Observation Journal: Structuring Secrets

This page of the observation journal carries on from some previous posts about characters’ secrets and occupations. But this page — although about fairy tales — was prompted by watching a whole string of Agatha Christie adaptations.

The exercise highlighted something I like in that style of mystery — the way that, in answering the main mystery, the inner workings and closely held secrets of a contained world are exposed. It’s like when a log is lifted up, all the jealously guarded nests and paths beneath are revealed. The secret processes that make a world work.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on Rapunzel

I looked at Rapunzel through the lens of possible secrets.

I listed characters and potential characters (inanimate objects included) and started thinking of secrets for each to keep (the desert might hide the dust of kings; the prince’s horse once killed a man, etc).

Then I started pulling out questions that might be fun for structuring a retelling (who was really the witch, who preserved the plant cuttings from Sleeping Beauty’s briars?).

This created a fun tension between secrets to structure and secrets to keep, much like in the sort of murder mystery I enjoy. In answering the first, the story unearths and unravels and entangles the second.

So, for example, this exercise suggested biosecurity officers investigating the illegal briar trade uncovering a network of witches preserving their own culture…

Handwritten notes on Rapunzel

Writing exercise (illustrators: you could also use this as a story prompt for an illustration)
(see also the exercises in the previous preoccupations post).

  • Choose a fairy tale (or other template story you want to play with retelling).
  • List the major characters and a few key animals, objects, etc.
  • For each, jot down one or two secrets they might be keeping, within the world of the story.
  • Then pull back and choose one or two that might be big enough to be plot-structuring, story-inciting mysteries. (Or which would make the silliest mystery, or be the biggest puzzle for you to make work, etc.)
  • Now consider how and when some (or all!) of the other secrets might come out in the course of answering the big question.
  • Bonus: turn this into a quick story outline, or follow the questions out further to create the world, or try flipping all the characters and roles you’ve assigned.
Small ballpoint drawing of a leaning tree

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List Stories: How they work, what they offer

Tiny handwritten notes listing very general and largely illegible types of lists

This post is about short stories written as/around lists. It is based on notes from my short-story reading posts. (For background on the three-mood story structure, see Story Shapes — Three Mood Stories.)

Outline of this post (it should link to the relevant section):

I hope to write a shorter version one day.

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Observation Journal — Story Behind the Shapes

This observation journal page is a variation on a previous activity.

The week before, I’d been playing with the concept of a story behind a story, as a way to strengthen a draft or unfold an existing story. Here, I was trying to apply that to illustration.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes with sketches on component shapes.

I adapted the activity by instead asking: If I remove the [primary/obvious] purpose, what remains?

Of course, I discovered I’d simply reinvented “breaking an image down into its component shapes”.

But doing that does create a basis for building something back up into new shapes and possibilities, and revealing alternative, less-obvious purposes.

Handwritten notes with tiny sketches of component shapes.

A more directly creative (as in, I made things out of it) activity was: Drawing the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye. But the mental exercise of this approach felt like a (mild) workout, and it was an intriguing way to hold an object in mind and at arm’s length, and look beyond the obvious.

Writing/illustration activity:

  • Choose an object in your line of sight.
  • Identify its main/obvious purpose.
  • Now ignore that purpose. What remains? A collection of shapes? Secondary or tertiary uses?
  • What could you build up with those residual aspects? What type of story might it have come out of (fictional or real)? Could you create something with those shapes and textures, or redesign the object to better fit a less-obvious use?
  • Do a quick sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus round: Repeat a few times. Then notice what was easy or hard, what tactics you defaulted to, what objects or features regularly charmed you.
paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

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Observation journal: make then think

These observation journal pages feature a simple activity: make a small thing, then make notes about making the thing.

The thing I made was a silhouette with imitation gold foil on it — a function of Inktober and Mother Thorn and other silhouette projects and interests at the time.

Page of observation journal with pasted-down silhouette of flowers and leaves, with gold detailing and handwritten notes

A few days later, I played with the same ideas again, this time with a gold leafing pen (Krylon).

Journal page with pasted down silhouette of holly (and left-over paper) with gold detailing and notes

This time, I was more focussed on a particular question (18k gold leafing pen vs imitation gold leaf) — how they handled and what effects they suggested. (See also: loving the tools.)

Observations (true for me):

  • Making something, however tiny, is immediately good — it’s forward motion.
  • A first attempt, even (perhaps especially) if it doesn’t work quite as imagined, unlocks new ideas.
  • Some practicalities can only be practically considered.
  • Getting words on screen or ink on paper is so much more powerful than thinking.
    Or perhaps: it is a much more powerful way of thinking.

See also: Making Little Things; The Tiniest Things; Small Projects and Tiny Unicorns.

