A Picture Says a Thousand Words

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Photography and the Art of Writing

So, I have some money coming to me this September. It’s from my Grandparents, the last of which very sadly passed away last November. Now I’m choosing to think of this money as my final birthday present, it is after all my thirtieth birthday in September. So, having put some thought into what I wanted, and they would have liked to give me, I decided on a camera. A reasonably powerful camera.

My Granddad loved taking photos, and they had lots of them. My Granddad even had a really expensive camera once, which was a shock to my dad and Nana when he brought that home. He may not understand the modern bells and whistles, but I think he would like modern cameras.

Anyway, so the camera is quite a personal thing. However, it’s also about writing. I’ve been using camera’s to help me write for some time. It all started off a few years back when I took a photo of Primrose Valley, (the one in Leeds, not on the East Coast), and wrote a story around it.

Since then, I’ve used photographs, and photography as a tool in a number of ways, some small, some large. It’s a handy tool to keep around.

Now, first of all, if anyone feels like following my usually terrible advice, you should know, it doesn’t matter how good or bad you are at taking pictures for this. I’m really bad – especially when I use my camera phone, (see the picture with this post).

There are all sorts of things to consider when taking a photograph, and you only have scant minutes, if that, to be ready to take it. I do my best with things like lighting, focus, composition and such – and if I get a new camera I’ll be really trying to get to grips with all that stuff. As a writer though, you don’t really need to worry about it.

As a writer what you need from photographs might be:

  • A catalogue (for description) of:
    • Things
    • People
    • Places
  • Ideas (inspiration)
  • Basis for story boards (planning)

Description

If you’re anything like me, (and there are some people out there that might be), you might struggle to do descriptions. I’m too busy writing to think about how something looks, it’s a distraction when in the flow of writing really. I mean, getting descriptions right is a very delicate work, and if you forget if a pattern had a green stripe over a blue, and instead go green over red, that’s a basic mistake that’s easy to miss in editing.

My solution is, as I write, I have in mind pictures, either from my anarchic photos folder, or from pictures, and clips online, stick them in a OneNote (or whatever your visual notebook of choice is, online or off), with a  note to who it relates to, and when. Then you can come back to it, in a quiet moment and give some definition to your very basic description.

This is great, because you can then sync up all your descriptions, (without repeating the same words), in such a way as you don’t contradict yourself.

This is probably the most useful reason for photography, and to be honest it really doesn’t matter if you take the photos yourself. I think it’s good to though, you choose the cars you want in your portfolio, the buildings, the rooms, the clothes, and the people. Google Images works just as well though.

Ideas

So, I’m not infallible, I have really fantastic ideas. I mean blow your mind fantastic ideas, but a lot of them never become something I can actually use. They’re too disconnected from reality, or their too real they’re mundane. Maybe I have a great concept, but nothing that really makes it concrete.

I need ideas to to tie it to, pictures are great for that. They give a bare bones idea some fleshy substance. Where I have a scene or a plot but no characters, I can have a visual representation of one. Maybe I’ve got a character, but no world for them, well I can pick some scenery shots, or a building, or maybe just a car, whichever, the character now has a universe, no matter how small. It’s something for the idea to interact with, which means it’s less likely to fade.

In my most recent NaNoWriMo Project, the Arsène Frassin space adventure, somehow I ended up with just two female characters in the whole thing. Not intentionally, I’d like to thinking I’m not a male chauvinistic pig, it’s just where the story went. However in editing, I’m going to insert a few female characters, and it’s helped to utilise images, (that I got from Google Images, wandering around taking random up close shots of women, won’t help you with your career as a writer, unless you want to write from behind bars),  to try and find suitable characters to a heavily male dominated universe.

Story boarding

Now, this one is new to me, but I definately see the potential. I’m on my big planning kick for the past couple of years, one of the things I want to try for NaNoWriMo 2012 is to not just have an outline, but a story board. Here I’ll already have key images set up, and laid out in reasonable order that progress with the story. Instead of hastily searching round for a descriptive picture I need to use later, I’ll have it to hand so maybe I can be more descriptive in my first draft.

Now, for stroy boarding, I can’t draw for toffee. Just a few very simple sketches, and maybe a technical drawing or two, but I can use photographs. Handily, for this year’s NaNoWriMo project, two of my three choices are set in the present day, which means I can take photos of places, people, fashions, and things that will be relevant to my novel. For the space option, I’ll have to get more creative, a combination of a visits to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, airports, and suh can fill the gap in the futuristic sides of the novel.

I’ll need shots of as many people as possible to drill down to my core characters, and same with palces and things. Always take too much, you can filter out what’s there to the essentials you need. Which is true of many things in life, to be fair.

So, once I’ve got all my pictures ready, using the outline, I can use OneNote, or Word, or Publisher, or my whiteboard to layout a story board and put the pictures on it. Choosing a picture to represent the core aim, location, character, or event for each chapter, or scene. If you want to get complex, (and let’s face it, I’m a complicated guy, so I do), you can do varying levels of story boarding. Starting at the overall plot, then each layer goes into more and more detail.

Before you think I’ve gone nuts, I should point out I’m a Business Analyst, and this is often how I go about designing process maps. So it makes sense to me, if you want to do a story board, find the way that makes most sense to you. Which is true of any advice you find online, or in books, or the random drunkard who once wrote a story long before he became a alcholhic, and insists on telling you how the best way to do it is.

Lastly

I mentioned, you don’t have to be particularly good, and that’s true. You don’t need a fancy schmancy camera for this, the camera on the phone will do just as well, (and whether you’re on iPhone, Android, or Windows Mobile there’ll be great apps for cataloging your photographs). That’s how a lot of mine get taken, from my phone, though I do prefer a proper camera when I can, sometimes the perfect thing that needs capturing is at the time you’re least likely to be carrying a camera. Make do, having the photo is better than not having a photo because you couldn’t have taken it perfectly.

I should add a note of caution, make sure you don’t appear like a peeping tom, it’s no good sticking your lens into people’s homes without permission for instance, and it’s no excuse for stalking.

And one final bit of advice, get a couple of high resolution crowd shots, within those crowds should be a mix of gender, ages, race and other cuts of society. When you’re stuck for inspiration for a character, get out the picture and point at one at random, then see if you can work them up into a character, complete with physical appearance and description. It’s a bit like people watching, only more convenient when you’re at home on your computer writing.

Happy snapping, and happy typing to you all.

P.S. I included that particular photo for a reason, aside from getting the law of thirds very roughly right, getting lead-in lines, it was done on my camera, and came out blurry, which is unimportant, it’s a great item for the story board for one of my ideas. Plus it didn’t contain any people, so I couldn’t offend anyone.

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