Observation Journal — First Sentences

On this observation journal page, I was taking some more time on another favourite first sentence (following on from my earlier attempt to batch-process first lines).

Double-page spread of observation journal: On the left page, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture; On the right, thoughts on first lines.
Left page: “Greengrocer’s glowing with oranges, lemons, apples, melons, tomatoes”; also, I forgot how to draw a shopping trolley

Really, it was just an excuse to spend some time in the first line of Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered:

Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth.

Handwritten thoughts on the first line of Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

I love this first sentence. There’s no reference to persons, places, or events. There is, however, a very clear narrator: portentous, comically formal with fits of frank informality, weighty and oblique but perhaps (perhaps) not as complex as they perceive themselves to be.

And there’s already, here, a note of the relief and resignation on which the narrator (though not the plot) will end the book — ultimately, the narrator (Hilary Tamar) is more concerned about their own overlooked brilliance than the guilt or innocence of the accused Julia.

It’s punchy and funny and a little startling, and a definite Mood. There’s no action, but there is a tension — between the latinate and English words; elevated diction vs brevity; lofty principles vs grumpy relief; that very brevity vs the irony and doubled negatives. Why “thank God”? What has happened, what due was not given, who would express themselves this way? (If you’ve read the books, you’ll know this is a question that is immediately, constantly, yet also never answered.)

I then did a couple of replacement exercises (from Stanley Fish, see also previously: bodysnatching). I switched out each element (without particular attention to elegance of phrasing) to get, e.g. “Breakfast seeks, thank the cook, no pinnacle save omelette” and “The star requests, thank agents, no special treatment save a sedan chair.”

What this brought out (for me) was the personification, the irony, the echoes of Pride & Prejudice in the dubious veracity of a broad statement, and how difficult it is not to be sarcastic when using this particular sentence structure.

It’s also just a great book.

A previous take on Caudwell: The Caudwell Manoeuvre.

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 — Little Groves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few points:

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

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

And I do like them!

Observation Journal — story structures

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

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

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

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

First, I applied observations to a structure:

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

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

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

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

This page has been useful for a number of reasons:

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

WRITING/ART EXERCISE

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

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — written sketches and samplers

On this observation journal page, I was trying to use the journal in the same way I use my sketchbooks.

Double page of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a fat pigeon.
On the right, a dot point list of ways people held their hands at a cafe.

There are three approaches here.

Left page: casual sketches (written and drawn)

The left page often functions as a sort of sketchbook, anyway — little notes on the day, attempts to capture a sound or a movement or a glimpse (as here: pigeon shadows sliding up a roof to meet their pigeons). Some of these would work as drawings, but might need more work to capture what I wanted to remember (as compared to, say, a sketch of a single puffed-up topknot pigeon).

On this day, I took the observation journal with me on a walk, which is a sure way to fill the page up up far too quickly, and also to walk extremely slowly. But it creates a lovely lyrical impression of the day.

I’ve used this approach for some space/place-based projects — one is forthcoming, but of course Travelogues was written that way, and I’ve talked before (see: Sketching with words) about using this approach when writing Flyaway.

Left page: ROYGBIV

I also did a variant of the ROYGBIV exercise here (see: Observation Exercises). I was looking for colours from the spectrum (in order) in plants that I passed. This is complicated by my limited botanical knowledge, but it creates both a lovely structure for looking at the world and — as a result — a framework for an image of a place and time (Oxley at the end of autumn). Here’s the list:

Bottle-brush/poinsettia; duranta/grevillea; banksia candles/jacaranda leaves; new leaves on various/olive-honeyeater; eyes on ditto/spear on bird-of-paradise flowers; ditto/shadows in rolled tiger-tree bark in cleft; lavender-y patches of bark ditto; purply-pink berries (?); periwinkles; tips & edges of succulents.

Right page: A themed sketch / sampler

When sketching in my sketchbook, I will often pick a single topic to sketch (see sketchbook posts generally). These are frequently (but not exclusively) hands — hands in cafes, hands on books, hands on guitars…

Sketching thematically is useful for several reasons:

  • It’s a great way to pass time.
  • It makes me look closely at something obvious, and find the variety and personality in it.
  • It creates a framework for capturing an aspect of a setting (or moment or demographic).
  • It creates a useful thesaurus or sampler — even if I don’t refer back to the sketchbook, these poses are somewhere now in my hands or mind (see also: On making samplers of various kinds).
  • It can turn into a piece of art on its own (October calendar: Cold hands).

So this observation journal exercise was the same activity, but written.

