Wolverhampton Original Literature Festival 2017: How to Get Inspired by Photographs with Paul Dowswell's Educational Talks

Today I went to the very first Wolverhampton Original Literature Festival where many events are being held by authors, poets and writing groups for children and adults from the 27th to 29th January. While researching the festival in December I was specifically drawn to the workshops and educational talks by Paul Dowswell, a historical fiction writer. Even though I've never read historical fiction, I became interested in his work because I found out he uses photographs to inspire his writing. I immediately found him to be valuable in terms of my project research and inspiration for university, since I want to create narratives in my photographic work and use creative writing alongside it too.

Wolverhampton Original Literature Festival


In the Creating Characters workshop we analysed the photo below of German soldiers taken in 1942. The challenge set for us was pretty fun - we had to create identities and narratives for each of the four men pictured in the foreground. Have you ever been told not to judge a person by their appearance? Well scrap that, since that's exactly what we could do in this workshop and it allowed us to imagine what their personality could be like, or what their background could have been before setting off to war, or even what horrific ordeal could be in store for them. It was interesting to hear other people's thoughts too, because there were similar comments made about each person in the photo.

Paul had already named these four soldiers as (from L to R) Heinz, Peter, Robert and Franz. Since the difficult task of choosing a name for each person was done for us (I would have probably spent the majority of the time just choosing names!), it was up to us to figure out what kind of characters they would be in a historical fiction novel. Here are my notes on them...

Heinz: I felt he's obviously very cool and trendy with his shades on, very proud but also arrogant. Out of the group he's the second eldest and doesn't get on with Franz on the far right there!

Peter: He's a quiet character and likes to keep himself to himself. He's anxious, has got low self-esteem but is extremely loyal. He misses his wife and family the most and is reluctant to be there.

Robert: The youngest and needs guidance. He tries hard to fit in and doesn't quite know his own strength. Easily influenced.

Franz: The eldest, mature and experienced. He's been to war before and his appearance and personality shows the signs of this. He's strong and takes it upon himself to keep the others in line!

The next task was to write a short story based on this photo and the characters we had created. I will not embarrass myself by sharing that though! But it was interesting to hear some others read their stories out loud, who created something so well written in under ten minutes.

Being a visual person I found this a very good way of getting inspired to create characters, and it'll be interesting to see what inspiration I get from my own photos to help me write creative writing pieces, not necessarily for creating characters. I also realised photos can be analysed like this in my sketchbook - so why haven't I been doing this?!


Paul's second talk was just as helpful to me as the first one, which was about where writers get their ideas from, and Paul specifically spoke about his own working methods. Once again Paul explained how photography (and paintings) inspire him with creating his characters, but he also spoke about how photographs of locations help him to visualise a setting and scene in his books. Another important method of research is to actually go to the places his novels are set in, which is important since I learnt his novels are based around actual historical events. For example Paul has visited Berlin and Moscow, and by carrying out his research in this way, Paul says it gives him the "authority to write" and also gives him a "boost to the imagination".


Since I'm very keen to work with narrative in my own photography work, especially by using creative writing alongside my photos, I have learned how well both of these mediums can work together to inspire me to create a project. I'm already working with narratives in my current project at university, and after Paul's talks I left with some ideas I want to explore, but I also feel this method of working is going to help me with a project I want to start after university. It'll be interesting for me to experiment with many different types of photos to see what inspires me to write, either portraits, landscapes or even still life.