Making Murphy’s Law

This week, author Muireann ní Chíobháin and illustrator Paul Nugent tell us all about the inspiration and illustration of their picture book Murphy’s Law.

Muireann ní Chíobháin

I’m a dog person but I’ve never been lucky enough to have one of my own. I’ve never met a dog I didn’t like. I can’t walk past one without stopping to say ‘Hi’. It means a trip to the shop can take longer than it should with all the pooch stops. I can’t help myself because basically dogs are simply pawsome! I spent many years living next to Herbert Park in Dublin which afforded me the great joy of meeting all kinds of gorgeous fur friends every day.

But one day, I met a puppy like no other and our brief encounter left me with the seed for a story. Irish Wolfhounds are very big dogs, even as puppies, and their owners must be the biggest dog lovers ever because they need lots more walking than other dogs, or so I’m told. This day, I saw a girl being dragged from tree to tree, bench to bin, by a very enthusiastic young hound, whose spectacular tail was wagging all over the place. He managed to do the impossible; scare the brazen D4 pigeons into giving me and my sandwich space for once by running about excitedly and swishing his huge tail uncontrollably. Unfortunately for him, his excitement was leaving a trail of minor destruction behind him. He was accidentally trampling on newly planted shrubs, knocking over signs, chasing footballs mid-match and confiscating frisbees. His enthusiasm was a joy to watch but a job and a half for his owner to keep up with. But she never shouted or scolded the puppy, just laughed and tried to minimise the chaos. The furry whirlwind bounded over to me, pulling his owner behind him. We all chatted. He was a new puppy, full of beans: a trouble magnet with no name yet.  

‘He’s a law onto himself. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong when he’s around,’ his owner chuckled.

‘You should call him Murphy so,’ I said. The dog barked in agreement. We laughed. ‘Is that your name so?’ I asked. He barked again.

‘Must be!’ said his owner.

You couldn’t write it, or could you? We parted ways and I could swear I heard her call him Murphy in the distance as he tried to sub in as a goalie in a football game on the green. That night I jotted down the first lines of what would become Murphy’s Law about the happiest dog in Ireland who, despite being a trouble magnet, clearly made his owner the happiest dog owner ever. 

Paul Nugent

When I first read the text for Murphy’s Law, I knew it would be a lot of fun to illustrate. It already had so much of Muireann’s brilliant humour packed into it, but it also had room for me to populate it with details and my own interpretation of Murphy’s mischief. The book takes Murphy to lots of different environments, and it was a joy to think of how things could go wrong in each one!

The design for Murphy came to me almost immediately and didn’t change much from the initial concept to the finished book. The design for his human best friend, Mary, however, was a little trickier. I’ve always found non-human characters a lot easier to design for some reason. The original design had Mary rounder and more cartoonish, which contrasted a bit with Murphy’s texture, so the design evolved to mirror him more. I thought of Mary as a more dependable, less clumsy, human version of Murphy, and I think the finished design conveys this!

I tried to capture the immediate impression the text gave on first reading, so I drew quick thumbnails as I read it for the first time. Usually, these initial thumbnails get changed completely, or refined beyond recognition as the book progresses, but sometimes they manage to make the final cut. A good example of a successful first thumbnail would be the beach scene in the book. The initial thumbnail is barely comprehensible, but the composition was locked in in my mind. The scene is actually based on the view from a real beach in Cahore, County Wexford. I spent some time in Cahore while working on the book, so it’s no surprise it found its way in!

After sending in my initial roughs, the feedback from Muireann and the O’Brien Press team really expanded and improved on the ideas I got from the text. It really helped me push the humour and the level of detail, which is really important for giving a book re-readability. For me, background details are one of my favourite parts of a picture book. As well as details that don’t relate to the narrative, I hid a lot of bad luck superstitions in the background of Murphy’s Law. If you look carefully, you can find an umbrella open in the house, new shoes on the table, a black cat, spilled salt, a lone magpie, as well as several other well-known superstitions which are all contributing to Murphy’s bad luck!

One of the biggest challenges of illustrating this story was trying to convey a sense of chaos while keeping Mary and Murphy completely oblivious. To show this, I often positioned Murphy to the far right of the page with his back to the rest of the illustration, with only his pawprints suggesting that he is responsible for the mess behind him. This technique is very useful because it establishes a timeline and guides the reader’s eyes exactly where you want them, helping to make the illustration more dynamic. It also means you can add multiple separate events to a single static illustration, and I expanded on this even further in the shop illustration. This scene shows Murphy making a mess as he moves across the spread, the mess growing bigger the more you follow his footsteps from left to right. The shop keeper, much like the reader, is reacting to the mess as he follows the pawprints, suggesting he might be able to intervene if he can catch up. Unfortunately, by the time he does catch up to Murphy in the last scene, it’s far too late!

Muireann ní Chíobháin and Paul Nugent, May 2022

Murphy’s Law  is out now and available from your local bookshop or here