City Symphony — Hear the Hidden Sounds of Brisbane

City Symphony

City Symphony, a location-based audio experience of Brisbane City, is just about to begin!

It includes (among many other works of music and writing) my piece, “Twelve Observations Along George Street”, read by some very cool people…

Basically, from 24 June to 24 July 2022 (if you are in Brisbane) you will be able to wander the streets listening to a multilayered place-specific experience of music and words. Presumably, my portion of it will be situated more or less along George Street.

I wrote most of this while walking, jotting it down in the notes app, recording impressions and descriptions as I walked — rather different than a lot of my writing but similar to Travelogues: processing what I was seeing through words. When I got home, I tidied it up and found some through-lines and built it into a series of views.

Screenshot of scraps of description in the Notes app
some early notes, typed as I stood in each location

If you are in Brisbane in the next four weeks, I hope you can try out City Symphony — and I’d love to know what you think.

For now I’ll just tease the beginning (if you know Brisbane, you might guess the location):

Look out, look over
At the heddle-hipped warp and sway of it,
The cradle-sticked sashay of it.
Drop the egg of the sun in it…

Dickens on plot twists and (mis?)direction and managing reader’s realisations in serialised formats

Dickens, in his afterword to Our Mutual Friend, describes the fine balance (in a serialised novel!) of giving readers enough information to work out what was happening, but little enough that they thought they weren’t meant to. The trick of letting the audience feel smart without thinking the author foolish.

Photo of Postcript to Our Mutual Friend
Redacted in case you have not yet read the (wonderful) novel (although I do often recommend the BBC miniseries as an entry point, not least because it’s so short compared to the novel and therefore difficult to come back to afterwards)

POSTSCRIPT.

IN LIEU OF PREFACE.

When I devised this story, I foresaw the likelihood that a class of readers and commentators would suppose that I was at great pains to conceal exactly what I was at great pains to suggest: namely, that ******, and that ********. Pleasing myself with the idea that the supposition might in part arise out of some ingenuity in the story, and thinking it worth while, in the interests of art, to hint to an audience that an artist (of whatever denomination) may perhaps be trusted to know what he is about in his vocation, if they will concede him a little patience, I was not alarmed by the anticipation.

To keep for a long time unsuspected, yet always working itself out, another purpose originating in that leading incident, and turning it to a pleasant and useful account at last, was at once the most interesting and the most difficult part of my design. Its difficulty was much enhanced by the mode of publication; for, it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the story-weaver at his loom. Yet, that I hold the advantages of the mode of publication to outweigh its disadvantages, may be easily believed of one who revived it in the Pickwick Papers after long disuse, and has pursued it ever since.

Observation Journal — rearranging scenes

On these observation journal pages, I was playing again with “Cinderella” — see previously: Mapping movements in stories.

(Noting the observations on the right: it was a windy, glinting-winged spring week, and my first copies of Travelogues had arrived.)

I was giving feedback on and marking creative writing assignments for a creative writing subject in the UQ Doctor of Medicine program (such a great subject) so I was sitting in on the lectures. Charlotte Nash gave a lecture on classic story structures (beginning/middle/end) — more or less the classic three-act structure.

I’ve mentioned before that while I find this sort of approach to structure very useful for editing — especially for diagnosing problems I suspect exist — I don’t find it particularly intuitive or organic. So I wanted to play around with this structure on a story I knew well (see: the usefulness of template stories).

First, I fitted that structure onto “Cinderella” — more or less the version with three nights of dancing, and the birds attacking the sisters at the wedding.

Next, I scrambled the scenes, and forced them to fit that structure in their new order.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

I wanted to see how the scenes would need to change if they appeared in a different position — not necessarily in the internal chronology of the story, but in the order in which they were told. E.g., if the story opened on the delight of the prince rediscovering Cinderella, what introductory work would that scene need to do?

