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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

Themes, Conventions, and Willing Suspension of Disbelief

This is an update of an article I first wrote in 2001, about how you can use artistic principles (such as those used in fiction writing and theme park design) to make your garden railroad more interesting and enjoyable to visitors. I apologize for the parts that sound like they were written by an English professor (they were), and encourage you to pick up as much as you can and let the examples inspire you.

By the way, most of this article doesn't relate to your first loop of track outdoors, the "test loop" that I encourage everyone to install to get a feel for what garden railroading is all about before they start spending real money on dirt, rocks, trees, fountains, and so on. But as you get more experienced in garden railroading and begin to sense the possibilities, this article should help you plan a railroad that will especially interesting to visitors and rewarding to you and your family.

Let me first define a few terms:

  • Theme - What is your railroad about? Beyond just getting model trains to run outside, that is. Do you eventually want to represent a particular kind of operation, or a particular period or region? Are you more interested in realism or whimsy?

  • Conventions - What are you asking your audience to "swallow" in order to enjoy your railroad? In the literary world, "conventions" refer to the "rules" that the author and reader "agree on" or "take for granted" in each genre. For example, a detective story requires you to believe that the guilty party is always someone the detective meets in the course of his or her investigation. If a detective story should end with the guilty party being someone who wasn't in the story already, you would feel "ripped off." If it turned out that the crime was executed by magic, you would really feel ripped off. But magic is fine in a Harry Potter story, because that's a different genre with different conventions.

    Model railroads have conventions, too, things you take for granted; they include things like everything being much smaller than the real thing, people being made of plastic, cities being way too close together, and so on. These conventions are so common that nobody thinks they look strange. But as your garden railroad matures, it will eventually establish its own conventions, and you should think about whether those conventions enhance or detract from overall enjoyment of your railroad.

  • Willing Suspension of Disbelief - By using conventions, the author of a novel or show is making a sort of "contract" with the audience to play by the rules of the genre. This helps the audience to set aside a certain level of skepticism for the purpose of enjoyment. Once you’ve established the ground-rules, everybody can sit back and enjoy the show. But if you "break" your own rules (such as having a detective novel invaded by a real wizard, or a "serious" model railroad with a frog directing traffic), you break your "contract" with the audience and reduce their ability to "willingly suspend disbelief" and enjoy the project.

Start by Choosing Your Theme

When you are planning or upgrading your garden railroad, think about the theme as the overarching principle that governs the other issues. If your theme is "representing a 1930s coal-hauling operation in Appalachia," you automatically rule out having a Thomas the Tank Engine pulling regular duty, or having a "Grand Central Station" sort of passenger terminal. Well, technically, you could have those things, but your visitors will be confused about what your railroad is really trying to represent.

Decisions about "theme" can include:

  • Where is the railroad?
  • When is the setting?
  • What kind of operation does the railroad support?
  • What kind of communities does the railroad serve?
  • Are the plants more important than the trains or vice versa?
  • How realistic should the railroad be?

Realistic Themes

Railfans or folks with "indoor" experience usually build garden railroads that represent a real railroad operating in a specific time and place. There are countless choices, including:

  • Time periods, such as 19th-century, early 20th century, mid-20-century, modern
  • Regions, such as Europe, Eastern US, Mountains, Southwest US
  • Kinds of railroads, including full-service, local service, industrial (coal, logging, etc.)
  • Gauge - Garden railroaders who are going for realism also have to choose whether to model standard or narrow-gauge railroads.

    The Lamusga's railroad is long enough to handle trains over 100 feet in length. Denny usually operates trains that would have been home on the Great Northern in the 1940s and early 1950s. Click for bigger photo.Standard gauge trains run on track with the rails 56.5" apart. Virtually all commercial railroads in the United States and Canada are standard gauge. So were most of the biggest 20th-century railroads that indoor railroaders traditionally model: New York Central, Pennsylvania, Baltimore & Ohio, Santa Fe, and so on. Standard gauge railroads look best when you have a lot of room and big, sweeping curves. Denny and Judy Lamusga's Garden Northern railroad, shown to the right, is an example of a garden railroad big enough to do a standard gauge railroad justice.

