Using Pictures As Visualization Tools For Writing
Chapters Completed: 23
Chapters In Progress: 6
Chapters Not Started: 5
“Chronicling The Craft” is an article series where I share my experience with writing my current work-in-progress (WIP), which is a fantasy novel. Every 5,000 words, I let readers know what I’ve accomplished since the previous article and share advice, discoveries, techniques, etc. Besides the word count in each article title, a “chapter ticker” at the top also tracks my progress as I use the skip-around / “writercopter” method to write the novel. Today’s installment celebrates the book reaching 95,000 words in length.
Wow! Apart from my writing vacations the past two Septembers, this has to be the shortest span of time between Chronicles. (“Chronicling The Craft: 90,000 Words” was posted on Sunday, November 2.) I haven’t had many non-writing plans recently, though, so I was able to dedicate ample weekend time to novel-writing. That likely won’t be the case for the rest of the month – or year – with the upcoming holidays and all the preparations I’ll need to make (shopping, baking, etc.). Better to take advantage of free time while it’s available, right?
Here’s what happened with the novel over the past couple weeks:
- Chapter 21 is done! *wipes her forehead* I’m proud of some parts of this chapter. Other parts, however, need serious tightening. I realized while writing this chapter that one of this draft’s biggest weaknesses is overdescription. Not so much painting a picture of a new setting (although I won’t completely rule that out), but with including all the steps and motions characters are taking in a certain activity or process. So, it’s becoming increasingly clear that word-chopping will be a major goal for Draft #2 next year.
- Now I’m about 1100 words into Chapter 22. My protagonist Eva and her fellow travelers are in the city of Denelai from here through Chapter 24; and since the muse is firmly planted there at the moment, I’ll try to focus on completing these chapters chronologically before jumping around to others.
- I’m also comparing my original word count goal for Draft #1 versus how much I actually have left to write. In terms of word count, I’m about 83% of the way there. In terms of the story, however, I have 5 chapters left to write and another 6 chapters in various stages of progress. So… maybe the story is between 70 to 75% written? Which means I’m going to soar past 115K before this draft is done. *cringes* That’s better than coming up short, though, right?
Anyone who’s read or written speculative fiction knows how much the author must rely on imagination in order to visualize the story. Glossaries and character fact sheets / profiles allow us to keep track of hair texture, eye color, and other physical traits. However, what if we’re still having trouble seeing those mental images? The tip I’d like to share with you today is my trick for overcoming that struggle: using pictures to help you visualize your story.
Three Reasons for Using Pictures for Visualization
There could be a mountain full of reasons for using pictures as visualization tools for your writing. However, based on my experience with my WIP, these three purposes seem to pop up most often:
- Concentration: Remember the saying, “My imagination has run away with me”? Mine likes to scamper around like an untrained puppy when I write, making it hard to focus. If your writer’s brain is like mine, using photographs or digitally rendered images can help you concentrate on a specific aspect of the story. It forces your brain to hold onto the picture you’re studying, relax, and let the important details pop out.
- Visual Recall and Consistency: Can’t remember what your protagonist’s pet looks like? Or which dress the leading lady wore to the banquet in Chapter 5? Pictures can help you recall settings, animals, and other visuals that return throughout your novel. If you find a helpful image, either save it to your computer or bookmark the link for future reference. That way, you can access the picture whenever you need to – and the color of a horse’s coat won’t change midway through the story. 😉
- Expansion of Sensory Details: When bringing a setting to life, pictures can help you address more than just the visuals. Allow your mind to expand on the image you’re studying, then ask yourself questions that appeal to your senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing. If your character is in the wilderness, does she hear water trickling or tree branches rustling? How does the weather affect her? If she’s inside a spaceship’s malfunctioning control room, what kinds of alarms are going off? Can she smell smoke or leaking mechanical fluids? The extra attention to sensory details will help your settings become as vivid and believable as possible, and transport your readers into a world they’ll want to revisit again and again.
The Internet Is Your Friend – So Is Your Gut Feeling
Looking for images is easy. You could spend hours browsing the image libraries on Google, Creative Commons, and other sites. Finding the right images, however, can be tricky. As you’re searching, keep an open mind and listen to your intuition. Change up your search keywords if your original choice(s) don’t offer the desired results. Also, let the muse strike when you’re not actively searching for images. You never know when a random photo or graphic will grab your attention on Twitter, Facebook, even away from the Internet. Most importantly, you’ll know you’ve found the right image when you have an “a-ha” moment. It can be a quietly stolen breath, a voice inside your head singing “That’s it!”, or complete and utter fangirling / fanboying. However that moment arrives, you’ll know it when it happens.
