Creating Collages
by MJ Fredrick

I love starting a new book. So much fun, so many possibilities. While I don’t plot, really, I do some book prep, and my favorite is creating a collage. Now, I’m no Jennifer Crusie, whose collages are works of art (see her website for examples). Mine are more visual aids.

I buy those science display boards whenever they’re a good price, so my collage can stand on its own and be in my line of sight while I’m writing. My other supplies—glue sticks and plenty of color ink!

I start with what my characters look like. I usually have an idea of who I model them after before I begin. I Google images until I hit on “the look.” For example, in Midnight Sun, I had Sam Worthington in mind as Marcus, the former Olympic snowboarder from a wealthy family. I looked at several images before deciding on a handful of sporty-looking images. Then I moved to my heroine. I envisioned an ethereal redhead and chose Bryce Dallas Howard. Again, I didn’t want anything too glamorous, so weeded out pictures.

When I was making the collage for Midnight Sun, I also gave each character a motto, so when I looked at the collage I could be in their mindset as I worked.

I also printed out a blueprint of an actual cruise ship. In other books, I’ve used maps and other things to orient myself. I don’t actually do all this traveling, so I need some point of reference. Actually, the map I used on my collage for Hot Shot gave it a very cool feel, as well as being handy.

Then I Google images that have certain key words. For Midnight Sun, it was cruise ships and Antarctica. For the series I’m working on now, it was Minnesota, lake houses, fishing launches. For Hot Shot, I used Montana, firefighting, hot shots, smokejumping. It really helps me to have a visual. And sometimes the results surprise me, revealing something I didn’t already know. For instance, when working on Midnight Sun, I cut out a picture of a huge feast on the deck of a cruise ship, before I realized that making my heroine the chef would be a great idea! On the series I’m working on, I cut out a picture of a battered guitar before I realized that my heroine had given my hero that guitar back in the day, and that he’d play her a song on it at the end of the book. I also find images of the setting that help me with my description.

The next step is to arrange the photos. I try to put hero/heroine pictures together to see how they “look” together. On the Midnight Sun collage, I put all of my heroine’s pictures on one side, and my hero’s on the other, then things that affected them together in the middle.

In the Bluestone series, I grouped the pictures by story. When I put Trinity’s picture next to the church, I realized she was the preacher’s daughter! Added some conflict, let me tell you.

In Something to Talk About, I had a lot of secondary characters, and they got “face time” on that collage.

Group them however feels right to you. You may not use all the pictures you have. You may add other things, like beads or little toys or bits of fabric, something that’s meaningful to the story. Hopefully this method will inspire you to learn more about your characters, your setting or your plot!

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Written by Bryan Cohen

Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on and Facebook.
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