We’re often told to write about what we know, and writing what we know goes hand in hand with placing our stories in locations we are intimately familiar with. After all, our goal is to bring the setting to life in a believable way. Sadly, writers of picture books (myself included) don’t have the luxury of drawing out setting details. Much of this must be left to the illustrator. The advice given to picture book writers is to take a highlighter over everything that can be illustrated. Then, read again, skipping over those (marvelous, vivid, fun-to-write, poetic) sections to see if the story still makes sense. What is crucial to the story stays as illustrator notes…everything else goes out. (sniff… ouch…) But still, the reader needs a handful of well-chosen words to move them from their reality into the setting between the pages of your book. With the use of photographs, taken in your chosen location, you’ll have what it takes to do this.
I recently finished writing a picture book which takes place on a farm. Now, if I had chosen Peru as my setting, I wouldn’t have any first hand knowledge of life there. I wouldn’t know what the living conditions are for the poor, the middle class, or the rich. I wouldn’t know what the local food looks like, what the typical garments are made of, or what homes look like. This is where photographs come in handy. If you’re lucky enough to live near your chosen location, go there to document as much as you can with your camera (or phone camera). Does your story take place on a farm? Visit a farm, photograph the animals, their pens, the barn’s interior, the farmer at work, and take careful notes of everything surrounding you that awakens your other senses (smell comes to mind). If you aren’t fortunate to live near your chosen location, you can go online and search for images of Peru, if that’s where your story takes place. Print out the images of the surroundings at different times of day as well as during the season your story takes place in. Find images of the local food, typical animals, clothing, occupations, and faces of the people. Once you have gathered these photographs, make a scrap-book you can reference. You’ll find that your writing comes to life.
Some other places to get pictures and more of your chosen location.
If you plan on setting your story in Hawaii, but have never been there, maybe a friend of yours has. I can promise you, most people jump at the chance to share their vacation pictures and will, no doubt, have lots of details to share about the climate, cuisine, customs, and locals.
Check through your blog followers. You might be amazed at how many are from distant places around the world you would love your next novel to take place. What a great way, no… make that fabulous way, to learn about life in other parts of the world and make a friend, too.
Have you ever noticed how good it feels when someone wants to know about your travels and shows an interest in seeing your vacation pictures? “Really? You want to see my photographs from Italy? Over coffee? And cake?” You bubble over with excitement and spill out stories, experiences, amazing encounters, unique experiences, and more. Most people jump at the chance to share their experiences.
The process of writing is more enjoyable when we’ve researched every aspect of our story and have a stack of photographs before us.
Our writing becomes vivid.