Observation Journal — Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

I’d been using the observation journal to think through the patterns in all the Regency reading I’d been doing in early 2020 (see the previous post on Ridiculous (but charming!) situations).

Over the following weeks I pursued it further — first, simply making a quick list of things I personally did and did not like, and then having far too much fun listing Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities.

1. Likes and dislikes

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, with a picture of someone walking; A list of likes and dislikes.
Crows really do fly like hand shadows

Some of these are quite picky, and many are indefensible.

  • A set way of writing love scenes vs a bit of variety and personality. (But I prefer fade-to-black.)
  • Implausible/unexplained perfumes vs scents that reflect the character’s life and something of their character.
  • Silliness and slapstick vs characters who are very earnest and unaware of the ludicrousness of their situations.
  • Satin and ruffles vs muslin and gauze.
  • Unconvincing stock characters vs absolute commitment to a stock character.
  • Unnecessary angst in the face of obvious love vs love followed by complications vs late epiphanies but without angst.

And of course, all the versions I don’t like can work for me if they’re doing it with absolute defiance and/or doing two things at once.

There’s also a note there, semi-related, from when I ran into Lou on a walk that day and we discussed bathroom breaks in books and where, for example, (as in Diana Wynne Jones) they can highlight relative wealth, etc.

As with the unsubstantiated manifesto, I like making lists of opinions without having to justify them. It’s fun, but it’s also a good way of finding things to play with, either in the observation journal or to see what I can do with them in a picture or a story (how would I describe satin in a way that doesn’t offend my sensibilities?). It’s also interesting to see where my limits are on tropes I broadly like (e.g. descriptions of clothes) — this topic comes up again later in the journals.

2. Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, and a photo of a camera tripod setup, and a list of unlikely abrupt intense proximities
The Home Ice Cream Van gave form to our days

Back in the Ridiculous (but charming!) situations post, I realised all the situations I listed shared “a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity”. So on this page I just made a list of some of my favourite abrupt intense proximities from romances and rom-coms. Occasionally these are a meet-cute, occasionally they’re a whole subgenre — and they’re not exclusive to romance, of course. Most also work for buddy and odd-couple drama/comedies and for horror stories.

  • Trapped by a storm
  • Locked in a cupboard
  • One bed 
  • Everyone thinks we’re [whatever]
  • Blackmail you to help me
  • Responsible for your safety
  • Joint responsibility for someone else
  • Unwilling guest/host
  • Parties to an arrangement
  • Civility does not permit me to depart
  • You have foisted yourself onto me and now I am not sure how to get rid of you
  • Injury compels me to stay here
  • It is efficient to pursue our parallel interests together
  • Hired to provide a professional service
  • Arrangement of convenience
  • Sibling/ward/friend’s friend
  • Mistaken identities
  • Mistaken personalities
  • Vehicular accident/transport issues
  • Task to complete together
  • Only doing this as a favour for someone else

After that I played around with a few elements, to see what happened to them as they turned into a story. I flipped expectations (see The Caudwell Manoeuvre), ending up with a rough uncivilised Beauty and an elegant, modest Beast, and tried picking an aesthetic or a setting, e.g. a bed and breakfast, or folk horror (why not both?). I’d already been playing with those approaches, of course, but adding a situation kicked the process forward a few steps.

Art/writing exercise

  1. Think of a classic type of situation in your favourite genre (the discovery of the body? the re-emergence of the monster? the race to the airport?) and make a list of some versions of that situation you’ve seen. (Or use the list above).
  2. Then make a list of settings — genre-feasible or not, as you prefer!
  3. Pick one of each at random and sketch (words or pictures) how that situation would work. How would a “chase to the airport” scene work (or what would perform the same function) if you were setting the story on a steamboat? How would the “discovery of the body” work in a bridal fabric store?
  4. See what you learn about what makes those types of situations work for you, and/or about the setting.
  5. Variations: Try it in different genres, or pick the standard characters involved in the situation and flip their descriptions (an aloof, intelligent witness and and an emotionally-overwrought detective?).

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: Ridiculous (but charming!) situations

This page of the observation journal is the result of reading Regency romance novellas and discovering a pattern of things that amused me far too much.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. On left, five things seen, heard and done, and a bad pen drawing of a kookaburra with "how do kookaburras" written under it. On the right, a list of romance situations.

