James Oswald on writing inspiration: 'The key is in recognising it'

James Oswald, the author of the gripping Inspector McLean series, shares what inspires him and how he celebrates finishing a book. 



What kind of books do you write?

Mostly I seem to write books that are not easily put into categories, which for a long while was my undoing as publishers are often wary of cross-genre writing. The Inspector McLean series is, on the surface, a set of Edinburgh based police stories, but they contain elements of supernatural influence in them and focus far more on the characters and their interactions than on any investigative procedure. I have also written The Ballad of Sir Benfro, a five book epic fantasy series that is about as different from the world of Tony McLean as possible. I’m working on a ghost story set in Wales and the first part of a new series set in a galaxy far away, that blends elements fantasy and science fiction. So I guess I write whatever takes my fancy. 

What inspires you?

The strangest things inspire me. I had intended a completely different story for Written in Bones, but as I began writing the opening scene I was struck by the image of a body, high up in the leafless branches of a tree on the Meadows in the centre of Edinburgh, and of a little boy claiming that a dragon had dropped it there. Bear in mind that this is a crime novel and not a fantasy. The book grew out of my asking questions in much the same way that Tony McLean would – who is this man? How did he get there? Why? What did the boy really see, given that dragons don’t exist? Do dragons exist?

Likewise a major strand in the previous book, The Damage Done, came from seeing a hitchhiker standing beside the road as I was driving out of Perth. She looked too well dressed to be standing there with her thumb out, and yet she was. I didn’t pick her up, but I did think about what her story might be as I continued my journey home. Inspiration is everywhere. The key is in recognising it.

Inspiration is everywhere. The key is in recognizing it

Where do you write?

These days I have a huge office above the garage in the house I have built on my farm, and that’s where I write whilst trying not to be distracted by all the books on the bookshelves, the comics in boxes, my guitars and banjo, the television and the stereo. I took over the family farm after my parents died, and I breed pedigree Highland cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep on the land. When it was all split up, my younger brother got the farmhouse, so for five years I lived in a static caravan tucked into one end of a Dutch barn at the bottom of the yard, and my writing space was the smaller of its two tiny bedrooms. Storm Gertrude blew down the barn on top of the caravan (with me and my partner in it – fortunately unharmed), forcing us to relocate before the new farmhouse was finished. I can write pretty much anywhere though, as long as there is space for a notebook. Long train journeys are excellent for bumping up the word count.


When did you know you wanted to write?

I’m not sure. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t telling stories. Apparently my uncle told my mother that I would be a writer when I was about four years old, although that might have had more to do with the extravagant and complicated lies I made up to justify whatever it was I wanted (or didn’t want) to do, or to deflect the blame onto my brothers.

I began writing seriously, with a view to being published, towards the end of the 1980s when I discovered that you didn’t need to be good at art to create comics. My first comic script was published by 2000AD in 1993. It took another twenty years to get published again, but I’ve always written first for myself, for the challenge and the sheer thrill of making up those outrageous stories. Publication has always been of secondary importance, although having a bestseller or two under your belt is a wonderful motivator too.


What are you reading at the moment?

Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land. It’s an interesting book, told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl with what can only be described as a rather unusual upbringing. I’m about halfway through and I can see that things aren’t going to end well. The pacing is brilliant, and the voice of the narrator pitched to perfection. I never realised teenage girls could be so mean.

I’ve also just started How To Kill Friends And Implicate People by Jay Stringer. I loved Jay’s Eoin Miller books, but this is the first time I’ve met his Glasgow-based PI and bicycle courier Sam Ireland. It’s shaping up nicely though.


How do you celebrate finishing a book?

Sad to say I usually just roll up my sleeves and get started on the next one. It’s probably been squatting in the back of my brain, pestering me to write it since about half way through the previous one. Natural Causes, the first of the Inspector McLean series, was first published by Penguin in May 2013. Written in Bones, which is out this year, is book seven and I am already halfway through writing book eight. The first book of The Ballad of Sir Benfro, Dreamwalker, came out in August 2014, the final instalment, The Obsidian Throne, just last October. I haven’t got enough fingers to count all those, but I’m told it’s twelve books in a little under four years, during which time I’ve also been running a 350 acre livestock farm and building a house. There’s no time to celebrate!

At a recent library talk, I was asked if I was worried I might run out of ideas. I’m more concerned that there isn’t enough time to work on all the ideas I already have.

Find out more about the author

Written in Bones

James Oswald

Inspector McLean returns in the seventh instalment of James Oswald's gritty, compelling crime series, for his most mysterious murder investigation yet . . .

The roots of murder run deep . . .

'Unsettling atmosphere, strong sense of place and a canny twist: Oswald easily outstrips the formulaic work of bigger names' Guardian

When a body is found in a tree in The Meadows, Edinburgh's scenic parkland, the forensics suggest the corpse has fallen from a great height.

Detective Inspector Tony McLean wonders whether it was an accident, or a murder designed to send a chilling message?

The dead man had led quite a life: a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin who reinvented himself as a celebrated philanthropist.

As McLean traces the victim's journey, it takes him back to Edinburgh's past, and through its underworld - crossing paths with some of its most dangerous and most vulnerable people.

And waiting at the end of it all, is the truth behind a crime that cuts to the very heart of the city...



'Crime fiction's next big thing'
Sunday Telegraph

'Oswald's writing is in a class above most'
Daily Express

'Creepy, gritty and gruesome'
Sunday Mirror

'The new Ian Rankin'
Daily Record

'Hugely enjoyable'

'Oswald is among the leaders in the new batch of excellent Scottish crime writers'
Daily Mail

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