Writing tools: Flickr

Tuesday August 04, 2009 @ 05:30 PM (UTC)

My dear friend Jeannine Hall Gailey recently encouraged me to blog more about my writing process. I was dubious about this – I believe I said, “Thousands of people are working on a first novel. Why should anyone care that I am?” but I gave it some thought, and I came up with one aspect of my writing process that might be interesting.

I use Flickr as a writing tool a great deal. By no means am I the only author who has come up with this particular expedient: David Long has also enthused about it, for example. Flickr has millions (billions?) of public photos from all over the world, many of them tagged extensively. This combination of photos and folksonomy is invaluable.

You see, the world (and the web) is dripping with information, but much of it isn’t the kind of information a writer needs. Wikipedia, for example, is very general. I need specifics. Wikipedia may have vague or incomplete range information for an animal, when what I need to know is whether it lives in Southern Oregon. It may contain information on blights that affect a tree, when I want to know what range of colors its leaves turn in Autumn. As Flannery O’Connor says in Mystery and Manners, “It’s always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.”

One of the best ways I’ve found to locate the necessary list slippers is Flickr. For instance, my story “Conditional Love”, which will appear in the January 2010 issue of Asimov’s, takes place in near-future Cleveland. Now, I lived there for a few years (it was the past when I did, though, not the future) and have a fair idea of the place. But I wanted to double-check my notion of when the cherry trees bloom, so I searched Flickr for “cleveland cherry blossom” and perused the date stamps. It’s good to double-check by using photos from several different Flickr members, since date stamps can be off or show the upload rather than the capture date. Similarly, Flickr members may misidentify the tree or deer in their photos, so it’s good to make comparisons for certainty.

Another way I use Flickr is as photo reference. Even in fantasy stories, I like to firmly establish the geology and landscape. Sometimes I choose a real-world analogue – say, the Hebrides – and use photos of that place to inspire my descriptions of the rocks and waves, to anchor my thoughts. The same concept works for animals.

Finally, Flickr and Google Streetview can help you research buildings and streets in settings far away. My novel is set in a future Los Angeles, so I can take plenty of artistic license. But if I want to, I can find out exactly what’s there now. I know of non-spec-fic authors using Flickr to set novels in other countries, too. Building details and atmosphere are easy to pick up as long as there are lots of photos and lots of tags to make sense of them.

I’m very grateful for the opportunities the internet provides to me as a writer. I can still walk down to the local library and get a deep text on trees when I need to know the usual size of various species, but I can also quickly find out what a tree looks like, or whether a certain flower grows in a certain state. With careful searching, I can even figure out what name goes with a remembered image in my brain. Detail is what grounds a story and convinces the reader of the reality, immediacy of its world. It’s wonderful to have so many resources available when I go hunting for those list slippers, fallen leaves and cherry blossoms.


Dear F,
A good insight into your writing process! I research a lot for poetry, but never thought of using Flickr. Very useful!
Two more recommendations for you – I just got the bound galleys for an upcoming anthology – almost all fiction with just a couple of poems (by me, cough, and one other poet) called “Beastly Bride.” The introduction alone is fantastic – all sorts of backstories on transforming women throughout different cultures – and featuring stories by the likes of Peter S. Beagle (the guy that wrote The Last Unicorn, who wrote a story based on Hawaiian sea myths I think you will love) and Jane Yolen. I thought of your Sea myth stories when I read the collection.
Also: go see Ponyo, the new Miyazaki movie. It also is inspired by several sea myths about transforming girls. There is an interesting Japanese folk tale about a girl who transforms into a goldfish – and of course, The Little Mermaid’s story also creeps in – though Miyazaki has said he hated the ending to that story, so he didn’t follow that plot line all the way.
That’s it from your friendly neighborhood “recommender of good things.” Also, AS Byatt’s “Children’s Book” is almost out – did you ever get ahold of her “Little Black Book?”
Hugs, Jeannine

New comment

required, won't be displayed (but may be used for Gravatar)


Don't type anything here unless you're an evil robot:

And especially don't type anything here:

Basic HTML (including links) is allowed, just don't try anything fishy. Your comment will be auto-formatted unless you use your own <p> tags for formatting. You're also welcome to use Textile.

Copyright © 2017 Felicity Shoulders. All rights reserved.
Powered by Thoth.