Left page: Forgetting how to draw a kookaburra in spite of having just seen one, and making my housemate watch The Ship Song Project video. Also a note about the “charm of specificity”. That day, it was in relation to seeing a piano removal van, but it applies to most very particular things — shops that only sell sale signs, or industrial sheds advertising billiard table resurfacing. I think it’s one of the reasons the Caudwell manoeuvre works.

Right page: This is another take on finding out why I feel a way about a thing (see also: YA road trips; staginess; alt-DC rom-coms). 

For reasons involving April 2020 and a hospital procedure, I’d been on a strict reading diet of very light romantic comedies and Regency romance novellas. To begin, I simply listed ridiculous situations which kept showing up and which, for all their wild improbability, thoroughly delighted me every time they appeared on the page. starting with the classic “Oh no! I am trapped in a wardrobe with you, my enemy!”

I then listed what seemed to be the necessary elements of each (e.g., attractive enemy, unaware protagonist, potential for antagonist to discover them, wardrobe, reason to be in it).

Once I had those lists, patterns started to emerge. For example, all the situations shared a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity [Edit — I developed this further in “Unlikely Intense Proximities”]. On the other hand, there were two distinct orders of things: situations which moved characters from passion to love, and those which tended to move them from love to passion. There’s also a note there which says “for difference between romance and Gothic, consider each as it appears in Jane Eyre”, which I’m not sure is entirely substantiated, but is entertaining to consider.

Handwritten analysis of romance situations.

Here’s the full list (I developed it further later in the journal, but if you like tropes, I also tweet about them occasionally). A note: these are the patterns in the books I’d just read, not requirements — there are of course other variants.

  1. “Oh no! I am trapped in a wardrobe with you, my enemy!”
    1. attractive enemy
    2. unaware protagonist
    3. antagonist to potentially discover them
    4. wardrobe
    5. reason to be in it
  2. “I, a sensual — but repressed and terminally honourable — person am trapped in an isolated manor with you, a dangerously attractive (but terminally honourable) stranger! Oh no!”
    1. Sensuous, unusual, but trapped-by-circumstances innocent
    2. Stormy, unusual, but honourable (ish) second party
    3. Isolated location and weather
    4. Locals who could discover them
  3. “I have had a crush on a person for a long time, but now that it is about to be reciprocated I have matured enough to realise that it is you, stormy acquaintance, whom I really love. (Oh no.)”
    1. Innocent
    2. Object of attraction (unworthy but obvious)
    3. Object of affection (unconventional but harbours [own?] crush
    4. Time pressure
    5. A knowing and affectionate parental figure
  4. “In an unlikely turn of events I, an unassuming but fervent individual, am betrothed to the unsuspecting object of my affections, whose would-be-true-love is determined to part us. Oh no!” 
    1. Unassuming, passionate innocent, undervalued
    2. Societally valued object of their affection, apparently oblivious to value of protagonist
    3. Reason for Marriage of Convenience (class/$/reputation)
    4. Dashing rival (a close connection or sibling of protagonist) [not necessarily, see e.g. Heyer, but in all the ones I’d just read]
    5. A calm and functional marriage
    6. Bluff loyal supporter (optional)

Observation journal lessons:

  • Being silly when listing or classifying something generally pays off (see this list of paint personalities).
  • It makes it easier just to get a list onto the page for later analysis (and not worry about what form that analysis should take) — and often reveals patterns of how I feel about things.
  • It also catches the glee (or other emotion) I associate with those things, which makes it easier to use them for my own projects later.
  • Apparently I use the term “Cabot-ish” instead of “rom-com”.

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).

Harriette Wilson’s Daleks

In celebration of the launch of the Georgette Heyer, History, and Historical Fiction, which contains my chapter, “Heyer . . . in Space! The Influence of Georgette Heyer on science fiction”, here is a Georgian Dalek (only shown previously to supporters of the calendar over on Patreon, who occasionally get glimpses of other works in progress).

Pen and ink drawing of a Dalek carrying parcels for a lady in Regency dress, while a man in uniform calls up to a Dalek in a window.

