The portrait to the right is Aphra Behn, the late 17th century English playwright that my main character, Isabel Wilde, was originally based on. I say originally because during the writing of Diary of Bedlam, Isabel evolved into an almost completely different woman–the only things Aphra and Isabel still have in common is their birthplace (Kent) and their history as former British spies.
I'm not sure they ever looked much alike. Isabel has red curly hair and is more beautiful than Aphra in my mind. I picture her resembling, if anyone, Kate Winslet. Isabel has strong, somewhat unusual features that are striking but do not necessarily adhere to the beauty standards of her time. Still, she has managed to keep the King enamored for over fifteen years, and he was first attracted to her appearance; she is clearly an attractive woman.
But what about the rest of my characters? During the New England Crimebake in November 2009, the guest of honor, Sue Grafton, was asked how she pictures and describes her characters. Does she collect photographs of strangers and use them as references? The answer was yes. She explained that she often uses photos from the Sunday magazine of the newspaper because most other magazines feature photos of people who are more attractive than average people.
If you read Sue Grafton's books, I think you'll agree she does a particularly great job of describing people and places. In just a few sentences, one gets an evocative picture of the character she's depicting.
During my writing, I have found I'm pretty good at dialogue but not so great with descriptive passages, especially of people. All the secondary and throw away characters seem to look alike. Hearing Sue's explanation of her process was helpful and I've used it since for several characters–I still need practice in this area but truly, having a reference photo helped to bring these characters to life in a way other characters lack.