When in doubt, make lists (and shuffle them)


A “Mr Fox” reference, not an inspirational quote (except to the extent &c…)

Making lists (or decks, or the idea of a deck, or self-shuffling Excel documents) of common elements is a very soothing procrastination activity.


I’ve made them of favourite lines, key tropes, patterns I’ve noticed in my own working habits, images I return to, favourite stories I like to use as narrative myths/templates, art styles — even just parallels between a set of books recently read (here, boarding school mysteries).


They’re a pleasant way to test what you already know, and to analyse what you love.


In case you were interested, the source texts were primarily: Murder Most UnladylikeRobin Stevens; Cat Among the Pigeons — Agatha Christie; The Hippopotamus Takes Wing: A Farrago — Simon Oke; and Picnic at Hanging Rock — Joan Lindsay.

They are also useful for all sorts of games and ways of knocking ideas against each other until they give off sparks.

Below is an experiment where I used a list for quite another purpose from its original intention. The list was a set of notes I’d made on things to strengthen in my own writing. But instead, I used the items as parameters for a quick set of repeating pattern ideas — and of course those turned into yet another set of card ideas (among other things).


You can of course buy or repurpose pre-made kits (story dice, Dixit cards, Tom Gauld’s plot generators, etc). But sometimes just the making is the illuminating part of the exercise.

Writing/art activities:

  • See also the activities on the post: This is not a deck of cards (tropes and process).
  • Make a list (slips of paper, spreadsheet, etc) of any of the following that appeal (try to make it a good long list — at least 10):
    • Tropes you particularly enjoy (today)
    • Favourite styles
    • Common elements in your favourite books/illustrations
    • Your favourite stories/stories that most resonate with you (that you keep recommending, or coming back with, or playing in your own work)
    • Media or subgenres you work in (or would like to)
    • Favourite poems
    • Favourite adjectives
  • Draw three items from your list at random, and (alone, or with friends if you enjoy argumentative conversations) apply them to:
    • A project (a short story? an illustration?) you’d like to do
    • Someone else’s story or illustration (can you reinterpret it through the lens of those cards, or make a mashup or adaptation?)
    • Something completely unrelated, e.g. what you should have for dinner (actual conversation: “we can’t go out for sushi because…. apparently there’s a high chance we’ll be intercepted by time-travelling ninja pirates”), how to rearrange the bookcases, etc.

This is not a deck of cards (tropes and process)

You might have already seen my post for Tor.com on the process of illustrating Flyaway (Illustrating Flyaway: Kathleen Jennings on Creating Art and Prose Together), but there wasn’t room for all the possible sketches I had for it.

Here’s another, from early in my development of the project. At this point, I was thinking through all my favourite (and least favourite, and most obvious, and subtlest, and possible) tropes and common elements of Australian Gothic writing (and also influenced by Ninepin Press’ The Family Arcana).


Sometimes I’ll make a list of favourites from a current type of story, and then mix and match at random until the right feeling or setting or plot for a picture (or something I’m writing) emerges. Sometimes I draw up cards and turn it into a game.

Sometimes, just thinking about the possibility of that, and the sort of things I might play with is enough — the drawing of a game. This is not the first time I’ve taken this shortcut: Behold, direct from… a really really long time ago (please interpret accordingly!), An Encyclopaedia of Improbable Games.

But you can see much more about the art behind Flyaway on Tor.

Drawing/writing activities and a parlour game (also good in cafes, if you have cafes):

  • (Adapted from a combination of workshop activities by Kelly Link, Kim Wilkins, and Anne Gracie): Think of something you are (or want to be — or should be!) working on.
    – What type of story does it belong to? (Suburban gothic? High fantasy? Secret-baby romance?)
    – Make a list of your favourite elements in that sort of story, and another list of your least favourite (try and get at least ten of each).
    – This is useful as a diagnostic (are you writing about anything you actually enjoy as a reader? are you only drawing the least appealing parts of this scene?), for strengthening an image or story (clearly it needs a floating cat, and do you have at least the emotional equivalent of a race-to-the-airport-scene? are there small spirits living in the pot plants, or did you forget to leave out the ominous wall decorations?), and for combining to come up with new ideas.
  • When with friends, tear up paper into cards — seven or so for each person. Pick a genre (or even just a favourite story world — we’ve done this with fairy tales, but also with Doctor Who).
    – Everyone sketches their favourite elements onto their cards (one element per card). Shuffle all the cards together.
    – Go around the table and tell the story (a fairy tale, and episode of Doctor Who), taking turns to play a card and incorporate that into the story.
    – Or each person picks three and draws (or writes/tells) a scene suggested by that combination.
    – (If you want a card game along these lines, I really like Atlas Game’s Once Upon a Time).

Festive Carousel


Bristol, 2019, persuaded 3/5 Very Serious Conference Attendees to ride the carousel with me

I have a few rules for travel in cities. These include:

  1. Take the bus tour at the start.
  2. Go on the Ferris wheel at the end.
  3. Follow the sound of ice-cream trucks.
  4. Always ride the carousel.

They are also very charming to draw.


Work in progress shot from a Patreon story last year

I am not great at getting cards organised for family members. Last year, however, I did manage, at the very last minute, to make them for everyone to whom I gave presents (nephews/niece/mother — we have recently restructured our approach to Christmas gifts).

As I told a vet friend, they are not meant to be scientifically correct, because (a) they are carousel animals, and (b) they are illustrations of carousel animals and therefore representations of someone else’s representation, and (c) look how shiny they are!


