Secret Project: The Backstage Story – Part Five

You’ve seen the published stories and their illustrations in the September Slam at Fictive Dream, an online magazine focusing on the short story.  Now, in a series of posts, I travel through the project from my perspective as an artist, covering the creative process, physical and mental – from the tools I used to the way I approached the various stories.

For other posts in this series, search under the term “September Slam”.


I’m going to show you illustrations I did for two stories that did not ultimately appear as part of the September Slam. In both cases, Fictive Dream Editor Laura Black sent me the two versions of each story and I progressed through the same process as with the earlier ones. Here’s what I came up with.

Story # 1 was set during World War I in Belgium. The setting and time period meant that I had to do some research. The story involved soldiers and a wartime romance. I had only a vague idea of what soldiers wore in that time, but I needed more detail, so I turned to the internet. I used Google images and searched under various terms, looking at picture after picture.

For my first picture I depicted soldiers in a field at night. I wanted to convey the sense of how large the war was and how small each person was in contrast. I painted the background especially for this picture.

Fictive Dream Ypres full size 8-18 #1 small

For the second image, I illustrated a passage in the story by suggestion: I did not include the people involved, only some of their possessions. Once again I did research into WWI uniforms and came up with the idea to depict the set-aside boots with special care, as they symbolized the temporary respite from war.

Fictive Dream Ypres full size 8-18 #2

Story #2 was a reunion story – a man and a woman resuming a relationship that had begun in the past and had been let go, with many years in between then and now.

For the first image, I chose to depict their reunion dinner. I looked over various photos I had including elements of the scene – the sea, the balcony railings, the table with food on it. For example, I referred to this photo of a derelict mansion located a couple of miles from my house for the railing, though what I drew didn’t end up looking much like it!

Lynnewood Hall - right side close up 3-18-15 small

Here is the image I came up with.

Fictive Dream Bloody Meat Image #2 text and flattened small

For the second image, I chose a scene where the woman sees the man at the train station, catching sight of him as the train comes in when he is unaware of her, and she is taken aback by how he has changed. I painted a background specifically for this picture – I wanted to convey a subdued feeling. For a reference photo, I used a picture (I have many!) of a local commuter rail station at Glenside, PA, a couple of miles from home:

GL train #5 8-26-1803

And here is the illustration:

Fictive Dream Bloody Meat Image #1 text and flattened small

Here’s what Editor Laura Black said about the illustrations for these two stories:

Of the images you created for (story #1) my favourite was that of the two soldiers under the moonlight. The black and pale brown complement each other so well. And I like how small the soldiers seem in comparison to the moon.

The green image I liked for two reasons: firstly, it was an example of artwork without a character being present. The boots represent the soldier in a very poignant way. Secondly, I loved the green you chose.

There was something rather lovely about the railway station you created for (story #2). The blue with the odd dot of rust ink is really attractive.

Though these pictures did not ultimately see publication, they were important to my process. I gained practice in drawing, literally and figuratively, from an author’s words to make a scene come alive in pen and ink. And I also became aware of the internet as a great image source of information about places in time and geography that I didn’t know much about or about which I needed a specific detailed understanding.

19 thoughts on “Secret Project: The Backstage Story – Part Five

        1. Claudia McGill Post author

          Yes, I did. It had its stressful moments but even those were exciting, trying to figure things out. I’m inspired to try more of this kind of thing, just on my own.

  1. Laura (PA Pict)

    It is fascinating to see how you transformed the reference images. I can see that they were a jumping off point but then you very clearly did your own thing. I probably would have recognised the final illustration as being inspired by Glenside Station but only because I know it.

    My favourite of all the images is that first one of the soldiers under the moonlight. As I mentioned on another of your posts, I am writing up my family history research at present. One of the things I am doing is researching all my war dead (over 120 of them!) and writing potted biographies of them. I had hoped to have it done and ready to share with family members for the centenary of the armistice but that was too ambitious. Anyway, immersed as I am in the desperate tragedy of the two world wars, that particular illustration seemed to me to speak to the poignancy of lives caught up and lost in the massive machinery of conflict.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. You know, I am interested in how so many Europeans and British are still very aware of WWI when here in the US, it’s long been forgotten and no one is interested. The reasons are obvious, of course, but I find myself uninterested in WWI stories and so on for that reason the US wasn’t really too involved. I had one grandfather in the war but at the very end and I am not sure what he actually did. Certainly never was brought up in later years. And that’s the only family veteran I know of. Interesting.

