Elizabeth Wein on the writer’s craft of world-building

UK and US Covers for
Black Dove White Raven

In Edinburgh on 9 May, celebrated author of historical YA Elizabeth Wein is offering writers a hands-on workshop on world-building 


Her latest book, BLACK DOVE, WHITE RAVEN, is set partly in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, and we caught up with her to ask how she brings out such rich settings in her own work.

Q: You do a superb job in bringing historical eras to life. Do you have any practical tips on that - what sources work well for you? 

A: I don’t always use the same sources, but I do begin with books. If you’re at a loss as to how to start, do a Wikipedia search on your era, topic or item, and go to the “Sources” info. That’s where you’ll find direct references. Once you’ve tracked down some initial reading, you’ll find that a good reference will always include further references. It was in reading Marcus Binney’s The Women Who Lived for Danger, about the Special Operations Executive, that I discovered the existence of the RAF “Moon Squadron” and the pilot and writer Hugh Verity, whose book We Landed by Moonlight became an indispensable source when I was writing Code Name Verity. (His name, believe it or not, is a coincidence.) 

UK Jacket for
Rose Under Fire
I like to get up-close and personal with objects and places relevant to what I’m working on. Museums, locations, castles, airfields – the Ravensbrück concentration camp and the hermitage at Debra Damo (though I was not allowed inside) – visiting the real setting for my novels, or something like the real setting, helps to make these stories come alive for me. When I was writing A Coalition of Lions, my second book, I managed to get permission to look at the British Museum’s collection of coins from the ancient African kingdom of Aksum. I consulted an expert on World War II bomb fuses for some of the details in Rose Under Fire. Think beyond the box a little bit: talk to people who are experts in your subject. They’re usually delighted and honoured to share their knowledge. 

While I’m writing, I’ve learned to have my feelers up for anything that might be an anachronism – a turn of phrase (“blonde bombshell”), a food (instant coffee), a household object (ballpoint pen), a concept (anaesthetics) – and instead of looking things up then and there, I just put brackets around the questionable words as I’m writing. Then I go back and sweep through the finished manuscript later to weed things out or change them to something more appropriate. 

I’ve found that Google NGrams is a very useful tool for checking to see if various idioms were current during the time my story is set. You can do a search on a word or phrase to find out if it was in print during any given time period over the past 200 years. 

Q: You've mentioned before that maps play a big role in your writing. Why is that? 

A: Maps do play a big role in my writing! I’ve never written a single work of fiction – short story or novel – without consulting a map – indeed, without drawing routes and notes all over a map! This predates my learning to fly, and for my novels A Coalition of Lions, The Sunbird and The Lion Hunter, maps which I drew myself are included in the books (and much of the plot in The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom is driven by the young hero’s apprenticeship to a mapmaker). For my most recent novels, Google Earth has also played a hugely important role in my research – mostly for specific scenes. For Code Name Verity, it was the Lysander landing field and the location of the battle on the bridge; for Rose Under Fire, it was my first “visit” to the real site at Ravensbrück, which is where I got the idea of having Rose herself see the camp for the first time from the air – that’s how I saw it for the first time. For Black Dove, White Raven, it was pinpointing the landing site that the Menotti family name “Delia’s Dream.” 

But you ask why maps play a big role… and I think that the answer is that it’s a kind of sympathetic magic. It helps me get closer to the reality of my fictional story. I mean, obviously, it helps me create a realistic, convincing landscape. But also, by plotting the exact route taken by my characters on their flight or journey (my characters travelled a lot more slowly in my earlier books!), I feel that I’m creating a nebulous reality for them. That’s a personal thing. I believe in my characters (the farther back in time they exist, the easier it is to believe in them), and I like to make their imagined reality plausible. 

Q: In your own writing, do you do your atmospheric detail in first drafts, or later? 

A: Whoa, is that a serious question? ;-) 

For me, setting is one of the story’s major characters. (I have heard other people say this, too.) 