They are pencil, watercolour (Daniel Smith), and imitation gold leaf (Everbright)  on Canson illustration paper, with National Art Materials Crystal Clear Spray to seal the leaf.

An invitation to a woodland wedding

Woodland Wedding detail

Late last year, my friends Andrew and Katie asked me to illustrate their wedding invitation. The imagery was to be in soft woodland tones, as above, but they had ambitious plans: a three-layer popup card with a woodland scene.

Here are Andrew’s notes from a meeting at the Pancake Manor.

Woodland Wedding - client notes

I then did placement pencil sketches, so that Andrew could print them out and make sure they all fit together as he envisaged (since I, having only admiration for Andrew and Katie but a strong sense of self-preservation, was only doing the art, not the construction!).

Woodland Wedding sketches

The illustration, as you can see, was in three separate layers, each paler than the last to add a hint of atmospheric perspective. The layers would only be 1cm apart, and I didn’t want the layers to fight with each other. I then inked and scanned in the final drawings and coloured them in Photoshop.

Woodland Wedding - constructed file

I provided the finished art to Andrew and Katie, together with a selection of spare deer, leaves, twigs etc for additional ornaments.

The designs were printed double-sided and cut out by laser.

Woodland wedding - construction

And glued together by hand (all construction photos are courtesy of Andrew and Katie).

Woodland wedding - construction

Andrew put the frame together with the spare leaf matter I had drawn.

And here is the final, three-layer pop-up invitation (these photos are from the wedding photographers, Trent & Jessie Rouillon).

They also printed a giant simplified version of the frame to act as a set for the wedding, and squirrels and deer lurk in the background of wedding photos.

Woodland wedding - construction

Woodland Wedding props


Photo by Trent & Jessie Rouillon

It was a beautiful wedding, and they were a joy to work with – it was tremendous fun to illustrate a project with such clear ideas of construction and dimensions but also with the freedom Katie and Andrew felt to adapt images to many uses – there are even life-size deer and squirrels lurking in the background of wedding photos!

And here they are striking the same pose as on the invitation, although I’m guessing Katie’s wearing heels here, because I remember we had to rework the invitation a couple times to get the relative heights correct!


Photo by Trent & Jessie Rouillon

Andrew and Katie have very kindly agreed to let me put some of those individual elements up as designs on Redbubble.

The images above will take you to the current “fairytale” collection. The individual pages are: SquirrelsWoodland, Flowers, Deer, Hedgehogs (that one is stickers only).

Dragons reading books


This was a cut-paper design for the birth of two friends’ son – both a small piece of art (although larger than some I have made, as I was trying out some heavier paper) and printable as a book plate. Also practice in boys and dragons.

I am not fond of many particular dragons (they are often austere and irritating, or unduly domesticated), but I have a fondness for the species due primarily to poor Eustace crying to the moon, the glorious Dawn Treader itself, and Chrysophylax prancing along carrying baggage, which suggests that the dragons I love are dragons as imagined Pauline Baynes (who of course illustrated both Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham).

The next dragon is in pen and coloured inks. It was for my nephew’s 13th birthday – he requested “money and an awesome card”, so I broke out the gold paint and drew a dragon, as is traditional for us. When he was very small he used to sit through repeated readings of Margaret Hodge’s Saint George and the Dragon (with Trina Schart Hyman’s lovely illustrations).

Ben's Card

Illustration Friday: Crooked, and cards, and cloth

Illustration Friday: Crooked

Crooked branches for Illustration Friday (and some birthday cards). The dog is in ink and gouache – my father likes to say of dogs that “every inclination of their heart is only evil all the time”, so presumably this one has some ulterior motive. The branch of flowers is in gouache and (imitation) gold leaf. That was my second attempt. The first attempt to use gold leaf (and do an illustration for this topic), below, went horribly wrong due to some misapplied… well, it wasn’t varnish. Anyway! Turns out the size and leaf apply rather well to fingernails, and the Dustbuster my sister gave me for my birthday comes in handy when the table is covered with tiny flecks of metal foil.


On the theme of cards, here is a belated thank you card for a gift of handmade concertina books from Trudi. The card is about an inch-and-a-half square when it is folded, and has foxes, birds, mice, a cat, a Dalek and me:

Thank You Card

And on the theme of dogs, the Little Red Riding Hood fabric swatch arrived! The fabric is now available for purchase at Spoonflower: All the Wild Wolves

Wolf fabric

Thank You and Christmas Cards

This year for Christmas cards I had a stationer in the city cut and score some nice white ‘felt’ card for me: not hugely expensive and much neater than doing it myself! I printed them on my home printer. The image was the marker sketch on the right below, made Christmas 2008.

Page 28

I am in the process of doing thankyou cards, but have already done a limited edition of two for Aimee and Lisa who gave me, among other things, a pipe – to my delight and the puzzlement of my relatives.

The pipe was given to me for reference/interest. I do not smoke anything, but before I was born my father used to smoke cigarettes and my mother told him he had to stop, so he started smoking a pipe. I remember the pipe and the tobacco tins, and how he would sit on the step and clean and pack and light the pipe, and I remember watching the beautiful coils of smoke rising. He always spent more time preparing the pipe than actually smoking it. He stopped years ago now, but I miss it.


The picture is a marker drawing, from a reference shot taken in the bathroom mirror on New Year’s Day, with colour and effects added in Photoshop.