Observation Journal: In-world surface patterns

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

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

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

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

The second half shifts through several stories:

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

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

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

Writing/art exercise

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

Observation Journal — Getting meta with story shapes

On this observation journal page I had intended to play more with previous thoughts on story structure, treating them literally as the story. The idea becoming the thing.

It’s not uncommon, of course — consider the Discworld’s Narrativium — but I suspect I had been thinking in particular about how Diana Wynne Jones occasionally literalises some aspects of genre her books (see e.g. aspects of the Gothic in Time of the Ghost and Aunt Maria, and of course the mythosphere in The Game).

Left page: “A scrabbling in the ceiling”. Also, the diffuser has fallen off the bathroom skylight, so sometimes on full moon nights it projects a perfect circle of moonlight onto the bathroom floor.

That was the plan.

Instead I got distracted by some theories of narrative that were working for me, and wondering what they would look like AS a narrative.

It has similarities to the pick-three-pictures-and-match-them-to-a-movie game (for a more involved version of that see: The Deal with Dixit). It’s a way to shuffle stories I already know into new configurations, as well as to draw out directions I’d like to pursue.


  • Story takes shape of its container” becomes… well, at it’s mildest it’s just “grow to fit circumstances”, but actually it becomes several VERY GOOD books I have read since writing this page. But I can’t tell you what they are because this would be a spoiler. Impressionable things that become good (or feared) because of who took them in, and all the violence and generosity and assumptions involved.

The main lesson: Nearly anything can be a story-shape if you’re deliberate enough about it.

Writing/art exercises: Made-up rules

  1. Theory into story: If you’re familiar with theories and guidelines in your field, pick one theory of writing or art composition that you often work with (the rule of thirds? the rule of threes?).
    • Alternatively, pick some personal beliefs about what makes a good story/picture (velvety moss? forward motion? girls with swords?) and rephrase it “all stories/pictures should do XYZ”.
    • Treat that theory TOO literally. To what extent can you make it become the story? Does alluding to something three times have an actual magical power known to people in your story? Is this a painting of a world in which all girls MUST have swords, whether they want to or not?
    • Do a quick written/drawn sketch.
  2. Found theories: Or instead, pick an object lying nearby A bowl of receipts? A fork?
    • Convert that into your new theory of story/composition. “All stories/books should be like a bowl of receipts”. “A good painting should comply with the Fork Theory of composition.”
    • Now see if you can (a) work out what that might mean and (b) sketch out a story/image adhering to that theory. (An ornamental framing device for a found-text piece?)
    • (NB I think it’s Loomis’ Creative Illustration that deals with randomised compositions.)
  3. Bonus:
    • Did you think of any existing stories/pictures that fit that theory?
    • Make a few notes on what went hilariously wrong, and if anything worked unexpectedly — to what extent do formal guidelines vs freedom vs deliberateness suit you?

Some thoughts about crowd scenes, by way of the sketchbook

A month after the residency at Concordia, I went back for their 75th anniversary. Here’s a sketch of a portion of the choir. I wish I’d had more time to draw them — it was delightful — the hairstyles, the hats, the attitudes, the varying degrees to which uniforms had been bought to be grown into.

I’ve been thinking lately about sketching groups (here’s one from the sketches I previously posted from the residency).

It’s good practice, of course — it increases speed and as well as observing motion and proportions you need to watch how these interact, and how people interact in groups. How they respond and evade, how they make different movements to reflect the same emotion or to distinguish themselves from the people nearest, or how they choose to ally themselves with another. Who is distracted, who is peering over shoulders.

I think the picture below was of a game of Werewolf at the end of IMC 2017. This is also when I started trying to draw groups more often, thanks to Irene Gallo’s advice.

(This is also why I like to sit close enough to see the orchestra at classical music performances — all the little dramas and differences among people who are allegedly working on the same task.)

