characters / Setting / writers tips

Writer’s Tip #76: Use a Photo to Develop Characters, Setting

writers tips

Great tips for soon-to-be great writers

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

This tip was brought to mind by one of my readers, Penny. My current WIP is so far from its beginnings that I’d forgotten it started with photos to draw character profiles and Google Earth images to create the setting details. But it did. I remember browsing through internet images of paleoanthropologists, staring in their eyes to see if they were Kali Delamagente or Zeke Rowe (my two main characters). Did they have her fragile spirit or his swash-buckling former SEAL-now-scientist persona? Once I found the right image, I read everything I could find about that sort of person and came up with a character that worked. Then, I pasted the pictures to the walls of my office so every time they were in scene, I’d see them, notice how they moved, remember how their head tilted in thought or their brows furrowed in confusion.

Settings were the same. To make them authentic, I searched out every location on Google Earth, then traveled the streets, the towns, the neighborhoods to get a sense of what my characters would experience. If Kali or Zeke walked from Columbia University to her apartment a couple of blocks away (he lives in an NSA safe house in Englewood), I walked it first to see what bodega they passed, how busy were the streets, what type of people visited local businesses. This way, I could add flavor, emotion to my scenes. A few times, I had to adjust the scene because Google Street View told me it couldn’t have happened the way I’d written. Anyone with a wide audience knows they tell you all your mistakes, so the less that slip through, the better.

So this tip is a big one. Don’t think you can skip visualizing your characters and settings. Take the time to find out about your story’s fundamentals and then let your people and locations drive the story.

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-fifth grade and creator of two technology training books for middle school. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voicebook reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.comEditorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachersan IMS tech expertand a weekly contributor to Write Anything and Technology in Education. Currently, she’s working on a techno-thriller that should be ready this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #76: Use a Photo to Develop Characters, Setting

  1. Jacqui, thank you sssooo much–I,too, hadn’t thought of using Google Earth for my current WIP; however, I got one tiny problem: my story is set in 1939-1942 era of Charleston WV! A wee bit of challenge there!! I do have some photos that were taken in that timeframe. I’m thinking of adding the ‘flavors’ of that era, within my 2nd draft; currently loping along in my 1st draft.


  2. Fascinating that Google Earth keeps us accurate on the street… who knew? As per the bodega, I can understand that because the price of real estate in the Columbia U area is so high they couldn’t afford it… There used to be a hole in the wall restaurant that served the best flan around 106-107 Street. Now, I’ll have to check to see if they are still around. TY for another informative and great post. 🙂


  3. Oh, I can’t believe I’ve never thought of using Google Earth to help with my settings! It seems to obvious when I read your tip, but I haven’t used it at all, what great advice. This is especially helpful for me right now as I’m trying to write about a place I’ve never actually been.
    I love the idea of pasting the pictures on the walls too. Thanks for the tips! 🙂


    • Do it early in your writing because some of what you find will change the way you write a scene. I was stunned when I had my character shopping at a corner bodega when there wasn’t one. On the other hand, it put me right into the story walking with her home from work.


  4. I do a similar thing when I’m developing characters, but I do it through casting. Even when I read a book, I often put actors/actresses in the key role. For writing, this process gives me a look, a carriage, a voice, and lots of possibilities. As for place, I’ve lucked out. My first novel takes place in a town I didn’t know, and yet, when I visited that town (after the novel’s publication), the correctness of the environment I’d created was hauntingly spot-on. My second novel takes place in my current Los Angeles ‘hood. While venue descriptions were correct during the first draft, shops have come and gone, and I realize it’s accuracy will be limited to a specific time. Still, the “feel” is there, and it is therefore true to life.


  5. i love to delve deep into my characters’ backstory, visual and otherwise. It’s so helpful to creating where they are *now*.

    I often have the same problem you described with sentences. I can read one over and over and know something’s off, but it takes a while to pinpoint the what. 😉


    • I only wish I’d delve deaper into my characters. I think if I knew more about them, I’d have less rewrites. Getting to know them through the book might work as a reader, but not so well as the writer!

      Loved your blog post on Incubus.


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