Discovering Depth in My Characters

I just finished a great 2 hour writing session — 1000 words based on introducing two of sub-characters in my book “Bully of Burke.” I am fascinated by history, and when they state “a picture says a thousands words” it is so true. I have been scouring the photographic records of TN Barnard and Nellie Stockbridge from the Coeur d’Alenes, and with each photo – a new character comes to life.

Over 10 years ago I outlined my mining story – researching exact terms of the era, and had a pretty good handle on the facts. Then it came to writing and I was stumped on characters. They weren’t developed. They were as flat as the electronic paper I was trying to put them on.

Doing it My Way

I don’t care how many books you read on writing – the best way to accomplish it is to find what works for you. I have read dozens of books and tried various suggestions, from creating an in-depth outline, using notecards, color coding – It just didn’t click.

I knew the story in my head, why couldn’t i get it down? Then I saw a photo of a prostitute from the era I was writing about (1880). As I stared into the eyes of the unnamed woman, she revealed her life story to me.

The hurt, pain and eventual absolution — you could see it in her eyes, in her thoughts, in her very being. Her story had to be told, and she chose me to tell it.

This was the breakthrough I was looking for. In just 2 hours I fleshed out the basic foundation of two characters. They have depth, vulnerabilities and even humor — they are real.

I am an artist and I need visual stimulation. Photographs evoke a story to me – so I have found my way.

What’s yours?

Below is the unedited, once-through account on Nellie, the prostitute from Wallace, Idaho 1880.


Nellie awoke at 3 pm and headed down the hall to bathe.

“Mornin’ Nel. You’re up kind of early.” A red-headed young woman, in a tattered dressing gown open to mid-thigh, sat on the window sill smoking a cigarette.

“Just want to wash up before work.”

“Whatever for? You’re just going to get dirty again.” The woman laughed.

Nellie closed the bathroom door. Stepping into the hot water, she let the prospect of the evening melt from her mind and limbs. It was a beautiful sunny day. The face of a young woman with long blonde hair neatly tied with a white ribbon came into focus.

“You look so beautiful, Cee”, she said.

“Oh, Nell. I can hardy breathe.”

Nellie took her little sisters hand and smiled. “What will I ever do without you?”

Since birth, Cecilie and Nellie had been inseparable. Cee was the belle of Boston society, inheriting her mothers’ beauty and grace, while Nellie, deemed inferior in all aspects of outward beauty, was blessed with a fine mind and compassion. Despite their outward differences, Cecile and Nell held a deep capacity to love.

When Charles Abernathy came courting, Cecilie turned to Nell for guidance. Nell found Charles Abernathy worthy of Cecilie and now the day had come for her sister to start a new chapter in her life.

“You shall never be without me, dearest.” Cee embraced Nell tightly. “I will always be there for you. We are sisters and I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

“May I share in this happiness?” Mr. Parker peeked round the large mahogany door. “I’m only the father of the bride.” He wrapped both girls in his arms, kissing them on their heads as he had so many times.

“Now,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye. “Shall we go?”

* * * *

By 4:30pm Nell was dressed and standing at the bar. Her hair was tied up in a red ribbon and peacock feathers. Her low cut gown accentuated her ample bosom and flawless skin, which distracted from her ordinary facial features.

She tossed back a whiskey and awaited another evening of undesired solicitations. Despite the bath, Nellie felt soiled and dirty.

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