Tintype Photograph in Paper Frame Purchased from an Ebay Seller, Unidentified Subjects

Inspiration from Historic Photographs

One of my favorite sources of inspiration is antique photographs. This particular image came to me via ebay. A set of two similar tintypes of the same five women pictured here were available for sale, and I simply had to have them. Look at these five. Who were they? Sisters? Friends? Cousins? Mail Order Brides? Were they women who knew one another the whole of their lives, or is it more likely they had this portrait taken to remember their bond, prior to going their separate ways? The possibilities seem endless. The images are unlabelled without so much as a year or a photographic studio imprint. It’s impossible (for me) to know where or when or who. That’s where my imagination must take over.

The mere asking of questions such as these spark my creativity. It may be my penchant for mail order bride romances, but in these five solemn faces, I see women in the 1880’s through early 1890’s (based upon the cut of their clothing and style of hats). Living, breathing, real women who had names, parents, lives, families, fell in love.

They lived.

I can easily see these ladies as five different mail order brides. Friends who left home with a variety of reasons, parting ways, each carrying this image (or one taken moments before or after) with her to remember friends and sisters.

Every single spark of creativity I might find in studying this photograph might be 100% fiction, yet that’s the magic of any author’s creative process.

Unidentified Handsome Man, probably 1890s

Unidentified Handsome Man, Coleman (Photography Studio), Westfield, Massachusetts, probably 1890s

Judging by the exquisite tailoring of this handsome fellow’s double-breasted suit coat, the size of his tie tack, the curl in his mustache, short hair, and the style of photography, this prize (also won in an ebay auction) sepia-toned photograph most likely hails from the late 1890s (or perhaps soon after the turn of the century). I fancy pale green eyes, light brown hair, and a smile that won ladies’ hearts. This cabinet card bears the imprint of Coleman studio in Westfield, Mass., but no date nor name. A search on image.google.com yields no matches. I have no idea who this man was, though he seems prominent, healthy, happy, wealthy, likely married, a father… so why was his image for sale on ebay?

That brings up a whole ‘nother round of questions. (The short answer, I do believe, is no one inscribed his name on the cabinet card, and posterity lost touch with who he was. The image may have been sold as part of an estate sale.)

Lots of questions. The most important, to me, are those I might ask myself as part of my writing process, story exploration, and character development:

  1.   Who is this man/woman?
  2.   What experience is behind the emotion (however subtle) on his/her features?
  3.   What is his/her economic status? Employment? Place in society?
  4.   What name is a good fit?
  5.   What does this person want most?
  6.   … and why can’t he/she have it?
  7.   What is his/her greatest fear and/or greatest challenge?
  8.   (And because I write romance…) Who is the best possible love match for him/her?
  9.   … and why will it be difficult to simply fall in love and live happily ever after? (After all, no conflict, no story.)

Every author, no matter how they create lifelike characters, does so with a a flair of creativity as unique as the individual writer. One of my most favored resources for boosting my imagination is true-to-the-era photography. I find historic images to be more than inspiring… they’re a perfect jumping off place to fuel my creativity.

For all my author friends: what role do era-specific photographs play in the creation of your fiction (or nonfiction)?

For all my reader friends: what do you enjoy most about old-time photographs?

My Writing Process, Part 1 My Writing Process, Part 2 Stetson’s Boss of the Plains vs the Bowler

Similarly, newspaper articles can be an inspiration for authors:

Copyright © 2015 Kristin Holt, LC