Writing down the headwork

I don’t talk about my writing process all that much on this site because every writer has their own way of figuring things out. That and I generally find it dull, but the motorcycle ride yesterday reminded me of a trick that I find handy and you might, too.

I spent a lot of time on the back of the bike doing “headwork” and trying to sort out character motivations and worldbuilding. The moment we stopped, I pulled out my keyboard and started writing. Not story, but jotting down what I’d been thinking about during the headwork.

In fact, the term is misleading because, while I spend some time just thinking, like yesterday, I usually write a lot of this stuff down in the form of a dialog with myself. Sometimes this happens at the beginning and sometimes in the middle when I discover a plot problem.

The key is writing it down, because that makes the ideas less slippery. I can see when I’m covering the same territory because I have a log of my thought process.

I was going to use yesterday’s session as an example, but it’s sort of too in the middle of the project, to be useful to anyone except me. But, while working on “American Changeling,” I found my characters stalling a lot, which is a sign to me that I don’t know what they want. Now, I knew that my main character needed a Key to open a magically shut gate. But what was that key? I had no clue. Here’s my log of the headwork I did to sort that out.

What does Kim want?
To fit in.

What do her parents want? Love her, but loyal to the Faerie Queen

How does she unlock the gate?.
First of all… Who locked it? Queen Elizabeth? To protect her borders because the Fae were going to make a deal with the Scots or the Irish. Research that.

OR did the Faerie Queen lock it herself to keep out the mortals who were corrupting her people OR to stop a threat from the Unseelie Court.

Let’s go with Queen E or no… the catholics but for similar reasons. ((Eventually wound up with Queen Mary)) Now. Where did the key wind up?

Ah… The Portland Art Museum as part of the Britannia exhibit. Make something up there that makes sense. Clearly the key is iron. ((Because then fairies can’t touch it, which was important to the story)) Is it necessarily key shaped? No. What else could it be…

A chalice. A mirror. An ink pot. A vase. A… What’s a reliquary. Now that’s an interesting idea. Yes. If the — oh, not the Art museum. A catholic church — reliquaries hold the bones of a saint, preferably a woman or child, but is actually the bones of a Fae. Yes. That makes sense.

All of which led me to a clearer understanding of my backstory and once I knew who my bad guys, I could make smarter choices about their actions. The thing about writing it down is that it makes it less ethereal. It gets it out of my head and lets me look at it without the sort of idealized Ah-ha! moment that vanishes when actually examined.

I won’t pretend that I made this idea up. I know a lot of writers who do it. I picked it up in Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp and, boy, has it made my life easier since.

How about you? What’s your favorite trick?

Did you know you can support Mary Robinette on Patreon!

15 Responses

  1. Melissa Mead

    One of my tricks is the Pizza Party. If I get stuck, I envision my characters sitting backstage and ordering a pizza. They can only get 2 toppings. Then I watch them haggle out what to order and why. (and enjoy the reactions of those who have never heard of pizza!)

  2. Pat Esden

    I do the same sort of thing, but I like to do it outloud with someone vaguely listening. I ramble on and when the person’s eyes widen and they start nodding, then I know I’m onto something.

    Queen Mary’s pocketwatch would have been my answer to what is the key. Do you know about the watch?

  3. Felicity Shoulders

    I do a very similar headwork thing. Often I write stuff down, but sometimes I do it without a pen: when I’m trying to go to sleep.

    Yes, I realize this is dangerous. But I have only forgotten a few ideas, and I find there’s a dozy lack-of-filter that allows me to break through to new ideas and new approaches. Hooray for sleepy brains!

  4. JennaW

    I work through things in the shower and on the treadmill, but you’re right — it is slippery and sometimes when I get to working on it, it’s so vague it starts to seem like it won’t work.

    This was well-timed for me. I almost never write short, and I have a short I’m working on and had reached that “now what?” point. I thought about it at the gym then hurried home and typed up a pageful of notes using your method above — worked GREAT.

    Thanks!

  5. Clifford W. Dunbar

    I do something similiar, but instead of talking to myself I have my characters talk to each other. They carry on in rudimentary dialog until they finally figure out what they want from one another and how they think they should go about getting it and what cross-purposes they might have.

  6. momk

    Mary, This is fun for me, getting to walk around inside the heads of writers, where whole worlds exist.

  7. Mike F

    I found myself doing this today while cutting the grass. I’m trying to get back into writing; I stopped after college for some reason. Fear of failure is probably the culprit. Thanks for the tip!

      1. Mike F

        It certainly hasn’t hurt you, that’s for sure. I don’t expect to be as good as you, but I hope to get lucky enough to get something published some time. We’ll see how it goes.