Although not exclusively a device of historical fiction, I’d like to look this week at the ways photographs can be used in a novel. Obviously, photos are only relevant in novels set in periods in which photos existed, but I have found that even when a photo is only described verbally it can still be worth “a thousand words.”
In my first example, a photo is used to connect two scenes in the novel that are hundreds of pages apart. The reference to the photo is used to remind the reader of an earlier scene and so the emotions and relationships described earlier. From an
“When I got a Staffel.”
“Congratulations!” The flashlight flashed, catching that moment when Philip turned in delighted surprise to Christian. “When did you get the Staffel?”
“In JG 23?”
“Yes, but in Africa”
Two hundred pages later the photograph is referenced like this:
In her study, Philip helped his mother into a chair, glancing at the photo that stood prominently on her desk. It was the photo from his wedding when he’d turned to congratulate Christian on his promotion. Philip and Christian were ginning at each other as if no one else existed. His mother had made two copies of it: one for here and one for her bedroom dresser.
He kissed her forehead and then withdrew, slipping his arm around Alexandra and guiding her toward the door with the remark. “My mother needs to be alone with my brother.”
The third photo at last contained Emily as well as her husband. It had not attracted Jay’s attention at first because it was taken from father away, so that the people were shown at full length and their faces were very small. J.B. picked it up to look at it more closely. It showed Emily in an elegant, high-waisted wedding gown with a veil down her back and a long train arranged in a fan at her feet. She held a bouquet of flowers in her right hand. She looked lovely, fragile and yet proud, not radiant. Not at all. In fact, she wasn’t really smiling. J.B. thought a bride ought to look much happier than that! Her left hand was hooked in the elbow of an RAF officer, and J.B. had to lean closer to convince himself it was really the same man as in the other photos. The man in the wedding photo was dressed in a rather ill-fitting uniform, with a turtle-neck rather than shirt-and-tie, and was still wearing flying boots. J.B. was offended. How dare he marry Emily in old flying clothes rather than dress uniform?! It was an insult. But he had hardly thought it, than he noticed the bandages on the bridegroom’s hands and an inkling of what must have happened sent a shiver down his spine. He noted, too, that Emily’s husband’s unkempt hair was falling over his forehead, his eyes were sunken in his face, and there were very dark shadows under them – but he was grinning from ear to ear. J.B. recognized that look. It was the look of slap-happy disbelief at things having turned out alright after all.
As this example shows, photographs are an effective way to tell the reader something that does not fit directly into the narrative of the story. They can be particularly effective, if a photograph exists that the author wishes to use in the cover or a video teaser. As electronic media evolves and makes it increasingly easy to mix visual images with text, the use of photographs in fiction will, I believe, increase.