The Play’s the Thing

child upon bridge
photo by flickr’s alicepopkorn

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, one of my favorite things to do was make paper dolls. I’d collect some good paper and a new box of crayons and spend the next several hours (sometimes days!) happily coloring and designing an entire world full of paper dolls and, of course, their wardrobe. Filling in the details of the wardrobe could be a bit tedious, so that is when I inevitably began telling myself the story of these dolls’ world and who they were and what was going on in their lives. The thing is, what I remember most vividly about that experience is that sense of becoming utterly lost, not only in the world I was creating, but in the act of creating. It is still to this day one of my most cherished memories.

A more recent memory is watching my own two kids at their play, building castles with blocks, or Lego spaceships, or playing with those little plastic army men—and being struck by how utterly they too lost themselves in that process. It was no longer a game, but about building a world, a reality, filled with characters they were making up on the spot. Most children with a blank piece of paper and a new box of crayons can transcend time and space in a similar way—through the act of creating.

I think it is often so easy to forget that these creative pursuits we engage in are supposed to be fun. They should bring us joy. But when we become obsessed with getting published or are hunkered down trying to meet the next looming deadline, it is all too easy to forget that.

And I think the work loses something in the process. Or at the very least, the process itself becomes diminished.

This has become painfully clear to me over the last few weeks as I knuckle down, trying to stay on track to meet my deadline for Book Three, all while preparing for the publication of Book Two, writing guest posts and extra content for upcoming blog tours and guest posts, and preparing for a real, live book tour, conferences, and workshops I’ll be attending all next month.

It is safe to say that any concept of creative play has fled the room. And I realize that this is one of the (many!) challenges facing working authors—how do we hold on to our sense of creative play?

The thing is, I used to be good at this—keeping a playful spark alive in my work by finding ways to remind myself that it was around creativity. I thought I’d share some of the different techniques and processes I’ve used over the last few project. Most selfishly in the hopes that it will help me think of some way to do the same with this current book.

For Grave Mercy, I created a collage that I referred to throughout the writing of the book. I actually collect pictures of interesting or compelling faces and keep them in a file. When I start a new book, I often go through the file looking for pictures that can act as a touchstone for the characters. Oftentimes it won’t be an exact image of the character in my mind, but will capture a specific expression that is key to the character’s attitude.


For the upcoming Dark Triumph, I returned to my childhood love of paperdolls, using that same folder full of faces to create index cards for each character. I also made notations on the back of those cards as to each characters primary goal, their driving forces, and unique characteristics and tics to help keep them individuated in my mind.

char index cards

I’ve used tarot cards, not to do a formal reading of my characters but to help me map out their journeys, the visual and symbolic images a great way to stay in touch with the emotional arc they were going through.


With my Theodosia books, I did a couple of different things. For one book, I created a travel journal in Theodosia’s voice, and cut out pictures of all the historical, real life places she would be visiting, then had her describe in the journal in her own voice. It was a great way to really see things through her eyes.


Another time I created an altered book, which was simply a way to try and get in touch with her inner journey and perspective.



For every book I sketch out maps and floor plans, significant objects that I need to really see and feel in my mind’s eye. And just like when I was a child, I find my busy hands free my mind up to wander

Now, for the doubting among you getting ready to cry, Fancy procrastination technique! I would beg you to consider the following:

  • Using alternate techniques to access the story in our heads allows us to bring our other senses into our work; our love of color, imagery, the kinestetic feel of collaging or drawing helps bring that world to life.
  • Busy hands allow our minds to wander, wool gather, frolic, and often those side paths can lead to breakthroughs, fresh new ideas, or the perfect plot twist. Not unlike how our best thoughts often come to us when we’re driving, walking, or in the shower, where we don’t have access to writing material.
  • These alternate techniques also act as creative touchstones for the book, a quick point of entry to our story worlds, or a visual representation of the emotion we are trying to evoke or the themes we are working with.

And all of this reminds me that I need to do something like this for the current book. Somewhere, somehow I need to find a way to bring in that element of play, that helps make the project come alive.

How about you? Do you have ways you try to bring a sense of play or creativity to your work when it feels stale? I love to hear about them in the comments!



About Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers is the author of fourteen books for young readers, including the Theodosia and Nathaniel Fludd series. Her most recent book, GRAVE MERCY, is a young adult romance about assassin nuns in medieval France. A lifelong introvert, she currently lives on a blissfully quiet hill in Southern California.


  1. says

    I’m visual spatial, and I think because of the pressure to do things the “standard” left-brained way I got into habits where I haven’t used this where I should have. I tried mind mapping before, but it was too unfocused for me and I didn’t find it that helpful. I’ve been experimenting more with visual note taking for my research. It’s forces me to get to the point of what I’m looking for and is fun.