Dot point list of ways people held their hands

It is a list of the ways people were holding their hands in a cafe.

They are loosely sorted into phone-holders (“Hand holding laptop & notebook, one finger extended to wrap phone & clasp against book”), coffee-holders (“Fingers tucked under saucers, thumbs on edges, fingers supporting sides (of saucers)”); and other (“One hand loosely clasping cardigan closed, other towing dog”). 

I was surprised at the variety (although I shouldn’t have been) — perhaps because when I draw hands it’s just a matter of arranging lines and shadow — I use the same lines, the same shadows. But when I write these notes, I suddenly need to use a whole vocabulary of words for movements (flexed? extended? crooked?) that I don’t usually default to.

Pen drawing of fat topknot pigeon

Writing/art activity

  • Take up a position from which you can observe life. I’m a fan of cafes because the life is in motion so no-one knows if I recorded it accurately or not. Socially-distanced vaccine queues are an option. Livestreams and documentary footage and birds out the window also work.
  • Pick a common/obvious detail of life: how people hold their hands in a cafe, or what they do with their feet in a supermarket queue, or what they do with their faces when listening on Zoom, or how dogs wait…
  • Fill a page with sketches (written or drawn) of just that detail — all the versions you can notice, the commonalities, the slight variations, the personalities that come through.
  • Switch — if you’re a writer, try sketching a couple poses (they can be diagrams); if you’re an artist, see what words you need to capture them.
  • If you want, do a quick (written or drawn) sketch of a scene in your preferred genre or from a favourite drawing, and see if you can incorporate that detail — a dragon waiting the way you saw a dog sprawled in the middle of a thoroughfare, a royal advisor holding a goblet the unexpectedly complicated way someone held a glass in a cafe, a detective scuffing their shoe childishly while thinking… See what it does to the scene or the character.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — staring at sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading

Observation Journal: playing with first lines

This observation journal page was a continuation of the ridiculous titles activity, and also the start of a few pages staring very hard at favourite first sentences.

Two pages of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a person putting bags into the back of a car. On the right, playing with first lines.
“very beautiful, many things”

I picked three of the titles (“These Are Not Hounds that Shift with the Sun”, “False Gifts, the Moon Brings”, and “The Dachshund of Moonfold”). Then, for each, I wrote two possible first sentences. I also made a note of what I liked about each — the oddity of a rooftop sunflower garden for a crime scene (based on a combination of the top of the Hachette UK office building and the sunflower garden in Changi airport); the aesthetic of the silver and black colour scheme prevalent at the death of an eminent interior decorator; the contrast between a brocaded waistcoat and a blighted hedge.

As I’d noticed before (see: application to a story), having fun with possible first sentences is an effective way to quickly isolate a tone and come up with characters — here, a beleaguered inspector, a perennially-broke (and potentially ill-fated) interior designer, and a disgraced estate agent.

But of course first sentences only get you so far. The real trick is in the (n+1)st sentence.

Occasionally I remember that. On this Saturday just past, I finally just sat down and sketched out the whole shape of a story that started with “A Fretted Folding Folly“. (Also illustrating the importance of revisiting these pages). And of course “The Heart of Owl Abbas” began as a challenge to write one sentence on the first day of a month, and two on the second, and so forth.

A French bulldog

Observation Journal: Title patterns

A rather silly observation journal exercise, as I’d been up very late the night before and was dazzled by tiredness.

Double page spread from the observation journal, handwritten. On the left, things seen, heard, and done. On the right, a series of silly book titles.
Left page: A green tree snake uncoiled off the carport gutter, made eye contact with me (I was in the kitchen) and then reascended!

Generally, the left-side pages serve their own purposes (see the introductory observation journal page), but they are also an excellent source for activities or ideas or quick placeholder answers for the right-side pages.

Here, I was thinking of common book title patterns, and using elements from several observation pages to create new titles.

  • The Echo of the Mother of Rivers
  • The Door of Clean & Holy Things
  • *These Are Not Hounds that Shift with the Sun
  • *False Gifts, the Moon Brings
  • A Fretful (Fretted?), Folding Folly
  • Bulldozers in the Spring
  • Familiar Treasures
  • *The Dachshund of Moonfold
  • Sigils in the Light
  • *Riverfool and the Moon
  • These Gleaming Sleeping Shoulders
  • Primeva’s [??] Resurgence
  • *The Creeksinger
  • *Digunder
  • Instructions for Piercing the Firmament

I wish I could remember what titles I was using as cues! Also, if I were doing this again, I’d have made a note of why I liked the titles I liked (asterisked at the time). As best I can reconstruct it now, the pattern seems to be a delicate balance of ominousness and whimsy. I don’t love “The Creeksinger” but it resonated with a project I was working on. Digunder, Riverfool and the Dachshund belong to a school of late middle-grade Gothic which can be intensely charming if it doesn’t let its humour get out of hand. Hounds and False Gifts are appallingly overwrought, but therein lies their charm — it would be almost impossible to take them seriously with a straight face.

