Writers' Minds - Elizabeth Wein

Writers' Minds image: Whizzy Barr

Ever wondered what makes a writer tick? What cogs of creativity whirr to bring stories to life? We take a peek into the minds behind the craft and probe for creative rituals, routines and inspiration hunting.


Award winning author and longstanding super-SCBWI, Elizabeth Wein joins me this month for Writers’ Minds. Her latest novel, Black Dove, White Raven is shortlisted for the 2016 Scottish Children's Book Award - the winner will be announced at an awards event in Glasgow on 2 March 2016. The full shortlist announcement can be found here

Her early books for young adults are set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia, including the sequence The Mark of Solomon, published in two parts as The Lion Hunter (2007) and The Empty Kingdom (2008). The Lion Hunter was short-listed for the Andre Norton Award for Best Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2008. Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire received widespread critical acclaim, with Code Name Verity becoming a New York Times Bestseller in young adult fiction. 

So, are you ready? Sit back, relax, and let us unpick what makes you tick. Elizabeth Wein, what’s inside your writer’s mind? 

Inspiration - are you a hunter or gatherer? 

I think I’m a more iron age than stone age, to be honest. I know how to make and use quite sophisticated tools. I can farm ideas AND turn them into meat and bread. Oh dear, the metaphor is galloping away with me… 

What I mean to say is, I have experienced many different kinds and levels of inspiration. I’ve written stories where the ideas and themes and characters all came together in a flash, and I’ve also written stories where I’ve had to work hard to shape them myself. It is possible to write a half-decent story when you’re completely uninspired, but there’s nothing like the joy of a head-on collision with the muse. 

One thing I have found is that the more background work you do, the more you read and think and watch, the more likely you will be to have an inspirational moment. So I suppose more gatherer than hunter. But that doesn’t mean I’m not every now and then a mean shot.

Are you a plotter or pantser? 

Oh God, definitely a pantser. The plot changes ALL THE TIME. I generally know where I want to get to by the end of the story, but I never have any idea how I’m going to get there. As an example: in the book I’m writing right now, the main character gets whacked on the head in the first chapter. It took me about a hundred pages to decide how that had actually happened and why. 

Shed sitter or cafe dreamer? 

Both. I like to quote Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp: Or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel on this subject: 

“Mr Earbrass belongs to the straying, rather than the sedentary, type of author. He is never to be found at his desk unless actually writing down a sentence.” 

I like to vary my hangouts. There are four different rooms in the house in which I write on a regular basis, and two different locations in most of those rooms, NOT COUNTING the summer house in the garden (my shed). But if I am stuck I definitely go to a café. Current favourites are the Gloagburn Farm Shop and the Winter Garden at the Crieff Hydro where a writing friend and I meet up every week. 

In the past I used to get a LOT of work done sitting in ice rinks and at swimming pools waiting for kids to finish lessons. 

Any mottos or words of wisdom hung above your desk? 


Including quite a bit of fan art, which I find inspiring, but my favourite is probably a stick figure cartoon drawn for me by my best friend from my post-graduate degree, in which an imaginary student superhero accidentally blows up her academic advisor with her newly discovered lightning-shooting superpowers. 

Also these words, written by my daughter: 


  • Finish your book for the lols 
  • Finish your book and don’t cba 
  • Finish your book cuz yolo 
  • Finish your book and :) 
  • Finish your book 

At the moment I also have a photo of the Space Shuttle crew of Mission STS-93, signed by astronaut and Code Name Verity fan Cady Coleman, on which she’s written, “Will you write some space stories?!” 

Target word count per day or as it comes? 

Well, I set out with a target word count and then regularly fail to meet it, so as it comes. 

Pen or Keyboard? 

Pen then keyboard. There is usually a specific pen associated with each book. 

Music or silence? 

Really depends on my mood. (I did say I was a pantser.) 

Chocolate or wine? 


Perspiration or inspiration? 

See Question 1. Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but you can’t count on it. Here’s another favourite quote (this isn’t hanging over my desk, but it should be): 

“Many people are brilliant, and from that you may get one novel, as Zelda Fitzgerald did. But to write five novels (Scott) or seventeen (Nabokov)—to make a career—you must have, with brilliance, a number of less glamorous virtues, for example, patience, resilience, and courage.” (Joan Acocella, “A Fire in the Brain,” The New Yorker 8 Dec. 2003). 

To get into the Zone, do you use any techniques or triggers? Anything truly weird and eccentric?

I draw. I used to draw a lot, when I was younger. It was an alternative to writing. I hardly do it at all any more, and I think there is a lost connection there. 

This is a scene from my first novel, The Winter Prince, published in 1993. I didn’t finish a complete draft until 1990, but I drew the picture in 1982. 

I act stuff out, too. I have conversations from the book with myself, pretending to be all the characters. 

Do you ever hear your character’s voice in your head? 

I don’t hear my character’s voices because I channel their voices—I am much more likely to become that character, in some sense, than to hear them. I mean, I don’t hear my own voice in my head, either. 

Every now and then I get a really clear image of a particular character—almost like a formal portrait. I would know them if I saw them. 

If there one key piece of advice, one gem of wisdom about the craft of writing, be it character development, re-writing or plot vs story, what would that be? 

Plot is character: character is plot. 

(I have other mantras, but that one is original. And I believe it.) 

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.


Twitter: @EWein2412 

Lou Minns is the joint Features Editor for Words & Pictures SCBWI BI and the new Social Media Co-ordinator for SCBWI San Francisco North & East Bay.

Contact: writers@britishscbwi.org 

 Follow: @LMMinns


  1. V inspirational, Elizabeth! And you must be THE founding member of SCBWI in BI! Thanks so much for the words of wisdom (and for getting SCBWI BI going!)

    1. Brilliant answers - I'm going to make room for some new inspirational quotes on my wall courtesy of Elizabeth. Thank you. It was, as always, an honour to interview you. Elizabeth has been a member of SCBWI 5 years before SCBWI British Isles was founded! Thank you Elizabeth!

  2. aw, shucks.

    I am not THE founding member of SCBWI BI - that is Gloria Hatrick. But I am her number 2, and I do feel I can take the credit for keeping the region alive when she left (and for twisting Natascha Biebow's arm to get her to become the Regional Advisor!).

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