These epiphanies are small and frequent. But it’s less important to know them intellectually than to learn them viscerally, and remind myself through my hands.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of parcels

Writing/Illustration/Creating Activity
(if you keep an observation journal, activities like these are a good way to find some personal fascinations and questions to pursue — they’re also a nice way to just calm down and make things)

  1. Make something small. Write a 50 word story or description of something you can see or draw a tiny portrait or try out a new pen or cover the page with fingerprints and draw legs on them or embroider a flower.
    (Bonus: if you’re stuck, try a separate exercise and make a list of at least 20 tiny things you could make. Be silly. Note where your thinking shifts gears. See if there are any patterns you could use to invent more activities, e.g. approaches you obviously like or are clearly avoiding.)
    • Stick it to the page (or if that isn’t feasible, note what it was you did).
    • Consider the thing you made, and how, and why, and what it was like to make and what you ended up with. You’ll have your own interests, but some places you could start are:
      • why this
      • senses (touch, smell, how the light affects it — these can be important for achieving an effect or working comfortably, but also for pursuing things you like)
      • ways you could use or develop it into something further or new
      • ideas it gave you
      • what you liked or resisted
      • is it (or could it be) connected to anything you’re currently interested in
      • is it pleasing (why)
      • is it X enough for you [dreamy, horrific, utilitarian, etc] and how could you make it more so
      • here are some others: Project Review Questions
    • Make a couple extra notes on how the activity as a whole worked for you, or what it revealed about how you work.
  2. Think of a specific creative question you’ve been wanting to answer (or one of the ideas from the step above).
    • Jot down a few subquestions — whether a technique will work at all or suit a particular purpose, how it would compare to a different approach, whether it will create an effect you saw someone else achieve, or be more fun, or change your speed, or any number of specific questions.
    • Make a tiny test-patch experiment, as small as you possibly can make to answer the question (a blurb for an experimental trilogy format; two colours blended; pickling one slice of an unusual vegetable).
    • Paste it in or make a note of what you did.
    • Around it, again, make observations. This time, answer some of those subquestions. But also look at the list of questions for the previous activity, including ideas to try next
Tiny ballpoint sketch of pylons in park
Power pylon with one toe just over the line of the park fence

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Short stories: Rites and rituals and structure

Ballpoint drawing of a tawny frogmouth on a wire

As part of this year’s short story reading project, I’ve been noticing the strong structural and structuring pull rite or rituals exert on stories.

Structurally (and that’s how I’m talking about them in this post), rituals can be a way to first summon a story and peel apart a world, and then at the end to stitch through many layers, to mend and make new. And of course ritual brings with it layers of language, formulation, knowledge, history, time, family, the numinous brushing the physical, a way of altering the world or being acknowledged and changed by it, and (rendered bureaucratic) all the ways that can be made soulless.

This post is lengthy… (among other things, after the initial draft I injured myself in a way that made editing very difficult).

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Inventing rites and rituals — some lists from the observation journal

I’m planning a post on how rites and rituals show up in short stories, and wanted to refer back to this observation journal page. So I’m posting it earlier than it would otherwise have appeared! (Edit: the post on rituals and short story structure is now up.)

I was thinking about the way rites and rituals — as human an urge as covering surfaces with patterns — can shape a story or be the base for building a world.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on story ideas.

I wanted to play with these ideas and effects without using the most obvious existing rituals, or ones I didn’t fully understand. So I made a little ritual-generator out of two (non-comprehensive!) lists: purpose and subject. You can expand the lists with your own interests and knowledge.

Purpose of rite/ritual/invocation/ceremony/sacrament/etc




The writing/illustration exercise

  • Take one or two items at random from each list and combine them (e.g. gift/legend or renew/own/animal).
  • Then expand them into a rite or ritual, getting more specific (e.g. a generational ritual to pass ownership of a community’s founding legend or an annual rite to renew ownership/stewardship of draught-animals).
    (Note: Keep an eye on where these brush against or trample on rites and rituals actually in use, and on places you might want to push against expectations, use discretion, avoid stereotypes or come down hard on (or redeem) a ceremony you’ve suffered through.)
  • If you know the world in which this story will happen, you can draw details and aesthetics for the ritual from it — weaving it into the substance of the world. Or you can start with the ritual and add details and aesthetics from things you like or notice around you (art deco/modernist!), and discover more about the place and people that way.
  • Then, if you’re using this to build a world or story, ask what could go wrong (or more right than was anticipated!), and follow the implications. (Control, enforceability, cost and benefit are some other interesting if cynical questions to ask — or consider e.g. the evolution and varied iterations of the ritual, and what it means to different people.)
  • Make a quick sketch (written or drawn) of a scene.
  • Bonus round: Note where the story or world started to grow, or where it didn’t. Repeat the process, and see if there’s a pattern, or if there are questions that helped grow it. Is there a echo among the ideas that resonate for you? Are there more entries you’d add to the lists?

