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published two decades ago and I HIGHLY recommend reading technical books (outside of your own field) that are 20 years out of date — it takes the pressure off having to remember details accurately and is very useful for conversations at parties, because you can usually find someone who is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.

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 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!

Observation Journal — layered characters and tilted expectations

One of the things I appreciate about the observation journal is the way ideas keep gradually looping back over time — whether it’s the most useful way for me to approach a certain topic (this is a variation on Five Things to Steal), or just occasionally returning to a previous idea and chipping away at it (in this case, the opening of YA urban fantasy TV series).

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture. On the right, notes about The October Faction.

Left page: Small scooter accidents and harried pharmacists.

Right page: My housemate and I had started watching The October Faction, and I wanted to record what I suspected were the compelling elements, given it did the same things as a number of other series.

Densely handwritten notes about The October Faction.

The three key elements (two episodes in) were:

  • The story was being told on two levels (in the same time period). The children were living one story and the adults were living another, and it was a slightly different story at each layer. Stranger Things Season 1 did this on three layers (kids, teenagers, adults), and was even stronger for it being absolutely plausible that none of the three groups would confided in each other. Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic (the book) has a few layers as well.
  • There’s a slight Caudwell-esque inversion, too, although not played for comic value. The parents are more varied emotionally while the kids were holding things together. It felt like kids-who-grew-up-and-gained-responsibilities vs kids-learning-to-be-adults.
  • There was also a restrained messing with expectations — the things you expected (false friendship, vampires) happened, but not always quite in the usual way or quite to the usual people. Nothing extreme — it still hit all the major notes of this sort of story. But it reminded me of the rom-com Set It Up, which dutifully included all the expected faces and tropes and then did just slightly different things with them. It doesn’t subvert the genre, but it does make it a little more fun to watch and recognise what’s happening — it gives you what you want but rewards you for knowing what that usually looks like.

A small pen drawing of a child on a scooter

Observation Journal: The Emma Heist and concert strategies

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

This page of the observation journal is another Five Things to Steal (previously — Five Things to Steal: Through the Woods). Or it would have been, if I hadn’t gone to a concert after point 4.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, densely handwritten notes on Emma.

The left page has notes from a breakfast outing, and a picture of a Queenslander house without its steps (relatedly, the State Library of Queensland has a House Histories page and has also been posting the progression of Qld house styles on Instagram under #househistories).

The right page has notes on Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

A close-up of the right-hand page of the observation journal, bordered with blue watercolour, and with densely handwritten notes on Emma.

The things that most struck me (that I wanted to play with) were the power of perspective and point of view, and the resistance to that displayed by secondary characters — and, of course, the obvious artistic and possible narrative applications thereof:

I did not adapt those ideas as far as I could have, so there’s a note to push further into new ideas next time.

  • The obtrusive presence of the servants in scenes the main characters assumed were about them, and what could be done with that in terms of viewpoints.
  • The splendid awfulness of the self-centring Mrs Elton, and wanting to play more with the visual possibilities of a character like that (the counterpart to the above).
  • Changing perspective of people based on the company they seek, and the possibilities of giving secretly central roles of minor characters in a narrative.
  • Bill Nighy’s background dad, never quite comfortably fading into the background.

But then I went to the (really extremely family-friendly, mother!) New Pornographers concert. It was wonderful, but we were standing and my back was still pretty bad, and I needed a trick to focus my attention. So I decided to pretend the concert was a soundtrack for Emma., and applied myself to working out what order the songs should be in. (It made me think hard about the plot and themes of the story, while also listening very closely to music and words.)

Pen sketch of a Queenslander house, and some blue watercolour with "I like these spots" written on it.
A Queenslander, sans steps, and some nice spots

Activities/games

I like this sort of cross-matching generally, as a creative technique (see Mix and Match). But I also very much appreciate it as a sort of game for practically navigating parts of the world or directing my concentration — alone, or with sympathetic friends. For example:

  • as here, at a concert, or with an album (it made me think hard about the plot and themes of the story, while also listening very closely to music and words),
  • an unfamiliar song (in which case I like to assume it is over the end credits of a movie, and reconstruct the film from there),
  • a museum (finding each element, in order, of a well-known story),
  • an art gallery (arguing that each image is a metaphor for a pre-selected myth).

I use myths and stories I know well, but you could do it with other things: academic essay structure or architectural principles. And when done with friends, it’s a splendid opportunity to practice constructing highly persuasive arguments about very silly things.

A variant (or distillation) of that exercise is One of these things is quite like the other ones, in which you (in turns or as a group):

  • Pick two things at random (whatever is handy — although the left-hand observation page is also quite useful for that);
  • Argue for their really extreme similarity to each other.

Observation Journal: Act like it

Left page: In retrospect, an early February 2020 “feeling of anxious suspension, not beginning yet, all afternoon” may not have been solely connected to procrastination.