It appears in the first draft. Often it is an important part of the story itself. One of my favourite passages from Code Name Verity, which I feared would be edited out because it’s such sheerly self-indulgent landscape art, has surprised and delighted me by being a favourite and oft-quoted passage among enthusiastic readers: 

The sun still sets quite late in the north of England in August, and Maddie on fabric wings flew low over the long sands of Holy Island and saw seals gathered there. She flew over the great castle crags of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh to the north and south, and over the ruins of the twelfth century priory where the glowing gospels were painted, and over all the fields stretching yellow and green toward the low Cheviot Hills of Scotland. Maddie flew back following the 70-mile 2000-year-old dragon’s back of Hadrian’s Wall, to Carlisle and then south through the Lakeland fells, along Lake Windermere. The soaring mountains rose around her and the poets’ waters glittered beneath her in the valleys of memory—hosts of golden daffodils, Swallows and Amazons, Peter Rabbit. She came home by way of Blackstone Edge above the old Roman road to avoid the smoke haze over Manchester, and landed back at Oakway sobbing with anguish and love; love, for her island home that she’d seen whole and fragile from the air in the space of an afternoon, from coast to coast, holding its breath in a glass lens of summer and sunlight. All about to be swallowed in nights of flame and blackout. 

UK Jacket for
Code Name Verity
Having said that the atmosphere is included in the first draft, though, I will add that I have written a lot of books before getting to see the setting first hand. I didn’t visit Ethiopia myself until after A Coalition of Lions and The Sunbird were already published, and I didn’t get to Ravensbrück until after I’d written the whole of the Ravensbrück section in Rose Under Fire. What I’ve found, doing “retro research” (as my uncle calls it), is that I don’t get things wrong so much as I leave them out – so then sometimes I do go back and add in small details. 

Here’s an example of a paragraph added to Code Name Verity AFTER I’d been to the Poitou region in France: 

Have found a super field—rather far from here, though—cycling all day with M., Fri. 12 Nov. Incredible how difficult it is to find a decent landing field for the SOE. It’s all so samey, farm after farm, shrines at every crossroad and a community bread oven in every village. The fields are so flat you could land anything anywhere. But there are never any good nighttime landmarks or any kind of cover for a reception team. Must be lovely flying in peacetime. 

The book would have been just as good without the shrines and the bread ovens, but how much more like a real place they make the setting feel! 

Thank-you, Elizabeth, for giving us a peek into your writing methods! A small handful of tickets for the three-hour workshop on 9 May in Edinburgh are still available, but they’re going fast. Book now for Elizabeth Wein’s Workshop on World Building https://britishisles.scbwi.org/events/edinburgh-elizabeth-weins-workshop-on-world-building/

Elizabeth Wein, photo credit:
Judith Khaner

Originally from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth Wein has lived in Scotland for over 15 years. Her newest novel, Black Dove, White Raven, combines her love of flying with her fascination for Ethiopia. She has been an SCBWI member and volunteer since 1991. www.elizabethwein.com  @ewein2412 

Sheila Averbuch
Sheila writes middle-grade science-fiction and blogs at www.spacekidsbooks.com. She holds an MA in journalism from Stanford University and a BA from Harvard University in American History & Literature. Alongside Louise Kelly, Sheila also co-ordinates the SCBWI network for Southeast Scotland – contact southeastscotland@britishscbwi.org for details on member meet ups


  1. Fantastic interview Sheila, what a great event. Some great practical advice from a wonderful award winning author and SCBWI supporter. Looking at Elizabeth Wein's website - I am desperate to know what participants will do with Playmobil!

  2. small correction - my twitter handle is @ewein2412 !

    Thanks for this great interview - it's a pleasure to have a piece in Words & Pictures again!

  3. How wonderful to fly with Maddie for a moment again - I'd fly to Edinburgh if I could for your mapping worlds workshop, Elizabeth Wein - sounds amazing! Great interview - thanks Sheila!

  4. I'm currently working on a historical novel and desperate to visit my setting ... but money and time are proving difficult. So I must content myself with reading everything I can get my hands on.

  5. Sounds fascinating Candy - can't wait to read it!

  6. Great post, thanks Sheila & Elizabeth. Going to WW1 battlefields & significant towns v important for Angelique's Geese/The Butterfly's Wing. Ethiopia is an AMAZING country, isn't it? Tragic that our image of these extraordinary & diverse people is so often the stereotyped face of African starvation & poverty.

  7. Totally agree, Rowena!

    Candy - I've found travel guides (even modern ones) extremely useful for places I can't get to in person.

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  9. The writers have been keen to understand all those values which must have been followed by them. revise my essay


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