    Ric Golding's railroad represents an early 20th century logging operation. It gives Ric an excuse to run many short trains at the same time. Click for bigger photo.Many garden railroaders choose to model narrow gauge railroads (railroads that used rails that were relatively close together, for example: 36"). Real narrow gauge railroads and their equipment were usually relatively small. So with a narrow gauge railroad, you can fit a lot of railroading into a small space. In addition, many narrow gauge railroads ran ancient steam engines years after the big railroads had gone to diesel, so you can justify running locomotives that would be anachronistic on a standard gauge railroad. The photo at the right shows Ric Golding's Narrow Gauge Bachmann Shay locomotive on a "logging route."

Whimsical Themes

Shirley Green's hand-fired figurines swarmed over cliffs, boated in her streams, and otherwise filled her railroad with unique charm. Click for bigger photos.Although my own New Boston and Donnels Creek takes a stab at realism, I find that many whimsical ("just for fun") garden railroads are just as spectacular and enjoyable as garden railroads that are slavishly attentive to realistic detail. One example was Shirley Green's railroad, which featured home-made structures and hundreds of tiny clay figurines that she fired and painted herself. You couldn't just walk through and take everything in on one pass. There were dozens of little scenes, many comic, that made visitors stroll back and forth and crane their necks to see, (not to mention many trains running at one time). But, whimsical as it was, Shirley's railroad strictly adhered to other conventions. Her trains, towns, and people all represented real trains, towns, and people that you might have seen in the Old West between 1860 and 1895. Shirley also kept her railroad consistent by NOT using the sort of realistic figures that I use on my railroad (conversely, Shirley's clay figures would have looked out of place on my railroad). Unfortunately, Shirley's railroad has probably been shown for the last time - but I hope to be able to post more photos in articles to come.

This portion of Jack and Cecil Easterday's railroad was designed by Paul Busse. Note the vertical railroad ties used as retaining walls/cliffs. Click for bigger photo.Paul Busse, whose company Applied Imagination builds professional garden railroad displays all over the country, has his own unique conventions. Paul is known for using rotted railroad ties as retaining walls that often represent cliffs - they don't distract from his railroads because once you've been there a few minutes they sink into the "background," and your attention is drawn to the trains they support. When possible, Paul also has trains running above, around, and below the viewer, and he builds complicated paths so that the trains "fool you" - they don't always come out where and when you would expect them to. Our article on Paul's railroad at the Holden Arboretum in the summer of 2008 shows many examples.

This building is actually a scale model of a barn on the Holden property, replicated with twigs, pine cone 'petals,' and many other natural materials. Click for bigger photo.But Paul's most often commented-on convention involves building models of local landmarks entirely from natural materials. The barn at the right and the barn in the title photo are both examples of real local structures Paul modeled with twigs, sticks, pine cone "petals," leaves, and other natural materials. Click on either for a closer look.

In keeping with some of the themes of the Holden Arboretum display, Paul used Cedar and Juniper pieces as retaining walls instead of his typical railroad ties. But that works, too, because he's consistent on that particular railroad.

Real leaves thatch the roof on this fairy house. Paul Busse's team uses real leaves, too, but they are coated with clear acrylic spray to make them weather-resistant. Click for bigger photo.The walls of this fairy house are shingled with pine cone 'petals.' Click for bigger photo.Even more whimsical - Just because you like the all-natural-materials theme doesn't mean your buildings have to be as realistic as Paul's are. On a March, 2008 visit to Epcot (in Orlando's Disney World) I photographed a number of "Fairy Houses" that were also built of all natural materials. No, they're not as weather-resistant as Paul's structures, but they could be, if you invested in clear acrylic satin spray. That said, one of these fairy houses would be completely out of place on a Paul Busse railroad, and one of Paul's structures would be just as out of place in the fairy garden where I took these two photos.

