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July 7, 2023
By Sassafras Lowrey
Artifacts, art, and other objects can help jump-start your writing process.

As authors, we are always looking for ways to be closer and more connected to our stories and characters. With my nonfiction work, I would surround myself with photographs, ephemera, and artifacts related to the books. That didn’t always feel as easy when I was diving into a fiction project—until I started getting a little creative with how I utilized props in my fiction writing.

Over the years I’ve found that bringing pieces of my characters into my writing space—using physical objects, artist renderings, and dioramas—has helped me to better know my characters and the books that I am writing. Just as many artists will use visual props to figure out how to accurately sketch or paint something, the same approach can be useful for writers.

My writing space might look a little bit like a toy store, but I have found this creative process effective and inspiring, especially when I find myself feeling stuck or uncertain about who my characters are or how they might proceed in a certain situation. By utilizing toys and models as stand-ins for different characters in books that I am writing, I find I can better understand the plot of a novel, my characters’ motivations, and the different situations they find themselves in.

Utilizing props in writing

"Spending time holding, touching, and examining a random object can help you get more descriptive with your writing and break through writer’s block."
Physical objects have a unique way of sparking inspiration for many writers. When I regularly taught writing workshops at colleges and for community writing groups, I would often bring a bag of different interesting objects, spread them on the table, and let people in the course pick one thing that sparked their interest to use as a writing prompt.

Spending time holding, touching, and examining a random object can help you get more descriptive with your writing and break through writer’s block. You can start with just describing the object, or putting it into your character’s home, or making it something your character encounters. I’ve found this kind of object-based writing can help you find your way back to the story. Obviously, this might not work for every kind of fictional project, but, for many writers, it can be useful to find or create physical artifacts that would be of your character’s world. Consider cooking or purchasing the foods your character might eat or finding accessories, housewares, or other artifacts that one of your characters might have. If you in your character’s shoes (sometimes literally), you might find that you understand them better and will have an easier time writing a challenging scene, or even finishing your novel.

Meeting your characters

If you’re working on a novel but feeling stuck, it can be helpful to find ways to really “see” your characters. Obviously, if you’re writing about someone fictional, you can’t go snap a picture of your character, but there are ways to get pictures to stand in for your characters. For the self-published author on a budget, you can google stock photography and find pictures of people who look similar to your characters. (Just remember that these are copyrighted images you can only use for your personal writing prompts and inspiration.)

You can also commission artists to create original work depicting your characters. To find artists, ask author friends if they have referrals, talk to artists in your local area, or hire independent artists from Fiverr, where you can look at portfolios from all over the world. Splurging on custom art can be a great way to reward yourself for big writing milestones such as finishing a first draft or full revision. As a self-published author, the design decisions will all be your responsibility. Commissioning custom art for your book as you are writing can also be a good way to try out different visual artists you might want to hire to make the cover when the book is finished.

Building models

Beyond using objects that characters might have or interact with, I’ve found that it can be helpful to take my creative use of props to the next level and start finding or creating models for locations in books. I first got the idea to start using toys to create dioramas to help with my writing after my first novel was released in 2012. That year as a gift a reader built and mailed me a miniature diorama of the main character and the house where much of the novel was set. This was an incredible gift; I found it inspiring to see my characters coming to life. After this I found myself starting to create reenactments of my next novels as I was writing, and I’ve done this for every novel I’ve written since. I keep my writing props/toys set up near my desk so I can look at them and keep my characters present in my mind as I write.

Currently, in a corner of my office, I have a dollhouse containing small plastic dolls to represent each of the characters in my forthcoming novel. Sometimes when I’m feeling stuck, I can move them from room to room of their dollhouse, imagining the scene that I am working on coming to life in front of me as I puzzle through my writing process. With my most recent young adult novel, Jillian at the Junior Showcase, I ended up with an 18-inch doll I used as a stand-in for the novel’s main character in my office.

Not ready to fill your writing space with toys? That’s okay! Even if you don’t want to invest in a lot of toys and props, you can still create tangible models of your stories. One way to do this is to create a shoebox diorama just like you might have done for a book report project back in elementary school, except this one will be of your novel in the process. For something that takes up even less space, you can use paper dolls, including DIY ones made from art you commission, stock photos, or clip art that looks like your characters. Then, take a file folder and decorate the inside to match the setting of your work in progress. You could also do this digitally, but I find that having something physically tangible can help to jump-start creativity.

Tapping into creative play

Physically getting into the world of your characters—by eating the food they like, listening to the music they might like, holding objects they have, or creating small replicas of their homes or worlds—can be an immersive way to get into the minds of your characters and understand them better. In a similar way to taking a research trip to travel to the location where your novel is set, you can do this on a smaller and more intimate level by bringing aspects of your characters into your home or daily life.

You might feel a little silly finding or purchasing toys or props to have in your writing space, but remember how much fun you had playing when you were a kid! No matter how old you are, it’s always okay to play. In some ways writing fiction is a way that we can tap into that same play space we used to naturally slip into as kids. As writers, we are creating characters and worlds in our midst and bringing them to life on the page. Don’t worry about what other people think. If having physical manifestations of those characters at your desk or in your home helps you to write better stories, go for it!

Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.