I’m always taking photos, as I write, with my iPhone. I take them for pleasure, and I take them as an aid-to-memory: so when I sit down at my writing desk – or some rickety hotel table – I can go back to the photos and think: Oh yes, that place looked like this, this place looked like that, the forests looked like regiments of soldiers, darkening the landscape. And I took lots of photos of Eilean Sionnach (Torran Island). I grabbed endless snaps of that chilly cottage, under the pretty little lighthouse. I took photos in the darkness of December, and on sparkling June afternoons.
By the end of the first draft of the novel I had decided I was going to include some of these images. They were, I believed, a valuable asset.
This is firstly because they illustrate the absolute beauty of this landscape, the piercing loveliness of the Inner Hebrides: take a look at the photos at the beginning and the end of the book. This part of the world is hauntingly gorgeous and I wanted to let readers see this, visually, as well as describing it in words. So why not do both? Wouldn’t it be even better than just words, just this once?
I also had a second motive for including photos. Veracity. Truth-telling. The cottage I describe in The Ice Twins really exists, from the eerie paintings of Scottish chieftains on the wall, to the food suspended in wire cages in the kitchen (to protect produce from marauding rats). The cottage on the island belongs to a friend of mine, and he likes it raw and primitive.
I also like it raw and primitive, especially as this adds to the oppressive atmosphere of hardship in the book. And so I included photos of the cottage interior to add to my text: to say, Yes, this is what it really looks like, now imagine that you were here, in that kitchen, shivering in the cold, listening to the rats…
There was a third reason for including photos, which was to add mood by subtle, subconscious suggestion. See the photo of the half-open door in the cottage, when Sarah is trapped on the island, alone, in the storm with her daughter? The photo is, by any technical standards, terrible. Grainy, obscure, dingy. It wouldn’t make it into any photo magazines. I can make excuses for this: I’m not a professional photographer, I only use an iPhone, there was no light, I’d probably been drinking too much whisky, to keep out the cold (I spent a winter week on that cottage, and ohmygod it was brutal).
But when I looked at the photo months later, I realized that the poor quality of the photo makes it, oddly, more effective. It’s as if you are there, in the gloom, wondering who is behind that darkened door. It has an amateurish, shaky feel that makes it more powerful in the right context: perhaps akin to the effect of a shaking camera in a TV documentary. And so, in it went.
There was one final important reason to include photos. They break up the text in an interesting way. As some readers have noted, the photos mark the transition from one perspective to another – from Sarah’s point of view to Angus’s point of view. I could have just said SARAH and ANGUS at the start of each chapter but including photos felt neater, sweeter, and moodier. And in the end it all comes down to mood. That’s why I put in that photo of the mudflats. I had to cross those mudflats several times, once in a driving winter gale. Brrr. I shall never forget it.
Will the fashion for photos or images return to fiction? I do not know: that’s for other authors to decide. But I think I’ll be using them again, because I think they work.
I hope you agree.