Using Photos to Inspire Your Writing

“A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away” – Eudora Welty

Lately I’ve been trying a new (well, new to me) trick to get myself writing: photos. I got this idea from a creative writing textbook (Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing), but a quick Google search has shown me that it’s a very popular writing prompt.

I have written before about how other types of art and artistic pursuits can inspire writing, and photographs seem to be no exception. (Although both taking photos and viewing them can be useful for art, for this post I’m going to focus on looking at photos for writing inspiration.)

Here are two ways that I have been using photos to inspire my writing that could work for you too:

1) Use a photo as a writing prompt.

Choose a photo that intrigues you. Maybe it’s a beautiful photo that elicits an emotion or reminds you of times gone by, or maybe it’s an odd scene that shows a story just waiting to happen. Either way, choosing a random photo and then crafting a story around it can be a great way to beat a writing slump. If you’re looking for inspiration, you could check out these 18 Vintage Mug Shots from the Twenties from Awesome Robo. There are so many stories just begging to be told there!

Here’s a mug shot from Awesome Robo’s post (originally sourced from this site):

Female Mug Shot
Female Mug Shot. Who is she? Why was she arrested?

2) Use photos to further develop an existing story.

Since I discovered my love of photos mixed with writing, I’ve been using a quick photo search to help me out when I get stuck. Photos can be especially useful if you’re writing historical fiction since it’s sometimes hard to imagine exactly what something or someone might have looked like. Photos are also useful tools for writing about places you have never been before. Just be careful not to get so side tracked with your photo searching that you  fall down a Google hole and lose out on writing time.

I used the photo below to add detail to a short story set in Ireland.

Cottage in Ireland
Cottage in Ireland. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/merlin1075

Where to find photos:

One of the great things about using photos for writing inspiration is that they’re easy to come by (as long as you have an internet connection). Here are a few sources I have used to find photos for writing prompts:

Google Images: This one may seem painfully obvious, but I’ve had a lot of success searching keywords for my stories using Google’s image search (e.g. “wedding dress 1930s”, “car 1925”). I usually use Google Images when I know what I’m looking for (so not as much for random writing prompts).

Wikimedia Commons Picture of the Day: For a truly random photo prompt, check out the Wikimedia Picture of the Day. You never know what you might get, but it’s almost always something interesting.

Blogs!: There are a ton of fantastic photography blogs, or even just blogs that have darn good pictures. A few of my favourites are: The Simple Life of a Country Man’s Wife, The Shutter Sisters, Ruth Hendricks Photography, and PDN Photo of the Day.

As I see it, using photos as writing prompts is an opportunity to ‘run away’ with the captured moments that Eudora Welty speaks of in her quotation above. Take a captured moment in a photo and turn it into a story, or use it to help add depth to a story you’re already working on. Perhaps the story will not end up like the photo at all, but if it gets you writing, it will be well worth the effort!

Do you use photos for inspiration in your writing? Has a photo ever helped you start (or finish) a piece of writing? Do you have any great resources for inspirational photos?

Author: Carrie Mumford

Carrie Mumford is a writer and content manager living in Calgary, Alberta. She write short stories and non-fiction articles, and blogs about technology, editing, writing and (of course) books.

  • Wonderful stuff, Carrie.

    They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and it can certainly help a writer get a thousand written. Or more.

    One of my WIPs is set here in West Africa where I’m currently living, and I make a point once a week of going out with the camera taking pictures of everyday life.

    The point being everyday life where you are may be a world apart from everyday life where your reader is. If your book is set in what is (for your reader) a foreign land then your descriptions are key to their enjoyment.

    And who knows, a year down the line you may have enough material to produce an illustrated book about your environment. It may never make the best-seller lists, but in the new world of e-publishing niche-market products are viable options, might bring in some extra income, and may bring readers to your other works.

    The images could also be a great addition to your blog, showing readers a little about your own life and helping them identify with you as an author.

    • Great point, Mark! I shied away from mentioning taking photos to use as inspiration in this post for the sake of brevity, but this is a great idea. I can especially see how this might be useful when you’re visiting (or living!) in your setting. Thanks for sharing!

  • I also use (and this will sound shallow) but my own photography as well. If you will click on my website and then click on photography you will see why. I also enjoy writing about ordinary things, like a carton of strawberries. I make them my subject then think about what they endured from being grown, picked, shipped, and eaten. This process helps a lot when writing.

    • I don’t think that sounds shallow, Ren. You take beautiful photos, and I can imagine that the reasons that you take them (a perfect moment, an interesting story behind the image, something that inspires you) play really well into writing. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your site!

  • Carrie: Truer post there never was…pictures are so a window or more a door to your imagination. We can look at the same picture and see two maybe more different themes or stories or even create personalities for our characters.

    Lovely
    Jaye

    • Hello Jaye! I too have had the experience of seeing a character in a photo. In particular, I remember an old photo of a woman in a thrift store in Ontario that inspired one of my supporting characters for my current work. Thanks for your comment!

  • What a great idea, Carrie. There is a vintage store near me that has boxes of old photos, taken from estate sales, I guess. That is a gold mine of inspiration!

    • OOoo I love coming across boxes of old photos! I try to hit up the thrift stores in my area every few months, but haven’t really focused on photos so much. I’ll definitely be taking a look next time. Postcards can also be a great resource. Thanks for reminding me!

  • Thanks for the mention. Would love to read what you write from any of the photos I post! A cool connection. Sometimes I have titled a photo- Writing Prompt.
    Looking forward to reading more of your work.

    • Thanks Ruth! I look forward to viewing more of your photos, and I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for the writing prompt ones.

  • Pictures are my favorite prompts. The stories you see within pictures are limitless and can totally push your boundaries of creativity.

  • This is such a timely post because I just today went to an all-day writing retreat about writing from snapshots – both photographs and memories. We had the option of using our own photos and random ones where we could tell stories. It was so much fun! I used my own photos in order to work on writing my family memories.

    • That sounds like a great retreat Leah! Did you find the photos helpful in remembering specific details? Or were you working on your far-back family history, where the pictures served as windows into the past?

  • Wow,

    Carrie thanks for posting this article. I did not think that I was the only one that used photos, in my case ones that I have taken, as the source materials for my writing. I did it for the simple fact that it combines two things that I really enjoy, writing and photography – though I am not claiming a great deal of proficiency in either.

    As an English teacher, I use this method in a couple of my courses as a way to get students writing. I also tell them repeatedly that it is easiest, initially, to write from a basis of “what you know” or about topics of which you have a practical knowledge; as this makes it easier to come up with the descriptive terms to illustrate your writing. I use examples of some of the things that I have written in the past. It is quite amazing what students will come up with when given those particular prompts.

    I am now off to several of the other of your poster’s sites to check out some of their work. Again thanks for posting this article.

    • Hi Dan!

      So glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve had really good results when using photos to prompt my writing. I love old photos especially, or just pictures of people in general.

      Good luck with your teaching!

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