When I was in my late teens, and started thinking seriously about writing novels, I used to clip images from magazines and catalogs for visual inspiration for my characters. When my ultra-pragmatic father thought I was spending too much time with my head in the clouds about writing rather than pursuing more practical goals, he'd tease me about playing with my paper dolls.
It used to bother me back then. But in a way, he was right. The same creative urges that inspire little girls to play with paper dolls, or Barbies, or little boys to play soldier or cowboys and Indians, is what drives those of us who write fiction. We put ourselves into the bodies and minds and lives of characters, live vicariously through them, find meaning and purpose and inspiration in them.
I'm still collecting paper dolls. The internet makes my efforts a little neater; I can now download images to my computer rather than keep them in old Whitman's Sampler boxes. I still like to visualize my characters, and the plethora of images available on-line gives me a lot to choose from. (If I'd had that much choice back when I was a teenager, they'd probably have had to bar me from the Internet to keep me from surfing the web 24/7!)
The internet also provides another advantage: now I'm not only collecting images; I'm collecting story ideas and character ideas as well. Usually at least once or twice a day, I come across a new story or human interest story that gives me an idea for a story or a character. I save the stories in my ideas folder on my computer for future reference when I'm searching for a new project. Sometimes the stories can come from unexpected places.
For instance, I read this story about the equine surgeon who has, thus far, saved Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's life after his tragic injury in the Preakness. By the fifth paragraph, I knew this wasn't just an interesting story about an injured Thoroughbred. Dr. Dean Richardson has all the makings of a romance hero. So into my idea file went that article.
Other times, I go looking for a specific piece of information and stumble into another, more interesting idea. I recently started brainstorming a series idea for Intrigue involving a group of men and women who've left their positions with government entities such as the FBI and CIA to form a security agency that works outside the government (but within the law) to handle cases that the government can't or won't. I wanted to include a variety of interrelated agencies--FBI and CIA, certainly, but also the DEA, military intelligence, foreign agencies including MI-6 and the RCMP, and an agency that I didn't even know existed, the Diplomatic Security Service, which is part of the State Department.
When I started reading about the DSS, I figured they were basically glorified body guards for diplomats in the Foreign Service. What I discovered instead is that the DSS is on the front lines of the global hunt for terrorists and was directly involved in the pursuit and capture of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. They're responsible for protecting personnel in every American embassy and consulate in the world. Believe me, THAT paper doll has made it into my collection.
What paper dolls do you collect? How do you gather information and inspiration for your stories?