Who doesn’t love a well told story?


Last week I used examples of David P. Morgan’s writing to suggest ways that we could tell more interesting stories about this craft.

Storytelling is an old and familiar form and also new and strange to many of us. It’s familiar to our memories and experiences. Who doesn’t love to read or listen to a well told story? And it’s strange because not many modelers are as familiar with the tools of the trade or as well equipped as a professional writer like Morgan, who studied and honed his craft over many decades of practice.

What are these tools?
Both non-fiction and fiction writers have many ways of telling a story, with fiction writers having more leeway with the literary forms they can bring to bear on a story. Non-fiction has a more stringent set of guidelines to follow, depending on the ultimate purpose of the piece. A news story is driven by the facts of the event, while a long form work such as Morgan’s magazine series in the 1950s allows for other storytelling devices such as analogy, contrast and personal reflections. Regardless of the genre, stories in general have the following: Characters, Conflict and a Resolution.

Characters Please!
A well-written story will introduce a set of characters who will take us on an adventure or help broaden our understanding of the subject. As noted last week, characters aren’t automatically human beings. They can also be objects like a steam engine or a place like the New River Gorge. How might this apply to railroad modeling? For one example, we are a character in our own story.

If we’re not part of the story then who is building the layout?


A believable character in fiction has an arc they travel. In other words he or she grows up a bit from the beginning to the end of the book. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker went from an impetuous youth to a Jedi Knight. As modelers, we also grow although perhaps not quite so dramatically. We grow into our modeling skills and in our vision with regard to what a layout is or could become. How many of us once believed something about the hobby that we no longer subscribe to? How many look back at some early model and shudder at how crude it looks now? Recognizing and sharing such growth in ourselves adds a layer of depth sorely missing in my view. Others can learn from such stories.

There’s A Conflict
Conflict in railroad modeling? I thought this was supposed to be loads of fun and all that? Conflict abounds though, for all of us. How? What about the well-worn cliche’ of I want to model the Union Pacific’s Cheyenne roundhouse and yards plus the climb up Sherman Hill in quarter-inch scale but I only have an 8×10 foot spare room to work with. As master Yoda might observe: “More space you require, Umm, yes?” It’s the conflict between I really want that but only have resources for this scenario that we all wrestle with. (Cue the music.)

There’s An Ending (Often Happy).
The action in a story must lead to a resolution of some kind. The Rebels save the galaxy; we know the facts of a situation after reading the paper and so on. In railroad modeling, the resolution is how we make peace between the realities of our resources and what we desire.

As an example of good storytelling, consider a blog series by Chris Mears about the design of a new layout he’s undertaken. Rather than inundate his readers with the normal shopping list description, Chris shared the memories of railroading that are influencing this project in a very personal way that will spark similar memories for others.

In a recent post, Chris took us on a journey as he outlined a simulated operating session he mocked up using sections of flextrack and paper track templates. Thanks to a colorful description of the train movements, his post was far more interesting than if he had just said: “I figured a three-foot long tail track at the end of my run-around would be enough for a two-unit consist and a maybe a couple of cars.” We’ve all read these dry descriptions before and they tell us little or nothing beyond the cliche’.

Much of our writing about the craft is focused on the nuts and bolts of our stuff, whether the author is describing his layout or the process of scratchbuilding a freight car. Last week I suggested this focus restricts our view of the craft in ways that tend to ignore what we bring to it as creative people.

By describing the scene and action from his memories and a railfan’s perspective, I gained a greater sense of what motivates his choices in this particular design and why. I’m better informed than I would have been with the typical I wanted this from Column A and that from Column B and a branchline from Column C and oh, a (fill in the blank) would fit in the corner nicely. I’m also reminded how similar memories, influenced my own layout decisions.

Yeah, But I Ain’t No Writer
It would be easy to misinterpret my meaning with this blog series. I’m not saying you have to become another F. Scott Fitzgerald to share the story of your layout or how you enjoy the craft. I am suggesting that there are many ways to tell those stories that we seldom consider because of the deeply entrenched this is how you write a model railroad article mindset. 

My intent here is to share my understanding of discplines like art, design and storytelling as I apply them to this craft. The reason I share these topics is that I see how much depth they add to this craft and that is inspiring to me and, I hope, to at least a few of you.

Here’s a link to Chris’s Prince Street Terminal blog and another take on what Chris is doing from Trevor Marshall

And they all lived happily ever after.


  1. Chris Mears

    Good morning Mike

    During my own current design process I’m hoping to use storytelling as a means of guiding and testing the evolution of my work. While more emotional, it might equate to: “I said I wanted XYZ and now that I have (blank) is it like XYZ?” More than just providing guidance I am hoping to build an emotional connection to my work reminiscent of the one I built with the “real” railroads that inspired my passion for trains in the first place. I’ve discovered that, for me, a model railway could be a means to help me relate to the railroad and also to help me to understand the role it played in the environment it connects or connected with. If I lay track along the same places my words take me, I might build something that looks the way I said it would. If the story inspires the work, I could use the work to refine the story.

