Worth A Thousand Words: Using Images to Shape and Reshape Your Thinking
Last Saturday, I found myself in a place where I was excited about my work, but in too much pain to create. I couldn't stand or sit long enough to do any lengthy sessions of revision, and the pain was getting in the way of my mental processing. But it was the weekend, and I still wanted to make progress, so I decided that even if the words were failing me, I could still inhabit the novel's images. So I set up my laptop on my lingerie chest, and started scouring the web for pictures. I found several to represent each character, and several to represent what I think are key elements in the book. It was a lot of fun. In fact, it was so much fun it didn't really feel like work--but it was. Strangely, what I thought would just be a stop gap exercise turned into something much more profound. As I began pasting the images into a Word document and aligning them in tables, I started to see some conceptual and tonal problems in my work.
Seeing the pictures made me realize just how I needed to change things, and made me see what images don't quite fit. For instance, I refer throughout the novel to my main characters' ancestral past, and much of the story takes place in and around a graveyard, but I hadn't realized that the very modern medical devices stood out in contrast to this. In some ways, I think that's a good thing--21st century syringes in a 1920s Victorian, but it did give me some ideas about how I could connect back to the medical devices of the past. It also helped me think even more about the backstory of the novel, backstory that is creeping into this revision in brief flashbacks, which happens to mirror a comment I got during the defense, which was to do more with the past. Somehow setting out all those images made me see the past along with the present, and gave me connections I never would have had otherwise.
Also, quite by accident, I put two of my minor characters on the same page and realized that although they are generations apart and unrelated, they looked alike. This gave me the idea that they could be related, and if in fact they were related, that might tighten the storyline. I'm still not sure I'm going to do that, but it's an intriguing idea, and one that only came up because the page break bumped the characters into each other.
Final verdict: It was a great exercise in thinking, and a great way to sharpen my characters. When I emerged five hours later into the sundappled green of my backyard, I felt alive again and revived. And the image on the left (a bloodletting device from the 19th century) might just have brought me to another novel.