This temporary railroad featuring characters from the Thomas the Tank® series drew huge crowds of small people in July, 2008 at Holden Arboretum. If your child is in this photo, let me know and I'll send you a free 5x7 photo. Click for bigger photo.There are no limits - If you want a whimsical railroad, there's nothing to stop you. I have built railroads using Thomas the Tank and his friends. I have heard of or seen railroads with fairy, Disney, or even Lord of the Rings themes.

But whatever theme you choose, remember that you still need to get your visitors' "buy-in" that, not only is the railroad clever, it is also true to its own "rules" or conventions.

Use Consistency to Develop your Theme

Here's another principle of literary and artistic conventions: consistency is more important to "willing suspension of disbelief" than the believability of the individual details. As a result, any convention you use throughout your railroad will become "ubiquitous," that is, so omnipresent that it eventually falls beneath the observer’s notice. Oversize brass rails and plastic ties, even landscaping materials like full-sized railroad ties and cedar mulch sink below most people’s attention in a few moments, as their eyes are drawn to the models they support and surround.

You don’t even have to be consistent throughout your empire, as long as each "scene" or aspect of your layout that is readily visible at a time is consistent within itself. A railroad once profiled in Garden Railways had an American region, a Bavarian region, and an English country region, each separated visually from the others by distance and foliage. When you’re enjoying each section, you appreciate it for what it is.

If you think about it, theme parks that follow the conventions established by Walt Disney in Disneyland® and in the Magic Kingdom® park do the same thing. You don’t see Fantasyland® elements in Frontierland®, or vice versa. Consistency and appropriateness of details within each section separate a good theme park from the old-fashioned amusement park where the Alpine Racer sits next to the Western Roundup.

Walt Disney probably knew more about willing suspension of disbelief than any person of our era. If we learned anything from him, it’s that consistent use of conventions is more important than the conventions themselves.

Examples from the Magic Kingdom®

Here are a few conventions you never thought about but which helped Disney to establish the illusion that you were crossing continents and centuries every time you walked from one part of the park to another.

  • Everything is 7/8ths the size of the real thing - that way Disney could fit more into a small space. This isn't necessarily something garden railroaders need to do. But if you are running AristoCraft, USA, or MTH trains, I WOULD recommend using 1:32 buildings (even if you have to make them, which you probably will) - the 1:20.3 and 1:24 buildings kits most of us use make the standard gauge (1:29 and 1:32) trains look less massive then they really were.
  • Most Magic Kingdom ® buildings are models of small structures - few are over two stories high, unless they contain a ride, and most have a small "footprint." Again, this allowed Disney to fit more into a small space. Similarly, most structure kits for garden railroads are models of little buildings, so we can fit more in a small space. That said, if you have a lot of room, there's nothing wrong with having grain elevators and factories you can see from across the yard.
  • Each section's structures, lamp posts, etc., are appropriate for the time and place being modeled. A few examples are below.

18th-Century New England - Liberty Square includes buildings that could have been built in the 1600s, but nothing that must date after 1784. The stone building represents the earliest Dutch and English periods of New England's settlement

The flattened "Greek" columns and multiple window-panes on the gray building reflect "Georgian" architecture, which was popular between 1720 and 1840.

The brick buildings are also mostly Georgian, but some features anticipate "Federal" architecture, which technically started being developed about 1780.

Unfortunately, there were no trains in this timeframe, but if you want to build a "patriotic" setting this is a great example.

This structure resembles many colonial-era structures that are still standing in the oldest part of Boston today. Click for bigger photo.
Liberty Square architecture represents colonial buildings from the late 1600s to the late 1700s, but nothing more recent. Click for bigger photo.
19th-Century American West - Frontierland® includes the kinds of coarse stone, board-and-batten, and adobe structures that were thrown up quickly in the boom towns of the old West.

A good way to get ideas for this period is to watch movies like Silverado with one hand on the remote. "Spaghetti Westerns" don't count; they were shot in Italy, and don't have the same attention to detail.

