How to Create an Illustrated Life Story for your Family 



by Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew



There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.

- Ansel Adams

Ours is a visual culture. We use images to advertise, inform, educate, and entertain. Images draw us in. They are usually what engage us first when we see printed material. They are also a key way we remember things. A picture really is worth a thousand words.

Photographs, historical documents, artwork, and other personal artifacts can shape the tone and mood of your story. Your images can introduce the subject, setting, and characters, and give relevant information beyond what is in the text. Each image you use has a message, and all the images and text combined together form a whole that can capture the essence of what you are communicating.

There are various ways of incorporating visuals into your story, ranging from the simple addition of a single image to the creation of an elaborate collage. We offer suggestions on techniques that you can use and materials you will need.


Seven Steps in Creating an Illustrated Story

Some people develop the story first and then search for photographs. Others do the opposite, starting with photographs and keepsakes as the basis for their story. Regardless of where you start, at some point you will be ready to combine the written text with visuals. When youíre at that point, remember that the key is to let the story tell you what images to use. In other words, pay attention to what you see and how you feel as you listen to your story and then communicate that visually.


Step One: Do a preliminary search for visual materials

As you write your story, images may or may not come to mind. Whether they do or not, the first thing to do is to gather together a few photographs and other materials that seem to portray your story visually. Do not spend too much time looking, and donít be discouraged if you discover that photos you had in mind do not seem to fit, or that you cannot find a certain old memento, or that youíre not sure where to begin. You can return to gathering materials later.


Step Two: Notice the images and feelings that the story elicits

To help you see and feel the story, answer the following questions:

What is the gem of the story?

What feelings does the story elicit? What is the mood or tone?

What images come to mind as you hear the story?

Where is the story set?

Who is the story about?

Which words of the text call up images as you read or listen to the story?


Step Three: Generate ideas with others for communicating the story visually

Think of someone who might be interested in hearing your story. Invite them to make a note of whatever images come to mind as you read the story aloud to them. Donít be shy. Think of this step as a brainstorming session that will help you free up your creativity. Take your time. You may want to read it more than once.

After you have read the story, ask your listener to tell you about their experience. Hold your comments about your story until they finish so as not to influence them. Then, ask them to answer the questions in Step 2. The first three questions are particularly important.

Once your listener is complete, share your impressions and, together, brainstorm ways to express the story visually. Use what resonates with your own intuition. If what the listener saw and felt is very different from what you intended to communicate, you might want to revisit your story. Are you imagining something in the story that is not expressed in the words? Is your listener doing that? Can you improve the clarity of the writing so that you both experience similar images?

If you want to do this process alone, review the questions in Step 2 and then read through the story and highlight words that convey images, emotions, and other graphic descriptions. Or tape record yourself reading the story, and then listen to the tape, making note of the images and feelings that come up.


Step Four: Choose a visual theme

Itís now time to sort through the ideas youíve generated and decide on a visual theme. The visual theme is what visually holds together the mood or feeling of the story with the other elements such as the setting, people, action, and the storyís gem. The visual theme may be as simple as the storyís mood-playful, reflective, serious, reverent, or peaceful. It can emphasize and express the storyís gem-your gratitude, something you discovered, or how much you care about some other person, place, or thing. Or the theme can be a combination of these kinds of elements. It is what you want to communicate visually, and it will guide you in deciding what photographs and materials to use and how to lay them out on your story page. When the visuals are done well, the visual theme of the story is communicated to readers from the first moment they glance at the page.


Step Five: Select materials

Once youíve determined a visual theme, the next step is to choose materials that express your theme. Look through the photographs and other materials that youíve already collected for your story. Can you use any of these? What else might you use to express the feelings and images associated with your story? There are many different materials that you can use, including photographs, keepsakes, and props.

Photographs are visual reminders of an experience, but they cannot tell what happened, how it felt, and why it mattered. What happened before and after a picture was taken is often more significant than the photograph itself. Combined with your story, however, your photographs can provide context, express a theme or mood, and give additional information that can make the story even more compelling.

When designing your story page, start with photos of the people, place, and action. Include many possibilities at first. Later, as you create a layout, you can set aside most of them. Look for photographs that communicate by showing facial expressions, body language, clothing, actions, home or neighborhood, and background.

Like photographs, keepsakes are connected with the storyís history. Keepsakes are items such as letters, post cards, newspaper and magazine clippings, recipes, souvenirs, programs, reviews, journal entries, ticket stubs, drawings, childrenís handprints and footprints, documents such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, deeds, and awards.

Props are materials that can serve as symbols or metaphors for the story-perhaps as background on the story page or as frames for photographs. Props can evoke a subtle layer of the story. You might use a leaf to express nature, a childís drawing to evoke playfulness or innocence, a candle flame to represent hope or tranquility, and a nest to symbolize preparations for a new baby. If the setting is relevant to the story, you might illustrate it with floor plans, maps, post cards, or drawings. You can even use color and symbols to evoke feelings and reveal layers of meaning in your story.

Here are some of the things you might consider using as props: sheet music, old calendars, comic strips, maps, stickers, charts, timelines, images from magazines and books, and paper with color, texture, and backgrounds. To add a personal touch, you might use thumb or handprints, a clipping of hair, drawings, your handwriting, quotes from your story, quotes from books, and poems.

If you do decide to use a keepsake or prop, you can include the original by gluing it onto the page or by creating a pocket with acid-free paper to hold it. If you do not want to use the original, you can use a color copy of the image. To help retain their authentic quality, we recommend that you do not enlarge or reduce objects when you reproduce them; copy them at full size. Photographs, on the other hand, can be reduced without losing their authenticity.