Here’s the randomised list of scenes, with the turning points between the acts (beginning, middle, end) marked.

delight of discovery — godmother’s appearance — to the ball — [gear change — story really gets going] mystery of identity after the second ball — the shoe — the wedding — the search — the mystery of identity after the first ball — [central tipping point] final revenge on step-sisters — the third ball — Cinderella reveals herself — attempts by the step-sisters to mislead the prince — [gear change — end becomes inevitable] the first dance — the early mistreatment of Cinderella — happily ever after — the second ball — Cinderella’s initial bereavement

But it was also interesting to see how it changed the emphasis of the story itself — in this case, a concentration on vengeance and/or filling a loss.

Ballpoint drawing with pastel marker colours of women in elaborate cloaks and hats.

I repeated the exercise a week later.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

Here is how the scenes fell out this time:

dance #1 — misleading by step-sisters — dance #3 — turning point: initial mistreatment — you shall go to the ball — wedding — reveal identity — mystery after second dance — [central tipping point — happy ever after — initial loss — the prince’s search — dance #2 — turning point: delight of being found — revenge — appearance of godmother — shoe! — mystery after first dance.

Breaking “Cinderella” down this way suggested a story that went: joy! –> oh no! bad things behind it –> sense good things in the future –> fight for good things (in knowledge will get them) –> gentler fairy-tale business to wrap it all up.

That is, a story told in the confidence that evil will overcome, but in the knowledge that goodness must still fight in the meantime.

Breaking the story down this way highlighted a clearer separation between the character‘s journey and the reader’s journey — whether the two experiences run in harness, and where they play off each other.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours of two people dancing over bones, and a girl in a ballgown rubbing a sore foot

I also kept a little sketched list of events and lines that occurred to me as a result of the exercise, for a story, if not for this one.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours, of a person clutching a monster with "who transforms" and a fairy-tale wedding with "that's the story we'll tell them"

It was a very interesting exercise for:

  • Understanding classic structures a bit better.
  • Thinking through what scenes do and can do.
  • Approaching a retelling.
  • Shaking up my understanding of a story, even after I’ve put it back into order.
  • Coming up with little stray ideas.

Writing/illustration exercise:

  1. Choose a story you know well (fairy tales are usually quite useful and relatively short). List the scenes.
  2. Pick a common narrative or dramatic structure you want to play with (three-act structure and Freytag’s pyramid get talked about a lot, but if you’ve taken any writing courses, including in school, or read books on narrative, you’ll have been exposed to some version in detail).
  3. Line the structure up against the story. You might have to force it to fit in places. It’s interesting to note what might need to change in the story to make an Official Structure fit neatly, and what lets the story work in spite of not fitting some classic mould.
  4. Now, mix up your scenes randomly — cut them out and shuffle them, or roll a dice, or close your eyes and point.
  5. Again, line the structure up against the new order of scenes. Note what new work some scenes might do, and whether the new order suggests new meanings for the story.
  6. Pick the new first or final scene. Do a quick written or drawn sketch of it, letting it take on the new emphases, and making it do that new work of e.g. opening up the world or introducing characters or closing off the narrative and themes.

Ballpoint sketch of two women — one sitting, one standing — throwing food to a magpie.
Housemates and magpie

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Observation Journal: Mapping movements in stories

On these observation journal pages, I was thinking about the way stories interact with the space in which they take place. (This was because of a comment about Travelogues, which is very much about moving through landscape.) But the exercise turned into another way to break apart and consider stories, and find new ways in.

I began by quickly noting down the main locations in some favourite fairy tales, and tracking how characters moved between them (see also: The Usefulness of Template Stories).

Below, you can see Little Red Riding Hood (the version with the river and the washerwomen), Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel (the one with later attempted murders), Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White.

Handwritten page with diagrams of locations and movement between them in a series of fairytales

Charting stories like this highlighted some interesting patterns. The shuttling activity of Cinderella, the concentric, narrowing focus of Sleeping Beauty. The increasing distance from home and outward movement of Rapunzel, the ring-road of Little Red Riding Hood.

It also highlighted the places where other locations were implied but not revealed, and the difference between story movement and that of individual characters. For more on that, see Plotted: A Literary Atlas by Andrew DeGraff and Daniel Harmon and Cinemaps: An Atlas of 35 Great Movies by Andrew DeGraff and A. D. Jameson.

Cinderella in particular amused me.

