I don’t know how this works – but it always seems to do the trick. It’s not about words – it’s about faces. There’s something about staring at a face that unlocks my brain and sends it off at a creative tangent.
I start the process when I’m in the planning stage of a new novel. I look through magazines and newspapers for faces that seem to fit the characters I’m creating. I always look for ‘unknowns’ – i.e. people who are not famous – so that I won’t be influenced by any preconceptions about the person.
When I find a face that ‘speaks’ to me, I cut it out and stick it onto a card. Beneath the picture I write details about my character’s age, physical appearance, occupation, etc. When I’ve got pictures for all the main characters I store them in an old chocolate box on my desk.
Then the fun starts. I get a card out and stare at it. And ideas start to pop into my head. If, during the writing of the novel, I’m stuck with a plot or am unsure how a character might react in a particular situation, I pull out the relevant cards and lay them out on the desk. Somehow, just by looking into the eyes of these people (whose true identity I have forgotten by this stage), inspiration comes.
Sometimes the faces start to take on a life of their own. You might have cut out a couple – one for a victim, perhaps, and one for a killer – and suddenly you find yourself imagining them the other way round. That wholesome-looking girl who was going to be attacked on her way home from a shopping trip turns into a spurned lover who is plotting revenge on the seedy-looking guy you had down as the murderer to begin with.
If that sounds confusing, it needn’t be. What these images will do is unlock your creativity. And you might well end up with a better story in the end.
I first started using this technique in one of my crime novels, Where Death Lies, which has just been released as an e-book. There is a particularly dark and unpleasant character in the book – I have to admit I really enjoyed creating him – whose ‘face’ I found in a teen music magazine bought by one of my children. I have no idea, now, who he was – the lead singer of a band I’m too ancient to have heard of, probably – but he had just the right ‘look’: slightly Gothic, a cigarette stub in his hand, and an expression of casual arrogance that I’m sure he’d spent ages practising in the mirror.
I wanted him to be in the opening scene of the novel along with a young girl – you can see her in the cover image. The girl on the cover is a model but she looks very much like the magazine picture I originally chose for the character. After studying the faces of the boy and the girl, this is what I wrote:
‘It was the girl who found the body. Griff had sent her into the cold, still water while he waited on the muddy bank.
“I can’t touch it,” she bleated, “I can’t!”
“Oh, yes you can” Without looking at her he reached out and stroked her hair. “He can’t hurt you – he’s been dead for a long, long time.”
Her blue eyes, large and trusting, fixed on Griff’s. “How…do you know?”
The silver stud in his eyebrow flicked upwards. His hand moved from her hair to the wet skin of the corpse’s left thigh. He ran his fingers up and down the slippery flesh, his touch like a caress. “You see?” He held a finger up to her nose. “It’s fine – doesn’t smell of anything but mud, does it?”
The girl bit her lip and inhaled. “No…I s’pose not.” She swallowed hard.
“So come on, then – let’s see what he looks like, shall we?”
They pushed on a count of three. He didn’t really need her help to roll the body onto its back and he knew that she knew that. It was part of the act. The game of Griff and Alice.
As he had expected, she snapped her eyes shut the moment the corpse turned. What he saw made his mouth go dry with excitement. The cheeks were leathery and the nose pushed to one side from having lain face-down on the pool bottom. The eyes were empty sockets topped by wild orange brows and the jaw sprouted a beard of the same colour. But it was none of these features that made him catch his breath. It was the expression on the dead man’s face. There was no mistaking it. It was a look of utter, abject terror.’
So that became the opening page of ‘Where Death Lies’. And now I have a box of faces for each novel that I write. Do try it – apart from anything else it’s great fun: not like work at all!