And then there is the study of ways to unite people into a coherent group — overlapping them, demonstrating attention, using colour and shadow to create larger overarching shapes, ie. the blue shadow above, and the green cameo-backgrounds below (vs the independent shape of the roving photographer). These sketches were from Library Next at the State Library of Queensland.

Sometimes they are joined by light or props or patterns (of light, of poses, of uniform).

Sometimes they set themselves apart from each other deliberately — breaks in a pattern are fascinating. (These are from a Defence Innovation Bridge day at UQ).

Tiny black-line drawing with dashes of blue and yellow marker. 
Three groups sit at tables, one discussing a person in a helicopter writing a media release, others discussing a radio, and the third saying POLICY

All the little problems of perspective and distance this creates are charming, too — dancing is particularly enjoyable to sketch because while no-one holds still, they often repeat key movements so you get a chance to confirm your impressions.

And then there is all the variance and variegation of a group of people even engaged on the same very pointed activity. I’ve mentioned before, in relation to many of these same images, that sketching makes me like individual people more. However it also makes groups (as entities) more interesting.

I love this crowd around the Rosetta stone, with all their various easy-to-judge behaviours (I didn’t feel so benevolent when I sat down to draw them).

Being in the habit of seeing crowds this way does, I hope, feed into art. I do plan to do more deliberate exercises working on group scenes — here’s one where I was using kitchen objects as a guide to composition.

And I’d also like to think more deliberately about crowd and group scenes in writing — how to take all these same considerations and render them in prose. As with this example from Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern which features (among other things)

  • A generic specificity of the description, describing a group by the sub-groups (rather than individuals) within it.
  • The contrast/linking effect of only describing one element of each group’s appearance.
  • The pleasing way hats/aprons etc falls into the repetition of cuffs/cuffs/cufflinks.
“We'll take your cushion and put it on the new refrigerator, and you'll feel right at home.”
At the Daily Fluxion an hour later, Qwilleran reported the good news to Odd Bunsen. They met in the employees' lunchroom for their morning cup of coffee, sitting at the counter with pressmen in square paper hats, typesetters in canvas aprons, rewrite men in white shirts with the cuffs turned up, editors with their cuffs buttoned, and advertising men wearing cufflinks. 
Qwilleran told the photographer, “You should see the bathrooms at the Villa Verandah! Gold faucets!”

And here’s a great episode of Every Frame a Painting which touches on (among other things) the movement in Akira Kurosawa’s crowd scenes (and also the effect of emotion in a crowd scene):

Writing/drawing exercise:

  • Find a clip of a crowd scene (not CGI) — movies, documentaries, train station cameras, news footage (movies obviously are usually more choreographed). Search “good crowd scenes” or perhaps “[your large railway station of choice] at rush hour”, etc. (Or find a real-life crowd, if that’s a reasonable option where you are.)
  • Do a quick sketch of the people in the scene. This is fastest and least rigorous if you don’t actually stop the video (you could try playing it at a slower speed rather than stopping it). I recommend this step even if you aren’t an illustrator, because it’s a good way to make sure you look closely at what’s going on.
  • Write a paragraph novelising the scene. Try to get across the effect of that particular crowd scene. Can you keep a similar pace/mood to the original video? I recommend this step even if you aren’t trying to be a writer — some things (e.g. movement and noise) can be more obvious when writing.

Observation Journal: Tinkering with story engines

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

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

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

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

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

Observation Journal: The evolving review, art process, sparks

These three observation journal pages are all a review of the same two art projects, and hammering out more of the best way for me to review projects.

The first was my illustration for “On Pepper Creek”, which is now out (with its accompanying story, also by me) in the South of the Sun anthology of Australian fairy tales from the Australian Fairy Tale Society and Serenity Press). I’ve posted about the art process for that illustration here: “On Pepper Creek” — illustration process.

Pencil drawings of trees and waves and creatures with long tails.
Process sketches

The second was a scratchboard illustration for the World Roulette art exhibition and book (from Light Grey Art Lab). I’ll post more about that once the parcel of books arrives.