Ballpoint diagram: home and palace, and arrows going there, back, there, back, there, back, back and there

Looked at this way, the focus of the story became the road between home and palace. So a few days later, I took a closer look:

Handwritten notes on movements between locations specified and implied in Cinderella, with some ballpoint and watercolour sketches

There are several nebulous implied locations (where the stepmother and godmother originate from, for example) — they could be expanded, ellided, or conflated.

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a cottage

And while the road is a key location, there is rarely much time spent on it. What would the story look like from the point of view of observers along the way?

Ballpoint and watercolour sketch of farmers leaning on a gate watching a carriage go past, saying "there they go again"

What about the tension between the landscape passing outside the carriage and the anticipation of the person within it? (Tangentially connected post: bored teens in cars.)

Ballpoint and watercolour scribbly sketch of a carriage crossing a bridge and a woman in a pink dress looking out of a carriage

The next day, I was just playing with tiny maps of Cinderella, for fun:

Handwritten notes on locations in Cinderella, with some maps drawn in ballpoint and coloured marker

But while the earlier charts open up the story, the map forces decisions, from aesthetic and style to the details of the world, the number of bridges the carriage should go across, and therefore the waterways and surrounding geography. At least, they do so if you build the world out from the events of the story.

If you fit a story to an existing geography, draping it over a landscape or running it along known roads, it is mostly the story that changes (and, perhaps, the meaning of the landscape). “Gisla and the Three Favours” (published in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet last year) began as an exercise in draping the story of Cinderella over a volcanic landscape, and letting the story change. When writing Flyaway, the process involved introducing several fairy-tale elements to an ill-suited climate and watching them shift — but also letting the mythic weight of those stories become a lens through which to view landscape often written about more cruelly. And Travelogues explicitly involved attaching fantastic and fairy-tale imagery to very real geography and journeys.

I’ve also used this approach when planning and editing a current large project. Here’s a slightly redacted chart of the key locations, to see where movement was concentrated, and where the story opened up or was bottled in.

Map of many messy multicoloured loops between various redacted locations

Here is the same for an early version of an house from the story:

Tiny ballpoint house plan with coloured lines tracking various paths through it

Writing/illustration activity

  • Pick a story (a fairy-tale, a movie with mythic weight, something you’re working on — see The Usefulness of Template Stories).
  • From memory, do a quick rough chart of the key locations, and how characters move between them.
  • Notice and consider:
    • If you notice anything new about the story, or a new angle of approach to it, make a quick note of that.
    • If you wanted to open the story up, make it more claustrophobic, more cosmopolitan or focussed on logistics, what changes could you make to its locations?
  • Write or draw:
    • Are there any locations that don’t get a lot of focus? Implied off-page points of origin (or destination) — where was the woodcutter cutting wood? Heavily trafficked but almost unmentioned roads or driveways? Important outbuildings or waterways (did Sleeping Beauty’s castle have a moat, and what water fed it, and what became of it when everything was overgrown)?
    • Do a quick sketch — written or drawn — of a scene set in that place, or viewed from that point of observation.

Some related posts:

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Ballpoint drawing of a small wheeled suitcase fallen over
From one of the observation pages: my suitcase full of art books for a workshop

New story: “Merry in Time”

Beneath Ceaseless Skies cover

My story “Merry in Time” is now out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #352. It’s my first BCS story, but their 750th!

It begins as follows:

Not so very long ago but before you were born, an idle lordling went riding through one of the great forests that sweep across the Isles. You may guess which forest, and which man, but I will not tell you.

He was riding fast and to no clear purpose, for he was young and careless of his responsibilities. None of the stories his mother had told him of men vanished into the wilderness or returned changed beyond recognition could teach him caution. He might even have sung as he went, for his heart was unburdened that day as it never would be again…

You can read the rest at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (along with Jonathan Louis Duckworth’s delightful “Venturing” which, while a very different story in a very different voice, is also about forests and the stories met in them).

I had a lot of fun with this story, from spinning it out of the sorts of tales I grew up loving, to finding out what I could get away with not doing, to discovering a voice for the (not quite neutral) narrator.

