by Beth Lee Browning

How does a picture turn into 200 words?  When something happens out of the ordinary, an idea takes root in my mind. This is exactly how one of my recent pieces, “Operation Tree Removal” (aka “Paul Bunyan Meets Cirque De Soleil”) came about. The event occurred when my landlord hired a small operation to remove two very large trees from the yard. I knew before I met Bobby (the tree guy), there was a story here to be told.

Each day of the job, I took as many pictures as I could with no preconceived idea of what I was going to write. Coupled with imagination and a little creative license, the story revealed itself through the digital images that captured the sequence of the events over the course of a month.

The fun thing for me is that while my initial pieces about Bobby were written in a memoir/ personal experience style, it’s led to further ideas for flash fiction and short stories; the pictures help keep the images and impressions of his character from fading from my memory.

More often than not, I have no particular plan. I take pictures of things that catch my eye; everything from an everyday experience, like going to the grocery store to a long-awaited vacation. I’m also known to stop whatever it is I’m doing, grab the camera, and run outside to capture the large and small details of life.

I’m often surprised by what I find in the pictures when I download them to my computer. One picture, focusing on a man wearing red shoes and carrying a mysterious satchel, provided great detail about his surroundings, including a red fence that I hadn’t noticed.

I think taking pictures works for me in the same way that carrying a notebooks works for other writers. Actually, I do both. The pictures allow me to recall the details of what transpired without having to actively take notes and struggle to remember visual detail. With the aid of my digital camera, I can quickly capture a moment for future reference.

Whether I’m starting with an idea in mind or an idea springs to me as I’m looking at the pictures I’ve taken, I set up my area to have the pictures open while I’m writing. I am lucky enough to have a dual monitor set up so I can write on one screen and flip through pictures on the other screen. When I don’t have that set up available to me, I write on my iPad or in a notebook and have the pictures up on the computer. With pen in hand or fingers on the keyboard I take in the detail of the photograph in front of me, I begin to write, weaving the details of the picture into the story. I often close my eyes to recall the sounds and emotions associated with that moment in time.

If I don’t have a particular idea in mind, but a person or scene stands out as being a potential character or story setting, I use the opportunity to brainstorm utilizing the Bubble Method I learned while taking various writing classes. I let the ideas simmer, and create the piece, referring to the picture to help develop a descriptive setting that adds authenticity to the work.

My family has become pretty patient, or maybe I should say tolerant, and they even expect that I’ll be stopping to take  pictures. I’m even lucky enough to talk them into snapping a few shots for me. My recent favorites are from a vacation road trip: my son captured the Minnesota landscape and the hay truck spraying strands of summer straw across the road as we sped down the highway. I’m not sure yet where those will take me, but I can’t stop thinking about them.


Beth Lee-Browning is originally from the Midwest and currently lives in Pennsylvania. She is a proud mother of three, a full time professional, and an aspiring writer.  Beth maintains a very observant blog,  “It’s a whole new world”  here.