Observation Journal: A good sentence

This page of the observation journal is a return to sentence analysis — and specifically, to one of my favourite lines from Pride and Prejudice. (See previously: Staring at Sentences and First Sentences.)

Two page handwritten observation journal spread. On the left page, 5 things seen, heard, and done. On the right, notes on a sentence.
Dogs with dancing feet and girls with rabbit ears, gum trees glittering silver in the afternoon light. 

This is not a first line, but it is one of my favourite sentences in a book. It comes from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle return from a visit to Pemberley:

“They talked of his sister, his friends, his house, his fruit — of everything but himself; yet Elizabeth was longing to know what Mrs Gardiner thought of him, and Mrs Gardiner would have been highly gratified by her niece’s beginning the subject.”

This is such a fun line: low-key but central to so much of what is happening in the book, and linking several very important relationships (the Gardiners, after all, get the last line of the novel).

Here are some of the elements that came to light as I worked through it this time (starting by selecting word types — pronouns, nouns, verb strings, etc):

  • Possession and reference — Mr Darcy is never mentioned but everything in the sentence is circling that topic.
  • Domesticity and affection — the nouns (sister, friends, house, fruit, niece) focus on relationships and responsibilities, but also very kindly relationships. The tone is aloof but the undertones are deeply personal and affectionate.
  • Desire, pleasure, intensity — there’s complexity and strength here, and a sense of big emotions being held in suspension, conditionally.
  • Staccato, then flowing rhythm — awkwardness of speech (which is very sympathetic) vs the impulsive flow of emotion
  • Two views of the same thing leads to sympathy — there’s no doubt about people’s thoughts here, because we know what both Lizzy and her aunt are thinking. That puts the focus on why/what is not being discussed. But also because I’m not wondering what the characters are thinking, it makes it safe for me to feel for them, as they think it. There’s a sort of benevolent dramatic irony here, and a sense of little people moving on a board that I like very much in (for example) both Georgette Heyer and Stephen King (see Sympathy for Characters). [Also a lesson for me, as I tend to leave descriptions of emotions out of early drafts.]
  • [A more recent observation] The role of the em-dash and semi-colon — each half of this sentence is composed of two ideas (house vs man; Elizabeth vs Mrs Gardiner), but all these features are finely balanced and inextricably linked. The em-dash brings the breathless recitation to a sharp halt by focussing on what is missing. A full-stop instead of semi-colon would break the very clear point that the conversation aunt and niece are extremely conscious they are not having threads its tension through the words they do speak.

I’m particularly interested in that idea of it being safe to care for characters. Not because nothing bad will happen to them, but because of a sort of benevolent dramatic irony. It’s the opposite of a twist — the sense of things that will remain constant even if the unexpected happens. It’s also something I’d like to explore further in images, as well as writing.

But whatever practical and theoretical benefits this activity has for telling stories, it’s a wonderfully indulgent exercise to do as a reader.

For a writing/art exercise see Staring at Sentences.

For more Pride and Prejudice see (among many other posts) Mix and Match.

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: Mix and Match

The length of the observation journal pages got thoroughly out of hand in mid-February.

Two densely handwritten pages from the observation journal. The first has notes on things seen, heard, and done on 10 February 2020. The second mixes and matches elements of Pride and Prejudice and Little Red Riding Hood.

Left page: Magpies and the doppler effect of lawn mowers, and how memory is stored in places.

A drawing of a man trying to mow very long grass.

Right page: Most ways I have of breaking things open and/or finding ideas involve knocking two stories (or other things) together until something interesting falls out. In this case, I was trying to formalise that approach. It spilled over into another double-page spread, and the conclusion that this is a process that works better in motion.

A close-up of the Pride & Prejudice and Little Red Riding Hood page.

