Seen (and Scene) Through Photography

The friendly church I often walk by

The setting for my current WIP is—perhaps not coincidentally—a small town in Maine. And without question there are specific buildings near where I live that play key parts in the story. One of these buildings is an old meeting house built in 1796.

I pass this building often in my daily life, but I also make a point of visiting it at different times of day and during different weather conditions.

In my story, there are some suspenseful scenes involving the church and the cemetery next door, so I want to trying to create a mysterious, even evil, mood and feeling in my writing. To imagine this, I want to try to see the church differently than it usually appears to me.

When I make these visits, I will often take photographs. Since it’s a building I see often, it’s hard to visualize it as anything but an everyday, friendly landmark. But the photographs can help my imagination take the church out of the context of my daily life and help me see it in a new light (or dark!).

Here are some of the other photos we’ve taken.

The church looked more ominious on this stormy day
I think the church looks a little creepy at dusk when lit up by a nearby street light
At night, especially when photographed at an angle, it’s possible for me to
imagine all kinds of diabolical things happening here or nearby

Do you ever use photography to help you establish settings in your mind? Do they help you see everyday objects in a different way that jog your imagination so you can describe them with new eyes?



  1. Wow, it’s amazing how creepy you made that look with those photographs. I love it. You should be feeling very inspired now.

  2. Great idea! I never even thought about taking pictures of the local places to either spark my imagination, or to help me recall details for a scene.

    Cool series of pics of the church. At first glance in the third pic down, I thought there were two burning bushes out in front! LOL I was looking for Moses! 😉 Interesting how the glow of one street light (or lack thereof) can change everything!


  3. Chris Fries says:

    Awesome photos, Julia!

    I do not take photos of things to inspire me, but after reading your article, I think I will — fabulous idea!

  4. motherlogue says:

    This is such a great idea. Thank you for sharing it. Looking at the different photos of the church drives this point home for me – I can’t believe how different it looks given the time of day, weather, etc. Perfect illustration for your post!

  5. motherlogue says:

    This is such a great idea. Thank you for sharing it. Looking at the different photos of the church drives this point home for me – I can’t believe how different it looks given the time of day, weather, etc. Perfect illustration for your post!

  6. Kelly, Yes–it really looks creepy, I agree… now of course on “normal” walks by I can see it in a different light too. Which means, I’m always rushing by now. Too funny, creeped myself out!

    Barb, I see what you mean about the burning bushes; I not only love your comment, but it may make it into my WIP — haha! Like you, I can’t believe it’s the light from one streetlight!

    Chris, Glad to give you a fabulous idea — it is amazing how differently it has made me look at the church, not to mention in such greater detail!

    motherlogue, Thanks for the visit and the comment! It really is amazing how different the church appears. It’s kind of a local wedding destination spot, but maybe brides & grooms would think twice if they saw these photos, huh? 🙂

  7. I wouldn’t want to be standing in front of that church before a storm! It does look quite scary.

    But I love the idea of picking a landmark, then taking pictures at different times to help with your writing. For my nonfiction, I take pictures of places – street corners, buildings, etc. – so I can describe them better on paper.

    Great post!

  8. Cynthia Robertson says:

    The stormy church photo looks like something out of a Steven King novel.
    I used photos of castles and period costumes tacked to my wall above my desk to set the mood when writing Sword fo Mordrey. And a big wall map of medieval England. It helps a lot!

  9. Jen, You would be amused at how UN-scary that church looks (even before a storm!)…. I can see why you would take a photo buildings and corners to help describe them. A great idea. I really like taking pictures of and reading about houses, buildings, and physical locations. Really interesting.

    Cynthia, We really did make it look like it was out of a King novel, didn’t we! 🙂 Amazing what light and angles can do! I didn’t talk about it in this blog, but I use maps, too. I’ve made a map of the neighborhood in my book, and in general I love books with maps in them! (AH-HA another blog, thinks Julia to herself! 🙂

  10. I love this idea of taking photos of a setting used in our WIPs, Julia. Thanks for sharing such great advice (and such wonderfully eerie pictures!). I can’t wait to take some photos of the community used in my new project!

  11. Ann says:

    That’s really cool! I don’t write stories….I just cook, but I can tell you I take a boat load of pictures of the same dish and it’s preparation to put 2-5 in the blog…

    I love the way you made the church go from charming to creepy….

  12. Jolina, I would love to see your project photos too (I loved your photos of your trip!) — isn’t it interesting how a place can look so peaceful one second and so eerie the next? I hope I can convey that in my writing, too…

    Ann, I can only imagine how many photos you take for your blog — thank goodness for digital cameras, right? — I absolutely love the ones you use. They look fabulous, and I’ve wondered: do you use lighting or just household lights?

  13. Ann says:

    Hi Julie! I use day light if it’s available with no flash. I have a 3 window bay where my breakfast table is, so that usually works – unless we have thunderstorms!

    When our a/c died, we spent a bit of time at my parents house (they’re traveling for the summer) and their house is SO dark it was noticeable in the pics.

    Thanks for your kind words….you make my day!

  14. Ann, so glad! Your pictures are lovely! Take care, Julia

  15. Helen Smith says:

    The photos are amazing. Glad to have found your blog via She Writes. Happy writing this week.

  16. lisa says:

    Unoriginal comment, I know, Julia, but: What a great idea! Seriously. I never thought about doing this but it makes perfect sense.