    I’ve also started getting pictures both of the characters and of places to help me describe them better. I used to try the method of getting people photos of actors and magazines, but I was always disappointment with the results. I’m looking more for people of varying ages and not 20-year olds with airbrushed perfection.

    I’ve been putting them in Evernote. Maybe I should play with them in PowerPoint and print them up!

    • says

      Linda, I keep hearing about all these amazing computer based tools like Evernote and Scrivner, but for me, part of signaling playtime is being OFF the computer.

      Plus, its saves wear and tear on my wrists. :-)

      Vanity Fair often has great pictures of a wider variety of people than do traditional fashion magazine. Catalogs, too.

  2. says

    Robin, I love this! I’ve realized over the years the more I keep everything electronic, the less connected I feel with my characters and their stories. It’s important for me to bring in a tactile experience as I work. The books in your examples are a fantastic idea. I suppose there’ll be those who consider it procrastinating as you said, but so sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the rewards of playtime as inspiration. Your post reminds me of something Brenda Ueland says in her book: IF YOU WANT TO WRITE:

    “I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. ”

    Btw, I can’t wait to read Dark Triumph. I loved Grave Mercy and hope to reread it before book 2 comes out so I can have the story fresh in my mind. :)

    • says

      Yes! Tactile! That was the word I was hunting for last night and couldn’t find.

      And I adore the Barbara Ueland quote. It so perfectly captures that type of moment.

      And thank you for your kind words about Grave Mercy & Dark Triumph!

  3. says

    This is great! :-)

    I use Caroline Myss’ gorgeous archetype cards, and Pinterest (no formal boards dedicated to story- or character-building, I just sift).

    With Caroline’s cards, I have to be mindful of using them at face value, otherwise I’m apt to use them for random readings of people on my heart and mind. With Pinterest, I have to be mindful of time, or I’ll lose an entire afternoon. ;-)

  4. says

    This post is so timely. I’m an amateur writer who’s let herself be drawn into the torture of self-doubt and perfection. I put writing on hold for a while as it was too painful, and now I’m back, ever so gently, focused on making my creative process a joyful, playful one. I love collages and will go back to them as a way to feed my imagination. Thank you!

    • says

      I’m so glad the post was timely for you, Maryse, and I’m glad to hear you’re finding a way to reconnect with the joy in your process!

  5. says

    What a great technique! Makes me wish I had accumulated a box of images as you have done. Alas, it’s probably too late for me to accumulate that way (I’m 75). I’ll have to focus better in bringing my BIG box of memories into better focus. One positive side of aging is the richness and depth of experiences, exposures (as in photographic exposures) and interactions with memorable characters. My mind is a doll house.

    • says

      Alex, I love your point about collecting memories! So, so true!

      Although, I think you’ll find it much easier to collect images than you might think. All it takes is an armful of magazines and a few hours time!

  6. Denise Willson says

    What a wonderful idea, Robin. Love the books.

    I’m one of those mean mother’s who nudge my bitty girls towards Lego, dolls, and books while limiting television and video games. They NEED play. It is a necessity to growing, developing healthy.

    When I’m lost I watch them create worlds with their toys and it reminds me why I write. I NEED to play too.

    Kudos, Robin, for finding your child within.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      Not a mean mother, Denise, but a SMART one! According to Einstein, his imagination and love of fantasy were one of his greatest influences in his work, so there you go!

      Have fun playing. :-)

  7. says

    I’m re-reading The Selected Journals of LM Montgomery (I’ve just started volume II) and am reminded of her technique to connect with her childhood memories. She’d re-read and re-copy her earlier journals for inspiration. She’d also read stacks of old letters from her childhood days.

    Love all you do to make your work sing. It’s evident!

    • says

      Thank you, Caroline!

      Childhood and teen journals can be a fabulous way to reconnect with those parts of ourselves! (Although sometimes also cringe inducing–especially the teenage years.)

  8. says

    Robin, I wish you luck finding the creative inspiration for your latest novel–you have certainly given me the key to starting my next novel (and permission to play!).
    Many thanks.

  9. says

    Thank goodness I found you today! Because of this:

    “It is often so easy to forget that these creative pursuits we engage in are supposed to be fun. They should bring us joy. But when we become obsessed with getting published or are hunkered down trying to meet the next looming deadline, it is all too easy to forget that.”

    I have become lost in the book in which I am writing. I can no longer discern what is wonderful and what is crap. What I need to do is paint. Or draw. Or go for a walk. Mostly, I need to step aside from the computer. And with your permission, I will.

    Thank you!

    • says

      Oh, I hate that sensation of being lost and floundering in the work! Ugh. You have my blanket permission to always do whatever it takes to move beyond that! :-)

  10. says

    My creativity is deeply embedded in my imagination. I need to disengage and let my mind wander. As a kid, I was a day dreamer. I realize now it comes in handy when writing.