It grew from all sorts of gathered fascinations, and particular narrative shapes and patterns, from the world (or the feeling of a world) in a larger story I’m perpetually trying to wrangle, and from reading variant forms of ballads in the Child Ballads.

The first draft, for all its length, unspooled itself quickly and clearly, but not cleanly. Particular thanks go to Aimee Smith, CSE Cooney, Shastra Deo, Madeleine Dale, Sarah Day, James Halford, Angela Slatter and Kim Wilkins for their input at various points in the (somewhat lengthy) process of making it work and sound right, and to Scott H Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies for his thoughtful and educational editorial hand.

Here is a very old illustration which sprang from some of the same fascinations.

String
Scratchboard, 2008(!)

And while there are no swans in the story, there are textiles, so here’s a slightly more recent (but still rather old) fairy-tale fibre-art illustration.

From a 2018 calendar page, but now up as a print on Redbubble

New Story out now: On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford

My short story “On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford” has now been published in The Sunday Morning Transport.

Screenshot of opening lines: Greenfall Guesthouse (as it is now called) has rested on a hill above Wakeford almost as long as that town has existed—we do not, in fact, know which was founded first. Ever since the house’s upper windows were first set into the walls, years before we knew ourselves, we have crowded against the uneven glass and sensed the thin-curled smoke of the little town, the fool’s-gold glitter of the Wake running below it. When the...

It is a fantasia in hauntings and vocabularies and the speed of time, but the bones of the landscape and the animals in it are real, and it is one of those stories for which I can trace the inspirations.

Here, for example, are the blowsy ginger hens — and the hounds in the wing-backed armchair in the warm kitchen were true, too.

Sketch of two orange and one grey hen dustbathing

And some of the lighting and energy began with the movement in this illustration by Masako Kubo (an illustration I loved even before I knew it was for The Blue Castle). It reminded me of an evening sitting with a friend in the dark of a natural amphitheatre near an arts centre in England, light spilling distantly and owls in the deep blue night.

Masako Kubo illustration of two figures running from a lit doorway
Masako Kubo — see more of Masako’s Blue Castle images here: https://www.masakokubo.com/work/thebluecastle/

From those images, I wrote something that would eventually become the final line (here’s the blog post about that process: Observation journal — picture to story idea). That connected with some ideas I’d been playing with previously about the mechanics of hauntings, and I wrote a few paragraphs, and then let it… sit there.

The trouble was, the idea didn’t quite have a story-shape to it yet. When I revisited my notes, though, I knew wanted it to be a story with a sense of wonder, although lately the things I’d been writing were leaning into grimmer Gothic territory.

So I sat down and thought of stories I liked that felt wondrous, and very quickly jotted down their shapes, using the three-mood structure. I wish I’d kept a list of the stories (although I can guess at a few — I think there are some Eva Ibbotsons, and ML Krishnan’s “Bride, Knife, Flaming Horse” (previous notes on that are here: Story shapes and extrapolation), and Dirk Flinthart’s “The Ballad of Farther-On Jones”).

But this was less about analysis than looking for any common patterns — I’d responded to all these stories with a sense of wonder as a reader, and this was a chance to find out what was making me feel that way. I was working how to intuitively feel the shape of this sort of story, and how to flow the images into something wondrous instead of horrifying.

Handwritten list of three-mood story structures

I don’t recall if I chose any one particular story structure. But those overarching patterns (instability — change — a leaning into something grand and harmonious) helped me to pull the existing story draft into shape.

And at a certain point, as you’ll notice if you read the story, the sound of the words took over. And from there the story began to put on layers and momentum and vocabulary.

Thanks go to Liz McKewin and CSE Cooney for their enthusiastic and thoughtful feedback.

On the Origins of the Population of Wakeford” is available for subscribers to The Sunday Morning Transport (and for that you get a weekly story, by a wide range of interesting people). I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Sunday Morning Transport stories, and recommend subscribing. The first few stories on the site, and the first story each month, are free, in case you want to check it out first.

The usefulness of template stories

In a lot of the writing exercises and art exercises on here, I recommend trying techniques out on someone else’s existing story, rather than only on your own ideas and works in progress. (Note, those writing and art links go to almost exactly the same posts, because most exercises work for both).