A snipped of the illustration

The first page was a quick exploration of the difficulties of not having an art director, and therefore having to make decisions myself. I realised that in this situation I frequently take two designs to quite an advanced stage before committing (or letting the deadline commit me). See also this small discarded skull.

Left page: Two men carrying a chair, crossing a flood plain

I then followed up with a few thoughts about why I chose the final image, and what I liked about it.

  • In one case, I chose the simplest idea so that I would still have time to do my second choice if it didn’t work (in fact, I drew several final versions of the first image, getting it to look as simple as I wanted it to be).
  • For the other, I chose the design I most wanted to spend the materials on, but ended up using the most complicated technique.

The main things I learned were:

  • On the day: Overcomplication is part of how I get things done, and so to leave room for it, within reason. (Efficacy > efficiency.)
  • In retrospect: I need to more consciously seize the reins of projects without the voice of a strong art director. I learned this more thoroughly later, but the beginnings of the realisation are here.

The next day, I decided to review other aspects of the projects, realising (although not learning) that one page was not enough for two projects.

Left page: Uber Eats’ “Your orders” symbol looks like the ghost of Ned Kelly

Here I looked at likes, alternative concepts, difficulties, dislikes, and things to try. A few themes are the ongoing pull towards denser folkloric designs, the desire for movement, the value to a piece of committing to a strong style for that piece, and the use of space.

I also wanted to leave more room to think about “why this one”, i.e. why this design. So I added it on the next page, the following day.

Left page: “Your name on rice”

As suspected, this was an illuminating question. As when I looked for the sparks in writing ideas, it has the potential to speed up the process (I’m sure I’ve posted about this, but maybe it’s still on the way). But completing this page also gave me some guidance around choosing projects when working under pressure.

A few highlights:

  • Playing with the space on a page, and/or filling the space pleasingly.
  • Fluidity/movement AND a sense of ornament.
  • A strong stylistic choice.
  • The pleasures of the material.
  • Limits on what I needed to think about.

Writing/drawing exercise:

  • Look back over a selection of your drawings/writing/other creative projects.
  • Jot down a few notes about what appealed to you about that idea: what made it spark, why did you choose it, what about it made you keep going?
  • Are there any patterns to those reasons?
  • Choose a few of the strong or common reasons. See if you can retro-engineer an idea that meets those requirements. (Here, for example, a strongly narrative wallpaper design would meet my criteria above, and is in fact a thing I often stumble into playing with — and I’ve finally signed up for some actual lessons about classic pattern design). Do a quick sketch of it (in words or writing.)
  • Bonus: Flip those criteria and repeat the exercise above. (For my criteria, that would result in a sort of overcrowded and deliberate ugliness.) Can you do it? Do you hate it, or are there things in it you’d like to try? Does it define the edges of why you mean by those criteria (for example, the point where a detailed all-over design becomes crowded)?

For posts on finding the spark in a project, see also: Sparks and navigable worlds, Do it for the aesthetic #3, Giving ideas a push, and A tremor in the web,

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).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Musical werewolves — a game for one or more players

Recently I was driving while feeling disappointed in a werewolf movie, and tried to distract myself by imagining every song on the radio was over the end credits of a better werewolf movie, and attempting to reconstruct it from there.

This works with almost any song. I’ve played it with friends in cafes with a Korean jazz playlist, and again alone today, reading Terri WIndling’s Tunes for a Monday Morning over on Myth & Moor, and later listening to Triple-J in the car.

So, for example, Martha Tilston’s “The Sadness of the Sea“.

This would be an elegaic story, in which the werewolf families sadly assume wolf forms permanently and retreat into the receding wilderness.

Declan McKenna’s “Beautiful Faces“, however, would clearly suit a story in which a group of youngish monster hunters, after some high-key-colour adventures, patch themselves up and head out for a dangerous/glamorous night on the town.