More to come when I post about rituals and story structure. (Edit: it is now up)

Observation Journal: Swapping characterisations and roles

On this observation journal page, I was playing with more ways to look at a story (written or drawn) with fresh eyes.

It was a process I wanted to use on my own sketches and drafts, but as usual, I tried it out on a fairy tale first.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a strand of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan. Notes swapping characterisations

I used “Little Red Riding Hood”, because I’d just spent a couple pages on it in another context (The Story Behind the Story).

First, I kept the characters in their established roles (Little Red Riding Hood playing herself, the Mother playing the Mother, the Wolf… well, you know). For each, I listed their obvious/easy/common traits. This is easy and fun — leaning into stereotypes and cliches in order to use their strength against them is usually a good time (see e.g. The Caudwell Manoeuvre).

Then I mixed them up.

CharacterUsual personality
LRRinnocent and plucky
Mothersolicitous but hands-off
Wolfwily & ferocious
Grandmotherfrail & vulnerable
Woodcuttertaciturn & pragmatic
Washerwomencheerful and in solidarity
(I like the version with the helpful laundry ladies at the river)

I then moved each characteristic up by one. Now it’s a story about a cool and capable Little Red Riding Hood, sent by her ferocious mother to visit her taciturn, pragmatic grandmother. On the way, she meets a frail, vulnerable wolf…

Next, I pushed things further by keeping the story the same, but having the characters play each others’ roles. Now it’s a tale of a washerwomen sent into the forest by a wolf to visit a child, and on the way they meet a treacherous woodcutter…

You could use either approach to shake up a story for retelling. But I’ve found it useful as a thought exercise when working on projects — drawn or written! I mightn’t ultimately make these changes, but playing through these exercises can highlight where I’ve made easy instead of interesting choices with a character, or identify where my original choice was correct but needs to be done with more deliberateness or flamboyance. And it’s an interesting way to break open someone else’s story in order to analyse it, or to have fun with it.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story (written or visual). It can be someone else’s or your own.
    • List the characters. Next to each, briefly describe their obvious/default personality. Keep this simple. If it seems stereotypical, that’s fine.
    • Now, swap the characteristics around. Either randomly, or by shifting them all along one space.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Make a table with a list of roles (key characters) from the story. In the next column, put the same characters, but shuffled.
    • Pretend each character now has to play the new role to which you’ve assigned them.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Bonus, for each: Make a note of what worked, and what you liked, and see if you can identify why. Identify where the changes broke the story, or how robust the original idea was.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan.
Bird and man watching plastic leaves get caught in a cafe fan

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Observation Journal: more swapped descriptions (gilded)

Here’s a recurring observation journal page, with one of my favourite activities: mixing up descriptions. This forces a closer look at ordinary things, from slightly unexpected perspectives. Sometimes it creates miniature poems, at others it builds an image that pulls away into a story. Almost always, it’s an engrossing little mental exercise.

For related posts and other examples, see variations on descriptions, and other posts under the “descriptions” category.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a bowl. Notes swapping descriptions

On this page, I chose four things from the day, and paired them: picnic bench and youth, chooks and gold leaf (it was Inktober — see below for a related illustration). For each word, I then made a list of descriptions using words and metaphors I associated with the other word in that pair.

Notes swapping descriptions

Picnic bench

  • youthful
  • springing
  • slatted with spring light
  • sifting flowers
  • curled/curved like a fern frond
  • ribbed like a fern
  • slim-legged/nimble-limbed
  • unsteady as a lamb
  • stubborn

I noted a “push to metaphor”. Now, I notice an organic vivacity and lightness.


  • four-square on the earth
  • curved and up-springing
  • youth on which all else rests
  • youth on which age depends
  • barred with strength and air
  • the promise of birds
  • knee-deep in greenery

The note says “sentiment”. But there’s a solidity, here, that the idea of the bench brought to the prettier language I was using before.


  • square and bright as gold leaf
  • metal-tipped
  • ruffled like soft foil
  • scattering/scattered in light
  • in a cloud of glittering dust/insects

“Tricky but ennobling”. I really like these ones — it was more of a reach than the reverse (below), but I think that paid off.

Gold leaf (imitation)

  • fine-feathering
  • soft and enveloping as [illegible]
  • brooding on size
  • nested in corners of container
  • flocked

“Personifying”. I’m struck by how textural these are (very particular to the textures of metal leaf in use), and also that the staticness (brooding and nesting and enveloping) implies some readiness to movement.

