In a recent interview featured on The Character Connection I mentioned that while designing the character Karen Stainer for Blood Passage, the first in the Donaghue and Stainer Crime Novel series, I used a reference photo to help visualize the person I was creating. The photo helped to bring together all the various elements of the character into a round, three-dimensional fictional entity. As I said in the interview, when I saw the photo I understood who Karen Stainer was going to be.
Many other writers use this technique when developing characters, and celebrity actors often serve as models. It’s well known, for example, that John Grisham wrote The Pelican Brief with Julia Roberts in mind and that he visualized Paul Newman and Brad Pitt as his central characters while writing The Chamber. In his case he was obviously thinking ahead to the movie versions of his novels, but for some of us it’s merely a matter of having a useful visual reference point.
Reference photos are also very helpful for setting. Thriller writer John Mefford, author of COMMITTED, recently posted a series of photos on his website that are intended to “provide a pictorial representation” of the locales featured in his novel. They include a curtain stirring in the window of a brick building, a fire escape behind a drab motel, and an old shed with a rusted tin roof. His photos help set the mood for his story and pique the interest of readers.
I’ve used Google Earth to explore neighborhoods and landscapes while visualizing the settings of my stories, particularly for places in Maryland and Virginia I haven’t yet been fortunate enough to visit. I use reference photos for other creative prompts as well. For example, when I’m writing a scene involving characters sitting in a particular type of car I’ll look for a photo of the interior to make sure I have the details correct. It would be embarrassing for Hank Donaghue to put his cup of coffee into a cup holder in Karen’s 1979 Firebird, for example, if it didn’t actually have cup holders.
I’ve also looked at photos of restaurant kitchens, hotel lobbies, elevator interiors, and other places before I write a scene if the image in my head needs a little tweaking while I’m mentally walking through it. This approach is similar to that of a graphic designer or illustrator who consults reference photos while researching a new illustration.
Do I do this with every scene I write? No, thank goodness. Most of the time I can imagine exactly where I am when I’m writing and I don’t need any assistance.
Do I want my readers to “see” these things, people and places the same way I see them? Absolutely not. I tend to minimize description whenever I can, in large part because I want readers to do much of the heavy lifting themselves. When they can visualize my story themselves in their own mind’s eye, I know I’ve successfully engaged them in the fiction-making process!