I find the game works best if you only listen to (and don’t watch) the videos, and is the most fun if you choose the songs at random.

Observation Journal: Drawing from other images

I often use the observation journal to work out ways to vary activities, and swap them between media. (I recommend that as a general creative exercise in itself — picking a task from some other field of creativity and trying to swap it into your own.)

This page was a continuation of the mixed metaphor activities, playing with visual recombinations (see: Variations on descriptions, more swapped descriptions, and similes and genre flips). However, because I didn’t really choose a target object, but just explored combinations of two concepts, it does skew close to simply mixing and matching for new ideas — see: Improbable inventions.) But that’s okay — I was feeling out the edges of the activity.

Basically, I took two items at random from the last few observation (left-side) pages, and considered how they might influence each other in an illustration.

So for example:

  • “ferns + pressure hose” suggested the vigour and angles to use in a drawing of ferns, affecting the composition, and leading to a little bird being driven forward in the general momentum.
  • “startled” and “dog with ball” suggested the use of more exaggerated body language and facial expressions when drawing someone who is startled (or joyfully chasing a ball).
  • “Beads” and a person who “always takes off their jacket in the shade” suggested using shade more deliberately (obscuring details), adding details of beading and missing/fallen beads on a dress, and generally adding extra movement to someone dropping beads.
  • This then turned into a note about a Cinderella who is always dropping things — hairpins, beads, etc. Presumably, this was to make the lost shoe in-character, but the following note says (evidence? Gattaca?).

Writing/art activities
(nb these are mostly variations of previous exercises, so you can find examples of similar approaches at e.g. Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye and variations on descriptions)

  • Stealing descriptions 1
    • Make a three lists of five things from your day: things seen, heard, and done (this part is adapted from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus). Or just look around you.
    • Pick two items at random.
    • Consider how you could use one of those objects to draw the other — do a few sketches. (For writers, consider how would you use one to visually describe the other, and write a short paragraph.) You can be as literal or lateral as you like. The sound of clanging steel could suggest the way light might reflect off an object, for example, or the deepness of velour might incline you to deepen the shadows.
    • Try two or three variations for each pair.
    • If any suggest more of a world or a character, or echo a story you know, pursue the connections and see where you end up.
  • Stealing descriptions 2
    • Choose two objects at random (e.g. a teapot and a cat).
    • Describe or sketch one literally.
    • Then adapt that description (e.g. of the teapot) to the second object (e.g. the cat) changing as little as possible. (For writers, start by just swapping out the nouns).
    • See what possibilities or impossibilities you end up with. Develop the sketch/description further if you like.
  • Borrowing at large
    • Think of another field of creative endeavour (or even non-creative). Quilting? Shearing? Search for some exercises, activities, or tutorials in that field.
    • See how much of that exercise you can adapt into your own writing/art/other medium. Can you follow it literally? Adapt crop rotation principles to a work schedule? Use a traditional patchwork pattern to suggest a story structure or scene composition?

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: By whom and to whom

On this observation journal page, I was thinking about by whom and to whom stories are told (whether in words or pictures).

(A quick note: The examples in this are pretty light: just me riffing on fairy tales. The exercise does, however, also lend itself to thinking more deeply about who gets to tell a story and who listens — and to remixing that.)

The page
(I’ve transcribed the lists — see the bottom of this post)

I’d been thinking, recently, about points of view, and the voices of slightly unexpected narrators. This was mostly because I had been reading Kim Scott’s Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (a really interesting pair of books to read against each other). I’d also just reached the section about narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

First, I made a list of 20 people who could be telling or listening to a story (keeping it fairly general, but with a fairy-tale retelling in mind). As usual this got out of hand and escalated to 45. Then I made two story-specific lists, for Little Red RIding Hood and Rapunzel.