Board and batten buildings like the one in the center saved wood - a valuable commodity in the old West - and they went up fast. Click for bigger photo.
The beams sticking out of the stone building are reminiscent of flat-roof-and-parapet architecture in the American Southwest. Click for bigger photo.
1880-1910 Heartland America - Main Street includes the sort of buildings that would have been built between 1880 and 1910 in many smaller North American cities.

A few buildings show the late Victorian "brick-a-brack" that was popular in San Francisco and in resort areas of the time.

Picture Music Man taking place in this setting.

For more urban settings of the same era, check out Newsies.

Buildings like these (only larger) went up in many parts of America in the late 1800s. Click for bigger photo.
The gingerbread on some of the Main Street buildings is evocative of the 'Gay Nineties' (the 1890s, that is).  Click for bigger photo.
Fairy Tale Settings (whimsical) - Most buildings in Fantasyland® pay whimsical tributes to Germany and other countries that supplied such classic tales such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. The older buildings in Fantasyland® tend to look German, as did the cottages in movies such as Snow White.  The varigated roof color is a hint that you shouldn't take this building too seriously. Click for bigger photo.
Elements of castles, pavilions, and heraldry, all seem to go together in this 'Fairy-Tale' village.

You can see that Disney helped his visitors' "willing suspension of disbelief" by being 100% consistent to time and place within each segment of the park.

But what if you want to represent more than one time or place on your railroad? Disney gives us an example there. Between the various sections of the Magic Kingdom, there are either "wilderness" areas with no buildings to speak of, or transitional areas with a few buildings that could, seen from the right angle, belong to either section.

The most extreme example of such transitions was the old "movie lots" street scenes. The studios would build a mile-long row of store-fronts that were western at one end and "modern" at the other, with all of the in-between buildings gradually migrating from one period to the next. That way they could film a movie that supposedly took place in the 1890s, and nobody in the audience ever noticed that the distant buildings that showed only in the long shots were anachronistic for the period. I have also seen this done in historical dioramas. On the other hand, I have never yet seen such extensive transitions done in a garden railroad. Most people who want to represent different settings or periods on their garden railroads use a few buildings that represent each setting, screened by trees or mountains from the nearby communities.

How Can You Learn More about Periods and Regional Architecture?

Aside from taking a trip to Disneyland® or Magic Kingdom®, you could read books on historical architecture or on theatrical set design. Or just watch good DVD movies that take place in the time and place you're interested in. Watch with one hand on the remote, and pause a lot. Look at the lamp posts, architecture, signage, clothing, transportation, anything that could help center your railroad in a specific time and place.

I Already Have a Hodge-Podge of Buildings and Accessories - How do I Make my Railroad more Consistent?

Die-hard model railroaders can't help wincing when they see a railroad (or a train) that mixes equipment from different eras and even different continents. But the truth is, most visitors are more likely to be "put off" by a mismatch of period, region and scale of your buildings, people, and accessories than by a mismatch of railroad prototypes. After all, many visitors know next to nothing about trains, but they’ve lived around buildings, people, and "stuff" all their lives.

That doesn’t mean you have to discard your Old West buildings if you want to use a Victorian station. Just don’t use them in the same "town." Pay attention to the real towns you drive through. How many of them have clapboard store fronts next to brick store fronts? In Ohio, the clapboard stores that originally stood in the high-rent districts were replaced by brick or stone by 1910. So my 1929 "bustling" Ohio cities can’t be full of clapboard.

If you already have a mish-mash of structures and accessories, cluster them by period, place, and scale. The fact that you’ve got a New England town doesn’t mean another town can’t have something of a frontier look. Just skootch it down the line a little and plant some miniature trees so people can’t see both clearly at the same time.

Until you know what you're looking for, you can collect figures that don't really look right together. That's okay, don't use them together, quite. Click for bigger photo.Once you’ve decided what time and place each scene represents (and what scale characterizes this particular cluster), you can fine-tune it by being selective about details such as appropriately dressed (and sized) citizens, appropriate street lamps, advertisements, and even appropriate telephone poles.

