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”.

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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.

September Book Reviews

Adventures in Two Worlds – A J Cronin: Autobiographical, but not dry facts and memories – so far to the other side that at times it was like fiction and at other times maudlin. But while the beginning and end tended towards the overblown, the rest of the chapters were beautifully written scenes of life as a doctor in Scottish villages, Welsh mining towns and the wealthy and poor streets of London: entertaining, romantic, endearing and occasionally reminiscent of James Herriot. I read a few chapters – about the district nurse and her bicycle, daft Tam and his houseboat and the widow on her farm – to my parents and predictably we all got choked up.

White Rabbit – Bruce Marshall: A biography of Wing Commander F F E Yeo-Thomas, of whom I knew a little from his appearance in the pages of Leo Marks’ Between Silk and Cyanide. Cloak and dagger adventures in occupied France during World War II, parachute runs, double agents, escapes in and from p.o.w. and concentration camps, fleeing through Germany – fascinating and gripping, though with too many French phrases for me to attempt reading it out loud with anything like confidence.

A Room with a View – E M Forster: Gentle and very enjoyable, although the end takes a sudden literary turn and all the characters change their apparent character which although Meaningful isn’t necessarily Fun. But I love the slightly erratic, slightly socially-misplaced, loving and expansive Honeychurches, and their difficult relatives.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy: A father and his son’s journey on foot through the ash of a long-burned-out America. Bleak, occasionally frightening, occasionally hypnotic, with a placidly mundane streak of horror. Literary science fiction which is a genre that is usually like an unsettling dream (and, if you are used to the other sort, leaves you wanting detail of exactly how the disaster took place, and the science behind all the after-effects – but plenty of post-apocalyptic nastiness and survival on the edge of everything). Neatly and elegantly worded.

Serena – Sylvia Andrews: I brought this on myself, but I was out of Heyers and there were two regency romances in the 50c bin out the front of the Annerley community bookstore and – I still hurt a little bit, although not as much from this one as the other (which caused me to wish physical injury upon myself, of which more next month). This had all the requisite melodrama, hijinks, disguises, passion, rage, betrayal, compromised innocence &c, &c, but… it was about the romance, and written to that end (whereas Georgette Heyer is like DWJ – her stories are fabulous and cumulative disasters, of which an occasional romance is only one of the many unlikely by-products). Anyway, back to Serena: Beautiful (of course) young (white) woman from the West Indies (non-slave-owning!) who thinks she is plain (she isn’t) and old (she isn’t) escorts her younger (sillier) niece to London to give her a London Season (because you’re worth it) and while they are in boot camp in the country she isn’t allowed to ride alone so she dresses up as a boy and meets a man who finds out she is in disguise but they like each other so they keep meeting and then they meet in London but he gives her the cold shoulder when he finds out her name because his brother went to the West Indies with his wife when Serena was 14 (remember this) but Serena’s brother stole his wife and the wife told her husband she didn’t want him and so he committed suicide and then Serena’s brother told the wife he didn’t want her so she went back to England and told everyone that Serena had led her husband astray and then jilted him (I told you to remember the 14 years old part) and then had a baby who is actually Serena’s nephew but our hero (who naturally is brooding and cannot trust a woman) thinks is his nephew and is raising but his (evil, Irish) mother is convinced he is sickly and won’t let the boy walk anywhere and his terrified that Serena will expose her secret and so she enlists help (from evil! Irishmen! and our hero’s sometimes-jilted mistress) and then there are kidnappings and faked compromises of virtue and…

Worldshaker – Richard Harland: A steampunk novel, set in the claustrophobic, stratified, artificially-maintained Victorian society of the great steam-powered juggernaut/mobile city Worldshaker, which rolls across the countries. A coming of age story, and a what-is-humanity story, an above-and-below decks story, a British Public Schoolboy story and a story of revolution, violence and retribution. I would have liked to have been a bit more convinced of the feasibility of the juggernaut and the whole system and society, but this wouldn’t have bothered me at all if I hadn’t been aware of the juxtaposition of the two rival sides of the genre: the Victorian-inspired, cogs&gears fantasy on the one hand, and the questions of class and imperialism and colonialism and very real violence and death on on the other. I know Richard Harland is very aware of those two aspects, and so I suspect that dissonance was deliberate. I am keen to see how he rebuilds in the sequel what was torn down in this story (but still wanted more of the nuts & bolts of how the cogs & gears worked).

Titling Peeves – in reaction to an email


I don’t generally read category romance. Not because I write it off as a genre. Like all genres, it has its problems, most of which dovetail with my reasons not to pick up a book. I do at times read non-category books which are packaged as romance (and historicals and ‘novels’ etc), especially Ibbotson and Austen and Heyer. I did spend a miserable week at boarding school laid out with a bad back (or was it after I had my wisdom teeth out) reading through the house mistress’s stash of Mills & Boons because I couldn’t concentrate on a story which took more than 50,000 words (the misery was due to lack of concentration, not what I was concetrating on). A few of the books were astonishingly well written. And the circles I swim in overlap with romance readers and writers from time to time, whose opinions I respect.

So, with that in mind, I read an email today and reacted as follows:

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