This is for a few reasons. For example:

  • Using an existing story saves time. I don’t have to construct a new one before I can try the exercise, and I know that this story already works as a story.
  • It lets me play in a style I know I enjoy (or, occasionally, one I detest).
  • Using someone else’s story can be freeing. If I use an idea I’m working on or wedded to, sometimes I’m worried about breaking the idea, or else the idea is so strong it doesn’t let me go wild with the exercise.
  • Transforming a classic story is a good way to create retellings, and new ideas in conversation with existing stories.
  • It makes use of the things I already know, that otherwise are just rattling around in the back of my brain.
  • If I need to come up with a new idea in a hurry, reskinning the basic structure of a story I know well is a shortcut (the whole three-moods project is related to this).
  • Changing something in an existing story makes it very clear what the ripple effects of that change are. It can reveal all sorts of things about structure and style and choices, whether about that story (if you’re interested in analysing it) or about narratives generally.
  • Consciously using a template story can sometimes reveal and shake up my default stories — habits I have and structures I lean on.

Here are some of the types of template stories I like to use (and it is nice to use a variety for variation and for different purposes):

  • Fairy tales. This is partly because I personally like working with them, and partly because of the mythic weight (see below). But a lot of fairy tales exist in versions that have been heavily condensed and pared back and boiled down to parts that can be used as archetypes or armatures for all sorts of purposes — shifted in time, dressed up in different costumes, etc, etc. Or you can pinch their ornaments and textures and put them onto something else. I like having a few in rotation; you’ve probably noticed I use Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood pretty heavily, at least in examples.
  • Stories with mythic weight. When I get people to choose these template/reference stories in workshops, this is what I tell people to look for. By “mythic” I mean personally mythic — stories that loom large in your life, that you know well, that you recommend to others, that you refer back to. It could be Jurassic Park or a historical event or a memorable sports story. The only real rule is that it has to be a story, not a theme. You can’t say “death” but you can say “Hades & Persephone”.
  • Classics. Either stories culturally well-known, or ones I personally know well. (If you’re doing an exercise to share in public, e.g. as an example or in a workshop, the former is useful.) I’ve read Pride & Prejudice a lot, usually out loud to my dad, and it’s also pretty well known, so it shows up a lot, along with Jane Eyre.
  • Works with cultural resonance. Some of these are classics, others are familiar in certain circles — even the idea of a movie I’ve seen too many previews for but have no wish to watch can be the base of an exercise.
  • Stories I actively want to mess with. Sometimes it’s less about the exercise than the template story — maybe I want to see how I could fix something that irritated me, or work out what made me like it so much by changing elements until I identify the key components. (For a lot of people, these are also source urges for fan fiction and fan art.)
  • “Testing ground” stories. I do have a couple stories of my own I use as test cases. They are old manuscripts based on ideas that never quite worked, from long ago, and have been so handled and worn out and outgrown that I don’t mind doing terrible things to the base material.
  • Images. Illustrators can use all the stories above exactly as for writing. But sometimes there’ll be a single image or classic illustration that you can use in the same way as a template story.

I’ve posted a lot of writing and art exercises on here. (Note: exercises are usually at the end of the relevant posts — follow either the writing exercise or art exercise link, as almost all exercises work for both.) But it’s also worth trying other exercises you encounter out on a template story. Or try making your own exercises.

Here are some uses for a template story, as a starting point:

  • Playing around:
    • Doing scales
    • Aesthetic tests
    • Fanfiction
    • Messing around and having fun.
    • Test driving concepts
    • Distraction and procrastination
    • Play-writing
  • Working though:
    • Examples and demonstrations of concepts (e.g. for workshops)
    • Watching what happens to a story when you make a dramatic shift
    • Feeling for the levers and gears of a story
    • Tweaking visuals
    • Understanding what an existing story is doing, and how (in order to better understand that story, or the technique)
    • Learning to read as a writer/look at stories as an illustrator
  • Mythic palette:
    • Borrowing powerful narrative structures and approaches
    • Leaning on metaphor
    • Guiding choices in an unrelated story/image (e.g., using the characters in a fairytale to suggest the character and placement of chimneys on a skyline, or using words from Rapunzel to describe vines)
    • Lifting aesthetics and imagery
    • Ransacking for material/inspirations
    • Retelling
    • Using to strengthen or provide a point of comparison to another story

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Three moods master post update

I’ve been tinkering with the three-moods overview post, which can be found here:

Observation Journal: Swapped descriptions and descriptive filters

These two observation journal pages both play with descriptions again. (You should be able to click on the gallery images below to see larger versions.)