The Dachshund of Moonfold is a particular favourite, although I wouldn’t mind owning (or at least making) a fretwork folding folly.

Tiny, tiny pen sketch of a person carrying a fretted folding folly (folding screen).

Drawing/writing exercise

  1. Make a list (or find a source) of intriguing or cliched titles. (Books, paintings, movies, poems… Your own shelves, or bestseller/box-office lists can be good sources.)
  2. Look around you, or think of things you’ve noticed today. Use them to replace words in the titles, keeping the same structure.
  3. Find a few which please or amuse you. (Is there a pattern between them? Do they catch a particular gleam, or appear to belong to a particular subgenre?)
  4. Do a quick sketch (picture or paragraph) of the idea hidden behind one or two of them — or a cover to match the title.

For more title silliness, see: Bad Cover Versions and, of course, the Dalek Game.

Edit: These ideas were continued with some first lines.

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 — on editing

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

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

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

Key editing lessons (from these stories):

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

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

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

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

Lots of little bad drawings

Lots of tiny biro drawings, some described further in the text
(Sections shown larger below)

This is a collage of very scribbly drawings from the observation pages of the journal. I made it for a workshop about the journal I gave for SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Queensland.

Feat. Saffy, Johnny, Lulu and Oz

It’s a useful compendium of the variety of pictures in the journal — and the variety of quality. From diagrams of dangerous u-turns, through unconvincing cats, to badly-remembered helicopters. The point isn’t to be any good, or even large (see the soy sauce fish) — it’s just to make a drawn note of something from the day.

Two! Two pheasant coucals! Mwahahaha

It’s illustration as the most short-hand version of communication — but so varied in what it succeeds in communicating (at least to me, its intended audience). Only a few have a caption, like the Uber Eats receipt symbol above (it does look like the ghost of Ned Kelly). But while I could have written a more convincing crow-in-the-window, what I was trying to remember here was its attitude — and the same for the boy in the very short tree, out of which a teacher was attempting to lure him. The hot water bottle was something simple and comforting (my back was still causing havoc), and the point of the person pushing the office chair uphill was their very specific cryptid pose.

Jacaranda seedpods look a bit like stingrays

And taken together, there’s something pleasing (to me) about the sheer volume of sketches, the resonances that appear between them (a sequence of birds, a contrast between plane shadows and a sturdy drawing board. I firmly believe that:

  • if you draw fast frequently you discover both a shorthand (eyebrows + nose = me) and what you like to draw
  • if you draw small, people think it’s detailed — the opposite is true (or scale, the grid is 0.5cm, less than 1/4 inch, and the pictures are drawn with a ballpoint: Pilot BPS-GP<F>)
  • if you draw a lot of small things it becomes a big piece of art (or at least an extended comic routine, which is also art)
  • “bad” can be an aspiration, not a criticism
  • if you draw things badly a lot, it just becomes ‘your style’

And these aren’t “good” pictures in the classical sense. The anatomy is dubious, the camelids are just a scribble with ears, the perspective isn’t, I forgot how sofas work. But where they work, it’s because:

  • I don’t care if these are good — they’re not meant to be academic exercises. The only way to get them wrong is not to do them.
  • They’re fast, which makes them honest while also conferring a degree of plausible deniability
  • They’re also chatty (although I’m primarily talking to myself) and I like chatty drawings just as much as those which look like worlds you could walk into (anecdotes vs epics)
  • You can see the important-to-me shapes. The curly back of the sofa below is not at all accurate to the actual woodwork, but that’s the impression it left. The cockatoo above isn’t at all correct, but all I wanted to remember was the punk hairstyle (I think the breeze was behind it). The contrast in the movement of the boy in the tree vs the pose of his teacher (the second picture above) was all I needed — everything else is just supporting context. Movement tells a story and covers over a multitude of inaccuracies.
Featuring Saffy and Obi

But there’s something else I discovered putting these slides together: Seen en masse, these scribbly drawings become a time-lapse of a week, a month, a year, a cascade of days and alpacas and domestic upheaval and other people’s cats.

(Some of these have already shown up incidentally in observation journal posts).

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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