Wednesday, February 14, 2007

DR: A Novel Idea

I’m a visual person. I never feel I really know a person until I have a face to put with their name. I’m never quite at peace about my grown kids until I’ve visited the place they live or at least seen photographs. And I always learn a task more quickly when I’ve seen a demonstration, or when there is an illustration to follow.

So it’s no surprise that when I start a new novel, I need visuals to make my characters and setting come alive. About six books ago, I started putting together an “idea board” for each new novel. It’s become an important preliminary step for me, and one that helps me get to know my characters, setting, and even theme, far more quickly than any writing exercise.

My first idea boards were simple collages of photographs taped to Fome-Cor. I propped the resulting poster on my desk behind my computer each morning before I began to write. (I found that if my idea board sat in the same spot for all the months it takes me to finish a book, it started to be “invisible.”) Now that I have a dedicated office for my writing, I have a great swivel cabinet with a corkboard on one side. Here, I tack up photos of my characters culled from magazines or clothing catalogs. (Lands’ End and Eddie Bauer are great resources because they use ordinary-looking models of all ages.) Occasionally, I’ll use a photo of a family friend who’s inspired a minor character. There are also some online sites for stock photography that are great for finding character images. They are searchable, too, so you can enter “male, elderly, bald, beard” in the search field and come up with some pretty accurate results. Many of these are royalty-free as long as they are for personal use only. My favorite sites are and

Writer Jill Eileen Smith uses a collage of character photos and 3x5 index cards that spell out her characters’ physical and personality traits. Since some of her books are historical novels, she also finds the collage a great place to post images of period costumes her characters would wear.

Other components of my idea boards are maps of the locale, house plans or blueprints for my characters’ homes or offices (very helpful in tracking simple character movements), trinkets that evoke the mood of the story (for example, a locket, flower, poem, flag, menu, calendar page, matchbook or other icon that is representative of your story).

I’ve discovered that putting the book title somewhere on the idea board in large letters helps me to tie the nuances of the title into my narrative as I write. Sometimes seeing the title in print has also given me ideas for cover images or design, which I can pass on to my publisher’s designers.

I also post Scripture passages that informed my story somewhere on the idea board, again to remind me of the biblical inspiration for the book and to help me weave in the spiritual themes.

The beauty of an idea board is that you can tailor it to the way you think and the way your mind plots your story. For me, it’s the best jump-start to creativity I’ve found outside of brainstorming with a group of writer friends. The minute I start tacking images and trinkets to that board, my story begins to come to life.

Deborah Raney brand new novel is Remember to Forget the first of the Clayburn Novels for Howard Books/Simon & Schuster.


At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting idea, Deb. May have to give this one a try.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Tina Ann Forkner said...

You always have great ideas, Deb. I keep saying I'm going to try it, but knowing me, my whole office will be the idea board. I'm not organized enough to contain everything on one board!

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Karen said...

Wow, thanks for the pointers. I'm somewhat of a visual person too. I started cutting out things from magazines for my characters too, for a graphic novel and screenplay I'm working on. I didn't do anything as fancy as yours. You took it to another level, which is cool and way more organized. You've inspired me to step up my game!

Now that I think about those cutting out pictures and props for my stories really did help energize me to finish my first draft. It's nice to know that I'm not the only who thinks like this.

Excellent post!

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post and info. Thanks.


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