The basic idea is to mix and match two stories. There are a few ways to do this, including:

  • Looking for resonances (intriguing and useful, but particularly for express reworkings of a story);
  • Randomising or forcibly mismatching all the elements (interesting but hard work if I don’t want to default to a mash-up/repurposing, which isn’t my favourite thing);
  • Picking one pair of elements that aren’t an obvious match, pairing them up, and then following the consequences.

The last one is my favourite, and it’s useful for drawing and choosing textures, doing close readings, and playing with stories. For instance, making Mary Bennett from Pride and Prejudice the Little Red Riding Hood of a story forces a careful consideration of her relationships to other characters — and she doesn’t have many. (I like to use a version of Little Red Riding Hood that involves her getting away from the wolf and running over a river on sheets stretched by washerwomen, but in the case of Pride & Prejudice the best thing for Mary is (explicitly) finally being away from her sisters.)

Making Rochester of Jane Eyre a Little Red Riding Hood and committing to that misreading once turned into a whole story (“The Wolves of Thornfield Hall, variations on a theme”,  Eleven Eleven Journal #19, 2015). There’s a lot of material to work with.

Here’s the first half of the second double-page spread (the last page turned into a story outline which is still in progress).

A handwritten page matching up elements of Twelve Dancing Princesses with aspects of Little Women.

In this case, I was listing the elements of the key story (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), looking for a corresponding element in the target story (“Little Women”), then finding echoes, and looking for imagery to enhance on that basis. This has a bit less character exploration in it, and isn’t as useful academically as an outright misreading, but it is really useful for playing up thematic and visual elements, choosing metaphors, and getting a source of coherent and consistent vocabulary and tone — more on this in future pages (or it’ll be familiar if you’ve done a narrative imagery workshop with me).

But codifying the ideas, while a useful distraction from… whatever I was meant to be doing, or possibly just from mid-February, isn’t as exciting as picking up the thread of an idea, the first interesting element, and running with it — pulling it until it unravels, or wandering off into other paths entirely, and following dancing princesses to see where they go in search of new adventures.

A drawing of a demure princess in a high-waisted dress.

Art/writing exercise

This exercise is fun for practising close-reading, spurious argument, and description. But allow yourself at the least provacation to bound away chasing some new and marvellous idea:

  1. Pick two rather different stories. For example:
    • pick two unrelated stories you’re familiar with (perhaps a favourite novel and the last fairy tale you saw referenced)
    • or try, for example, something like choosing the first and last movies you remember seeing in a cinema — for me this would be The Hunt for Red October and Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and I have no regrets,
    • or take a story you love but that isn’t like the genre you work in, and a story you are currently trying to write or draw.
      In the example on the page above I had just watched the new Little Women and picked “Twelve Dancing Princesses” as the second story in an effort to tear myself away from using “Little Red Riding Hood”.
  2. Jot down the key characters (or places, or objects) from the first story.
  3. Match them up with elements in the second (randomly, or use less-obvious matches).
    E.g., here, I made Marmee stand in for Princesses 2-11.
  4. Work out what the resonances between those elements are or could be (even if it’s a bit of a stretch — this is the fun part).
    E.g., with Marmee (as with the intermediate princesses) she’s there and part of the story, but not obviously instigating or obviously primary to the narrative, but also manages to create a sense of abundance.
  5. Consider how you could describe or paint those characters (or places, or objects) in the second story to bring out those resonances — using, for example, observations or language or textures from the first story).
    E.g., I’ve just written “treasured, ornamented” here, because I was being seized with an Idea

Kiss Me Deer

Kiss Me Deer

Here’s a little gouache painting I did to practice deer (and use up paint!) – it’s ever-so-slightly fanart for the game “Kiss Me Deer” as played by the Bennet sisters in the book of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies).

It was also preparation for another painting I was making as a gift (that one is for slightly more limited circulation, but can be seen at the Duck level & above on my Patreon).

The art of scanning gouache is one which I have yet to study in more detail. Perhaps photography is the way to go.

