Strangers in my photos – writing prompt and tip for developing a story’s world

Who’s that lady with the handbag, sneaking out of shot while Dave was taking a picture of me at the Bluebell Railway museum?

The strangers in our photos are the people we aren’t meant to notice. People we tune out. I never gave them a thought until I read about the British artist Polly Morgan, who, when she was a kid, went through family photos, cut out the walk-ons and made a gallery of them on her bedroom wall.

I love this idea. All these anonymous people, abundant as traffic and trees, appearing accidentally in our private photos.

Who were they? While Dave and I walked around the museum, the lady with the handbag was on her own mission. She had a chain of events that brought her to this place and she went on to do something else afterwards. What was it?

A lot of writers talk about the inspiration they get from overhearing conversations, but it seems to me that a picture is worth a thousand eavesdropped words. And our photo collections are full of them. The person you didn’t intend to take a picture of is waiting to have their story told.

This is a fun exercise on its own but it can also be useful for our novels. When we’re writing, we often find we have gaps in our story world. Sometimes we need a ‘purposeful nothing’ for a character to do when they go for a think, or a route they can take to the gym or work. Insignificant, low-key stuff, but if it’s not there the world of the story doesn’t feel real.  The characters live in a void like an undecorated film set.

In daily life, we get used to tuning things out, which is perhaps why writers have to make a special effort to flesh out a world. Who’s that in the distance, sitting on a bench in a square in Fontainebleau, while I’m taking a photo of Dave? Did she need to think of a place to meet her best friend for a heart to heart?

So I’m ending this post with an exercise. Either tell me how you find insignificant but useful locations, or write a little piece about the strangers in the pictures here. Or do this with a pic of your own on your blog, link to it here – and we’ll all come and see. (That’s a blog hop, isn’t it? Never done one before.) Let the fun begin…

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  1. #1 by Beth Camp on September 30, 2012 - 3:11 pm

    Thank you for the morning writing challenge! I went back to Rio to find this:

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 30, 2012 - 6:43 pm

      Thanks for playing, Beth – nice piece of conflict you’ve singled out there in your piece.

  2. #3 by mgm75 on September 30, 2012 - 3:17 pm

    Interesting exercise, I’ll see what I can do.

  3. #5 by Sally - aka Saleena on September 30, 2012 - 3:45 pm

    Ooh, how fun! I’ve never used a photo like that, but it’s a great idea. The nearest thing I can name is when I was last in Pakistan around 10 years ago. Travelling on foot through a village at night, I almost bumped into a man who was sitting against a wall. It was virtually in the pitch black, and I would not have noticed him at all, if he hadn’t been smoking a cigarette, the end of which danced around in the air as an orange dot. It really stuck with me, especially the man’s pose (when I did make him out in the dark), and it directly inspired a short description in one of my novel scenes, involving a character who is also a smoker.

    Here’s my attempt with your pic:

    “As Dave stood in front of the fountain as he had done countless times before, about to transform into Super Dave, he didn’t notice the young woman in a pink top and jeans sitting on a bench behind him just out of sight. She watched with wide eyes, hand on her face, waiting anxiously to see what was going to happen next.”

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 30, 2012 - 6:46 pm

      Hi Sally! That’s a spooky tale about the man on the wall. You must use it – especially the detail about his cigarette being the only thing visible.

      And as for ‘Super-Dave’… LOL, hadn’t thought of that until you said. The girl’s probably waiting with HER camera for the moment the shirt is discarded for the lycra logo…

  4. #8 by cydmadsen on September 30, 2012 - 6:17 pm

    Interesting post and fun exercises. I suffer from a disorder called WWDTR (Wonder What’s Down That Road) and have no problem finding unique places, some quite scary in this land of cowboys, secluded farms, and wandering dirt roads. I had one experience with WWDTR that left me somewhere in the rolling hills of Oklahoma with no water, no food, no phone service, no idea where I was, and running out of gas. Oh, and a silver pick-up truck that kept appearing and disappearing in my rear view mirror. I came up with lots of plots and stories that day while fighting off sheer terror. I now have a survival kit I keep with me because WWDTR is incurable. It’s even taken me through the Swiss Alps in February at 2 a.m.

    The photo exercise sounds like fun. I’ve just stumbled upon a box of old family photos, and with a few exceptions, I have no idea who they are, where they are, or why they’re looking at each other with such peculiar expressions. I might have a go at those folks. I’ve been tuning them out for decades.

    • #9 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 30, 2012 - 6:50 pm

      Hi Cyd! Sounds like you nearly had your real-life version of the Spielberg film Duel, about a driver who is hounded by a gigantic sinister truck. I can relate to the exploring curiosity but curiosity with an overactive imagination (as we writers have) could result in fatally scary ideas…

      Love the idea of your box of photos with the people pulling odd faces. I look forward to your interpretations.

      • #10 by cydmadsen on October 10, 2012 - 10:22 pm

        This post keeps haunting me. Having been a photographer for so long I can’t find anything that isn’t composed, nor can I find those old family photos. But the idea of the story behind the people passing through photos has stuck. I’ll find the right photo sooner or later and bounce it to your blog.

