Picture This: Collage as Prewriting and Inspiration

There is a time before I begin a book that I panic. I can’t remember how I did it before, the first fifteen books must have been flukes, I don’t know everything that’s going to happen in the story, I don’t understand the characters, I’m a fake, the book is going to be a disaster, and my career is over. The fact that I do this before every book is not a comfort. But with the book I’m working on now, I found a way to get started that doesn’t terrify me but that does open up the story and make me want to write: I made a collage. This is hardly my discovery. Writers like Barbara Samuel, Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, and Susan Wiggs have been doing this for years, so when I started I went to the writers’ list we all share and said, “Okay, how do you do this? When do you do this? WHY do you do this?” Their answers spurred me to make my own and to share the process with a writing workshop list I’m on. Although collage was definitely not for everybody, for most of the people who tried, it was a revelation.

Most people begin a collage in the prewriting stage of the book, before any actual writing takes place. Susan Wiggs said, “Sometimes it’s the first thing I do after figuring out the character and milieu. I recall going back and adding some pictures to The Horsemaster’s Daughter after I added an extra character. Some look amazingly like scenes from the finished book, and others nothing at all like the book.” Anne Stuart starts hers as prewriting, as does Barbara Samuel who says, “ I usually do one at the beginning of my full-writing stage, which is after I’ve written a proposal and the book is really brewing but I’m not quite ready to commit myself to the process of ‘ruining’ it just yet.” But the process can help make the book clearer at any point. Jill Barnett decided to try one because the rest of us were talking about it. She said, “ I stayed up until 3AM doing it a few weeks ago. I was stunned because it not only gave me inspiration, it gave me sharp visual focus on my conflict, gave me subplots, faces, emotional dilemmas, scenes, and it even gave me my title.”

My first collage was undoubtedly made better by the fact that I did it with a long distance partner. I began by looking for images and came across a picture of a nicho, a Latin American niche or box used for displaying santos figures. My book is about fifteen people trapped in a house, and I looked at the nicho and thought, “House. I could make a nicho out of foam core board that looks like a house and put the collage in that.” And because I knew Barbara Samuel loved Latin American art, I e-mailed her the picture of the nicho and said, “This for a collage.” She e-mailed back and said, “Me, too,” and we set to work together. (Okay, technically, the minute we went 3-D we were doing assemblage, but let’s keep this simple.) Determined to find pearls for my nicho that wouldn’t break the bank, I went to the local Goodwill and not only found three necklaces for $2. 75, but also a broken pocket watch that looked exactly like my book even though there was no pocket watch in the story. Meanwhile, across the country, Barbara hit the craft store: “Here is what I found today: an old-looking hat box for the container. Glitter paint (it is SO cool!). Some palm trees and other little stickers and things I liked. And find of the day: two tiny mirrors and two small stickers made of rhinestones in the shape of pink flamingos. (Book is partially set in Las Vegas in 1962.) It was a blast. Oh, I know what else I found. A bag of buttons.”

What we realized almost immediately was that it didn’t matter whether the stuff we found was actually in our stories or not; the key was to let our instincts, the Girls in the Basement, choose what worked. Jo Beverley says of her last collage, “ I didn’t put much science and thought into it at all, and I think that’s the point. It’s a feel thing, drawing on unconscious feelings and insights about the book. I know some people look for images that fit, but I didn’t. I flipped through the magazines really fast tearing out anything that made me pause for even a moment. They generally had nothing to do with the period or the look of my characters, though I did use magazines with mostly non-contemporary images.” Barbara Samuel says, “There are sometimes magical images of characters that are irresistable… But mostly, I’m just looking at colors and images, whether or not they ‘fit’ the book. I think color is the big thing for me. I never know a book is going to be a real project until I get the colors. The MIP is turquoise, with some pink neon. The last one was an earthy red with some humid greenery, like a clay pot planted with a fern.”

