Experts and asking questions

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This is a follow up to The lesson of Bendy Elm – my post about asking questions instead of doing one’s own experiments.

As I noted in that post, giving advice to others about the hobby is difficult because each person’s layout is unique – even if built from identical plans. From the physical environment of the layout room to our own idea of what is right, there are too many variables to provide the “right” or “best” answer.

That doesn’t stop many people from trying, though, does it? Just as I see many people asking questions that are best answered by doing some first-hand experimentation, I also see many people delivering sermons on how things should be done. From layout design… to scenery techniques… to hosting operating sessions… to how to share progress with others via the Internet… these folks seem to think that the way that works best for them is the only way to do things.

On this blog, I try to keep that in mind and temper my advice. Fortunately, I’m not often asked for advice – because I’d be hard-pressed to offer anything useful. I’m not an expert and don’t present myself as one.

Instead, I try to describe what I’m doing and why I’ve made the choices I have. While it’s a way to share my hobby with like-minded people, it’s also a record of my own progress in the hobby – so that in a year or two, I can ask myself, “Why did I do that?” and find the answer. If others get something useful out of this exercise, that’s great.

Regular readers Simon Dunkley and Mike Cougill engaged in a great exchange of ideas on my Bendy Elm post. See the comments section of that post for the full exchange, but Simon wrote, in part:

A genuine expert would share the thought process(es) which led to their personal solution, rather than necessarily peddling a now out of date technique, material or product.

I think this is the most valuable information one can share. If someone tells me, “Here’s why I did it this way”, I can then apply that thinking to my own layout to decide whether it’s appropriate to my circumstances.

Layout height is a good example of this. People often want to know what the best height is for a layout. Reader Brian Termunde once asked about the height of my layout – not “What height should my layout be?” but rather, “What height is your layout?”

I could’ve answered “48 inches” and left it at that. But instead, I explained how I arrived at that figure. I think that’s a more useful answer.

I like to ask questions to encourage people to ask – then answer – their own questions. It helps me to think of the questions to ask by framing them so the answers will take into consideration all three of these factors:
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Prototype: Regardless of whether one models a real railroad or a freelanced line, elements added to a layout that respect the way things are in the real world will be more convincing. For example, lines running between utility poles sag. Modelling them pulled tight will be less convincing.
Telegraph Road-Port Rowan photo TelegraphRoad-01_zps71f6caf9.jpg

Observing the real world – taking notes of what one sees, and determining why something is the way it is – is critical to getting it right on a model, regardless of whether one faithfully models a specific place and time.

Practical: This is where the real world hits the layout world. It’s rare that we can model a real place exactly to scale. We need to work within the confines of the space we have.

Even Port Rowan – a pocket-sized prototype yard – was too big for me to model full-size.
 photo PortRowan-Plot-Web_zpsli8hidhh.jpg

I did manage to model it about two-thirds full size – and had to make decisions about where to trim the one-third away from the prototype in order to do so.

An example of such decision-making is the location of the section house. On the prototype, it’s located adjacent to the main track, as shown here:
 photo PtR-YardThroat-SectionHouse-Labelled_zpsce05e5ef.jpg

This didn’t work on my layout – I needed that space for the run-around track – so I shifted the section house to the run-around, as shown here:
In the yard (Port Rowan section house) photo SectionHouse-03_zps12b88b69.jpg

It was a reasonable compromise, given my space constraints, since it still put the section house as close as practical to its prototype location. And moving the section house was a better choice than shortening the run-around or shifting the run-around to the right, which would’ve created bigger problems visually and operationally.

Another practical deviation from reality is the location of my lights. For practical purposes, they’re near the front of the layout so that scenes are lit from the side from which they’re viewed. But putting the sun in this location means my Port Rowan branch appears to head southeast out of Simcoe – whereas on the prototype, it headed southwest. The alternatives were:

To backlight the entire layout – not a great way to view it. Or,

To put the staging area on the peninsula and tuck Port Rowan into the corner – again, not a great way to view the layout.

I’m happy with both of these decisions – and the other choices I’ve made – in part because they were informed choices. Understanding where I was deviating from my prototype – and why – was essential to arriving at these decisions.

Perception: This is where we deviate from reality to influence the story that people take away from the layout – the perception we want to leave with visitors. It’s the artistic portion of the equation.

For example, having Googled the site of the long-gone St. Williams station – in both satellite and street view – I’m pretty confident there was no tobacco field across the road from it, or tobacco kilns kitty-corner to it. However, I do know that such signature elements from the region bordered the tracks in Vittoria – the next station up the line – because I have a photo in my collection that shows them.

Knowing this, I made an artistic decision to move this scene to St. Williams, because I felt that the kilns tell an important story about life in the region and era that I’m modelling:
 photo Kilns-S-09_zps3c97c786.jpg

Kiln Test - 3 (Set-up) photo KilnTest-3-02_zps68ce2fb6.jpg

Beginners in the hobby – or even experienced hands who are new to a certain aspect of the hobby – might be looking for a straight-forward answer to their questions. And “the experts” will provide – either online, or in hobby publications aimed at getting people out of the armchair and into the layout room (not to mention, into the nearest hobby shop that stocks their advertisers’ products).

The answers tend to be in a form that a friend calls “The Rain Dance”:

I did a dance and it rained. If you do the same dance, it’ll rain.

The hobby equivalent is a set of instructions to build a kit. “Do as I did, and your kit will look like the one on the box”.

That’s excellent for a rolling stock kit, where the point is to create an accurate model of a specific prototype. It’s also very good for a structure kit – although unless one is building a kit based on a specific prototype in order to model the same prototype scene, one runs the risk of creating a layout that looks the same as everybody else’s. And certainly, getting people out of the armchair is important.

But for most things in the hobby, I think the better approach is to encourage the hobbyist with the question to explore possible answers, then arrive at their own solution.

After all, there’s only one expert on your hobby – and that’s you.

3 thoughts on “Experts and asking questions

  1. Nice post, Trevor.

    I liked the interlocking/overlapping circles – after all these years, a use for Venn diagrams! There is a lot more which can be done with that diagram, as the circles can be moved about and change their relative positions, and there is an infinity of options between complete overlap (the happiest person in the hobby) and no overlap at all (the miserablest person in the hobby!) Indeed, the circles don’t have to be the same size, as this could reflect relative importance. I could probably develop this idea into a PhD in psychology (my academic and first employment background, over 20 years ago now) and write a book on how to think as an additional outcome, but I will leave that to someone else. Others may have more circles (don’t have too many, folks, or you will go mad!) or circles representing different things – instead of prototype, “prototypical operation” for example.

    The “happy spot” is the intersection between the three circles. If you can increase that, then I suggest happiness increases, too. Therein lies success.

    I like that. Add it to Mike’s concept of a freedom layout, and the hobby can become an extremely pleasant place to spend some time.


  2. My take-away is, that if you like what someone else did, ask them why they did it the way they did, and then reserve the right to say, “is that the way that will work for me in my situation?”
    I hope I haven’t missed the real point or made it too simple.

    • That’s it exactly, Phil. That – and beware of authorities in the hobby who offer answers without any context to explain why they did what they did. Chances are, something about their solution (or its execution) works for them – but not for you.

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