Sunday, June 19, 2016

Writing Inspiration from Old Photographs

Recently a man from my home town, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, posted some photographs he has taken around town on a misty morning. They were beautiful and romantic and reminded me of how beautiful that are of the world can be at times. Over the years, as a writer I have drawn inspiration from photographs on a regular basis. In my desk, I have a file folder of images torn from magazines and cut from newspapers and some of them provided me with an entire story.
Mist rising from the hollows as seen from the St. Marys Catholic Cemetery,
 Photograph by William Hoehn
As I was thinking about this I went back to a folder I keep on my hard drive with old photos that I've either gotten a story from or hope to some day.

The photo on the right is very old but I knew the man in it many years ago. His name was Bert Schauer and he was an old logger who lived in a cement block building in the woods. The floor was made entirely of bottle caps stomped down into the dirt and he kept guinea fowl that roosted in the trees and were likely to drop an egg on your head if you weren't careful. I used Bert as the inspiration for Skidder Hoffman in The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall. Of course he is long gone now but I'm glad I got such a good, useful character out of him.

The woman in the picture at the left is something of a legend among the kids I grew up with. She is the famous Mary Opelt who lived in the woods across the street from our neighborhood. It was a wonderful woods. She, of course, was long gone by the time we were kids but the foundation of her house was still there as were the remains of her garden. Daffodils and jonquils bloomed every spring and her berry bushes and apple trees still gave fruit. My dad told us that he remembers he walking down the alley from her woods and up to the convent every day where the Sisters would give her lunch. I've never written about her but those woods have been in all my Marienstadt stories including The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood. There is a terrible story whispered among us kids when we were little, that when she died her many cats ate her. I do not know if this is true but it might turn up in a story someday.




The man in the picture above is said to be Mary Opelt's brother. I don't know his first name but he had a fine team of oxen that he brought into town every day to do work for people. Again, I have never used him in a story, but it may happen some day.

The store above is one of the fondest memories of my childhood. Al Marsh's Stationery Store was a world of wonder for me--for a lot of reasons not the least of which was that he carried Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. I was in love with those books and I can remember hoarding coins until I had a dollar to buy one--they were all a dollar then. I remember one particular occasion when I had scavenged enough coins for a new book, walked down town to buy it, and walked home reading it--tripping over my own feet--and was almost finished with it by the time I got home.

I could probably go on and on with this--heaven knows I have enough images on my computer. But I'll end with the one above. In my Marienstadt stories, the Catholic church in town is called St. Walburga's. The shrine in the image above was on the grounds of our convent back home. It was brought from the convent of St. Walburga and is of the saint herself. The legend is that the body of the saint is preserved in the convent in Germany and that it emits a sacred oil that can cure all kinds of ills--or at least it used to. The story I heard was that when the First World War began, the saint stopped secreting her magical oil and has never resumed since.

So that is just a taste of where some of my stories come from and, as I have a lot more photographs, I am hoping there are more stories to come. 

Thanks for reading.

19 comments:

  1. Kathleen: My father, Chris Buerk, has a great may old, and hilariously funny, stories to tell about these woods. He grew up in the Buerk homestead on Church Street. His parents were Andrew and Mary (Eckert) Buerk. He recently told me a couple of stories about Mary Opelt. He has also mentioned the Gravedigger's Ball held in the woods behind his house. Love your stories and the connection to St. Marys. Marcy Buerk Surra

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    1. Oh, Marcy, I would LOVE to hear those stories!!! Can you send me an email at Kathleenvalentine@earthlink.net?

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  2. I love that you get inspired by pictures :)

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your Sunday post, Kathleen. I've used pictures to inspire stories when I've given creative writing classes in the past. They're a fantastic prompt. I also sourced lots of 1950s photos before writing my second novel and they inspired many of my characters and scenes.

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    1. It helps me a lot. For a few of my books I've made Pinterest galleries of pictures. It's a wonderful resource and helps me visualize the scenes.

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  4. I love old pictures and those are so atmospheric. St Walburga was reputedly born in my area. I wrote an article for my Maid In Devon column for Devon Life magazine recently which mentioned her. Here is the section, if you're at all interested:

    May 1 is also the feast day of English missionary to the Frankish Empire, Saint Walpurga (or Walburga - spellings vary). She too was a maid in Devon. She was born in the county in the 700s and had an impeccable theological pedigree. She was the niece of St Boniface who was her mother Winna's brother, and sister of two more missionaries and saints, St Willibald and St Winibald. She had aristocratic roots, her father being Richard the Pilgrim, one of the underkings of the West Saxons. He too was later made a saint. If having three siblings born on the same day is unlikely, what are the odds on one family having five saints in two generations?
    I am surmising that this saintly tribe's stamping ground was Mid Devon as St Boniface was reputedly born in Crediton. While her father and brothers were converting the Frankish heathens, Walpurga was sent to an abbey in Wimborne where she learned to write and studied Latin, rare training for a woman in her day. In fact, later in life she wrote a biography of her brother Winibald, making her one of England and Germany’s first female authors. In 748 she travelled across the Continent to help St Boniface is his missionary work.
    I feel an affinity to St Walpurga and her family. I went to grammar school in Crediton, was confirmed in the town's Church of the Holy Cross which has close connections to St Boniface, and my birthday is on June 5, St Boniface Day. One of my brothers has a birthday on St Walpurga's Feast Day on February 25. Then there is the writing - and, tenuous link, I have Latin O-Level! However, I have none of her saintliness or zeal to convert heathens being a very much "live and let live" type of person.
    Legend has it that it was thanks to St Boniface that we put up a Christmas tree each year. He had arrived in Hesse, now a central German state, on his missionary crusade. There he announced he would destroy their pagan gods and felled the sacred giant oak of Geismar which was dedicated to Thor. He chopped down the oak and the branches fell into the shape of a cross. As it fell it crushed all the other trees in the vicinity except for one little fir tree - the origin of the Christmas tree, or so the story goes.
    That's Purrfect

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    1. Thank you so much for posting that!!! I heard that story about the tree but the rest of it is new to me. Thanks for sharing it!

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  5. Bottle caps as flooring--what an exquisite detail. I wish I'd carried my camera out with my on my last kayak trip. I was coming down a stream in the fading sunset and all these wispy seed-pods (cottonwood?) were floating in the air, catching the light like snowflakes. In June! There were so many on the water it looked like a perfect coating of ice.

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    1. Oh, that sounds so beautiful! I had been living in Texas for a few years and was really missing snow. One day I saw all this white stuff flying past my window and I got all excited. Turns out it was orange blossoms from the tree next door. It sure smelled good!

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  6. You have a treasure trove of wonderful characters here. I love that Mary's daffodils and her fruit trees still blossom.

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    1. We used to dig up stuff around where her house had been--old shoes, broken china cups, spoons. We thought it was all quite magical.

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  7. I love photographs, old or otherwise, as writing prompts. That whole "a picture is worth a thousand words" saying can be very true with an evocative image.

    @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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    1. That's exactly the way I see it, Samantha.

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  8. I've never tried turning my photos into stories. Maybe I will some day.

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    1. Give it a try--you never know what might happen.

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  9. Fabulous photos, and I really enjoyed your descriptions. Thank you for this!

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    1. Glad that you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by.

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  10. What great people. I hope one day you manage to work them all into stories.

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