Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Pictures in a Picture

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
An Obsolete Honor:

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerThe photographer managed everything “just like an opera director,” according to Eberhard, telling them exactly where to stand, what pose to take, and even turning their heads this way and that or arranging their hands and accessories.

While they were standing together with the photographer pushing them about, Philip finally got a chance to ask his brother, “When were you promoted to Hauptman?”

“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.”

In the next example, taken for The Lady in the Spitfire, the protagonist slips into his girl-friend’s parlor and finds himself confronted with photos of her missing husband. The photos are his first “face-to-face” encounter with the man who is keeping them apart. The photos tell Jay about his competition.

A solemn young man with dark hair and dark eyes stared back at him accusingly. He was very good-looking, J.B. had to concede. Good-looking and he had the DFC and three rings on his sleeve, too. J.B. sighed and straightened.

The Lady in the SpitfireThere were two other photos on the secretary also. One showed the same young man, this time with only one stripe on his sleeve, at what appeared to be a garden party. Ladies in big-brimmed hats and white gloves stood around in the background while the young RAF officer shook hands with a man even Jay recognized: King Edward VIII. The photo was striking because there was a tension between the two men that the camera had captured – a flash of anger in the King’s eye and defiance on the face of the young officer. Jay found himself wishing he knew the story behind the picture. It certainly wasn’t your standard celebrity with unknown-member-of-the-public shot.

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.

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