After that, I mixed and matched entries from those lists to end up with, for example, “What the washerwomen at the ford told Little Red RIding Hood’s mother” (my favourite LRR is where she runs over the river on sheets held by washerwomen), or “What the kitchen told the prince” (which would turn the extended attempted-murders version of Rapunzel into a crime scene investigation).

The typed versions of the list are right down at the bottom of the post.


It was a lot of fun doing this, both seeing the potential immediate impact on story and purpose, but also how well it worked for editing — suddenly contracting and clarifying a story, suggesting a form it should take or a hidden (or overt) agenda. Even if I don’t change the narrator, referring back to this exercise is useful for strengthening my commitment to what I have written or sketched. (Tangentially related: reversing the (ideal) audience). The exercise has also made me more aware generally of the possibilities and ramifications of considering point of view and purpose. And it’s remained a useful exercise for new and ongoing projects, even (or perhaps especially) where I want the narrator to remain largely behind the curtain but still have a bias, either for subtle drama or my own amusement.

Art application

All this applies to illustration, equally. There are obvious art/point of view overlaps, of course, but there are also deeper narrative impacts: Consider the focuses in the stories told by the ” nurse” of Hokusai’s “100 poems explained by the nurse.” And see also previous posts on Viewpoints and Thinking About Points of View.

Narrators and observers

I’ve typed up the full lists at the bottom of the post, but as with most of these activities, making the list is one of the most useful parts of the exercise.

Art/writing exercise

  • Version 1: Generalities
    • Consider (broadly) the general type of stories you like to work with/read.
    • Make a list of types of possible narrators and audiences (keeping them all in one list is more exciting). Push for 20, but keep adding more if you like. (Or use my list below.)
    • Pick a scene of a story you are working with/enjoy, or choose a fairy tale you might retell/illustrate..
    • Choose two items from the list at random. They are now the teller and the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 2: Specifics
    • Choose a fairy-tale you might wish to retell/illustrate (or another story idea you are working with). (If you’re in a hurry, use one of my stories and lists below.)
    • List the characters in the story — include main, secondary, and background/implied.
      • Bonus: Expand the list by adding other significant/necessary/implied/intriguing settings and objects from the story. (Animals can go into either list, as appropriate.)
    • Choose two entries from the list(s) above at random. The first is the storyteller, the second is the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 3: Silliness
    • As for version 2, but use a list from a different fairy tale.
  • Bonus
    • Note how the story might shift or change, what secrets and agendas come into play or become possible, what parts of the story drop out of view or become important. What changed about actual physical viewpoint, or mood, or tone? Does it deepen or shift understanding of details of the world of the story?
    • Follow some of those changes through the rest of the story, and consider what larger consequences they might have.
    • If you tried both versions (general and specific), which approach was easiest to work with? Which more vigorously changed how you presented the story?

Birds-eye view of a pigeon

Below are the (personal to me, and not comprehensive) lists of potential tellers and audiences.

Continue reading

Observation Journal — similes and genre flips

This observation journal page is a late-night variation on previous exercises with flipped descriptions.

Like most late-night writing activities, it got a bit silly, but it was fun, and it turns out to have underpinned some more recent explorations.

Two page spread of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left page, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a cat. On the right, the exercise described.

First, I picked items at random from the left-hand page, and tried to work them up into a simile, e.g. clouds like uncurling ribbons. Those comparisons, being drawn from daily life, tended to still be based in it. (I do find this exercise useful for building and describing a vivid world. I’ve elaborated on it in Variations on descriptions and More swapped descriptions.)

Then I reworked each sentence twice: once for a science fiction setting (from a ridiculous old testing-ground of a story) and once as some sort of Regency fairy tale.

So e.g. “steam uncoiling like a galaxy”, further flipped into “a galaxy uncoiling like steam”, and then “ice softening like unstarched lace”.

I wasn’t looking for a 1:1 equivalent, obviously, but something that approximated the original phrase.

