Writer’s Tools: PhotographS

Last Monday, I wrote about how the mere act of taking photographs is a writer’s tool. Today is all about the snappies.

Let’s do the obvious first: photographs capture moments in time. Memories, right there on a piece of paper. If you want to relive a moment, you can look at a photograph you or someone else took of that moment and there it is–a piece of it, anyway. You want to describe your mother’s kitchen in 1964? You want to write a poem about yourself on your prom night? You can’t remember if Cousin Julia was already going downhill at the reunion last year? Look at a picture. Remember.

But pictures are also raw material. You can mine your pictures for what W. S. Gilbert (of the comic opera team Gilbert & Sullivan, children) called, in The Mikado, “corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative”. And, for this, you aren’t limited to your own photographs.

I cut pictures out of the newspaper (after everyone has finished reading it, of course) of houses my characters could live in or need to go to. I tear pages out of catalogs of household goods, clothing, jewelry–not that I intend to describe sheets or flatware or necklaces unless those are essential to the story–but to help me get a fuller feeling of characters. “Oh! She would SO TOTALLY wear that to church!”

Pamphlets of vacation destinations, especially with street maps and photographs of points of interest, are great for thinking about settings. If you change the name of the spot, you don’t even have to worry about getting everything right. You need that street to be one-way north and it’s one-way south? But you’re not writing about THIS town; you’re writing about another town that’s very like it, only this street runs the other way.

Finally, I love to collect discarded photographs. Sometimes I’ll find a picture tucked into a used book, or on the ground by a trash bin, and those are pure gold. Who are those people in that picture? What were they thinking; what were they doing? Who had this picture? Why doesn’t he or she have it any more?

And, speaking of pictures, I’m still running a comment contest on this picture from yesterday’s post. The contest runs through July 31. Leave a comment on the Sparks o’ Joy post guessing what you think it is, and you’ll be entered to win a free e-copy of LONNIE, ME AND THE HOUND OF HELL.


writing prompt: Look through some photos of people you don’t know and make up a story line about them. Or look at a picture from a magazine or the newspaper and, without reading the caption or story, make up your own story about who the people are, what they’re doing, what they were doing before and will do after the picture was taken.


I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Writer’s Tools: PhotographS

  1. The Yard Bard

    July 19, 2010 at 6:10pm

    “…an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” What a great phrase! I’m always saddened to see old photographs for sale in antique shops. It makes me feel like someone’s selling a family member.

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