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Manor Lakes Specialist College: 3. Picture This – A Writing Tool

Thursday, August 12, 2010 , Posted by Sandy Fussell at 11:56 PM

I was so impressed with the two pieces of writing that Tegan and Tanaya shared with me that I thought I should share something the writers among you might find useful. This might sound basic but it’s a very powerful technique. Pictures are a great tool to have in your writing toolbox.

Pictures help fill in the gaps when you are describing a character. I don’t see clear visual images of my characters; instead I will start with a strong feel for their personality. Sometimes I notice my characters develop a certain sameness when I am writing a physical description. That’s when I go to my ‘mug shot book’. It’s an idea I got from a friend who is a writer. She suggested I should cut out pictures of interesting faces and paste them into a scrapbook. Then when I get stuck with a description, I should look through the scrapbook. It works really well for me.

When I was writing Fire Lizard, which is the fifth Samurai Kids book set in Korea, I found this marvellous book called Korean Culture: Legacies and Lore by Lee Kyong-hee. It was about the ‘living treasures’ of Korea and how their skills were being lost as the older craftsman died. There was there was no money in things like ropewalking, pyrography and papermaking so no young people were interested in learning from the old Masters. I found this very sad. But the pictures of the craftspeople were wonderful and Ang Lee, the pyrographer in Fire Lizard, is based on a story and picture I found in Korean Culture. In case you are wondering, pyrography is an art form where a heated iron is used to burn pictures onto bamboo items like flutes and decorative hair combs.

If you feel like giving it a go, find a picture (anywhere will do – a magazine, book, internet) and write a six line description (or more!) to share.

Sometimes a description might tell us something more than what a person looks like. Here is a description of Lali who is an Aztec girl in my most recent book Jaguar Warrior, as told in first person by Atl, a slave boy. Not only does his description tell us something about what Lali looks like (her hair, eyes, nose and that’s she’s pretty) but the tone tells us about the relationship between Lali and Atl (he thinks she is an arrogant, irritating show-off).

Lali is short and wiry, with long straight black hair that spills like a waterfall. It splashes around her waist when she shakes her head. When she smiles, her pointy nose wrinkles and her eyes dance like moonlight on water. She’s not bad to look at but she’s awful to listen to. She never stops talking. Lecturing. Showing off. Her voice drags like a mason’s knife against stone. Scritch. Scra-a-a-tch. Scratch .

Grab a book off the library shelf, maybe one whose story you already know, and find where the character is introduced. Somewhere in the vicinity you should be able to find a description. Any character description will do. Doesn’t have to be the first one or the main character. Let me know the book title, author and character name and whether the description helped you visualise what the character looked like or helped you understand how the character felt about things. If the description didn’t draw a picture in your head, what was missing?

A few months ago I was asked to be involved in a project at the Wollongong Art Gallery called Just Imagine which was all about writing from pictures. They even ran a competition where students wrote stories about specific pieces of art in the Gallery. It was a lot of fun and I blogged about it here. Also check out the pyrography site of Australian artist Sue Walters.

Currently have 11 comments:

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi it's LOHGAN.

    The book is Mortlock - Jon Mayhew and the introduction of 2 characters at once came in on the second page.

    'As the two of them straightened up, Josie glanced over at Cardamom. She was almost taller than him now. Out in the street, they would have made a curious sight: he stocky, with dyed red hair, clipped moustache and red-lined cloak, she dressed in leggings and a light shift, her long blonde hair spilling for under a black bow. But onstage, they still made a perfect fit.'

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lohgan again.

    It helped understand and a visualisation of what they looked like and their built. But it doesn't give me information of how old they are. It tells me that they look odd together because they're so different.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy

    We were asked to write about what we saw in a picture, this is what I wrote......

    I felt the coldness as the shade came over me. I was standing under an archway with vines wreathing in and out of the branches. Birds over head were chirping away, not at all worrying by the wind that was blowing a harmless breeze. Up ahead, I could see a beautiful building with a creamy coat. Red railings led to it. As I stepped into the sun, I could smell the sweetness in the air. I felt warm now, like the sun was never hidden by the vines. I stepped towards the building.

    I don't mind if you put it on RWZwriters. Are you gonna put Tegan's up, cause its not on yet?

    Tanaya :)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy! Tegan here! I thought I might just give you the description thingy we had to do in class. We had to describe this place in China:

    Before you walk through the sleek dark doors of the Chang High restaurant, you walk over a wooden bridge, running your hand along the smooth timber. You can feel the soft breeze blowing against your face, and the tickle of leaves and flowers running against your hand.
    When you open the doors, a mountain of smells hits you in the face. Spices, herbs, and the delicious smell of roasting fish and lamb. A row of beautifully polished tables and chairs stand before you, and a black leather sofa on the side. Sliding into a chair, you can feel the smooth, cool leather against your skin, and the shiny table in front of you. Running your hand along the dark wood, it seems to you as if its made of glass because it is so smooth.

