Grounding Your Story: A Mess of Methods
After reading Joni's post on the images and music that served as an anchor to her most recent manuscript, I thought I'd add some of the methods I've used for inspiration, particular in the thought-gathering, prewriting days before launching into a new project. Over the years, I've used a variety of methods, from creating a musical mix, which I've played over and over until my family wants to ship me off to Siberia to "webbing" the characters and their interrelationships on a huge sheet of butcher paper to, most recently, creating a collage of associated images.
Any of these can work, but I've found the collage to be especially fruitful. I first learned of this during a workshop given by author extraordinaire Susan Wiggs, who is as brilliant a teacher as she is a novelist. At the time, I had fun with it and found it somewhat useful, but I didn't try again until reading articles on the topic by two other authors I greatly admire, Jenny Crusie (the link will take you to the article detailing her method of collaging)and Barbara Samuel (this link will take you to a blog post and photos of one of her masterpieces).
The photos and description of these three authors' collages are beautiful. My results varied. Using pictures clipped from magazines, a few handy odds and ends, and a number of black marker arrows, lines, and notes, mine (for my latest release The Salt Maiden) was evocative but messy as all get-out, the slacker-girl's version of get-the-job-done art. (I'd post a photo, but, tragically, I recently trashed this "masterpiece.") Thinking back, however, I can see that I combined my old webbing strategy with images to make something that worked -- and worked well -- for me.
But that's the way of novel-craft. You glom ideas by the score, discard the ones that don't work with your particular, homespun methodology, and adapt the ones that resonate. Cobbled together and bound by sweat, tears, rubber bands, and Duct Tape, the results may be pretty or they might be an ever-expanding garbage dump, but they're tailor-made for you.