(The Xs between the sentences are where I put the sentences into the wrong column, because if you think the phrase “ambulant laser-truncheon” is inconsistent with a strictly Georgian setting, you would be entirely correct.)

Right page of observation journal, with three columns and a variety fo flipped descriptions.

As I said (and as you will see if you try to read my handwriting, which isn’t necessary): a lighthearted little exercise. But it is a fun activity to keep your mental fingers limber (good for car trips and conversations with friends if they are those sorts of friends, i.e. the writer equivalent of theatre kids), and it is an interesting way to practice thinking about the structures and textures of a world, and the differences between genres, and to fine-tune word choice and tone.

Ballpoint drawing of a cat rolling on its back.

Like most creative exercises, the activity seems to translate between writing and illustration.

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick two observations/things around you at random, and work out how they could be similar. Writers, build a simile/metaphor. Illustrators, look for ways you could draw one thing using the shapes, textures, etc, of the other. (For more detail on this, see the activity in Variations on descriptions.)
  • Pick two genres you like (or two distinctive story worlds — your own or someone else’s). It could be clipped noir and bushwalking nonfiction just as much as something fantastic.
  • Consider your original sentence/sketch. How could you create an equivalent effect in those other two genres/worlds. What objects/textures belonging to those settings or aesthetics could you use or invent?
  • Bonus round: Repeat the exercise a few times, from the beginning. See if you notice any patterns in how you approach it, or the world, or the stories you seem to be telling. For example, here I found that the descriptions very quickly began to feel as if they belonged to a larger underlying narrative. That exploration wasn’t the point of this exercise, specifically, but I’ve found those patterns instructive to keep an eye on (as much for identifying strengths and things to explore as for finding habits that should be shaken up).
  • Bonus bonus round: Pick two very close genres (or even two moods in the same setting), and look at the changes needed to shift between those.

TV sketching — backgrounds

Midsomer Murders — The Sting of Death

I’m practicing with the Procreate app by sketching during shows. Usually I draw people (see: Beyond the Main Event and Sketching Mysteries), but this time wanted to shake myself up and test my (very low) tolerance for drawing backgrounds by sketching sets and buildings instead. The rule for TV sketching is that I can’t pause the show, which makes this mostly painless.

Midsomer Murders — either The Point of Balance or The Miniature Murders

Also my visual memory is indifferent, so I can’t tinker with the drawing for very long after the scene changes. But sometimes it also means I only capture the telling details. Sometimes. (See also: Lots of little bad drawings.)

Midsomer Murders — The Sting of Death

As with most sketches, I find a little colour can do a lot of work — explaining, unifying, contextualising. Colour, more than line alone, is a great aid to memory — both for recalling what I was looking at, and for remembering (or wanting) to look at that particular page of sketches.

Midsomer Murders — The Sting of Death

It’s also been illuminating to work out which bits of architecture I can and can’t extrapolate. Dormers I can work out from first principles, but windows are a more chaotic proposition.

Leverage — The Underground Job (I think)

Art/writing exercise:

  • Try to capture a range of settings from a TV show without pausing the show.
    • This can be in pictures, as above, or in a few jotted sentences — the things that leap out at you, the way you’d capture and describe that place.
    • It’s an interesting little workout, and a pleasant way to keep my hands busy when I don’t want to completely zone out during a show. Also, even if it’s a show set in places I like, I still find it makes me draw (or describe) places I wouldn’t ordinarily choose, and adds them to my mental thesaurus. (So far, I find murder mysteries particularly good at rolling through a range of interesting sets in an episode.)
    • (This is kind of what Travelogues is, of course, if you replace a TV screen with a train window.)
  • Bonus step: Make a note of what was easy and what was difficult (architectural terminology trips me up), and what you enjoyed and resisted.
    • I find this part of exercises occasionally surprising, sometimes affirming (I don’t want to spend my life drawing horizontal blinds), and frequently a checklist for deliberate research.