Visual Inspiration

I suppose it’s only natural in a world saturated with film—and film adaptations of novels—but I’m always on the lookout for visual images that fit whatever project I’m currently working on.

Squirreled away on my computer, in the folders for my steampunk novels, are black-and-white photos from turn-of-the-century London, Cecil Beaton portraits, aristocratic boys in miniature sailor outfits, and newspaper caricatures of political figures drawn by Spy. I collected pictures of military vehicles and cellular bacteria slides and Slovakian grandmas making pirogues for my World War II novel. I’m just getting on Pinterest now, and my sister and I have a shared board for our pirate book, which we (read: she) has populated with pictures of Spanish-style haciendas, caimans lurking in algae-covered water, and galleons on the high seas.

People have always been especially important to me. I want pictures of my characters so I can look them in the eye and imagine how they would look if they were happy or frustrated or tired or overwhelmed. Now that I’m cowriting, sometimes I’ll text my sister a couple of different pictures: “Does Captain Barrabás look like this or this?” I have a bad habit of googling for actors of a particular nationality (German, Japanese/French, Guatemalan, etc.), so my characters are probably unrepresentatively good-looking. But I’ve also found characters with searches like “slovakian refugee wwii.”

Like any author, I dream about film adaptations of my books, but film isn’t the only visual translation I daydream about. I was lucky enough to visit the Rodin Museum when I was in Paris a few years ago, and walking around Rodin’s garden enjoying his sculptures was one of my favorite experiences of the whole trip. Like Rodin, I am a major Dante nerd, and Rodin also sculpted several famous literary figures such as Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.

It feels sacrilegious to call Rodin’s Gates of Hell Dante fan fiction, and yet it kind of is, right? A sculpture like Rodin’s The Kiss (depicting Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo) gives a particular interpretation of Inferno canto V, but in its weight and dimensionality, The Kiss says something about the lovers that Dante couldn’t in poetry. It adds a whole layer of meaning and emotional resonance to the story that I get to keep anytime I go back and read Inferno, in the same way that Dante’s beautiful stanzas give Rodin’s Kiss a fuller context and story.

I may or may not have delusions of grandeur, but after wandering around Rodin’s garden, I found myself thinking, Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to make sculptures of my characters? Or see someone else’s sculptures of them? What would it be like to walk around a whole garden full of characters from one book?

Back in the realm of reality, I’ve started sketching a little in the evenings, playing with images or animals or characters from my pirate book. I am by no means a good sketcher, but I find it still helps nurture that connection between words and images that I have always found so important.

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