From Picture to Story by Jack Popjes

I just finished reading the second in the three-volume series of Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Riggs came across some vintage photographs of children and was struck by the peculiarities of expression, bodies, dress, or poses. He collected more of the same style of photos and eventually developed a storyline based totally on the photos and the peculiarities they showed.

After personally handling and viewing 100,000 photos, he wrote the first volume, using a photo to introduce each character, setting, and situation. The result is not only a fascinating story liberally illustrated with vintage photos but a book that was on the New York Times best sellers list for nearly a year and sold 2 million copies.

The concept of pictures triggering a story reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s description of how he came to write the Narnia series of children’s novels. For years Lewis had a picture in his mind of a faun walking through a snowy wood, carrying some parcels and an umbrella. He wrote the first book to incorporate that picture with the character we know as Mr. Tumnus.

We who are writers often use pictures to stimulate our imagination during writing exercises as we write scenes or even stories based on them. I suggest we go beyond exercises and, like Riggs, deliberately use pictures to stimulate stories and articles for publication. I have done so with good results using my lifelong collection of personally taken photographs

Photos from our life among the Canela of Brazil illustrate numerous articles and even when I don’t use them as illustrations, the photos trigger my memories. The result is an interesting article, an amusing story, or a stimulating blog post.

For some years I have taken photos of people in a variety of activities, keeping them in an archive and writing short character sketches of them. Yes, a long lens helps! But even a cellphone can take a useful picture.

Since these people are usually strangers, my imagination leads the description by focusing on the facial expressions, the activity they are involved in, the expressions of the person they are talking with, etc. I have yet to write a million dollar best seller, but photos have certainly inspired many shorter pieces.

I suggest you consider photos—personally taken, clipped from magazines, downloaded from the Internet, or scanned from books—that grab your interest, stir a memory, or enhance a mental picture. Store these in your computer or keep them in a book or file you can easily page through. Use them to get your creative imagination going on developing a storyline or article. Although photographs are purely visual, use your imagination to add smell, taste, sound, touch, and something about how the photo affects you emotionally.

Or, maybe, you are like C. S. Lewis and the picture you have is totally in your mind. If so, do what he did and write a clear description of it or even draw the picture. He described Mr. Tumnus as having a pleasant little face, reddish skin, curly hair, brown eyes, a short pointed beard, horns on his forehead, cloven hooves, goat legs with glossy brown hair, and a long tail.

I usually focus, not on writing, but reading during the summer vacation times. I’m off on vacation, so am collecting books to read. Unfortunately the third in the Peculiar Children series isn’t coming out until September; so I’ll need to wait. Maybe I’ll take a break from reading anyway to take some more photos to stimulate my writing.

Jack Popjes started writing stories for their missionary newsletters during the decades he and his wife were Bible translators in Brazil. For the past 20 years, he has blogged weekly on missions, church, Christian spirituality, and Bible translation. His current blog is INsights & OUTbursts. He has print published three books and e-published two books of story based articles—all selected from his blogs. His storytelling ability makes him a popular speaker.

Note from Steph Beth Nickel . . . I am a visual learner and appreciate Jack’s suggestions. I would, however, add a note of caution. Taking pictures of strangers, especially if you post them anywhere online, may violate their privacy. (As periodical contributors know, you have to get a signed release to use a person’s image.) I would advise that you research the laws in your region. Also, when scanning pictures from a book, make sure you are not violating copyright laws. Yeah. Yeah. I know I’m a stickler, but as the old adage goes, better safe than sued. Wait! That’s not how the saying goes? Oh well . . . you get the idea. Happy writing, reading, and researching, all!

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1 comment

  1. Pam Mytroen says:

    Great idea, Jack!

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