This drawing is for the splendid, risqué (though really not), human, ridiculous Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, infamous Regency courtesan but also basically Lydia Bennet if she had lived her best life. 

Scandal! Black pudding! Rivalries! Patent medicine! Bracing walks! Byron! Coconuts! Self-improvement! The Duke of Wellington! 

You can find the book on Project Gutenberg, but I recommend the edition with Lesley Blanch’s introduction and the correspondence with Byron in the appendix. 

I know this is Harriette Wilson, rather than Heyer, but as proof of my credentials, Heyer has featured in the Dalek Game previously (from ages ago, before I finally worked out that I do in fact also like recently-written Regencies (although still for largely for other reasons than I enjoy Heyer), and fell among romance writers, and started playing in the fringes of that genre, too.

Pen-and-ink drawing of a Dalek in a Regency dress
Regency Dalek
Pen and Ink drawing of a Dalek peering out from behind a stage curtain
The Reluctant Dalek

I still do draw the Daleks occasionally! I’m slowly building up a stock to start posting again, but occasionally supporters of the calendar over on Patreon get to catch a glimpse of various works in progress.

Observation Journal — Blue bees and alt-DC rom-coms

On this page of the observation journal, I was again thinking through a pattern I’d noticed across a few books. It also features a blue bee sighting.

Double page spread from observation journal, handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture. On the right, a chart of ideas.

General journal notes: I occasionally use the journal to look a little more closely at something I enjoy. Some previous journal posts include The appeal of staginess, Breaking down patterns, and Things that tell you what they’re doing. I’ve since expanded it to look at, for example, the charm of tiny contained worlds in art — I’ll post that journal page in due course, but it led to the Ominous Groves calendar page.

In this case, I had already thought of a few key elements of the idea I wanted to analyse, so I went directly to thinking more closely about each of those. It’s a different approach to the central mind map and detailed tables I used previously, and was more useful for collating things I already wanted to say. You’ll see the note in the reflection area at the bottom says I’m still looking for a structure for these notes.

The purpose of these sorts of notes is to try to look under the hood of something I like (pictures or stories), and see what makes it work. And to find mechanisms and tools I can use to build or fix my own work.

But on to the question, which was — what is the appeal of romantic comedies set in an alternate version of Washington DC?

Handwritten observation journal page charting ideas.

Context: It was April 2020 and I was in Brisbane, Australia. I was thinking of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue, and Meg Cabot’s All American Girl, and the movie Dave (which I think I meant to write there instead of West Wing), and other fantasies of Washington DC. I was looking at reasons they appealed to me, and how they managed to feel “giddy, hopeful, charming”. And also, seen from outside the USA, these are a very strange genre. Finally, this wasn’t a critique of the genre (and clearly there is a lot more to be said!)— I was specifically looking for the elements which seemed to make it work.

Main points: There were six main elements that these stories seemed to share.

  • Power combined with equality
    • There is a fantasy of power
    • But also the stated aim of equality (even if there is also hypocrisy)
    • The characters in a relationship often hold some power, which makes them potentially equal, even if that power is knowledge or secrets
    • The story can play with ideas of power
  • A utopia, but with shadows
    • There tends to be a shining setting and a buoyant mood
    • There is a fantasy of the right thing having the potential to happen
    • But this state of affairs requires constant maintenance (which creates conflict without necessarily requiring an antagonist)
  • Privilege paired with obligation
    • This exists in tension with the first point (power + equality)
    • It permits fantasies of nobility and noblesse oblige in an American context
    • All the thrill of access and secrets and a sort of White House Gothic
    • The privilege is potentially fragile (not just birth, one hopes)
  • Unlikely proximity
    • Useful for the genre (meet-cutes, etc)
    • Characters are thrown together
    • There are many different interests in one place
    • Unlikely proximity is a function of the place as a constant, and a heightened mood, etc
    • It allows some small-town qualities without necessarily being weary of it
    • Rulers, the rich and famous pass through
    • Rarefied air and a small stage gives a city-state effect (and relates to privilege+obligation)
  • Beauty and brains
    • Attraction and attractiveness, yes, because of the genre
    • But brains & competence & high achievers because of the setting
    • And this means that wit and banter can become effectively action scenes
    • [I’m also intrigued, lately, by books which create a milieu where the physical or intellectual attractiveness of the characters is explained by the setting rather than by coincidence/the fact that they are main characters]
  • Learning curve and expertise
    • People are not (necessarily) born to this. There is always a learning/coming of age.
    • “Movement — country/America as a verb, not a noun” — I don’t remember what this means!
    • The learning curve contributes to the speed of the story and its arc
    • 4 years at a time, not generations [note: obviously there are dynasties, etc — this was in the context of the books]