    At last a plate of steaming dumplings are put in front of you, and you can hear the clang as cooking utensils drop on the bench. When you go to dump a dumpling in you mouth, you hear the chef holding his breath. Out of the corner of your eye, you see him peeking out from behind the door that goes to the kitchen. When the dumpling pops into your mouth, the delicious tastes burn your tongue, and you put two thumbs up to the anxious chef. “Good work!” you say, and he breathes a sigh of relief.

    Hope you like it! Also, I'm just wondering (this has nothing to do with what we are originally talking about) do you know about broiler chickens, battery hens, breeder chickens, puppy farms, horse knackeries, sow stalls, sheep, and dairy cows are treated? (I sure hope whatever I said made sense) I reckon it would take me 200 pages to tell you about, so if you would like to find out more about the way these poor animals are treated, I recommend going to the Animal Liberation Victoria website. They tell you all the goings on of animal treatment in Victoria. I just thought I'd tell you about it because a lot of people have no idea where their food comes from. Since I found out where the KFC chicken comes from, I have vowed never to eat it again. My friends and I now know it as: Kentucky Fried Crap!

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh, by the way, could you please put my story on the RWZ Writers, because I don't know how. I don't mind AT ALL if you PUT my descriptive story on as well!

  1. LOHGAN, I was so hooked by that extract about the characters I immediately tracked down the book and bumped it to the top of my reading pile. As soon as I get my hands on a copy! I even did a separate post with the book trailer. Have you seen the trailer? I am putting a trailer together for Samurai Kids - hopefully have it done soon.

  1. TANAYA, Wonderful setting description. I would love to use it as an example when I am workshopping with other students. Would that be all right with you? I would tell them you wrote it and they will find that inspiring as you are close to their age. Here is a snippet of what I said when I loaded it into RWZ Writers: When I am demonstrating how to write setting I always talk about the five senses – that time and place is more than what we see – it is also what we hear, smell, touch and taste. Your setting description is rich with sensory detail and I love that bit about the building having ‘a creamy coat’. The last line has atmosphere as well.

    PS Thanks for the reminder about TEGAN's piece - I thought I had loaded it but when I checked I had just put the old file up again.

  1. TEGAN, Another excellent piece. Here is a snippet of what I said when I loaded your piece this time I love the sensory input and that I can feel as if I am there as well as see a picture in my mind. There’s excellent humour ‘dump a dumpling in your mouth’ and the anxious chef waiting for the thumbs up.

    I too am very anti battery hens, puppy farms and all those other horrible places. I always buy eggs that have an RSPCA approval - which is just a little thing but I hope it helps make the right statement. You might be interested in BEST MATE which is a book by Michael Morpurgo, A UK writer who was previously the UK Children's Laureate. The book was inspired when Michael discovered what happens to retired greyhounds - quite awful.Here is an article where he was interviewed about it and here's my blog post where I interviewed him when he came to Australia to promote the book a few years ago

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy! I just saw the separate page on the extract and I didn't know there was a trailer but it's awesome! Just in case you didn't see my comment i'll post it again?
    Hey Sandy it's LOHGAN! Yes, LOHGAN. In the title and text you spelt my name wrong! But it's a common mistake so it's alright! Also in the extract where it says 'blonde hair spilling FOR under a black bow.' but it is meant to be FROM. Thank-you for putting it up there.

    The trailer is awesome I didn't know there was one. But it's awesome how I can say 'oh yeah I know what they're talking about in the trailer.' But I don't think the book is out yet because Tye got books for us to read that aren't released yet!

    Lohgan :)

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love this exercise Sandy!

    It reminded me of something Markus Zusak said at CBC Conference in Sydney. He talked of how he had been advised to 'show, not tell' more in his writing and that he had been criticised for his style of description.

    Yet I have always adored Markus's descriptions. They are so vivid for me. I wish I had total recall of the excerpt he read to us from Bridge Of Clay, (his new novel not yet published) but whilst he read to us, I could see his character so clearly sitting on that roof, watching and waiting. Remembering and yearning. It was beautiful.

    I wonder how perceptions differ when different people read the same description?

    Tye :)

  1. Good point TYE. If I remember what Markus said it was basically to 'write what works' and to find what that is writers have to practise a lot. We practise what is 'good writing' but then our own style pushes through and sometimes breaks the rules. And that makes it special I think. To be able to break the rules but still hold the reader.

    I used to think I would never be a writer because my sentences were too short. I kept trying to write longer ones but it never felt right. So I folowed my heart and wrote how I felt it. And now I find reviewers often comment on this as a plus!