    This relationship can build over time and Rene Gourley describes this better than I’ll ever be able to. I wanted to draw attention to a blog post that is very high among my list of favourites. In “Why Pembroke?”, Rene provides some excellent background on the events leading him to the layout he is working on. It’s easy to see what attracted him to his choices but also the discussion he’s having with regard to other options. He closes with a really excellent sentiment that beautifully underscores the relationship we could build with our prototype and our model. I think the post itself should be required reading and hope that others have a chance to see it:



  2. Trevor

    Hi Mike:
    Great piece, as always. I look forward to every Wednesday in part because of your missives – even if I don’t always (or rarely!) comment.
    I would expand on the concept of “conflict” in the hobby. I think the word “conflict” suggests a battle of some kind – but in story-telling it’s more about overcoming obstacles. In our miniature worlds, “conflict” can take many forms, especially in an operating session:
    1 – It can be opposing trains on the line. We have our train orders, our time table, a fast clock… and we must make an important decision: “Can I make it to the next available meeting point safely?”
    2 – It can be the time table and clock: “Can I keep to my published schedule?” or “Will I be ready to switch the auto plant at the 3:00 pm shift change?” or “Will I have these loads spotted on the pier in time to be loaded onto the ship that sails tonight?”
    3 – It can be switching: “How to I safely and efficiently spot these cars and lift those ones?”
    “Conflict” is an important part of telling the story in other ways too – even before we crack a throttle. On our layouts, conflict arises when we try to turn materials purchased at the craft store and home improvement center in to realistic interpretations of the real world. The conflict is between what we see in photos (or in real life) and what we can craft in our layout rooms – and the hurdles we need to clear include learning to “see” (which you help people to do through The Missing Conversation), learning new techniques, and even overcoming our tendency to not want to redo projects that don’t live up to our expectations.
    So I’d agree – there’s lots of conflict in the stories we tell in this hobby. But I’d also never really thought of it in those terms – so thank you for giving me a new perspective on this.
    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

  3. mike

    And I, for one, look forward to following your progress.


  4. mike

    Hi Trevor,

    Thank you for expanding on that thought. True, you rarely comment but when you do it’s quite meaningful and cogent.


  5. Chris Mears

    In thinking more about conflict I wondered about the relationship of the work and the audience. I initially thought of conflict that we illustrate within the work and my examples echoed ones like Trevor has shared above. Stepping back I thought about conflict in the example of architecture. With the new building we pose questions to those who see it and who are associated with the buildings around it seeking their reaction to it. Their reaction could be directly to the building itself or the way it “fits” into its environment.

    Does the model railway provoke the right reaction from the builder, the viewer, or the audience? If not, why not? Does it help them to qualify their own impressions of the type of railroading we have represented? I’ve felt this when I see a layout in a magazine that features great design and wonderful craftsmanship. By all accounts I should like it since it ticks off all the right boxes for me yet I still don’t connect with it. The conflict here grows out of my reaction and my efforts to understand the way I react.


  6. Simon

    Hmm. Interesting thoughts, Chris.

    I think you are talking about what I refer to as “love of subject”. This is tricky: ideally it will be the motivation behind one’s modelling. That bit is fairly simple. But how do we, to quote you directly, “provoke the right reaction from… …the audience”?

    To me, that is where story-telling really comes into its own: it is part of the skillset of the accomplished modeller, and sometimes involves not being 100% true to prototype, as the composition of the scene may be as important as the execution and the observation.

    I can provide three excellent examples of this: firstly, the way that Trevor Marshall has worked scenes from the Lynn valley into his Port Rowan branch, despite the fact that it comes from the Port Dover branch – and the water tower is the “wrong” side of the tracks. Secondly, the way that Geoff Forster has distilled the essence of a line in Radnorshire without modelling a real place. And thirdly, the major impact of the brave decision to remove tracks which Mike showed on his own layout, creating that feeling of rationalisation and decline due to competition from road hauliers.

    All three modellers obviously have a real understanding of their subject matter, and it shows in the care they have taken over the execution of their modelling, and in the way they have taken observation of the prototype as the starting point for composition. I think your comments and latest posts indicate that you will be following in their illustrious footsteps!

    What’s really great, though, is that we get to share in this developmental and evolutionary process as they blog their progress. I look forward to sharing in yours.


  7. Trevor

    Adequately communicating the purpose of a layout to visitors is an enormous challenge – even, as in my case, when one’s prototype is very strongly defined.

    For instance, how do I tell the story that it’s August? Obviously, by not having snow on the ground or multi-colored leaves in the trees, as a start. But August, specifically? That’s where little clues must be communicated – posters to promote an annual fair or exhibition, the progress of crops, signs reminding parents of the start of school, and so on.

    And that’s a relatively easy story, compared to things like conveying the economic story of the railway and the communities it serves. Is this a prosperous town, or one down on its luck? Is the railway being built or being abandoned? And so on.

    Even getting the story right in terms of location is hard. What shows that my railway is set in south-western Ontario, as opposed to eastern Ontario or the Niagara Peninsula? It goes way beyond things like a station signboard (although those help).

    Telling these types of stories in a way that those unfamiliar with the layout can grasp is a challenge that I’m still working on. It would be even more difficult for a freelancer, I’m sure…

    Great conversation.

    – Trevor (Port Rowan in 1:64)

  8. CVSNE

    Enjoy reading your thoughts on this blog.
    I’ve especially enjoyed this thread on story-telling since the “classic” layout visit article format has been tired for many years and needs a serious refresh!
    One of the best model railroad stories I can recall are the pulp fiction-inspired pieces from Bill Henderson set on his freelanced Coal Belt. They appeared in MR and MRRing back in the 1990s.
    The models weren’t super detailed – in some cases the modeling was actually quite rough – but Bill’s story-telling expanded the layout from the small shed-sized pike that it was to a setting larger than life.
    Marty McGuirk

  9. mike

    Hi Marty,
    Welcome to the blog. Bill Henderson’s scenery skills had a big impact on me and his pulp style articles were good.

    Appreciate your thoughts about storytelling. I’m always afraid the subject is too far out there for most. Happy to be proven wrong in this case.