It’s quite interesting to see which of these elements are shared with (for example) Regency romance, which these books occasionally remind me of (I did get into “unlikely proximities” on a later page). These alternative-DCs are the contemporary settings which most often feel to me like a Regency (but I have strange ideas about those). From a romance/rom-com perspective, it would be interesting to go back and look at the differences between this and Regency, and to see which other subgenres share the similarities. And it would of course be worth looking at the dangers, or what isn’t shown, and where books shift out of this genre when the fantasy of Washington starts to crumble, and how the genre itself changes.

Some of this reading (and these thoughts) fed into my post on the romance of the navigable world, for Meanjin.

Go. Home.

Writing: A short history of lessons learned

Background: This post began as my side of an email conversation with a friend who is also a professional illustrator/author. I did warn them it would become a blog post! They had had rigorous artistic training with solid mentors, but their writing education was more diffuse, focussed on the sentence level, and usually in service to illustration rather than pursued as an independent craft (they are very good, though! also this is de-identified but it describes a lot of illustrator-authors I know, in one direction or another, including myself). This made me sit down and think about how I have learned the bits about writing that I do know, resulting in the following very high-level summary.

Caveats: I’m still learning. This is less advice than description, and therefore partly cautionary — to the extent it is advice, it is advice to a particular person.

Short answer: The most important thing for me — and from what you’ve said, possibly also for you — is to actually finish an (ugly and incoherent) Thing of roughly the size and type you want to write (ignoring ALL the sentence-level stuff) and then learn on that as you try to breathe life into it. It gives you something to put the bigger craft lessons to work on, and also very viscerally teaches you what not to do. And it might turn into something great (parts of Flyaway started as very larval drafts a long time ago) but it will CERTAINLY make everything you do next make more sense and be easier. This does not seem efficient. But it is. 
If I were you, I would foolishly and gleefully do NaNoWriMo and damn the torpedoes. And then possibly do it again. But I treat it as the world’s largest parlour game, so your mileage may vary.

Long answer: I was trying to work out how best to organise my thoughts, and thought it might be simplest to just list the order in which I think I learned things, and how it happened. Then you can ask me for more information on any of them!

