Sunday, August 8, 2010

Characterization in Fiction

One of my weaknesses as a writer is imagining faces. I know, I know. Fiction authors are supposed to have overactive imaginations. I do--just not when it comes to faces. Thankfully, it hasn't been a problem since I began collecting faces. It all started at an auction in a small town in southeast Nebraska. Among the boxes of things I planned to bid on were Victorian whites, redwork pillow covers, a Featherweight sewing machine, and a shoebox filled with old photographs. As I sat on one of the soon-to-be sold couches chatting with another auction goer, the woman revealed that she was a distant relative of "the deceased" and had helped organize the estate auction.

"Now, who on earth is going to want that box of old pictures?" she wondered aloud. "But the auctioneer said to put 'em out, and not a single one of us knew a soul in them, so. . . "

I smiled. "I want them." And so it began. It's been many years since that auction, and I've continued to collect old photographs. In fact,there's an entire shelf of "anonymous relatives" in my office, along with photographs of farmsteads and draft horses and Tin Lizzies and houses and rodeos and more.
Sometimes, a photograph inspires a character. This young lady (you gotta love that hand-on-hip) inspired Sarah, the orphan train run-away in Sarah's Patchwork.

The two more mature ladies to the right appear in Sixteen Brides. Do you recognize them?

Meet Miss Fannie Rousseau, soon to star in her very own post Civil War adventure whereupon
a young lady from St. Charles, Missouri, ventures aboard
a steamboat bound for Fort Benton, Montana and encounters
gamblers and other assorted unsavory characters. I don't know about you, but I'm thinking this wide-eyed innocent has a few lessons to learn. Stay tuned!
And in case you were wondering. . . that auction? Bought the Victorian whites, the redwork pillow covers, and the Featherweight sewing machine. If only they could talk. . .
Stephanie G.


  1. Hi Stephanie:

    I love the idea of looking at old photographs. This is especially useful for clothing, hair styles and cityscapes. However, I’m not too sure it is very reliable for faces. Photos at that time were long exposure and people had to hold still. This is very unnatural. I think of it as the ‘frozen face’ syndrome. Everyone seemed to have it back then. I’m sure these people were not as dour as they look in old photos. Rather I think they were really as sassy and funny as people are today.

    Actually, I think using enlarged photos of people in a crowd, going about their everyday lives -- without any idea they are being photographed -- will give you a full range of human facial expressions. Just an idea.

    BTW: I’ve read all your posts and I love the way you use illustrations to make the history so interesting.


  2. Hi Stephanie,

    I read your ACFW loop post and followed you over here. I thought you had very good ideas about local history. I love local museum bookstores for those self-published and limited printing sources of information.

    I am fascinated with old photographs, too. I find them in antique stores and immediately start making up stories. Your "Sarah" is adorable and I am glad she got a story!

    When I was reenacting with my daughter, years ago, a group of us had a tintype made. Yes we sat there for several minutes and held the pose. Even though our faces are composed, and a might serious, its still us!
    I should scan it in and put it on my blog, I suppose!

    I look forward to following you here and seeing what you have come up with!


  3. I think you're absolutely right, Vince, about people not being as "dour" as we tend to think. I do have a few precious photographs from that era that show folks smiling and they always catch my eye. You mentioned seeking the faces in the crowds. I have one great old photo that must have been a town celebration and in the background there is a young woman sitting on the ledge of a second story window. Now that's a gal I'd like to know!

    Kathy, thanks for speaking up! You should absolutely put your tintype on your blog. People would love it. The inspiration for my male protagonist in the book I'm working on is a tintype. It's so dark I don't think it would scan well, but the process fascinates me. I think I'm going to have to do a study of the history of photography.