The first is the simple swapped descriptions exercise (described previously: Variations on Descriptions).

In this exercise, you describe one thing using words more closely associated with another. Above, I was crossing cars with sofas, and swapping descriptions of air and blankets.

E.g. “air scratchy and heavy as an old car blanket, and with much the same smell”, “limb-tangling air”, “currents and swirls of wool”, “chenille like the lines on a weather chart”.

A few days later in the journal, however, there’s this variation. In these tables, I moved through the elements at the top (from fairy-tales), but described them using the elements down the side (animals) as a key.

Some excerpts.

Little Red Riding HoodCinderella
Foxreds, flash of a cap like a tail, bushy hair, sly and quick, small and fleetwatchful wide eyes and a pointed face, red-cheeked, long gloves, velvet and fur
Fishglimmer and gleam of sun-spangles through leaves, flitted & swam in forest light, short memory, huge eyes, ultimately slipperysequins and refractions of light, [moving through] currents of ballroom, [running along] avenues of fountains, silent and shocked, silver and gold thread and slippery satins
Door (of grandmother’s cottage)Rose garden
Foxred wood, fraying, white raw wood where red paint scratched away, a hitch and a pounce to its stingdevious & winding, wine & amber roses, dens of leaves, a shiver of breeze in leaves like a shiver in a coat of fur
Catcreaks like a meow, whiskery splinters, swings like a cat weaving, cat-warm from the sun, arched windows, cat door in it?curled on itself, thorned paws & waving tails of boughs & roses, purr of bees

Like the first exercise, it’s a way of doing something like scales on an instrument: practising describing things in less automatic ways, feeling for the shapes of worlds and stories. It’s also a good way to sound out an aesthetic and to tonally unify a piece or an element — a way to open up and narrow decisions. It’s also useful for dropping clues as to someone’s or something’s real nature, or at least making the reader worry about it (if you’ve read Flyaway, there are a couple of characters I wrote this way).

Writing/art exercises:

  • Swapped descriptions: See the previous posts (Variations on Descriptions and More Swapped Descriptions) for more detailed activities, but basically: pick two nouns. Then make a list describing (or sketching) one using words (or shapes/textures etc) more obviously associated with the other.
  • Shading descriptions:
    • Pick a couple of elements (characters, key objects) from favourite stories. These could be fairy tales, movies, the last thing you read, etc. List them across the top of a table.
    • Pick a few iconic objects — animals or things you think have mythic value, or three things in your line of sight. List them down the side of your table.
    • Now, for each cell, make a few notes (written or drawn) about how you would describe the story element in ways that evoke the iconic object.
    • Bonus round: Watch how the influences change as you move across and down the table. Which are easy? What happens if you lean into the difficult ones? Where do you want to chase down new vocabulary or visual reference? Do some variations spark your imagination, and if so is there a pattern in why they do (or don’t)?

And, finally, here is a sketch of a bush stone-curlew.

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Observation Journal — picture to story idea

This little observation journal investigation kept me occupied for a week (you should be able to click on the gallery images below to see larger versions).

I wanted to watch myself come up with ideas, and try to isolate what made gears catch and started a story moving forward (and the continuing usefulness of moods/tones, whether to shape a story or as a point to aim for).

Getting ideas from pictures isn’t a new process — the point was watching myself do it. However, these pages did turn out some very effective ideas. A number of the notes here have got into finished projects in variously unrecognisable forms. However, several stories did emerge almost fully-formed — I’ve redacted some sections until the corresponding projects are published.

