Old Photographs as Writing Prompts
This 2016 Montana Historical Society calendar sits right next to my desk, so I find myself wondering about the people and the situations behind the pictures. Since the photographs are mostly posed, that happened before and after probably comes down to finding clothes and props and setting up the picture and then putting everything away afterwards. But forgetting that, what might have happened before and after if the photograph had really been candid?
Where did this cute kid go in her goat cart? Did she take a spin around the property, down the road to her nearest friend’s house, or maybe into some forbidden meadow where her parents told her not to go? The calendar’s June photograph shows a woman sending a stream of milk over to her waiting cat while milking a cow. I find myself wondering if the cat shows up daily during milking the way modern day cats appear when they hear a can opener.
Since these photographs sit next to my desk a month at a time, I have multiple occasions for playing “what if?”
You don’t need to be an historical society member to try using old photographs as writing prompts. Old pictures are fairly easy to find on the internet whether they’re in a museum, national parks, or historical society archive, or simply one of the many images available when you do a Google search. Candid pictures work best for me, followed by the posed pictures of everyday people. Famous pictures and/or pictures of famous people don’t work for me at all because I’ve seen them so often.
Of course, you can do this with modern day photographs as well, though if they include your family and friends, it’s a bit harder to pretend you know nothing about their lives and can make up stuff that happened a nanosecond after the photo was taken.
You don’t have to use photographs of people. Interesting outdoor shots, spooky buildings and strange street senes might be more to your liking. See what kind of a story you can tell about what-if events the photographer didn’t see.
I find this exercise kind of fun, especially if my muse has temporarily deserted me and I need to jump start my writing.