Kiss Me Deer

Speaking of the Patreon, if you’d like to throw a dollar in the hat towards the monthly calendar, or subscribe at a higher level to get extra printable stationery and behind-the-scene peeks at upcoming projects, this is a great way to do it. You could even put it on your wishlist!

Illustration Friday: Garden

Illustration Friday: Garden

I’m working on a few cut-paper projects at the moment, so of course instead of cutting out a silhouette of Sputnik I stayed up too late the other night cutting out tiny little dioramas of a meeting in a certain ‘prettyish little wilderness’.

Little Daleks (and giveaway)

Little Daleks

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a book containing one of those scenes which sear themselves into my memory – the death of the bird when the girls are allowed to do as they please on their holidays and forget to take care of it. It was scarring and awful scene, because it was such an obvious, inevitable, unexpected, Lord of the Flies thing to happen. To many readers the book seems to be a hoops-and-bonnets fantasy. But while it taught me to do my chores (as What Katy Did taught me to give explanations for rules), and while I like Little Women much more than Lord of the Flies, and can forgive it a great deal for the collapsing bed and “Rodrigo! Save me!”, I cannot quite consider the novel without that memory, or consider the March girls aside from that momentous, careless cruelty.

An element of gritty reality underlies the charm (the teasing, the burned hair, the lost love). It is absent from (best-beloved) near-contemporary What Katy Did (1872 to Little Women’s 1868-9), for all its squabbles and games, and from the Little House Books (published in the 1930s recollecting the 1870s) where consequences come from outside forces and the best intentions of human effort seem to dissipate in locusts, blizzards, sickness and fire. Absent too from Anne of Green Gables’ cringing embarrassments (1908), and from Seven Little Australians (1894) which contains larger tragedies but which (in spite of laundering) most helpless animals survive. 

This, too, is the reason that I did not care for the latest Pride and Prejudice movie as Pride and Prejudice. P&P is about veneers, manners, appearances and trying to live and love through and in spite of them (oh, that one beautiful sentence about Lizzie and her aunt not talking as they leave Pemberley). The movie showed mud and pigs and sweat and pores, and the fantasy of muslin and carriages and plumes suspended above all that. And I still think, as I said when the first promotional pictures came out, that for Pride and Prejudice it is a very good Little Women! (And for the record: best Lizzie = Jennifer Ehle (that smile!), best Darcy = Laurence Olivier (spoiled boy), best Mrs Bennett = Alex Kingston (darling), best Mr Collins = Nitin Ganatra (no life without wife)).

In other news: Giveaway! Rowena Cory Daniells interviewed me on art and writing, and there is a chance to get a Dalek drawing of your very own.


Illustration Friday: Forward

Illustration Friday: Forward

Lydia Bennett, one of the least reticent of Austen’s characters, is rapidly becoming my favourite to draw. She’s the most appallingly selfish girl, but utterly consistent in her thoughtlessness. I enjoy the variant readings of her character (does she deliberately set out to ruin her sister’s reputations in childish revenge?) and she frustrates me whenever I read Pride and Prejudice (which as it is one of my father’s favourite books I do frequently), but each time I draw her I like her more than before.

So this is a very… pink collection of Lydia sketches. I see Emma and Marianne as being much pinker girls, generally, but these sketches turned out to be a very bubblegum reading of her character, so it seemed apt.

You can see a larger version here on Flickr.

Illustration Friday: Highlight

Illustration Friday: Highlight (and January Header)

When I read aloud to my father, he almost always asks for Pride and Prejudice. “Would you like me to begin at the beginning, or would you like the Best Bits Version?” I always ask, and he says, “Oh, start when they get to Pemberley.”

We have our Best Bits Versions of many novels. This Christmas he also requested The Wind in the Willows, so we read about when the Mole finds his way to his abandoned home and the field mice sing Christmas carols, and also “The Return of Ulysses” (when our heroes chase the stoats and weasels out of Toad Hall). We would have read about Christmas dinner from To Kill A Mockingbird as well, only we couldn’t find the book.