The experiment began with a selection of images. I chose a handful of pictures I knew felt story-ish to me (they’re on a Pinterest board called “stories for other pictures” if you want to see — I didn’t upload them, and tracing copyright through Pinterest can either be a delight (if links to the source are correctly made) or a wild Google Image ride — be aware).

Then for each image, I made a note of a possible last line for a story, an aesthetic the image suggested, and any additional ideas/notes that sprang from the picture.

I chose “last line” rather than “first”, because it gives a point upon which possibilities can converge.

So for example:

Last lineAestheticOther notes
“There is, of course, a reason the girls in the photograph are looking up as if they’ve just seen you.”Old tinted photographs, 1920s and uncanny valley, knowing and unsettling.Dangers of exploring abandoned buildings.
“I don’t believe she’s dead, but it will take her a long time to crawl home.”Green mossy, tarry mud, wet grave-clothes.Someone resigned to endlessly re-killing their enemy.
“But in the summer house, if you sleep, you’ll dream of looking up through green water to the splayed palms of lilies.”Translucent, emerald, dank & stagnant & sunlit & green. A clarity.A failure to escape. The promise of a ghost story.

Then I collected some more three-mood story shapes, and tried a few of those images against them.

Here are the three-mood story shapes. They were from stories dimly recalled, and I strongly suspect it includes at least one O. Henry and one M. R. James. Maybe a Henry Lawson? I’m trying to get better about recording the stories! (Currently, via the December 2021/January 2022 thread on Twitter.)

appearanceconsequencesdisaster
appearancepersistancedismissal (from unexpected quarter)
a nefarious planthe consequences of successan attempt to undo
a careless additionan eerie consequencea lingering discomfort
initial distressincreasing stress reveals worldbrief interaction sealing humanity
odd affectiondual-track distressstrange discomfort

Then I dropped the image into one or more of the story-shapes, to see how it would change as it flowed through.

Finally, I decided to see how the ideas would change if I added a particular character or viewpoint (see By Whom and To Whom and Some Less Common Points of View).

Those two pages above all follow the single image of a boat sunk in a lily-pond, and the question (which emerged on previous pages) of whether the people to whom it belonged actually ever left: “you, the reader”, “boarding school student”, “robust but secretly romantic governess”, “elusive horticulturalist”, etc.

For each, I made a few notes on how the story would might grow to suit it — “you” listening to the story being whispered through a locked door, the stern governess ridding the house of enchantment but secretly grieving its departure, someone who thinks of themself as adventurous but fails to notice what’s going on and leaves before the mystery is solved.

Writing/illustration activites

  • Finale
    • Choose a selection of images — randomly or (for preference) some that feel like stories to you. Public Domain Review usually has some interesting images going on. If your taste is like mine, feel free to consult stories for pictures but note that Pinterest can be pretty rickety in relation to ease of tracking back the original rights holder (some pictures will link to the source, though, and when that works it’s great). Be aware of copyright, etc.
    • For each image, make three notes. What final line (or event) might suit such a story? What aesthetic does it suggest to you (written or visual)? Any other story events that might be needed to get from the image to the story’s end?
    • Sketch out (in words or images) one or two additional scenes for the story, in your chosen style/aesthetic.
  • Three Moods
    • Take one of the images suggested above, choose a three-mood story pattern, and see how the story would flow out to fit that.
    • Sketch an outline in words, or a progression of three images that together might tell a story. (For more story shapes and elaborations on this activity, see: Story Shapes: Three Moods).
  • Points of view
    • Make a list of characters suggested by this image/story. People in it? Characters implied by the topic or the aesthetic? Inanimate objects? (There’s a starter list at the end of the post By Whom and To Whom and a few more in Some Less Common Points of View.)
    • Consider how each would tell/perceive the events above. Make a few notes/sketches depicting the scene from their point of view — not forgetting physical viewpoints: see Viewpoints.
  • Bonus round: Throughout, notice where (or if) stories seem to catch fire for you. Do they? Is there a common spark? Are there bits of the process you’d tinker with? Are there similarities among the images you chose, or the directions you took? What happens if you flip some aspect of that?

Finally, while I tend to use more atmospheric images for inspiration, here are a few sketches from the observation pages above.

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