        • #11 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 11, 2012 - 8:17 am

          I’m just a souvenir-snapper but I found it difficult to dig out pictures with strangers. I’m obviously used to making sure my pictures are free from clutter.
          Really looking forward to seeing what you make of this, Cyd.

  5. #12 by Gene Lempp on September 30, 2012 - 9:53 pm

    Smart tip, Roz. In researching places, I’ve often come across people (strangers) posing in various places. Flickr is full of these shots. Who are these people? What can said about them by “reading” their outfit, expression, stance, etc.? Thanks for sharing this great resource enhancer!

    • #13 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 1, 2012 - 12:34 pm

      Hi Gene! Yes, I use Flickr too. I often snoop through portraits of people’s special friends to find faces for my characters. It’s less their face, actually, and more their mood or expression.

  6. #14 by Pamela Williamson on September 30, 2012 - 10:22 pm

    What a great idea! Love this. The story ideas and short pieces are endless. How fun! Can’t wait to skim my pictures to see what I come up with. Thank you for sharing this. 🙂

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 1, 2012 - 12:36 pm

      Thanks, Pamela! I find I’m looking at my photos with new eyes now – it’s amazing how it’s shifted my perception. Have fun!

  7. #16 by Candy Korman on October 1, 2012 - 3:52 pm

    I’m inspired. As I write mysteries, that odd character on the edge of the protagonist’s field of vision may be a red herring or the key to the mystery.

  8. #18 by Dan Holloway on October 2, 2012 - 8:07 am

    One of my greatest inspirations is the writer/model/photographer/artist and all-around renaissance figure Katelan Foisy. When we worked together a few years ago she told me “record everything”. The takes a camera and voice recorder everywhere. I think that’s a evry wise dictum

  9. #20 by Dave Morris on October 2, 2012 - 1:19 pm

    Nabokov agreed with you. He wrote: “One always desires to find out what people who pass by are saying to each other.”

  10. #21 by Ileandra Young on October 22, 2012 - 8:24 pm

    I always wanted to do it the other way around. I always wanted to find every single photo of me, including all the ones where I just appeared randomly in someone else’s shot. That would be great, though I have no idea if such a thing is even possible. Probably not.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 23, 2012 - 8:18 am

      Love that idea, Ileandra! It reminds me of a story in the series Sapphire & Steel, where a nightclub singer was being haunted by strange paper children who were cut-outs from pictures. At the end, once the foe had been defeated, she was told to find every picture she’d ever been in and destroy it because it was the only way to control the demons. A really spooky idea which made me think of the numbers of pictures we must accidentally appear in.

      • #23 by Ileandra Young on October 23, 2012 - 3:45 pm

        Lordy and did she ever manage it? I can’t begin to think what sort of undertaking that must be. Even for a book. What an awesome idea!

  11. #24 by Julie Musil (@juliemusil) on October 27, 2012 - 4:35 pm

    You know, this is excellent food for thought. I always zone that stuff out! Thanks for the idea.

    • #25 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 27, 2012 - 5:33 pm

      Julie, ever since I wrote that post I’ve been thinking about photos in a different way. It’s like it turned my brain to wide angle. Have fun!

  12. #26 by betsy thompson on October 27, 2012 - 4:51 pm

    This is what dismays me about scrapbooking — we cut out all the cool stuff, the things that make the pictures meaningful as time passes, like the grandfather clock in the hallway, the bowl your mother always kept on the kitchen counter, the summer kitchen in the background of a farm family photograph. Apologies to scrapbookers 🙂

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 27, 2012 - 5:35 pm

      Betsy, you’re so right. Fortunately I have years of photos where I had an almost religious respect for the moment the pics were taken, and considered all the background and accidental blurrings were as important as the perfectly framed and focused parts. In recent years I became a fanatic cropper, but now have come full circle, I think. Anyway, with digital we can keep 2 copies. Thanks for the comment!

  13. #28 by Alison on April 27, 2020 - 2:42 pm

    The oddest coincidence I’ve ever heard involved my ex-boss in Australia, David. He was at a dinner party and found himself talking to someone whose son had just opened a restaurant in New Zealand. David mentioned that his daughter had just got back from holiday there.

    “So here’s my son’s restaurant,” said the other guest, proudly showing him a photo. David replied “And that’s my daughter!” — pointing at the girl walking past just as the picture was taken. (And it really was her…!)

    • #29 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2020 - 4:19 pm

      Ooh that is spooky, Alison! It wouldn’t be believed in fiction!

      • #30 by Alcemeg on April 27, 2020 - 4:28 pm

        I know (Alison here again — just logged in as Alcemeg)! On the one hand, it’s great that truth really can be stranger than fiction… on the other hand, what a shame we can’t exploit this kind of thing. I can just see the Amazon reviews slamming such a ludicrous plot twist.

        • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 27, 2020 - 4:38 pm

          I know! When I edit fiction manuscripts, I can spot those a mile off. I know the writer wants to tell me ‘It really happened’, and I have to explain: ‘in fiction, the rules are different’. Funny old world.

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