When I began looking for images, I knew there would be chocolate-covered cherries in the book, but I found myself much more interested in roses, in rooms with windows, in water images, in clocks. It took me awhile to understand why. As a former art teacher, I wanted to make a work of art that illustrated my book, but as the collective muse for my book, the Girls in the Basement wanted a collage that evoked the story. Fortunately, the Girls won. Take those clocks, for example. I had no intentions of doing anything with time since the book was going to be about greed. But as I was gluing my fourteenth clock on the collage, it dawned on me: greed is ever-present; it’s time pressure that makes the greedy take action. So I looked at my characters again with the idea that they were running out of time to achieve the things they were greedy for, and the book suddenly had push where before there had just been ideas. Jo Beverley had a similar experience with her Hazard collage: “I ended up with an Edwardian picture that I thought was of a woman leaning on a sword, but it turned out to be a staff, which was interesting as Anne acquired a staff during the book.” Yvonne Yirka from the writing workshop list found the same thing: “A s I saw what I was buying, it blew me away. I knew where most of it would fit, but there was a whole lot of this other stuff — mesh origami paper, translucent papers in all colors, sheets of clear textured plastic, wire screen. Even the board I picked for my base was clear corrugated plastic. Look closer. That’s what the girls in the basement were telling me. This story is all about what’s under the surface.”

Across the country, Barbara was also deep in the discovery process: “My mother, who is an artist at heart, gave me a book from the American Girl series on a road trip over Route 66 in 1946. But not an ordinary book–it’s a book for an eight-year-old, with pullout maps and a gas station decoder and a set of paper sunglasses picked up at a trading post and all kinds of thing like that. The Girls in the Basement were yelping and saying, YES! and trying on the glasses. And I realized that the mother in the book, the one who has the fifty-two cocktail dresses, grew up somewhere on that road, and never got to go anywhere until she talked a sugar daddy into driving her down that road. It’s a duh moment, but I didn’t get it until I saw the physical stuff in that book. So, once again, I realize I am not required to put all the pieces together. The girls say, “You don’t need to know what the fifty-two dresses are about right this minute, because you’ll over-analyze and overwork it and ruin everything.”

That discovery process continued as we glued our collages together. I found that the Girls had very clear ideas of where those images and objects should go, and that seeing those things in juxtaposition to each other opened up more aspects of the book. The picture of my heroine which should have been in the center of the collage just did not fit there so I glued it where the Girls insisted, off to one side, and discovered my heroine as Outsider. I could not find anything, picture or object, that represented my antagonist until I noticed that one of the clock faces I’d cut out had a lovely, discontented face in it; when I glued that into the middle of the collage, I had my antagonist, consumed by time and loss, dominating the work. A beautiful painting from a magazine that Sharyn Cerniglia sent me (thank you, Sharyn) had no relevance at all to the story until I glued it into the top level of the collage where it became my heroine’s fantasy and the key to her lavish, passionate personality (she’d been pretty grim up until then and a major worry).

I wasn’t alone. Chrystal Cook, a member of the writing workshop list, wrote, “I noticed while I was gluing things down that most of the stuff that I cut out with something specific in mind was used completely differently once I had a glue stick in my hand. It was a fabulous creativity experience and I highly recommend it.” Moira from the same list, posted, “I completed my collage about a month ago and I’ll never write another book without one. It was amazing how well it came together… By the time I was gluing, half the things I picked out with intentions for one character or portion of their lives wound up totally different. It all worked out great and in the end I had a tangible piece of my imagination and story idea to refer back to whenever I got off track.”

The more I glued images to my collage, and the more it emerged as an entity instead of as a collection of pictures and objects, the more excited I became about the book. My collage was no artwork, but it had all the color and energy and weirdness of the book I wanted to write. I could look into it and see the book moving, breathing, hear the characters talking to me. The book was right there, waiting for me. Yvonne had a similar experience: “I didn’t even know I was going to do a collage, until I found myself ripping pages out of perfectly good magazines. I haven’t felt this much Story Energy in years. Years. Who knew that the way into the story was through Pearl Arts & Crafts?” And Jill Barnett found out that her collage could instantly renew her story: “ After over two weeks of being back east and not ‘in my new book’, I came home, opened the collage board and there it was–all there before me. I don’t feel separated from my book by that writer’s wall or those days of non-writing.”

You should try this, too.

How to Make a Collage

1. Get your stuff together, paying attention at all times to the Girls in the Basement. I pillaged everywhere, hitting crafts stores, five and dimes, thrift stores, my sewing room, garage, kitchen, any place there was stuff: catalogs, magazines, postcards, calendars, greeting cards, stamps, lace, fabric scraps, ribbon, jewelry, mardi gras beads, brass screws and findings, nails, hinges, odds and ends of wood, Christmas ornaments, gift bags, wrapping paper and ribbon, picture frames, rubber stamps, stickers, artificial flowers, matchboxes, potpourri, the box of toys and doll house furniture my daughter left behind when she went to college ten years ago (hey, the statute of limitations is up on that stuff), The Box Into Which I Threw Everything That I Didn’t Know What To With When I Moved, and my computer (the internet has a picture of everything in existence, and 90% of those pictures are on eBay).