So you accumulated a bunch of Old Western buildings and now you want to model mid-20th century? Try modeling how a one-time frontier town might have looked during the Depression. Weather the buildings; shred the posters; board up some windows; paint over the business names with other, less-reputable names; put the LGB wino to good use. Attention to such details will capture your visitors’ imagination beyond what you thought was possible.

The Piko station (left) should be on a base to raise it up.  Still, you can tell that it would look better with 20th-century 1:29 equipment than the Pola station (right), which was designed to look good with 19th-century 1:22.5 equipment. I have similar stations on my railroad, but not close to each other - the Piko stations are further 'back.'  Click for bigger photo.What if your structures and accessories vary wildly in scale and level of detail? Hard as it is for many modelers to accept, most visitors won’t notice that two buildings aren’t the same scale or don’t have the same quality of detail unless you put them next to each other. And what’s wrong with a little forced perspective, anyway? If possible, put the bigger people, buildings, and accessories in the foreground and the smaller ones further back. Or find other ways to camouflage the inequalities. For example, the people on my 1:24 stations’ platforms are all too tall to climb onto my 29:1 trains. But when the train’s in front of the station, you can’t see them anyway.

A related issue is the relative size of your buildings. To keep from dwarfing our trains and accessories, most "store-bought" buildings and kits model relatively small prototypes: small farmhouses, two-story storefronts, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you drive through small old towns often, you’ll notice that most of the buildings on the same block are roughly the same size. One thing that will make your layout look silly, though, is adding a model of a very large building to a street or town of "dinky" structures. It may, technically, be in "scale" with the building next to it—that is, its doors and windows could be the same size. But it could throw off the visitor’s sense of proportion and draw unintended attention to itself.

An exception might be, say, a one-industry town where dinky houses and stores exist in the "shadow" of a factory or mine. Then the structure becomes part of the "story" that you’re trying to tell. But try to avoid having a structure whose sheer size draws attention away from its surroundings unless you’ve planned it that way. There’s just something incongruous about a three-story railroad station in a one-horse town.

Ironically, once you understand the principles of conventions and willing suspension of disbelief, you can get away with things that would make "serious modelers" cringe. The buildings I’ve bought and built (with issues of period and proportion in mind) are carefully staged where they reinforce the time and place of each little community. On the other hand, people used to give me those quaint wooden "bird-houses" with the hand-scrawled signs and oversize details glued on. At first I put them in the "back" for the same reason you hung Aunt Martha’s paint-by-number wedding present in the guest bedroom. But, obscured by distance and greenery, they actually seemed to "fit." Inadvertently, I had created a fading backwoods town that added interest for years (until bugs and raccoons destroyed most of the buildings). Sure, if you walked around when a 1:22.5 train was sitting there, it looks a little silly. But from the "normal" viewing positions, it looked like a functioning little community. And the "town" added character and perspective to the railroad as a whole. I just knew better than to put a "cutesy" wooden birdhouse next to my realistic model buildings (or vice versa).

Many of you have already developed an intuitive understanding of the principles of "conventions" and "willing suspension of disbelief." You just didn’t know what they were called. To you, most of what I’ve discussed here is "common sense." But visits to a few garden railroads I’ve seen may having you agreeing with Mark Twain, that "common sense" isn’t nearly common enough.

Next time you walk out to your railroad, try to see it from a visitor’s eyes. What does your railroad ask visitors to "swallow" before they can engage their imaginations? Then, if you see the need for some changes, don’t just rip things out and replace them wholesale. Instead, try different groupings, arrangements, and locations, until each piece fits in with its local surroundings (no matter how out of place it would be in the town across the pond).

If, after several attempts, you still have some pieces that look out of place, or just make you "uncomfortable" for some reason, trade them off. The next person may have just the right place for them.

In addition, as your railroad develops its own "rules" and personality, you'll be able to plan your future purchases much more effectively.

Best of luck, and keep those imaginations (and those of your visitors) active.

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