      1. Laura (PA Pict)

        In the UK, every village has a memorial inscribed with the names of the young men killed in the Great War. I remember being struck, even when I was tiny wee, at the huge proportion of the male population of those villages was just wiped out in one fell swoop. I also have the family history connection, with close relatives (including my paternal grandfather) who were killed on the world wars. And I taught First World War poetry. And I loved Blackadder Goes Forth. And it intersects with the flu pandemic, another of my nerdy fascinations. Ultimately I think that the societal impact of WW1 in particular was so massive in Britain that it’s part of our DNA – just as something like the Black Death was centuries before.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. I don’t have any emotional attachment to WWI, as I think most US citizens would say, but I know for Europeans and British it is another story, so I tried to get into that frame of mind. I admit I found it difficult – there was much cultural emotional backstory to this particular story I just could not personally feel – so I tried to focus on the story and what it had to say. Another lesson in illustration, reminding me – it’s not my thoughts that are of interest, it is the author’s!

  2. Laura Black

    The artwork of the soldiers remains among my favourites. You say you wanted to convey the sense of how large the war was and how small each person was in contrast, and that is certainly achieved. I love the dramatic expanse of black sky and how it contrasts with the sandy-coloured ground. But there are still some beautiful details such as the glint of moonlight reflecting off the helmets, and those thin, spindly legs that emphasise the soldiers’ vulnerability. How I wish this image could have been used. Here’s something I learned: I had no idea just how much research you would end up doing, and I must say, Claudia it shows in your work. So, thank you for that.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. Sometimes the most simple images are the most powerful – I tend to like to embellish and put lots of detail into my art, but sometimes less really is more, and this image was one of those situations. I like to have a full understanding of what I’m drawing or painting; just knowing a few details is not enough as I might get the context wrong. So research really pays off, plus, I find it interesting to search and discover.

  3. Laura Black

    The green artwork, another of the options for the World War I story, is striking, not just because of the colour but also because of the absence of people. I find the boots are so symbolic: yes, I agree they remind us of the brief respite from the fighting that some men had, but for me they also symbolise all the men who went to war. I’m so taken with the idea that there’s someone sitting in the bath but we just can’t see him. Another fabulous illustration.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. I liked doing this one because I enjoyed the idea of suggesting a presence without the viewer seeing a person at all. It took some thinking to figure out how I wanted to do it in this picture, but I tried to make every object count – so that alone or together, they worked to give the impression that would support the story.

  4. Laura Black

    Both of the illustrations produced for story #2 are great examples of how you use local references. It’s wonderful to see, side by side, the photograph of the derelict house with its balcony and the reunion dinner artwork with its beautiful yellow/green background. My favourite though is the illustration base on Glenside station. The blue with those few rusty-red spots captured my imagination and it reflects the tone of the story. The posture of the figure waiting on the station for his love from former times is perfect – full of anticipation for her. On of my favourite films is Brief Encounter so no wonder I like this image so much.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. I feel I can put more into a drawing when I have really seen the reference or the scene I am drawing – I can pick up the details that appeal to me rather than imagining them (which I am never good at) or having to take someone else’s view and find my own meaning in it. And I do love that Glenside train station – I have lived near it for 25+ years and it is part of what is home to me.

  5. Judi Castille

    I am about to embark on an ambitious writing and illustrative project and I an enjoying these insights. The internet is a blessing for research but I also feel overwhelmed. Can I ask if you have any recommendations ‘re illustrative courses in UK or tutors?

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      I’m sorry, I’m hopeless here as far as help, since I kind of just winged things on my own. I’m certainly happy to give you any help I can from my own personal experience, having finished this September Slam project plus my illustrated story/poem book does not qualify me as much, but I did learn some things and I’d be really happy to answer questions. I enjoyed the illustrative process and I found it different from doing commission artwork, which I have had more experience with. So let me know if you want to ask anything, ever –

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