Studying photos or paintings from the time period you would like to write about is a wonderful way to learn about it. My friend Sandra Merville Hart provides in-depth instruction on how to analyze pictures in this post at Almost an Author.
Being a history major, I love looking at old photos and paintings. It’s a way to connect with people I can’t speak to and places I can’t visit. Because I like Sherlock Holmes, I became interested in Victorian history and Queen Victoria and her family. The interactions of this huge family can provide a writer of any genre with characters and plots galore. The most interesting book I have found on the subject is Queen Victoria’s Family: A Century of Photographs by Charlotte Zeepvat.
Composed almost exclusively of photos and captions, this book covers 100 years of Victoria’s family starting with earliest photos taken of the queen and her husband, Prince Albert. Of course, old photos give accurate depictions of what famous people really looked like and glimpses of the fashions of specific times. But I like to study portraits, either photographed or painted, to get inspiration for characters.
I am a character writer. I have to find a character to inspire me before I start a story. And the development of that character is closely tied to how they look, so I am always hunting for intriguing faces.
In Queen Victoria’s Family, a few photos arrested my attention. On page 117, there is a photo of the four daughters and only son of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. I can never look at photos of those kids without thinking how awful it was for them to be murdered for their parents’ incompetence. What catches my attention in this photo is Marie. All her siblings are looking straight ahead, very serious, wearing what the caption calls “Court dress”, and Marie is glancing off to the side with an amused smile. What did she see? Did she have a good sense of humor? Her expression makes her more real to me.
On page 126 is a photo of a great-grandson of Victoria’s, Prince Rupert of Teck, taken around 1919. He looks like a boy who could be one of my kids’ classmates. On page 132 is a portrait of the husband of Victoria’s oldest daughter. Kaiser Friederich III stares directly into the camera. Something about his expression always makes me stop and study it. Maybe it’s because, if you shaved off the beard, he looks like someone you could meet today.
If you have old photos of relatives, take the time to examine them. You can learn a lot about your own family history and may just get some literary inspiration. I am blessed to have some photos of my great-grandparents and even one of my maternal grandmother’s grandparents, who were alive during the Civil War.
Have you found inspiration in historical photos?