Greek chorus, and then you realise she is real. I don’t see enough theatre, but Bill Cain’s Equivocation rotated beautifully in and out of roles and reality/theatre.
    • I also have formless but strong feelings about point of view in several novels including Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, Kim Scott’s Taboo, and several Michael Innes mysteries.
  • The progression to adulthood by replacing parts of Jane’s costume on stage echoed recent thoughts on montages (Observation Journal — training/makeover montages).
  • The bare-bones/climbing-platform style of staging, with is so intriguingly both minimal/versatile and incredibly stagey (see Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digression on the appeal of staginess). I go back and forth on whether I can fully appreciate it in theatre, but I like its possibilities for illustration and also as a puzzle to play with in prose. And also just how it echoes play.
  • The casting of Laura Elphinstone as both Helen Burns and St John (among others), and how it echoed Amber McMahon’s Michael when I saw Tom Wright’s play of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Malthouse Theatre). This is either an amorphous thought about rhymes in visual character design, or it’s just that Twelfth Night casts long shadows.
  • The casting of a human (Craig Edwards) as Pilot (the dog), and how sometimes the easiest way to write animals is to write them as a particularly aggravating (or aggravated) person.

I’m trying to remember to include a brief plan of how to ‘steal’/repurpose elements. This page doesn’t go as far in that direction as I’d like. But it did tease out a few more topics I wanted to think on, and (as usual) at least meant I could hold a useful conversation about the play!