Examples of Pictures I’ve Used For My Story
What would be the point of this article if I didn’t give examples? 😉 I’ll also add a brief explanation of how each picture has helped and refer to the three reasons listed above.
NOTE: All of the following images are not mine and have been credited to the photographers whose names I’ve been able to locate. If your name is not listed, please know the omission wasn’t on purpose and that I take no credit for your work.
Immer, Eva’s Horse: I’d always imagined Immer would have a white diamond on her snout and a coppery or brownish coat. Other than that, my vision of her kept evolving. Finally I Googled images and photographs of horses, and came across this beauty. I don’t know if it’s a male or a female in reality, but as soon as I saw it, I thought, “There she is!” White diamond? Check. Chocolate brown coat? Check. The black mane and two white hooves also give the horse a strong yet gentle earthiness that fits Immer’s protective, motherly nature toward her owner.
Helpful For: Concentration, visual recall / consistency
Thrush, Eva’s Messenger Bird: In the Great Isle (a.k.a. Eva’s world), people use birds to deliver letters to other villages and kingdoms. Each race (and within the Human race, each individual city) trains a specific bird species, so it’s easy to tell where the message comes from. While the Faeries generally use robins, Eva owns a wood thrush called, well, Thrush. (Hers is different for sentimental reasons that will be explained in the book.) I was looking up photos of different thrush subspecies to solidify the image of Thrush I saw in my head – and found this little guy! Isn’t he adorable? 😀 I go back to this photo whenever I want to remember what Thrush looks like or the big personality that I imagine radiating from this tiny creature.
Helpful For: Visual recall / consistency
Fortress Rock: One of the locations where Eva and her travel party camp overnight is a set of massive rock formations called Fortress Rock. I wanted to create a place that resembled a castle or Stonehenge but was a natural phenomenon, made of rocks worn by centuries of erosion. Then, via Wikipedia, I discovered Piedras Encimadas Valley in central Mexico. I’d never heard of the valley before then, and I can’t recall what keywords I used to find it. However, as soon as I saw the irregular, column-like shapes and “stacked” patterns, I had that breathless “a-ha” moment and bookmarked the link.
Interested in seeing more photos of Piedras Encimadas? Click here for a photo gallery at WikiMedia Commons.
Helpful For: Concentration, expansion of sensory detail
King Benolav’s Library in Denelai: While resting in the Human city of Denelai, Eva and her fellow Councilors visit King Benolav’s library to research something crucial for their mission. (Can’t be more specific – sorry! *winks*) I had no trouble visualizing the room, yet I wanted to ground the mental image with photographs of medieval or ancient libraries to ensure it was realistic. A few clicks later, the above photograph grabbed my attention. I love the colossal ambiance and (almost) floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of this room. The gold / brass embellishments… eh, not so much, since it doesn’t match King Benolav’s personality. However, this photo matched the cavernous sketch in my mind and became a sort of “sensory detail” springboard, ushering the smells and near-silence of a room frequented by scholars and teeming with knowledge.
Helpful For: Concentration, expansion of sensory detail
The Great Isle’s Terrain: I was visiting my parents one Sunday afternoon when our local PBS station was playing the Iceland episode from Art Wolfe’s “Travels To The Edge.” I swear, my heart EXPLODED with joy! No one else in the room understood why I was so riveted by the wildlife, striking colors, and the wide range of landscapes, from rippling mountains and misty waterfalls, to glaciers and geothermal springs. It was like parts of Eva’s world were right there on the TV screen. I also loved the passion in Art’s narration. His enthusiasm and camera-shot precision made this show such a treat.
Since Art is such a celebrated photographer and so many of his photos have inspired my ideas for the Great Isle’s terrain, the fairest way for me to share his work with you is having you see ALL of his gorgeous Iceland photos. Click here and here to visit two galleries worth of them.
Helpful For: Concentration, visual expansion of sensory detail
Searching for the perfect images to use as visualization tools can be a challenge, but it’s worth the time and effort. These still-frames will fuel excitement for your work in ways you never thought possible. They’ll also give you opportunities to discover new places and learn more about the world. Hey, I even want to go to Iceland one day because of how it’s helped my book! So, if the mental pictures aren’t clear enough, see if something in real life is close enough and use it as a foundation. You never know how it may spur your creativity – or how it may influence your life in other exciting ways.
Have you used pictures (digital graphics, photographs, artwork, etc.) as visualization tools for your writing? If so, how? What other suggestions do you have to help with bringing the visual aspects of your story to life? Share your ideas and experiences by commenting below.
Next Chronicle: When the WIP reaches 100,000 words – and as promised, with every 25,000-word milestone, I’ll reveal something about the story! 😉