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Clio's Temple

The images that shape a story


We've all heard, "A picture is worth a thousand words." In the age of Photoshop, that probably understates the case. Nowadays, even amateurs can alter photos to present a very different impression from the impression the image creator intended. A photo can speed a lie on its way faster than the human brain can respond.

As writers, though, it's more interesting to consider how a photograph can convey a truth with an indelible intensity. As a former history teacher, when I have the chance to visit a historic site, my minds runs through my stored collection of images. It requires mental discipline to say to myself, "What would an observer, looking out over _____ on the day of _____, have seen?" This is tougher than it sounds. I had the chance to visit the Normandy invasion beaches two years ago, on a beautiful midsummer day that bore scant resemblance to the actual weather conditions on D-Day. What I saw, looking out over Omaha Beach is not what any soldier – American or German – would've seen on that day. I think many of my fellow writers of historical fiction can testify to how tough it is to make such efforts.

I'm working on a story set in Washington, DC, on the day of JFK's funeral. I'm familiar enough with this urban landscape that I don't require a lot of memory refreshment, but I'm grappling with how to translate the black-and-white images from that memorable day into the colors that bring written words to life.

Sometimes a photograph can do something unexpected, by acting as a writing prompt. Such was the case for a photograph distributed to all e-mail account at a former workplace. The photo showed a full-grown constrictor that met an untimely end when it got caught in the fan belt of a car. How did it get into this predicament? I've never tracked down an explanation, but I think it's likely that the snake was a household pet who escaped captivity during cold weather, crawled into the engine compartment in search of warmth, and there met its demise.

This single served as the launching print for my story "Public Serpent," recently republished. Neuroscientists have spent decades studying how human biochemical reactions can impel us to take one action or another. I doubt there'll every be enough funds to do many large-scale studies of animal behavior. But I got a prompt from considering how a reptile with a human brain might respond to such a situation.

Have you ever seen a photo that cried out to be translated into words? Collections of images can be a great antidote for writer's block. #tangledwoodsanddarkwaters

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