Using Pictures as Inspiration

When it comes to developing characters, I’ve got no trouble at all. They need a personality trait or a reason behind their actions and WHAM! I’ve got it figured out.

This is not the same for how my characters look, or for that matter, how anything looks. The blinking cursor mocks me when it comes time to describe a character’s hair/eye color, what they are wearing, or the layout of a house/land.

But, I’ve got a really good way of looking at something and then incorporating it into my novels. So, I use pictures, or actual items to solve my problem.

Here’s an example of a silver set that is of major importance in my novel, Along the Way Home. It originally belonged to my main character’s mother, who then passed it along to her daughter (the main character), who then takes it along with her on the Oregon Trail.

The comb/brush set are used several times during scenes where the main character cannot get all the snarls out of her filthy hair, and the jewelry box with the red velvet lining is mentioned quite a few times as well.

When I wrote certain scenes, I wanted to be able to portray the weight of the brush in my character’s hand as she picked it up from the dresser, to see for myself how long it would take for the brush to work through a snarl (hint…it took a LONG time), and feel the lining of the jewelry against my fingertips. I really wanted my descriptions to be authentic.

But I had one big problem…

All I ever had growing up was the “ballerina spins to music when the lid is raised” variety of jewelry boxes, so I had no clue of what an actual silver set would be like, look like, or feel like.

So I bought a set off Craigslist, brought it home, and thoroughly checked it out. Now I know for certain that the entire set will in fact fit nicely into a saddlebag so I know that my main character will be able to take it along on the trail.

And my daughter gets a really nice silver set when she’s older.

How do you authenticate items portrayed in your writing?


17 thoughts on “Using Pictures as Inspiration

  1. Great idea! We have to be authentic, and now you know for sure you are. I do the same, tho I’ve never bought anything as research for my story, but I use the internet to research everything. I use lots of pics to give me perspective and us my imagination from there. But everything I do, and everywhere I go fills my brain with data to reuse later in stories. I’m always paying attention to everything—the way things look, feel, smell. As writers we have to take note of it all. 🙂

    • PK,

      I’d never seen a “real” silver jewelry box up close and knew if I tried to fake the details it wouldn’t come across as authentic. I’m so glad I made the extra effort because now I know how heavy it feels in my hand, how the carvings on the lid feel under the fingertip, and a host of other details.

      I too use lots of pictures to inspire me. My favorite place to find them is antique stores. They are so cheap! You can often get them for only a $1 each. I have a stack by my desk that feature old homesteads, horse barns, dresses, etc… Very helpful.

      Thanks for stopping by,


  2. Great question, Christi. Getting your hands on the items is a great help, but when I can’t, I improvise. If a character is wearing a cape, I’ll drape a blanket over me and tie it up so it works like a cape. Other times, I’ve ask people who might have had that item what it felt like to them. If all else fails, I find really good imagines on the Internet and imagine what it might be like to have it in the hand.

    Museums and historical places are great for items from yesteryear or fantasy novels. In many places, you can actually pick up the item, so that helps. And I take loads of pictures.

    • Diane,

      The blanket posing as a cape is a great idea! I’ve been known to put on a long skirt and wear it so that it drags on the ground, then climb over things in the house and outside so I can get a feel for how it must have felt to wear those long dresses women wore in the 1840’s.

      I tripped going up and down the stairs, caught it on everything, and ended up ripping a hole it in because I wasn’t careful around a sharp edge. Now my character has the same troubles and I was able to describe it perfectly 🙂

      Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. Loved your cemetary post!


  3. I love that you do this! I don’t seem to have any trouble picturing the things I want to describe, although I do need to get my hands on real items sometimes to figure out if something I’m doing in the story is plausible.

    What I find that I need in the ‘real’ world in order to make it more real in my stories, sometimes, is to carry out physical actions. I don’t mean smooching or that kind of thing, so much as ‘leaping off the bed, jumping through a window, swinging over a fence’ sorts of things. I find myself running around the yard attempting all variety of odd activities, just to see if the actions are possible in the way that I’ve described them in my books.

    And on a side note, I’ve used a silver-back boar hair brush like that on my hair before. It DID take forever to get the snarls out… and the resulting static electricity/hair poof was EPIC.

    • Artemis,

      I couldn’t believe how long it took to get my hair untangled when I used that brush, and it left it snapping with static. Now I know why they used a variety of braids and pins to keep their hair under control, the brushes made it flyaway!

      Here’s a fun fact I’ve never told anyone. Before I wrote the scene where my character is trying to brush her filthy hair I didn’t wash my hair for a week so it could get nice and dirty, and then I brushed my hair out using the comb and brush set in the picture. It took forever, my arms ached, and I felt like I wanted to cry from frustration. That’s why that scene comes across as so authentic 🙂

      Thanks again!


    • Wendy,

      Pictures work really well, but I’ve found I need to experience what my characters are going through. It just seems to add another level to my writing, and gives me details to include I never would have envisioned (see my comment to Artemis about brushing my hair).

      Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.


  4. Wouldn’t you just know that a writer of historical fiction would find new and unique ways to authenticate everything in her work? What a wonderful idea, Christi. Although most of my work is about a setting where I grew up, I still want the details of things and places to be as accurate as possible. It’s that extra step writers need to take in their research.

    The image of the brush set being placed into the saddle bag is a nice touch and it connects your character and the reader to how much people left behind to find a new life 🙂

    • Florence,

      Check out my reply to Artemis about what I did to find out what it would be like to brush hair with the set. Yep, I throw myself into my writing with enthusiasm and gusto!

      I can hardly wait to have you read the above scene, and the one where she’s putting everything into her saddlebags. I don’t have saddlebags, but I do have a “rustic” leather purse that I put everything into so I could make sure it would fit. (My son plays with the purse when I don’t need it…it’s his saddlebag when he plays cowboy)

      Thanks for your support!


  5. Great idea. I pull ideas from everywhere. Antique shops are a great inspiration, just browsing them and handling items really helps. I also keep a composition book handy where I jot down sensations, impressions from my reading or cut out pictures of things I want to remember and/or include. My composition books are a huge mishmash of plotting notes, snippets of dialogues and pictures. I love the idea of having a physical item the keep as inspiration. My character has a rosary that has been passed down in her family for generations. I’ve never seen an heirloom rosary but have looked up pictures and have my own basic rosary made out of wood (though I’m not Catholic, I still handle it with respect).

    • Bren,

      I love going to antique shops. They are such a wealth of inspiration, and the proprieters are usually really helpful with information. I hadn’t thought to bring a notebook along, that’s a really great idea!

      Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed your post about the editting process :).


  6. As I write my own novel I find myself pondering the same. Many objects and even places are at times sources of puzzlement for me. I ask myself, how would that really feel like? How would this place look like? And what about the sensation, the smell, the sound? As a writer it is important to authenticate as much as you can since we use our own interpretation and senses to transition in our writing.

    To pass on these feelings onto the novel is detrimental. Our reader isn’t going to buy an antique brush and mirror for the sake of understanding the real “feel”. Just like in my novel they are not going to jump over a bridge to understand how cold and suffocating the water felt in that paragraph. It is the writer’s job to convey those traits and feelings without the reader becoming lost into a vortex of words and pointless emotions.

    Check out my writing blogs if you have a chance. Would love the suggestions and feedback from fellow writers:

  7. T,

    Thank you so much for your great input on this post! I tried to go to your website, both through the link you provided, the link that showed up in my personal email address to show that a comment had been left on this post, and the link that shows up when your comment name is clicked.

    Do you have another link perhaps?


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