  11. says

    I am not much of a sketch artist. But at times when creating a world or even laying out a town, it helps me to map out the landscape even if in stick figures. This helps to give me a concrete referrence point for the world I am working in.

    • says

      Yes! I absolutely do that as well. For big set piece or fight scenes, especially, I need to have that diagram so I can see it in my mind’s eye and be able to hammer out the logistics and blocking.

  12. says

    So, you are multi-talented, a visual artist as well as a talented wordsmith. I did love my Lincoln logs as a kid. And my plastic army men. And I recall the total immersion of play and world-building. Not to get all Bob Hope on you, but thanks for the memories.

    I think my play is research. It was what brought me back to writing (I’m a late bloomer). I still love it. I’ve been posting historical snippets about my world-building process on Saturday mornings on fb, in part to share my passion for it (and, who knows, maybe build some advance interest for my work), and in part just because I love it! Selecting an element, finding quotes, then chasing down an appropriate image, is a blast for me–a perfect weekend morning over coffee hobby. And every time I read historical nonfiction, I have to keep a notebook handy. It’s getting full, too.

    Thanks again, Robin! Wonderful stuff.

    • says

      Ha. Definitely not talented in the visual arts, Vaughn! These are the handful of decent examples from a treasure trove of, “gad they’re ugly, but they were fun to do” portfolio.

      I had never thought of research as a form of play, but I can absolutely see that now that you mention it.

  13. says

    I too remember playing with my paper dolls and just getting lost in the story of them in my mind. Watching my son in the middle of him playing just makes me miss the simpleness of ones mind. Great post!

    • says

      Tanya, that simple pleasure kids find in life is so inspiring! And such a good reminder to us adults to try to find a way to hang on to that.

  14. says

    This is such a timely post for me, Robin, and the ideas you shared are marvelous. I wish I could do them — I am the least crafty/artsy person on the planet. I might have to enlist the help of my daughter to pull some of them off!

    • says

      No, no, Liz! Let yourself do them. Let yourself do them BADLY. The fun of it is in the process of doing it. These are just for you, just like a coloring book when you were five. There is no end goal here, just the joy of the process!

  15. says

    Thanks for sharing your ideas about how to use pictures as you write. I’ve used pictures for the places I write about (houses, libraries, businesses, stores) for years. They remind me that I have to make my reader see where the action is happening, and they sometimes help shape the action because all places have a feel to them that influences my writing. And as you said, while I’m looking for the pictures (in magazines, online), my mind is free to wander and sometimes takes interesting turns.

  16. says

    Love these ideas and your visual process. I too use collage as another creative outlet to wake up my writing muse. I haven’t yet done a visual journal from a character’s POV–great idea. Thanks.

  17. says

    LOVE this post! And to me, it’s all research, and I love research! I have 2 novels that I’m writing (not simultaneously, lol) – I was hopelessly mired in the second draft of my middle-grade adventure-mystery, and it wasn’t fun anymore, just frustrating and getting me to the point I thought I should just stop trying to write it.

    This year I attended the IndieReCon 3-day online writers’ conference and it was so awesome and inspiring. As a result of some discussions I had with a few of the presenters, I decided to put that one on the back burner for awhile and let it rest. I’ve dusted off the outline of a contemporary romance – and have actually been having FUN with it! I’ve regained my enthusiasm for writing, and have been immersed in developing plot twists, main characters, settings … and have collected photos that represent what I see in my mind.

    Love the idea of putting together a collage and playing with visuals while I work on my outline and get started on my new project. Thanks so much for the invitation to play! ~ Julie :)

  18. says

    Hi Robin

    thanks for this post. I’m an artist mostly and write in my spare time. Can’t believe I hadn’t thought of using visual assistance for keeping in touch with my characters and deepening my understanding of them!

    A young adult fantasty novel that I’ve been writing on and off for years has been triggered into new life by your ideas in this post.

    Loved your Theodosia books – a real treat and inspiration.

    By the way which deck of tarot are you using in the picture???

  19. Irene Sauman says

    All so very real. I use a flipchart attached to a portable whiteboard with pages for character background, historical locations, etc, notes and pictures mingled. Working on those pages sparks the creative process and solves lots of plot issues making the final story so much richer. Thank you for your posts.

  20. says

    I’m a scrapbooker so I can definitely see the appeal of these ideas. So creative! I drew a map of a castle for my first novel, because I needed to figure out spatially where people would be in a big battle scene. It was so very helpful. I don’t know that I could carve out time to do them in my world as it stands right now–I have nonfiction commitments as well, plus four little kids, and I’m primary caregiver, and I’m already juggling. But I like this idea very much, and I’m going to stick it in the pot and let it bubble up when the time is right.

  21. says

    Fantastic post, Robin. Having an attitude of fun and enjoyment certainly helps keep the doors of creativity open. I recently used a set of SoulCards by Deborah Koff-Chapin to bolster ideas for theme and character development. Pretty interesting results!