Many years ago I took an acting class, during which my coach asked everyone to bring in personal photographs that triggered memories and emotions. It was an interesting experience to see people laughing, crying and tight-jawed just from staring at a picture, but that’s why happened. The techniques an actor uses to prepare for a role can also be used by writers beginning a novel.
There was a time when I took a lot of photographs. Most of them aren't very good: blurry snapshots of places I no longer remember and expansive landscapes with no focal point. There are a few that evoke emotions. And emotions are what good writing is all about. Photos also raise questions—dramatic questions, which stimulate ideas and create suspense in a novel.
The shot below was taken in Boston years ago. The color has faded, so I’m not sure if you can read the words scrawled on the statue: “Fight Racism.”
At the time, I felt a bit voyeuristic taking this picture because it seemed like a private moment, but I’m glad I did because I’ve never forgotten it. As I study the photo now, my fiction mind asks: What if this scene is not what it seems? What if one member of the couple was the son or daughter of a high-powered person whose views did not reflect the image in this photo? What would happen if the photographer sent a blackmail letter to the parent, threatening to publish the photo?
I often use the personalities of my pets to create characters in my novels. Here’s a shot of my Westie, Dottie. She was about six months old and encumbered by an oversized satin bowtie. She had heart and joie de vivre, the noblest of noble beings, a saint in a fur coat. Here she reminds me of Joan of Arc. I can almost hear her say: “I fear nothing but treachery.” She was not perfect, of course, but the fun part of creating a character is finding the imperfections and exploring a character’s public versus private face.
As I was looking through photos for this post, my first author picture landed near a picture of my mother taken in her twenties. I was startled to see them side-by-side because we are facing in the same direction and both pictures are in black-and-white. The resemblance is striking, at least for me and recollections of the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters are still bouncing around in my head. My fiction mind thought about a woman, maybe researching a historical figure, who comes across a photo of the woman she is researching and finds her doppelgänger.
Later, I happened upon a zippered leather case in the far reaches of a closet, shrouded in dust bunnies and cat hair. Inside were some photos taken when I first moved to L.A. and was looking for an agent. Here’s a headshot taken by Lisbet Sjoberg. She asked me to bring several outfits to the shoot, which I did, but she ended up loaning me a sweater and even the earrings. When I saw this long ago photo my first thought was: What an accomplished photographer! But as I studied it more closely, the trickle of memories turned into a flood of emotions about plans shelved and dreams realized.
Do you have favorite photos that stay with you over time? Why do you remember them?