How Story Influences Layout Design

by Oct 30, 2019Storytelling, The Modeling Conversation, The P48 Experience, Uncategorized4 comments

My primary enjoyment of the railroad is that of a spectator. To this day I’m content to park my bones in one spot and watch the action unfold in front of me. As I’ve written before, sometimes the locomotive is close by; at other times it’s quite a distance away. It’s all the same to me because I’ve learned to appreciate the railroad in a given location whether a train is present or not. There is always something of interest to study and always a special feeling from being in a familiar place once again.

Years ago, when the local worked in Centerville, I would often chat with the brakeman as he protected the crossing at Morton Avenue. Standing in one place, there was a sense of anticipation as the train worked its way up the siding with the outbound cars from the paint factory. Moving past my position, the noise and visuals were intense but gradually faded as the engine and cars receded into the distance. Occasionally I would keep pace on my bicycle along Water Street as the train went up and down the siding. The sensory experience was far different, as I’m steering my bike and watching for traffic, all while trying to watch the train. I could only do this for two blocks and it was like a roller coaster ride: short-lived but intense.

Pacing the train burned off a lot of youthful energy but staying put proved more satisfying in the long run. I could enjoy the symphony of sound as he passed, study an infinite number of details and watch the dance of freight cars swaying along that decrepit track.

From Morton Ave the engine disappeared from my view as he backed down the siding. There was an interval of time in which I could hear the engine in the distance and guess about what he was doing. The time he was gone equated to the distance traveled and the work involved gathering up the cars at the paint factory. The same thing is possible in a modeled scene, where the train is out of view.

Much layout design is driven by the idea of following a train along its route. Given the extreme amounts of compression we’re forced to employ it’s a wonder anyone thinks a train has traveled anywhere. With everything right there in plain view, there’s no place for the imagination to go. My experience of the train arriving, doing its work, then leaving suggests that a more convincing scenario is possible. It has taken me decades to understand how these memories wanted to shape my practice of the craft.

In designing for a fixed viewpoint, consider how narrow our field of vision actually is. True, we can turn our heads to look up and down the track, but really, our main sense of the action will be limited to our immediate vicinity. The scene I’ve modeled is 12 feet long in total, which in quarter-inch scale translates to 576 feet. Not a lot of real estate in the grand scheme of things but enough, based on my own experience, to provide the operational and visual interest that I want.

The action at Mill Road will constantly move between onstage and off. Visually, these transitions will be disguised by changes in the light levels rather than hard scenic breaks. I agree with Matthieu Lachance’s assessment that our conventional view block trickery would be out of place and contrived. With the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t aspect of the locomotive coming and going, there is room for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the missing pieces.

With nearly all the layouts I’ve built, I always lost interest after a certain amount was completed. My former Indiana and Whitewater was no exception. Readers may recall my frustration with the eight-foot section over the workbench that never felt connected to the well-defined scene on the rest of the layout. I reached the conclusion that I could reduce that layout by a third and it wouldn’t have suffered at all.

With Mill Road I’ve discovered that eight feet or so is the sweet spot for my tastes. I am expanding the scene by another four feet for a more graceful transition into the staging cassette but, truthfully, a nagging voice in my head wonders if I’m diluting the power of the original scene by doing so. We’ll see if that’s true or not and, thanks to the design flexibility I outlined in the last post, nothing will be lost if it is.

In my view this is the power of understanding the why behind your modeling. My design choices for Mill Road are strongly based on the experiences and memories outlined above. The modeling reflects those times when I could wander around at my leisure and simply enjoy the railroad as it was in a particular time and place. Like watching the local appear from around the bend east of town, I don’t need to know or see what the train did before it arrived here. I’m content with the experience that will unfold in this spot and that’s more than enough for me.

Mike