characters / setting / writers tips / writing

Use Photos to Develop Your Novel

My current ms is so far from its beginnings that I’d almost forgotten it started with photos to draw character profiles. I remember how much fun it was browsing through internet images of paleoanthropologists, staring into their eyes to see if they were Kali or Zeke (my two main characters). Did they have her fragile spirit or his swash-buckling SEAL-gone-scientist persona? Was there that geeky spark in her eye that indicated no wild data point was going to derail her concentration. 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 furrowed their brows in confusion.

Look at these pictures. Do you see a character in your story?

Settings were the same. A setting can be as much a character as a person–when it’s done well. It shapes action, ascribes motivation, and dictates decisions. A rainstorm can hide a murder or cause it. A suburban house with a white picket fence can provide the seedbed for a serial murderer or a powerful crime fighter. What do you see in these settings?

To make settings authentic, I searched out locations on Google Earth, then traveled the streets, the towns, the neighborhoods to get a sense of what my characters would experience. If my characters walked from Columbia University to an apartment a couple of blocks away, I walked with them to see what bodega they passed, how busy were the streets, what type of people visited local businesses. This way, I could add flavor and emotion to my story. 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 readers notice your mistakes, so the less that slip through, the better.

What did I learn from all this? Don’t skip visualizing characters and settings. Take the time to explore your story’s fundamentals and then let them drive the story.

More on authentic writing:

Tech Tip for Writers #65: Google Street View

How to Virtually Visit a Location You Can’t Drop In On

Writer’s Tip #47: Authenticate Setting

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Questions you want answered? Leave a comment and I’ll answer.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of dozens of books on integrating tech into education, webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. 

55 thoughts on “Use Photos to Develop Your Novel

  1. Pingback: Writer’s Tip #96: 11 of Them From Bob Mayer | WordDreams...

  2. I always use maps. They are an essential ingredient without which the most horrendous mistakes can be made. Photographs, though? I have a strange relationship with photographs, in that I never take them and rarely look at them. My characters are so much in my head that I would be afraid to see an actual picture of one of them just because it would nail their image to the wall, as it were, and one of the delights for me is change. As Karen and Edgar develop inside my head I may well have to go back over previous writings of them and have done, several times. Suddenly, though, I find Karen in a situation and she reacts differently to the way I expected. That is magical, and I couldn’t deprive her of that freedom.


    • I completely agree, Fred. And readers like that too. My problem is I’m not as creative as you sound so need a few anchors.

      Don’t you love when your own characters surprise you? Very fun.


      • It is an incredible program for novel writers, screen writers, and many others forms of writing styles. The learning curve can be daunting, however it is well with it.

        You actually stay in the program to complete all writing projects.

        There is an accompanying program called scrapple, that is sold along side to use as a scratch pad.

        The program has sticky notes however scrapple is more powerful to use as an outliner. I used the cork board based inside of the Scrivener program for most of my outlining in conjunction with scrapple.

        Take a test ride and or watch the free Youtube videos to learn more.🙂


  3. Jacqui the beauty of this modern world, we can go anywhere and see anything all whilst sitting in our chair at the laptop. I am a visual person and collect images to help me give a decent description of my back ground scenes.


  4. This is such wonderful advice, Jacqui. I’ve used photographs for a while now. My office is literally full of pictures on my wall! It’s a great tool, and perfect when you’re about to start a scene. Thanks for sharing😀


      • I’m certainly fortunate to have sign language as a second language. I guess I don’t think about it often, but I do pick up a lot through body language and facial expression. But I’d say you pick up a great deal too. As a teacher, and a writer, I think reading people becomes part and parcel of the job description!😀


  5. I’ve been using the software program, yWriter to work on my WiP. It has a photo tab for every character. I’ve only used it for my protagonist so far, but I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually get to all the main characters.


    • Now I didn’t know that about designers. What a great connection. And I like the Pinterest board idea, though it’s more accessible on my word processing program–right there by my writing, no searching for a website.


  6. I agree, Jacqui, that the images are incredibly helpful in getting a feel for characters and setting. I look for character images right down to the expressions. I also draw maps as orientation becomes key to the reality of the movements. I’ve even plotted the moon phases. Can get a little goofy, but it’s so much fun🙂


      • I didn’t. But I will! I write fantasy in pre-technological settings, so nighttime light is a major factor. The moon became the time/season keeper as well – 13 “months” versus 12. And on the sea, the night sky is a significant resource for navigation. I love thinking this stuff through.


      • I have primitive tribes in one of my novels who use the stars often to determine their world. Maybe I need to add moon phases. Those are as obvious to our predecessors as star movements.


  7. Great advice in this post, Jacqui. Being an artist and trained to see, I don’t need visual reminders of my characters. They exist in my imagination as fully as anyone around me. I’m familiar with the way they walk and sit, if they smell of sweat or lemons, whether their skin is hairy, wrinkled, or scared. For one of my books, I used Google Earth to locate a place on a real hill where I could build a fictional street and home – and found it right where I wanted it. Have also found thousands of photos and maps on the Internet to give me a visual familiarity with Poland, location of another of my books. Can’t visit, and at any rate, I needed a view of the country before WWII. As soon as I open my book files, I see people and places come to life. I add the experiences. I may one day use your photo cues for a future book – great to have another asset at my hands.


  8. I agree–photos are a wonderful way to shape our characters and settings. I like to include photos for each character and each setting in my Scrivener file. Really helps improve descriptions, an area in which I’ll take all the help I can get.🙂 Sounds like you take it even further than me, so this was helpful to read. Let’s me see I can take the process beyond what I have in the past.


  9. Interesting suggestion. I just might use that. I’ve used maps in the past to get some ideas, but a picture is worth a 1,000 words so if I got say 100 pictures I should have the basis for a novel. Hum, may need to rethink the math…


  10. I do this for places and architectural styles. (I’ve even been known to draw rough floor plans of my characters’ homes.) Not faces though–I don’t much relate to faces.


    • That’s interesting. I plotted out a character’s campsite once–up against a tall cliff, abutting a lake, scrub brush to one side and an acacia to the other. I actually drew it so I could refer to it.

      I’d forgotten about that. What a fun reminder.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What great fun ideas! Definitely a plus to use for the settings and avoid silly errors and to gain a real feel for the place. Lovely selection of people; inspired to write about them!


  12. Very interesting post. I don’t seem to do any of these things for some reason. The character just comes to mind, and in any situation he acts as his character would act in that situation. I don’t write books which are driven by scenery or catastrophic events so again, funnily enough, I’ve hardly described a place in any of my efforts. It just goes to show that there are several roads to Rome, although mine may well not be the shortest route🙂


    • It’s possible your mind is much more visual than mine. Some people ‘see’ the images in their brain. I need help making that happen. Sure, I can add blonde hair to a protagonist, but I might miss the dark roots or healthy shine without the picture. Maybe you don’t!

      Liked by 1 person

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