  1. I always wrote: It sounds like this is you, too! Just that constant background hum of thinking in words, doing exercises, reading books — sort of doing scales on a mental piano. I accidentally became an illustrator due to the events in Step 6.
  2. I entered poetry and writing competitions early and relatively often: That was one of the first experiences of deadlines and an external standard to try and meet — and the high you get when things are well-received.
  3. A genre writing group: (Vision Writers in Brisbane — and I still have many friends from those days.) This came with a degree of expectation that I would write. It taught me to take and give critique. It also taught me to navigate people’s tastes and come to terms with them. It also gave that sense that we were all running together in the same direction.
    Also when I started we had to bring printouts of our story and then sit there while people quietly read through them, and few things really feel stressful after that.
  4. Rereading and deep reading of books: I’m not naturally a structural thinker. Rereading and talking about and thinking through books gave me a deep familiarity with books and stories I like that can stand in for structure. It also gave me a library/arsenal of techniques and tricks. It’s also become a source of things to reimagine. Also my dad’s favourite book is Pride & Prejudice, which I like but getting through many, many, manymany readings and viewings of it (since he can’t read for himself any more) has been educational!
  5. Conventions: Again, that sense of possibility and running together. Enthusiasm and ideas. Friendships that later make projects happen. “Benchmarking” in the sense of realising these people do what you do. You know all this!
  6. Writing regularly: This looks different at different times. At the most significant point, I was doing 100 words (of anything) every day — very brief. This is like doing scales: I stay in practice and if I need to/decide to write anything serious, I’m not starting cold. Also eventually it frustrated me and I wanted to write more. Also it meant I couldn’t get to the end of a year and say I hadn’t written anything. And little bits add up — the cumulative power of it is impressive. The reason for the 100 words/day was that I was working until 1 in the morning, often, as a young lawyer, and doing too many other things, so I picked the ones I wanted to, could do, and would do every day — I lived in a wooden sharehouse and so had to quit the bagpipes, but I could write 100 words and draw a smiley face before I fell into bed. 
  7. Ad hoc mentorship: My relationship with Angela Slatter progressed from my being the terrified (but grateful) recipient of rigorous critiques (“flensing“) to a friend and mentor. Consistent and rigorous feedback is incredibly educational, once you work out and apply the lessons! This helped me to acquire a voice-in-the-back-of-my-mind which could stand in for instinct on some things (the rule of threes, not waffling, remembering to put page numbers in…). I was also able to sort of sit on her shoulder and watch her navigating the industry. Someone to scold you and vouch for you and help you send your stories to the right places is very useful.
  8. NaNoWriMo: Some people loathe NaNoWriMo. I adore it. Basically, you race to write 50,000 consecutive words of fiction in November. I learn slowly, so over a series of years it taught me: the fun of spreadsheets; to write; to write fast; to write and not even think about editing until the draft is down; when and how to start shaping a story towards an end; how to finish a story; how a story feels as it takes shape; how much easier things are with a plan; how to write fast to a plan. 
  9. FINISHING A THING: Probably the most important thing. Not enough on its own but I couldn’t have done anything else without it. There are things I couldn’t have understood without getting to that stage. It comes with a sense of desperation, the vital lessons of plastering cracks and skating over thin ice, patch fixes and so on. But you also learn what the shape of a whole thing feels like, even if it is weirdly boneless and strangely formed and far too large. It’s a remarkable high having done it. Even — and maybe especially — if you’re exhausted and it’s ugly. And after that so much writing advice I “knew” actually started to make sense. (For example: I always secretly thought people who talked about writing 15 drafts were being inefficient, but it’s incredible to get to the end of a first draft and look at it and tell yourself: it’s okay. I have 14 more tries to get this right.)
  10. Kim Wilkin’s Bootcamp: I did a structural workshop run by Kim Wilkins (later my MPhil and current PhD advisor). She has a very pragmatic and quite flexible approach to structure, and it helped me a lot with later plans. A big lesson somewhere in all of this, though, was that for me and the sort of writing I want to do (possibly similar to you), narrative structure and the theories about it are fun and inspiring and FAR more useful as a diagnostic tool than as an actual guide to writing. (Also I’ve discovered I plan at different stages depending on the genre.)
  11. Doing the MPhil (sort of a half-size PhD — I wrote Flyaway during it): This gave me space, money, expectation, deadline, and obligation. It gave me an external purpose and structure. It also gave me the impetus to really analyse other people’s work, as part of the research, which turned out to be a valuable skill (who knew?). This helped me learn to write as a writer, not as a reader.  
  12. Analysis: I did this with the MPhil, and the Observation Journal activities I’ve been blogging about help a lot. But I learned the importance of it when I decided to analyse things that weren’t in my genre. I was too close to fantasy to read it critically — at some point it would sweep me away. So I chose a genre close to one I like — I like Georgette Heyer, but I hadn’t read a lot of modern Regency romance. I decided to read them seriously and find out how they worked, and what the authors were doing, and why they were doing it (the one that finally made it all click to me was a very consciously and delightfully ridiculous Tessa Dare Regency that was also kind of about Star Wars fandom). Then I planned a couple and wrote two (currently circulating behind the scenes). Hugely educational, ludicrously entertaining.
  13. Various other workshops: These have been great (inspirational, informative) but would have been far less useful without all the lessons above. Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler were great (Kelly had a trick for navigating what you want to write), Anne Gracie (the only one I haven’t illustrated for!) had neat ways to trick oneself into planning (while also learning how a book works). I go to illustration workshops looking for writing lessons, too — it’s all narrative.

Main lessons, in the order learned:

  • Knowing I wanted to do it.
  • Actually doing it.
  • Finishing it.
  • Getting stylish.
  • Running with others.
  • Learning structure.