Step Six: Create a layout

A collage is a combination of text, photographs, keepsakes, and props that occupies a large portion of the page. By using a number of images, a collage creates a more complex visual story that can emphasize a mood, theme, or context.

Another layout is the simple text and photo layout, which combines the story text with one or two photographs. This method is easy to do, allows for more white space on the page, and is ideal if you want to draw the readerís attention to the subject of a particular photograph.

The type of layout you choose will depend on the number of images you have to work with and the overall feeling that you want to communicate. You may want to emphasize the written text in one story, and the visual images in another. We recommend that you try different approaches and discover what works best for you and your particular story.

The number of pages you use to lay out your story will depend on the length of the text and the number of images you use. If your text requires more than one page, consider creating a two-page spread rather than using three pages. The advantage of a two-page spread is that the reader will be able to view the whole story at once.

Whatever number of pages you choose, itís a good idea to create a mock-up of your layout using photocopies of your photographs and other images. This will allow you to crop your visuals and arrange your layout without damaging your originals.

Below are some special considerations for your layout.

Be creative with the look of the text

After you select the type of layout, one of the first things to consider is how you will arrange the text on the page. Design your story layout so that the text style and format do not distract from the written story and its meaning, but subtly enhance it. Keeping the font size and style consistent throughout the main body will make the text easier and more inviting to read. However, there may be specific reasons to highlight or vary text size or style, such as when you want to emphasize past versus present voices or the voices of different people.

Consider using your own handwriting on at least some of the page. Your handwriting is uniquely yours. Itís an expression of you that personalizes your story. Those who read your stories in the future will appreciate seeing your handwriting, so consider it for quotes, titles, captions, and even the whole story if you write legibly. Colored pens with different point sizes will create different effects. Try different styles, like print, cursive, and calligraphy. Consider whether to write directly on the scrapbook page or on other paper that you then paste into the scrapbook. To emphasize powerful or interesting statements, you can create a pull quote by taking a sentence from your story text and setting it off from the main text body by enlarging it or using a special font. You can also create special quotes or sentences that are not in the main text body, perhaps as a photo caption.

Using a computer to help do the layout

If you have access to a computer, you can type in your text and format it in a way that will work with the images in the layout. Then you can print it onto acid-free paper and cut and paste the text onto your story page. You can also easily produce one- or two-column formats and align your text (to the left or right margins, centered, or justified to both margins) to create different effects. Try out various fonts, point sizes, and styles for the text. Different fonts can evoke different feelings, such as historical, academic, playful, exotic, and avant-garde.

Serif fonts tend to feel more formal and historical. Sans serif fonts tend to be more modern and can mimic hand-written text. Serif fonts have curves or flares on the ends of the letters. Sans serif fonts have no curves or flares on the ends.

If you have access to a scanner, you can scan your photographs and other images into a word-processing program that can download images from a scanner or graphics software package. This will give you the ability to place images as close to the text as youíd like by using text wrap and image placement. More recent programs also have the ability to create text boxes that can be placed inside the body text or in the margins. Advanced computer users may want to scan photographs and use a program with graphic capabilities such as Adobe Photoshop to crop and size photographs. Then you can combine your images with the text and create a layout on-line. If you do not have a color printer, you can go to a copy shop or computer rental center to print your story on a color laser printer.

Page borders

You can easily add definition to your story page by creating borders. A simple border can be made along the sides or the top and bottom of the page with a marker using fine to thick points. You can also create a border by repeating small images with a stamp or stickers.


Your drawings or those done by a person in the story, may not be professional, but they will make your story page even more personal. Remember that you are not creating a magazine page-you are expressing yourself. Consider drawing symbols, maps, floor plans, and other images that have to do with your story.


Step Seven: Completing your illustrated story

Once you have settled on your page layout, let it sit, preferably for a day or more. If you still like it when you review it again, you are ready to glue down all the pieces (or print it out, if you are using a computer).

It will be helpful, particularly to those who will read your story in years to come, if you sign and date it at the bottom of the page. Dating it will let people know when the story was created. We recommend that you sign it because youíre the author and you deserve the credit. Also, if the story is passed on to others, there will be no confusion about who created it.


The Importance of Acid-Free Materials

Clippings from newspapers and magazines and other materials that are not acid-free will degrade in time and produce yellow and brown stains. To avoid this damage, it is important that all the materials you use are acid free. Use acid-free paper, pens, glue, tape, and photo corners. Even many printer ink cartridges are acid-free, such as those made by Hewlett Packard and Epson. To be sure, check with the manufacturer. Acid-free paper now comes in a wide range of colors and textures that can add depth, contrast, and artistry to your page.

Do not use rubber cement, white school glue, or ballpoint pens on photographs; they are not acid-free. You may want to photocopy newspaper clippings and other keepsakes and props onto acid-free paper (using either a color or a black and white copier). The toner in most copiers is acid-free, but it is always best to ask. If photocopying is not an option, then keep these materials on separate pages from your photographs so they are not in direct contact with each other.

If you are concerned about damaging valuable photographs or other objects, you can have them professionally duplicated. Many photography laboratories can do this quickly and inexpensively.

To find acid-free materials, check with scrapbooking and photograph preservation suppliers. Many have web sites or catalogs.


From Living Legacies: How to Write, Illustrate, and Share Your life Stories, by Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew. Copyright © 2001 Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew. Excerpted by arrangement with Conari Press. $18.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-685-9595 or click here.