Writers Tip: Finding Inspiration in Images

TreeI am almost finished working on my first novel. Just one more act to proof and polish. If I am being honest, of course, I have been almost finished many times. I have even been finished a handful of times.

But this feels like the one. Lingering weak spots finally addressed—after a prolonged process I have only just now, with the help of Chuck Wendig, come to understand as the Kubler-Ross model of grief associated with editing and rewriting.

The book may still be too wide in scope and incorporate too many characters. My irreplaceable critique partners will continue to suggest tweaks. But for the most part I have taken it as far as I can without the input of a professional developmental editor.

A part of me feels silly offering anything called a Writers Tip when the above is the sum total of my novel-authoring experience. But on the chance of helping even one person unleash an inner creator, without further delay:

Find inspiration in images.

aurora borealis over the winterlandOne of the early mistakes I made was failing to embrace my vision of the story. In my head, it had a certain feel, an ambience that was central to my affection for it. But I also had an agenda. And the ambience and the agenda were at odds. Once I convinced myself to let go of the latter and embrace the former, the manuscript took leaps forward.

One of the little tricks I started doing after that point was looking for images on the web that matched the feel I wanted in the novel. The story in my head was high fantasy (the abandoned agenda had been futuristic sci-fi), and I found abundant images in the photo albums of the Earth Porn Facebook page. I have also found inspiration Googling such terms as: medieval tavern; walled city; stone keep; Romanesque architecture; Gothic; etc.

When I need a push of creativity, I return to those images. They help me focus on the look and feel of the world I want readers to enter. They provide perfect settings to unleash the characters and find out what they are going to do and say. They also aid in navigating that fine line between two sometimes-competing considerations in novel writing.

On the one hand, as Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter suggest in their writing exercises book “What If?

Solve your problems through physical detail.

Physical detail about the settings in which your characters exist serves to anchor the reader in a fictional world come to life. Solid. Real. Fully-formed.

lagoonI have found that I notice the absence when I read a book with too few (for me) physical descriptions. I find myself wondering: What does this setting or scene look like? Where are these characters physically standing? What is around them? It is harder (for me) to be in the world if I don’t have enough information about what it looks, feels, sounds and smells like.

On the other hand is an equally valuable insight from Stephen King in his memoir On Writing. I was going to quote from it, but cannot seem to find my copy. I’m sorry, Mr. King, if I am remembering this wrong!

In an admonition not to let your manuscript become bogged down in detail, King uses the example of a rabbit cage on a table. Inside the cage is a white rabbit with a red eight painted on its back.

We all see it.

He does not need to describe the table or the cage. Clearly, the important thing is the red eight on the rabbit’s back, and we see it. King’s suggestion is to provide the amount of detail necessary to prompt the reader’s mind to fill in the rest.

Before I suggested that Bernays and Painter are right about using physical detail to solve problems. King is also right.

Glow worm cavesI want enough information about the physical details of a setting or scene so that my mind knows what to imagine. I do not, however, want paragraph after paragraph of description. Just enough to orient me—and then back to the action!

Using images for inspiration also helps with this. Think about what in the scene is crucial, which elements give it identity. Distill it to those, which could consist of physical detail, emotional perception, imagined smells and sounds—or a combination of all. Then write a description conveying the sense and feel of the scene using the fewest words necessary to get the reader’s mind to fill in the rest. That minimal-but-complete description can be worked into the manuscript as its own paragraph or sentences. It can also be referenced later to anchor and re-orient the reader to the setting as the scene or novel progresses.

Thoughts in the comments. And if you are having a writers-block kind of day and want an exercise:

stones float on water to cross lakeFind an image that speaks to you in connection with your current story. It could be a cottage in the woods. A pristine beach. A high-rise commercial building. An old house in the New England countryside. A ranch in Wyoming. A teenaged house party. A magical forest. The deck of a ship. A formal garden. A colony of sentient bees. Anything.

Once you have it, imagine, if you were there. How would you describe the scene? What words convey the colors, the rocks, the trees, the water, the sky, the architecture? What would you be hearing? What would you smell? How would the air feel? Who is with you? Is it dark and foreboding and you wish you weren’t alone? Are there too many people, jostling and crowding and talking so loud you can’t hear? Are you too hot, too cold, feeling faint, hungry or thirsty? Write it all down. Those details are your future physical anchors to hold the reader inside both the setting and the individual scenes. Distill it to King’s minimum and incorporate into manuscript. Then watch and see what your characters do there.

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