Magazine cut-outs and collage have been the foundation for many of my writing projects. Not only is it fun to read the magazines while looking for photos (hey, it’s research!) but I find the pictures add richness and detail I would have trouble coming up with on my own. After all, I can’t always travel to Tokyo on a minute’s notice to set a scene in a backstreet noodle shop, but a great National Geographic shot can provide an amazing amount of information in just one frame.
My primary source for photos is the library where there is always a stack of magazines for exchange and recycling. I like to go for big and glossy: Martha Stewart, Food and Wine, Opera News. I also love trade-oriented magazines that cater to the textile industry or jewelry making. Friends know I love to “write with cut-outs” so they are always happy to share with me old issues of Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire.
I cull through my magazines on a regular basis, always searching for the unusual and most startling photos. Once I have the latest bunch, I keep them organized in file folders: People, Places, Animals, Things, Background Colors. The system is a bit idiosyncratic, but it helps me find exactly what I want at any time. After I have my latest collection, the really fun part is to use the pictures as a jumping-off point for my writing. Here are some of my favorite things to do:
1. Book Covers. Whenever I start a new WIP, I like to make a collaged “book cover” I can slip into the plastic front of the binder I’m using. I choose images that illustrate my plot and theme.
2. Character ID. Magazine photos help me to see my characters more fully. Rather than just giving them “brown hair and brown eyes,” photos of the right models can help me see freckles, eyebrows, and smiles with more individuality.
3. Characters’ Wardrobes. I love to dress my characters; it’s almost like playing paper dolls. Keeping a full “closet” of dresses, suits, and evening gowns keeps my writing consistent. I know what everybody’s wearing and when, and I also get a better idea of who they are by their taste in clothing.
4. Where They Live. Decorating my characters’ homes and work places is almost as pleasurable as buying my own new furniture. I typically choose for each character a photo of their home’s exterior followed by a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Then I try to find one space unique to that particular character, for instance an attic or a secret part of a garden they love to visit.
5. Scene Settings. These are the spaces where my characters interact and are the basis for where the action takes place. For my current WIP, a contemporary romantic suspense, I have pictures of France, dockyards, cloisters, and art galleries.
6. Sequel Settings. After a strong action scene, I need a place for my characters to unwind and plan their next line of attack. I try to have a number of “safe, quiet” photos that describe a good place for them to “think aloud” while keeping reader interest high. It’s too easy to forget about where characters actually are while they’re internalizing. Photos help me remember the wind is blowing, or steam is rising off their coffee.
7. Story Symbols. I love collecting photos of everything from rhinestone Chihuahua collars to Bavarian tea-sets. These are the things that define my characters and offer story “symbols.” For instance, a tea-set can be a recurring motif, something a character inherits, say, and is afraid of breaking because it will mean losing the last contact with “home.” Conversely that same set can be what my hero hates because it’s what a mean aunt always used during horrible holiday get-togethers. Breaking it symbolizes breaking with the past.
8. Dreams. The stranger the photo, the more valuable it is as something a character can dream about. In my next book due out in 2010, I have my heroine—a newlywed—dream about a row of brides. This scene would never have occurred but for finding a bizarre photo of a dozen brides in a Vogue magazine. That dream eventually came to stand for an important revelation that foreshadows the rest of the story.
9. Memories. Photos of children in school, family reunions, birthday parties can all be used for important memories that motivate my characters’ actions and emotions.
10. Past Generations. Whenever I can, I grab old-timey photos of the past. These are great for describing a character’s family origins and history.
11. Favorite Colors and Feelings. Sometimes it’s helpful to create a collage just using all the colors and objects that describe to me what my story is about. Even if I never use half of the items in the actual writing, just seeing them in front of me is very useful. For instance, a picture of a kimono can remind me of some important detail in my heroine’s psyche that I want to convey, such as her modesty or love of decorum.
12. Outlining the Story Arc. In my WIP binder, along with scene notes and character bios and all my other important photos, I like to arrange a story arc solely through pictures, sometimes one per chapter. This is the picture that sums up what that chapter is about. Having it there just helps me feel the chapter with all my senses.
13. What If? More than anything, unusual and unexpected photos get me thinking. They make great story prompts for keeping me enthused about the WIP or for any other kind of writing project. One favorite thing I like to do is simply paste a variety of images throughout a new journal before I’ve used it. That way, any time I turn the page to start writing I will always have “something to write about” and no excuses about “lack of inspiration today.”
Tip of the day: start cutting up those old magazines! If your library doesn’t have a “freebie” box, ask if you can help get one going.