    I’m working on a food memoir about my time in Peru and a dish will often awaken memories. I have no idea why I never thought of looking at photos… Maybe because I don’t actually have that many. 🙁

    That’s an amazing old building; I can only imagine the stories you can create around it!

  17. Why yes I DO use photos in this exact way :-). Your church photos conveyed very different feelings based on the time of day (similar to the Cudde shots/post I wrote). I can totally see how you were able to envision a more sinister ambience during that cloudy day. Fabulous photo! BTW – this is a similar topic to my guest post that will be on Beth Hoffman’s site on June 18 – photography and the way it aids the writer! Sent it to her last week, so you and I are on the same wavelength!

  18. Helen, Thanks so much for your visit to my blog and your comment! Glad you enjoyed the photos!

    Lisa, Glad this gave you a good idea! Even if you don’t have your own photos, maybe you can find some on the Internet of places you’ve been, to help jog memories? As for the old meeting house, yes, it’s an incredible old building with so many stories!

    Melissa, Glad you enjoyed the photos! I thought of you when I was putting this post together over the past few months, taking all these photos! Then when I saw the Cudde blog post I realized that either we’re on the same wavelength or you’ve trained me well and I learn via osmosis over the Internet! 🙂 Can’t wait to see your (I’m sure incredible) post for Beth Hoffman!!

  19. Love it! Amazing how you can see the same building in so many different ways. Since my settings are all in my head I don’t get to take any real pictures, but I definitely store up mental images– colors, textures, brightness– and incorporate them into my writing.

    Is your town anything like Castle Rock or Derry? You know I love me some Stephen King small town Maine. 🙂

  20. Stephanie, I was pretty amazed over the last couple of months watching the building look so different in the photos! You must be an incredibly visual person to be able to visualize such brilliant images for your settings! Very cool! I would love to hear about your thought process in creating settings! (p.s. the secret’s out, I’m really a character in a Stephen King novel 🙂

  21. Liz says:

    The time of day, lighting and angle really can completely change the look and feel of a building, and many times over!

  22. Liz, It’s just incredible how a simple photo can help show these things! Because I barely notice the building as I pass it by, otherwise!

  23. BIKE LADY says:

    What a great way to imagine your setting! The photos are great. I can see how this would give you a real idea of how you can show this in your story. It’s just like writing about travel. It’s always best to take photos as reminders of what a place looks like so you remember more when you get home. And these shots really make me think about this place in different ways. Love this post.

  24. JoDee Luna says:

    I love the way you use your photography for inspiration. My husband and I are avid amateur photographers and my photos infuse my writing and art with creativity. Well done!

  25. BikeLady, It’s been so fun to take photos of the church over time and in different weather/light. You’re so right that it helps me remember more (by jogging my memory) and I also think the setting up of the photos as I take them, the composition process, forces me to be more observant of details. Glad you enjoyed the post; thanks for your comments!

    JoDee, Thanks so much for your visit to my blog and for your comment! I didn’t say in the post, but my husband is always right along side me when I take the photos, and sometimes he’s even the photographer (p.s. he refuses to let me give him any credit in my blog 🙂

  26. Leah says:

    I love that photo of the stormy sky in the background. It creates such a different mood than the other photos. I recently attended a writing retreat where we wrote using photograph as prompts and starting places. It was a great exercise with memory and how a photo can set the stage for writing.

  27. Leah, I love the idea of a writing exercise using a photo — I read online about a class like that, and it sounded very cool. Most of the photos I use are for well-known places/things, but I can see how it would be possible to use a photo as a prompt, too!

  28. I love what a different a simple lighting change makes in these pictures. The bushes illuminated by the street lamps look like they’re about to catch fire, and they remind me of evil, bright eyes you’d see in scary cartoons. You’re so right that it’s important to capture images beyond our mind’s eye, to get a real objective look and catch things we may have missed.

    The apartment that originally inspired my book (which was a complete mess and abandoned when my parents and I first arrived) looks one way in my memory and another way in the pictures. My mom took pictures of each room for insurance purposes, so of course I kept them! I remember looking through them during my initial drafts for small details I may have missed in the moment.

  29. Natalia, I love your description of the eyes as evil, bright eyes… to the soul of the building no doubt!? It’s so interesting how your mom’s pictures and your mind’s eye pictures have differed! It happens so often with photos, doesn’t it? And memories in general. What very very interesting tricks the mind (and our eye) plays!

  30. Wow! What a study in contrasting moods those photos are. I think it’s very clever that you figured out you could use photography to help you bend your usual perception of the church so you can write about it using different atmospheres.

    My love of using photos to inspire what I write is mainly expressed through my travel writing.

  31. CMSmith says:

    Great idea. I’ll file it in my “If I ever write fiction” folder.

    Good to see you working. Can’t wait to read your book.

  32. Milli, Using the photographs really does enhance how I look at the everyday things “around the neighborhood” that I write about. It really surprised me when we started to take the pictures to see how different the building looked during different seasons and weather! What’s so interesting to me — and I see it in travel writing a lot — is how a picture can look so different depending too on who takes it and their own point of view. So interesting!

    Christine, Thanks for your encouragement with the writing & wanting to read what I’ve written! I can’t wait to read your book, either!

  33. KathyB says:

    What a terrific idea – I will have to try it.