Writers in the Storm

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February 28, 2020

Using Visuals to Inspire Scenes

by Ellen Buikema

There are times I’m absolutely certain of the characters’ surroundings,
the shape of the scene crystalizes in my mind and I can write it all in one sitting. Don't you love those times? But there are moments when that just ain’t happenin'.

I see the setting as one of the story’s characters, and I need a clear vision of the locale to weave the dialog into the setting for a strong scene. When it "ain't happening," it’s time to set aside my introverted tendencies and make some calls.

Research Avenues

For my current book, The Hobo Code,I contacted business owners in locations where my protagonists traveled, historical societies, museum docents, read historical documents, library archives, student dissertations, and perused Pinterest and YouTube.

For example, at one point I needed some information on making a fishing pole and how to gut fish. Having never gutted a fish and no real desire to do so first hand, I found what I needed in a few different YouTube videos enabling me to put together a good, gross description to create a believable scene.

In the name of research, I've traveled on city trains, both subways and elevated. I’ve walked through old trains in Midwestern train museums, but I've never taken a long trip on a train nor ridden an older passenger train.

In The Hobo Code, my protagonists do a lot of train travel, primarily on freight trains but also on some passenger trains.

Dialogue from Setting

I already had a good feel for what they would say to each other and was confident of their individual levels of anxiety and relief, but wasn’t sure about the inside of the train. How would they react to each other within and due to the confines of the space? How might the interior of the train effect what my characters would do? Would there be any physical distractions or hazards to keep in mind?

Sitting down and chatting with local train enthusiasts was a real eye-opener. They gave me some suggestions for places to look online that they used to make historically accurate representations and also lent me some large hardbound books on trains of the late 1800s and early 1900s that had some interesting photos.

One particular scene in the story placed three children and their father sitting across the aisle from each other on a passenger train from Wausau, Wisconsin to Milwaukee. To assist with this scene I located several photographs on Pinterest.  I found the following photo helpful for the travel scene across the state of Wisconsin. It gave me a feel for clothing, hair styles, size of aisles, and seating. Those blocky structures over the seats are beds, so this particular train car is a sleeper.

These seats are fairly narrow. Since the father and eldest son in my story had the most trouble with each other I kept them separated. There seems to be enough room for their carpetbags to rest on the floor by their feet, and sufficient window space to peer out into the distance to ponder and observe.

Finding Local Experts

Gathering information from local experts requires a bit of digging but is well worth the effort. I contacted several museum docents along the route my characters traveled. I received a goldmine of information from Mark Shafer, the director of the Carnegie Museum in Fairfield, Iowa, one of the stops on their journey. We communicated primarily via cellphone texts. He sent a plethora of photos and was forthcoming with information about the history of the area and the local college, Parsons, which was in existence in the early 1900s.

The following photo, taken at Parsons College, was not used specifically to help set a scene. Instead it was used to develop a secondary character, an acting student whose parents believed she was studying something else more practical. Her personality sang out to me as vibrant, full of mischief and fun. This character sparked a desire to act in the sister of the main protagonist who goes on in the next story to become an actress in the early days of Hollywood.

I spent about an hour on the phone with the owner of a bar, now known as The Glass Hat, in Wausau, Wisconsin, where the father of my protagonists spent a good deal of time and money. In the early 1900s this same bar was named The Langsdorf Saloon. The owner, Gisela Marks, sent several photos. Our conversation helped me breathe life into the early chapters of the story.

For the first bar scene I wanted to have music and wasn’t sure if I should include a piano or have a patron bring in an accordion. The current owner found part of a piano case in the bar’s basement when she first acquired the building and so I could be certain to use the piano for that particular scene.

These two photos Gisela sent me helped make the exterior and interior scenes come alive.

For a while now I’ve followed an Australian author, acflory, who writes science fiction and does a lot of world building.

I expected her process would be very different from my own. I imagined she’d find a topic of interest, do the research, then scenes would form in her mind and she’d write them. When I asked about her process, this was her reply:

“It's probably a bit more circular than that because my stories are always about /people/ responding to tech. For example, I play online games so I'm very familiar with playing in a digital world. From there it wasn't a huge stretch to wonder what it would be like to actually live in a digital world. Why would someone want to? Perhaps because they were very sick? So then the internal world of the character had to go hand in hand with the tech that would make it possible, at least in theory. So then research about how you might make it happen. What would you need? And who would pay for it? Apart from the fear factor, would there be dangers?

For me, the stories literally grow, layer by layer. And of course, all the research and tech and thinking about the world /is/ world building.”

Andrea (acflory) also uses information gleaned from YouTube and includes the videos on her blog. Much of what she’s sent along is new and exciting technology.

What do you use for inspiration to create scenes? Do you prefer to use three-dimensional objects, online images, take vacations near or at your story’s local? What is your process?

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About Ellen

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Buikema-9-color_small-200x300.jpg

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

10 comments on “Using Visuals to Inspire Scenes”

  1. Love this piece, Ellen! And I couldn't agree more! We need to let our senses (and our bodies) inform our writing. For some, it's vision; others use music or objects. I know people who find photos that "look like" their characters, to help them "see" the character while they're writing. For me, it's the actual experience of a place rather than an image that helps to stimulate a deeper writing. I need to experience the quality of the light and air and space. However one does it, I think you're spot on in reminding us that writing doesn't come from the mind alone. Thank you!

    1. Hi Barbara! I wish I could have spent time along my characters' route. Like you, I find the atmosphere of the locale helpful to create a good scene. The more senses used, the better.

  2. We recently took a vacation to the British Isles. It was an anniversary trip, but I'm using the setting in the book I'm trying to write, I have pictures I took, lots of brochures from places we went, and Google to fill in some of the blanks. Since I didn't have the intention of writing a specific book, I'm trying to make sure there's a story in there somewhere, and it's not just a travelogue.

    1. Terry, what a fantastic idea! I am positive that you will find something in one of the photos to spark the beginning of a great story.

  3. All of my historical fiction friends impress me down to the bone. The only historical tale that has ever come to me from my travels was an short story set at Hearst Castle. Those docents really made the times come alive. Normally, I get inspired by people and places I meet TODAY. To have to research the time in addition to the character? That's is why I bow to my historical friends.

  4. Now bowing necessary. LOL
    I totally agree with you regarding docents. Once we went to the Air and Space Museum in New Mexico. Our docent was a retired astronaut! He was awesome. He had great stories to tell.

  5. My series is based here in Arizona, so I'm lucky enough to be able to visit locations and scope them out. I take pictures, talk to people, and also shoot drone footage at some of the more remote and hard to reach locations. One of the other tools I've found helpful is Google Maps and Street View. If you can't physically go to a location, satellite views and street images are a pretty good way to get a feeling for the place.

    1. Ah, yes! I used Google street view, too and have found it to be helpful. After reading each chapter that named a location my hubby went straight to Google Maps to find it.

      Great idea to use the drone!

  6. Love the way you research.

    I tend to do a lot of my research online, I use settings with which I'm familiar, and I make Pinterest "vision boards" for each MS.


    1. Thank goodness for the internet! I will have a peek at your vision board. I added a board for train research to Pinterest, but have not been too diligent.

      I feel fortunate that the people I reached out to were willing to chat and help me find information. I need to take a field trip one of these days and visit them.

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