Don’t restrict yourself to pictures and objects. Christie Ridgway says that in her last collage, “I not only had pictures of people and scenery, but I also had some important words on it–TIME, FORGIVENESS, QUIET–all important to that book.” Jill Barnett wrote, “ One of the best parts of this for me are the phrases scattered throughout. They are those psychological notes I usually juggle in my head while writing–the ones I write on Post-Its and paste all over my home and car, bathroom mirrors and computer screen so I don’t forget.” I found myself reciting Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” in the back of my mind while I glued my collage together. I finally printed the poem out on different colored papers in difference typefaces and cut the lines out. They went so naturally into the collage and opened up so many ideas that it was clear that it was the Girls who’d been reciting the poem, trying to get me to listen. I also found a lot of pictures of old-fashioned diner signs, including one great one that said, “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry,” neatly avoiding the next line (which was perfect for my murder mystery) while bringing in a new idea, that food was going to be more important here than I’d thought.

2. Find a foundation to glue everything on. You can use anything that will take tape or glue–Susan Wiggs uses butcher paper, Christie Ridgway uses a big pad of drawing paper, Anne Stuart uses posterboard–but I recommend foam core board or something heavier even if all you’re planning on gluing is magazine pictures because the chances are great you’re going to find something heavier you want to use. You may be able to give yourself a head start on the project if you find something for background that already has the feel of the book, like Yvonne’s clear corrugated plastic or Barbara’s hat box for her fifty-two-dresses-mother book. Foam core comes in several different colors, so that can give you a boost, or you can change it by gluing on background pictures of rooms or landscapes, a road map for a road book, dark paper for romantic suspense, a theater poster for a book about an actress, and so on. Scrapbook papers are endless in their varieties and just looking through the racks may open up new ideas. You can also cut the foundation to the shape that best fits the feel of your book. My book is a house book, so I cut triangular shapes at the top to represent gables. If you’re using foam core, you can cut two side pieces and a bottom to make your own nicho, gluing the sides to the back with Elmer’s Glue and reinforcing them by pushing straight pins through the edges into the foam of the backing board. The combination of glue and pins make it remarkably strong, as I know since I’ve dropped mine several times.

3. Pick your paste. Glue sticks are pretty much everybody’s first choice. Jo Beverley uses a Post-It stick so she can move things around while she’s working; others have recommended repositionable spray adhesive, and there’s now a repositionable Scotch tape. If you’re gluing anything heavier than paper, you’re probably going to need white glue such as Elmer’s; for really heavy things like jewelry, watches, and hardware, I recommend Goop because that stuff holds anything.

4. Put it together .Arranging the images and objects should be as intuitive as choosing them; that is, let the Girls do it. But if you need a little more organization than that, try echoing some structure of the book, putting the beginning of the book at the top and working down to the end of the book at the bottom or vice versa. Or you can organize it by character, as Silhouette Desire author Laura Wright did: “I have trouble with synopsis and the collage laid the basic premise of the story out for me. I wrote character names around the perimeter of the board then pictures of them, then words, phrases and pictures of who they are. It’s truly amazing how the characters humanize right before your eyes.” My book is about fifteen people trapped in a house, so my collage is organized as a house with three floors for the three levels of intimacy in the book–the public space downstairs, the lavish guest bedrooms on the second floor, and the funkier Spartan rooms on the servants floor–because I wanted to be able to look at the collage and see the house with all the people in it and imagine them all milling about, trapped inside. Other collages are much more intuitive, combining shapes and colors and textures in a way that instinctively pleases the writer. Susan points out that a sense of pattern helps: “The most visually pleasing collage I ever saw was made by Jill Marie Landis. She’s a quilter.” A simple nine-patch quilt pattern would be a good starting point, but there are a thousand other quilt patterns that would work. In fact, almost any organizing principle will do: I’m tempted to try the Celtic Cross tarot spread for the next book, a pattern that puts the problem at hand in the middle with “what crosses it”, the antagonist, on top of it, the subconscious underneath, the conscious above, the past to the left, and the future to the right.