Right page: My sister was meant to go with my mother to see David Suchet in conversation, but at the last minute she couldn’t go, so I went. I was just taking “Five Thoughts” notes here: it was early in the observation journal and I hadn’t quite committed yet to “Five Things to Steal”, although that proved to be a more useful model.

It’s almost always worthwhile hearing a professional in any field talk about how they work — I think many points can be adapted and applied across careers, and in the case at least of writing and illustration, who knows when you might have to write or illustrate someone in that career!

A few interesting points:

  • The intersection of sheer nerve (admirable as it is!) with both an understanding of competence and actually having time to do the thing you’re asking to be involved with. This is connected to an eternally-rolling reluctant realisation that if I want to be more spontaneous I need to be more caught-up. Aka: be bold, be bold, but not too bold.
  • The reminder not to be aloof/remote about research, but to be physical and fascinated, and how the surprises of being on the ground connect to Alison Goodman’s research and Harriette Wilson’s memoirs and detective work, and other thoughts on place and story.
  • The importance of voice and walk for a character — where the impetus and centre of balance comes from for both, and how a stage lesson, taken from a written description, can translate back into art or writing. And ongoing fascinations with people deliberately adopting certain mannerisms for various good and nefarious purposes.
  • Ways to use embedded cues to give stage directions — the blatant subtlety of Shakespeare, and how to use that to steer a path between being either too obvious or too vague.
  • The ecosystem of art work — that actors need playwrights, that everyone is working to make others’ careers viable.
  • Rituals not of entry into but of emergence from a project. How to cleanly — if briefly — stop and cool down and recover. (Also how that tied into recent conversations about resilience in law and the arts.)

Intriguing points to follow up — and some I did, in teaching or elsewhere in the journal. But it also illustrates the strength of the other approach. These are mostly notes and questions. Asking “what could I make off with and make my own” forces me to choose carefully, and answer the questions, and take the first next step to adapt.

Five Things To Steal — Through the Woods

2020-01-23 KJennings-Bookcase

I’ve previously mentioned incorporating Austin Kleon‘s “things to steal” into my general Todd-Henry-based note-taking structure (Patterns/Surprises/Likes/Dislikes/Steal — see Bookmarks & remarks). It’s also become an occasional feature in the Observation Journal.

2020-01-23-webres

I used to make a note of things that were merely “interesting” or “to try”. What I like about phrasing it as “steal” (yes, obviously not plagiarise) is that, as well as adding a touch of glee, it forces me to immediately think of ways to transform whatever it was I was admiring.

The “five things” also fills the page usefully. It’s a nice length, easy to remember, and usually makes me either think just one or two steps beyond the obvious, or distill my very favourites.

Here’s a close-up of the right-hand page: FIVE THINGS I WANT TO STEAL FROM EMILY CARROLL’S THROUGH THE WOODS (a wonderful collection of… comics? illustrated stories?)

2020-01-23 KJennings-5Things-EmilyCarroll

  • Her use of endpapers. This tied into broader thoughts on surface decoration, and a general reminder (and licence) to draw on everything. I’m working on this for some projects now, in a completely different style and for a different purpose.
  • Using white outlines for only certain characters, with notes on the ethereal effect, and a desire to try to achieve this in prose (I think I wrote a paragraph or two to experiment with this; I also have a continuing interest in how authors get specific art styles into purely prose pieces — among others Dorothy Dunnett’s buttery Rembrandt light; Mirah Bolender’s Ghibli-esque curse motion in City of Broken Magic; and a very Hellboy-esque lighting setup in a novella I read recently and can’t find again).
  • Her use of different colour schemes in the same scenes to show brief flashes of memory. Again, I wanted to try this in prose, but also to see how to get away with the effect in (for example) black and white.
  • The variable structures of the stories, panels, style, and whether this could be replicated with e.g. subtitles in a purely prose piece. I have some story ideas I want to recast and plan to revisit this (in combination with some mythic/folk horror scene transition/viewpoint gymnastics managed by Paul Cornell in Chalk and Maria Dahvana Headley in The Mere Wife).
  • The last one is the only observation without a specific adaptation, and it’s mostly a reminder that the ordinary and extraordinary both gain power when they’re mixed.
  • Also some tree-appreciation — “Einar?” was a late-night misremembering of Eyvind Earle.

The last point, a “question for later”, led to playing with some small creepy stories in other formats, inspired by other books.

I enjoy this format, and what it’s led to. I’ll probably post some more examples later.

Activity/Heist:

  • Find something you admire in another field than the one you work in (a movie, a book, a comic, a painting). List five things you like about it. Try to work out how you could steal each of those elements and convert them into something in your own field.

 

And in case it needs to be said: Don’t plagiarise!

Also: Read Through the Woods.