Picture Your Story

DEAR PAPA is fiction, but it was inspired by family photographs, three of which appear on the cover of the book.

Say two writers get this assignment: Write about an elephant.

One writer thinks: What happens to the elephant? 

The other thinks: Who is the elephant? 

One writer starts by considering story, the other by considering character.

I am the second kind of writer. I can’t start writing a story until I know my main character.

So where do characters come from? For me, it all begins with pictures. After my first post, commenter Ella shared that she’d read Dear Papa, so I’ll use Dear Papa as an example.

My grandpa died when my mom and her siblings were young so I never met him. I asked my aunt once what he was like. She started by telling me that she wrote a letter to him before he died when she was in fifth grade. I asked to see the letter but we couldn’t find it. What we found instead were boxes of old family photographs.

I was particularly taken with a picture of my aunt as a child. This looks like a girl who could have an adventure, I thought. As is my way, I misremembered the facts and thought she’d told me that she had written her father a letter after he died.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl and her letter. So, with the photo taped on my computer screen in front of me, I wrote a letter like I thought she might have written, made up a name for her, then invented an adventure for her and just kept writing.

Here’s a writing game for you:

Look for a childhood picture of one of your parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles. Spend some time imagining what they might have been like as a child.

Study the picture and ask yourself, what could have been happening right before the picture was taken, what might have happened afterwards? Then set your timer (see last post) and see where your imagination takes you!

12 Responses so far

  1. 1

    Ella said,

    Gosh, what an interesting way to write a story! but you’re right – you’d get so many ideas from a photo!
    Thanks for mentioning me in your blogpost!
    Ella 🙂

  2. 3

    Tierney said,

    A photo is a wonderful way to get ideas!

  3. 5

    Tierney said,

    Your book Dear Papa is a wonderful book!

  4. 8

    Tierney said,


  5. 9

    Aisling said,

    I’m going to get dear Papa out next…Tierney your review is great!!! and try the photo trick!! my family is from Ireland but I don’t know much about it…yet…!

  6. 10

    reardonhs said,

    Thanks Aisling! I’m glad you like my review!

  7. 11

    starauthor said,

    Hi Aisling! What fun to find out about your family’s past in Ireland. Enjoy! I hope you like Dear Papa.

  8. 12

    […] I’ve been collecting postcards and photographs since my great aunt started sending me art postcards before I could read or write. Hundreds of postcards and photographs fit nicely in a shoebox. Read my last post to discover how collecting images inspires my writing. […]

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