When we all still lived at home, and visitors came, we would set aside our usual reading for a favourite extract – the battle between King Pellinore and Sir Grummore in The Sword in the Stone, Henry Lawson’s “The Loaded Dog”, painting the fence or the beetle in church from Tom Sawyer.

The picture is pen and ink with digital colour and texture. Aimee modelled. The sofa is courtesy of Angela Slatter.

In other news: I am pleased to announce that a calendar was up on 1 January 2012 – it is painted through until May and is in colour. This is January, with a little milk jug I found (along with three sets of cups, saucers and cake plates) in an impenetrable second-hand shop on Ipswich Road.

January Calendar

The Dalek of Sleepy Hollow (with bonus Austen)

The Dalek of Sleepy Hollow

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Halloween and Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There is a lovely edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and this Dalek is encountering Rackham’s Ichabod Crane.

Growing up in Australia, Halloween was not an event – my mother, however, had many stories from her childhood in America, so my image of Halloween is in soft nostalgic shades, being made up of those tales, the costumes in E.T. and readings of poor Ichabod Crane’s misadventure with a pumpkin in Sleepy Hollow.

Australian pumpkins are very different from American ones, but I still consider them an unsettling vegetable. In my experience, they climb trees and are often found hiding under the bedclothes – I am not the only visitor to my parents’ house to have had this encounter.

It is 200 years since the first of Jane Austen’s novels was published. I was away from my usual equipment, but drew the following as part of the general spirit of celebration on Twitter this morning (aware that the first published was not P&P):

Dalek and Prejudice

In other news: I did manage to get a picture up for last week’s Illustration Friday: Fuel (because not everything is about Daleks, yet). There have been some lovely reviews of Steampunk!, and this one from Karen Meisner at io9 mentions my comic.

Wuthering Daleks (and Regency Ducks)

Wuthering Daleks

Back to the 19th century with this instalment of the Dalek Game (but not to worry, I have more Gaiman, Adams and waiting others in the wings).

I am sure I first read Wuthering Heights when I was about 7, but I may have been a bit older. Not by much though – I was young enough to find it more accessible than Brave New World and actually get to the end, but frankly, it was no Jane Eyre. I read it again for school in year 12, when everyone was silly enough to think it romantic, and again at uni, when I loathed it. It did, however, give us Kate Bush (alone justification for the book) and a very awkwardly funny scene with some dead rabbits.

In other news: You may have seen the Flash Gordon duck drawing. I am not doing a series of those (yet) but it led to some friends and I sitting in a pew waiting for a wedding to begin and making duck jokes, so when one of those friends had a birthday, this was the obvious choice (pen, brush and coloured inks):

A Duck Universally Acknowledged

Also – look look look! The website for Steampunk! is out, and I’m in it! strangeandfascinating.com

Illustration Friday: Wilderness

Illustration Friday: Wilderness

I am in the middle of a very large project, but needed to practice some trees for it (so technically, this isn’t procrastination). Blue pencil sketch, black 0.1 technical pen over it, scanned and paper texture and lettering added on the computer. Slightly larger version here.

The trees are frankensteined from some of my favourite Brisbane trees, and the gowns are from Racinet. The quote is from a very excellent book. Every time I reread it I am amazed by how it is written, and fortunately my father often requests it when I get home. The conversation usually runs as so:

Me: Would you like to talk or read or watch a DVD?
My father: Read.
Me: What do you want? We were halfway through [military history title] and [19th century detective novel].
My father: Pride and Prejudice.
Me: Do you want me to start at the beginning, or do you want the best bits version?
My father: Start when they go to Pemberley.
Me: [reads from Pemberley to end and starts again at beginning]
My mother: [from the sewing room, periodically] That’s just like in the miniseries!