Today I’ve been looking through Deborah Hopkinson’s Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York: 1880-1924. It’s a terrific book which traces the early lives of five immigrant children from the lower east side, one of whom has experiences right out of The Rise of David Levinsky by Abraham Cahan. It has some great pictures some of which you may have seen before, particularly the ones by Jacob Riis.
The pictures have been an incredible writing tool for me. I’ll often take a look through them and use them for locations in my book. There’s a picture that I imagine as Solomon’s home and one of the factory. Then I put the book aside and reimagine them as I need, moving things around or adding and subtracting certain elements. Or sometimes I just use them to spin an idea about a certain person in the picture, making up a character and a life for them. In my creative writing class I sometimes give my students a free write prompt from a picture and they’ve loved it. Once in workshop Lucy Corin had us do a sort of telephone game writing exercise where we each sent a classmate a photo and then had 24 hours to write a short story about it. I got an awesome story idea from mine. I’ll post it tomorrow.