Once you have the major sections glued in, add more details, always concentrating on the book more than the collage-as-art. There are a few things you can do to make your collage elements look more integrated, such as lining up edges of your images by playing the edge of one picture off a vertical such as a doorway edge in another picture, or by linking horizontals such as floors and horizon lines in your landscapes. An easy way to integrate smaller pictures and objects is to use existing spaces like windows, mirrors, or the backs of chairs to frame them. Or you can glue objects to table tops so that they look as though they’re on the table or into people’s hands so they look like they’re holding them. Much of the time, the Girls will tell you where to put things, and because of that, I pay particular attention to anything I discover during the process that gives meaning to the story. One of my background pictures had a little girl in it looking up. Since there weren’t any children in my book, I thought about just covering her with another image but then realized she was my heroine as a child, so I colored her hair dark with a marker. When I found a small picture that represented the heroine as an adult, I glued it above the little girl, in her sight line, as if she were looking up at the woman she was going to become, which gave me a greater sense of the heroine’s back story in the house. Try to put the three dimensional objects in as late as possible, but don’t worry if you find something you want to add later because anything can be peeled off and reglued (assuming you haven’t Gooped it).

If this sounds too elaborate for you, you’re probably right. This is inspirational pre-writing, not an art project, so it can be as minimal and as sloppy as you want. Barbara and I love messing with paper and glue and paint, so we’ll build a working model of a steam engine given the chance. But if you can get the look and feel of your book by gluing half a dozen pictures together on newsprint, you’ll be ready to write while we’re still cutting and pasting.

The Art That Keeps On Giving

When the collage is finished, it may have accomplished everything you need. For many of us, though, it keeps on working. Christie Ridgway said, “When I’ve done the collage at the prewriting stage, I’ve used it throughout the writing of the manuscript. I have it nearby while I work, so that instead of staring off into space I can look at my collage instead and try to find inspiration there.” I keep mine by my desk and whenever I need to go back into the book, I let my eyes roam from floor to floor until I can hear the voices there again. As new ideas come to me, I use it for a note board, writing on words as memory joggers, gluing new images and objects on as I find them. One of the reasons I like the nicho design is that it gives me a pocket or shelf at the bottom to hold the things that turn up as I work.

The benefits don’t necessarily end when the book is done. Susan Wiggs sent one of her collages to her publisher for cover art suggestions. She says, “The Harper art director was happy.” The Bet Me collage I made during the copy edit not only guided me through the edit, it helped me nail down the feeling I wanted for the cover art. I sent pictures of it to Anne Twomey, the cover designer for my St. Martin’s books, and while we went through a dozen cover designs, I used it as my touchstone. The final cover looks nothing like the collage, but it feels like it, beautifully capturing the spirit of the book. And now that the book is done, I keep the collage on my wall because it reminds me of how much I love the world of that book and because it makes me feel good whenever I look at it.

Still, the best work a collage does is as part of the writing process. As Jill Barnett says, “Collages will be a constant for me. When I’m writing a complex book with multi plots and multi characters, it helps be stay focused.” Heidi Cullinan, another writing workshop member, said: “ The collage saves me every day. Making the collage made me believe I actually had a story to tell. I did it so quickly and so well that I can’t help but believe that I need to finish this story, because anything that detailed and beautiful working on a subconscious level has got to be even cooler unleashed on the page. And every time I get stuck I remember that, and stare at it, and see all the people I found smiling at me, patiently encouraging me to go on, to tell their story. What’s hilarious is I swore I couldn’t do it, shouldn’t do it, and never planned to do it. Then suddenly I’m dropping $80 at the craft store and staying up to 3AM with a glue gun. So I just thank God the girls in the basement are smarter than me, because clearly THEY knew we were supposed to do this.”

Which leads me back again to the greatest reason of all for doing a collage: It’s the fastest way I know to get in touch with the Girls. It’s so easy while we’re plotting and planning and keeping one eye on marketing to forget that the best of what we do comes from the subconscious soup that’s bubbling away beneath our logic. We need to find a way to protect the instinct for story, this story, that’s so easy to lose. So listen to your Girls and hit your magazines, your junk drawer, the garage sales and your local five-and-dime: The story you’re meant to write is just a glue stick away.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Romance Writer’s Report. Feb. 2003.