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
For Inktober 2020 prompt “Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

Writing/illustration activity (originally posted, at greater length, in Variations on descriptions)

  • Pick two words at random. Concrete nouns — especially ordinary things — tend to be easiest to start with (especially for art).
  • Consider the descriptions/visuals you associate with each. You can lean into cliches and stereotypes here.
  • Describe (or sketch) each word using descriptions that belong more obviously to the other word.
  • Repeat.
  • Bonus: Note any tendencies or difficulties. Can you lean into or pull against or leverage those? Are there any broader patterns in your approaches?

Observation Journal: The Story Behind The Story

On these pages of the observation journal, I unpacked some feedback I kept giving students on their stories: to look at the story behind the story.

On the first page, I tried it out on a couple of projects I’d been working on — a short story that has never quite got off the ground, and a very old draft that’s since become a place for testing ideas (see The Usefulness of Template Stories).

The idea is, you mentally remove the plot, and see what’s left behind — the world and the currents and relationships that support the story (or fail to). What would we know about the world, and who would the characters be if the plot weren’t happening?

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

The exercise stirs up sediment, creates currents, pans gold dust — or, to shift metaphors, it creates sudden changes of lenses and focus.

The process certainly paid off indirectly: I can trace several elements and epiphanies about my current manuscript to some notes on this page — and observations on the facing page.

The following week, I tried the exercise again, this time on “Little Red Riding Hood”. I listed major characters/presences, and pulled back to ask what would be there if the story weren’t happening — the sorts of people who live in the woods, the natures of these wolves, how the grandmother came to live where she lives, etc.

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

If I pulled on these strands, I ended up with a soberer story than usual, and a sequel to previous stories — a brother and sister grown old and still living in the forest, a witch they destroyed who has returned as a wolf and is trying to become human again…

The process forced logic and loops and links, as well as pulling in other recent thoughts and preoccupations. It turns out to be a useful way to expand a fairy-tale plot.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a rose

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story — a fairy tale, or a story you like, or one you’re working on or with (see Template Stories).
  • Make a list of at least five key characters, elements, locations, or motifs that exist in the story.
  • Mentally, remove the main plot. What information or questions are you left with about those key characters/elements? What do we know about them, in the absence of Plot happening? Who would they be, if not caught up in the story?
  • How might you fill in those details? Can you link those questions and answers to suggest the fabric of the world behind the story? Or even to find some larger stories behind it?
  • Sketch out (words or pictures) a key scene from the original story, adding that new information in as names, textures, interactions, details…
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a woman holding a Siamese cat
Alex and Obi

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From A Cafe

I was being silly on this page of the observation journal, choosing Five Things to Steal from a cafe I was in (Bean — now closed, alas).

(For background, see previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a backpack with a box of books in it. Notes on a cafe I was in

I began this flippantly, although I was curious to see what else the activity might work on, and how ideas pinched from a setting could be reworked into art or writing or life.

The answer was: very well. I had to moderate a strong inclination to turn everything into a metaphor. But very interesting things happened when these points of inspiration were applied to or ran up against other patterns and fascinations I’d been noticing recently.

Handwritten notes on things to 'steal' from a cafe

Here are the five:

  • Shrine to the mundane / honouring the ordinary (old furniture, paintings of little things)
    • as an image, as a concept, as a reminder when writing, as a way to arrange my bookcases
  • Trellises (being used in the cafe to display art)
    • as a practical solution, as a metaphor for showing the underpinnings of a world etc, the use of lattices to connect worlds (Deep Secret, etc)
  • Cheerful / cosy bunker
    • a reminder (since my house isn’t arranged for looking out of easily) that it can be done by having lots to look at inside and many small spaces, as a story setting/mood/aesthetic, in art as a cavern drawn with no reference to externalities (an inversion of the little groves)
  • A particularly vivid blue/green in some paintings — in the background, in pupilless eyes etc
    • a reminder of some people I’ve known with vivid/striking/unsettling eyes, a pattern of outlining things with other things and/or outlining an absence (with a Midsomer Murders connection, of course)
  • Fake leaves everywhere — kitschy but oddly cheerful
    • a reminder to put more foliage more deliberately into images, and to consider plants as part of various aesthetics

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Think of a space you’ve recently been in (the less obviously inspiring is sometimes better) or look are the place where you are right now.
  • Find five things about that space that you would like to steal — textures, colours, shapes, approaches to interior design, noise, atmosphere, etc.
  • For each, list at least three different ways you could incorporate it into an illustration or story. Try pushing past just representing an object/using the setting (but do that, too!). Could you approach it as a metaphor? How would you insert it into an existing idea?
  • Choose a few of those ideas and do a quick treatment/sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus: Do you notice any habits/patterns in what you chose, or how you adapted them? Make a note — you could try leaning harder into those tendencies, or flipping them. Did some of the ideas spark more than others? What did they have in common, and can you actively pursue that when coming up with ideas in the future?
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a backpack with a box of books in it
Here is my backpack with a box of Flyaway in it.

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