The great photographer Ansel Adams isn’t someone you’d expect to get writing advice from. When I started studying his work, it was because I was working as a travel journalist and editors were asking me for photographs to accompany my stories. (Tourism bureaus usually provided standard landscape shots, but I wrote a lot of off-the-beaten-path stories they didn’t have pictures for.) Much to my delight, I discovered that Adams—famous for his black-and-white images of national parks and the American West—had plenty of advice that works for writers, too. Here are some of the gems I picked up.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”
That’s a concept that applies just as well to writing fiction, where point of view defines your story. My first three novels were told in the first person from one character’s POV, which made sense because those books were as much about her evolution as they were about the plots. But my latest novel, One Small Sacrifice, is different. I knew from the start it was a far more complicated story, and there was no way to tell it from one character’s point of view. Knowing where to stand meant understanding the characters who could best relate this twisted tale.
The two main ones are Alex Traynor, a war photographer suffering from PTSD, and Sheryn Sterling, an NYPD detective who investigated Alex in the past when a female friend of his died in a fall from his building. As the book begins, Alex’s fiancée, Emily, is missing and Alex himself isn’t sure whether he’s involved. Shifting back and forth between Alex and Sheryn let me build tension and keep the surprises coming. It immediately increased the pacing of the book.
“Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution.”
Adams’ idea of infinite perception, interpretation and execution is something that I take to heart when planting clues and red herrings in my novels. I like to lead readers to conclusions that provoke a strong emotional response, even though they may not paint an accurate picture of what’s going on. For example, there’s a scene in One Small Sacrifice where Sheryn and her NYPD partner come upon a bloody scene… and when they test for DNA, they discover it’s Emily’s blood. For the detectives, it increases their certainty that Alex is a criminal; for Alex, it sends him into a downward spiral as he tries to recall the evening Emily disappeared.
But while there’s no doubt that the blood belongs to the missing woman, the crime scene itself is suspicious, and if the reader stops to think about it, it opens up new possibilities about who’s really responsible for Emily’s disappearance. No clue is ever a conclusion; they’re always open to interpretation.
“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast… love & hate, birth & death, right & wrong… everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.”
All of my characters are flawed in some way. What’s tricky for me is that my villains are motivated by the same impulses that drive my protagonists. In that way, they’re like a shadow side of my “good” characters. I like to push my characters to see how far they’ll go to get what they want or need.
There’s a powerful tension in watching a character who’s good at heart cross a moral line they know they shouldn’t. How far over can they go before they lose their moral compass? For my protagonists, doing what’s right is a struggle between head and heart. They experience the same dark impulses that the antagonists do, but they fight them. Everyone exists in a grey area.
“To photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces.”
What interests me most about any character I write about is his or her psychological makeup. What causes someone to make a terrible choice? What trigger pushes a person to the brink? What’s damaged this person in the past, and what are they trying to hide? This is true for me whether I’m writing a short story or a novel. I want slice through the smooth surface manners and conventions to reveal what’s at a character’s core. There’s often a surface gloss to a character that hides a darker truth. \A
Alex’s PTSD is something people close to him know about, but aren’t aware of the extent of; it turns out that Sheryn is actually the person who understands him the best, for reasons she’s reluctant to share. Stripping away the surface is essential to understanding these characters, but it’s also necessary to solving the crime.
“Notebook. No photographer should be without one.”
This one’s self-explanatory. I always have one with me, but a few years ago I started keeping one on my night table. Why? I’ve made the mistake of waking up in the middle of the night with an idea for a story and not writing it down… and of course not being able to recall it in daylight. A surprising number of my stories have come to me this way, and I’m determined to jot them down when they do appear. Am I willing to sacrifice sleep for a good story? Always.
What can you learn from Ansel Adams’ advice? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.
Hilary Davidson has won two Anthony Awards as well as the Derringer, Spinetingler, and Crimespree awards.She is the author of the Lily Moore series—which includes The Damage Done, The Next
One to Fall, and Evil in All Its Disguises—the standalone thriller Blood Always Tells, and a short-story collection called The Black Widow Club. Her latest novel, One Small Sacrifice, was just published by Thomas & Mercer, and received a starred review from Library Journal, which said, “Fans of Karin Slaughter, Tana French, and Lisa Gardner will devour this new police procedural, which boasts a strong female detective and an intriguing antagonist. Sheryn [Sterling] will draw in readers, and Davidson’s complex storytelling will keep them wanting more.” Visit her online.
By Ansel Adams – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 519992., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15325275