visual prompts and the writing mind

If I need to really understand something complicated, images, videos and schematics are crucial. You’d think that the text or verbal description would be enough in my case — I use words to tell stories for a living, after all — but no.

unidentified young woman, ca 1885Writing goes far more smoothly if I have images to support the creative process. I used to surround myself with photocopies of landscapes, faces, 19th century clothing, tools, houses, carriages that I could look at when I was having trouble with a phrase or sentence or scene. Now I mostly do that on the computer screen. One place to gather and arrange images is Pinterest, a service which is wildly popular right now (and here’s my page, by the way). It’s a little like StumbledUpon, but more streamlined and focused.

When I see a good image online, I can pin it to one of my Pinterest boards. I can also sort through other people’s boards — people who are interested in the same things — and repin whatever they’ve got up. This is a real jewel of a service for somebody like me.

This young woman’s photo is one I repinned from someone else’s board (and there are links so you can follow back to where the image originated) onto my 1883 board (which is a little boring just at the moment, mostly old buildings for reference). I like her expression, which I interpret as slightly uncomfortable (note the right hand is curled in, almost clenched) but resigned to the process. I wonder if the photo was her idea, or if her parents insisted. Maybe this is a photo she had made for someone she planned to marry. She’s wearing her best clothes, I think. And may I say: so glad fashions have changed, because that collar would drive me nuts.

girl in a scarf, via pinterest

Usually when I look at a photo like this I identify it right away if it’s one of my characters (oh look, Jemima, smirking as usual) but more often it’s just an interesting face that goes along with the crowd of faces that make up the backdrop of the story. Sometimes I come across a face I would like to have as a character, but who just doesn’t fit in. I hold onto the image thinking that some day I will need it. This girl with her wrap-around braids is an example of a face that feels familiar to me, but hasn’t yet spoken up to tell me her story.

6 Replies to “visual prompts and the writing mind”

  1. With your confirmation on your return to fiction writing, I’ll have to revisit your Pinterest boards. And again after I read the story (I know, it’s far off yet) to add a new dimension to the reading experience.

  2. Interesting to know that others do this as well. I haven’t thought of using Pinterest to organize my story-people, but I do search images and add them to my manuscripts for reference when I write. It does help me to accurately describe an expression or scene or outfit or house.

    In practical application of this idea, I am a homeschooling mother. I hadn’t thought about finding interesting pictures for my kids to use as journal writing prompts, but that’s what I shall do immediately. Thank you for the idea!


    1. Heather — when I taught creative writing at the middle school level I found that interesting faces were an excellent way to get a discussion going about characterization. Hope it works well for you and yours, too.

  3. An earlier article you wrote some years back on a similar topic helped me immensely to pin down the features of my first ever characters. And then I remember at the time giving my heroine’s father, Silas, deep set eyes like Viggo Mortensen, dreaming how wonderful it would be to have him play that character one day in a movie. Finding visual representations shifted the process from something that was a major block to something that became fun and liberating.
    It helped with clothing, houses, boats, planes, plants, sunsets and landscapes, painting a picture of what I was trying to bring to the page with my words. So thank you Rosina for this rather obvious but brilliant tip. I haven’t got into Pinterest as yet. I just drag whatever I see into a dowload folder. I seem to recall you used to use a software program as well to store your images – a special Mac program – do you still use that?

    1. Sherryl — There was a program I used, called Curio. But the internet application is so much easier (and less space consuming) and so I made the change. Also, I’m so glad to know that the earlier post was of such use to you.

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