‘If readers enjoy what you’ve written, they’ll keep on coming back for more.’

James Oswald’s Inspector Maclean has been solving crimes in Edinburgh for a good few novels now. As the thirteenth book in the Inspector Maclean series hits the shelves, we ask the author how he keeps his writing exciting.


For Our Sins
By James Oswald
Published by Wildfire


How to keep things fresh after your series hits the terrible teens.

For Our Sins is the thirteenth book in my Edinburgh-based Inspector McLean series. As I write this, I am nearing the end of the first draft of an as yet untitled book fourteen. A fifteenth book is in the very earliest stages of gestation deep within the little-used recesses of my brain. That’s a lot of stories for one beleaguered detective inspector to carry, so just how does an author go about keeping the books fresh and interesting after writing so many?

The short answer is I wish I knew! Perhaps it helps that Tony McLean as a character has been with me a very long time now. His first appearance in one of my stories goes back as far as 1992, when I was trying to carve out a career as a writer in comics. I invented him as the policeman who could see ghosts in what was a somewhat gothic, Edinburgh-set tale that 2000AD magazine decided was not up to scratch. I suspect they were right.

McLean came into his own in my first published novel, Natural Causes, but that wasn’t the first book I’d written, nor Tony’s first outing in prose fiction. He’d appeared in a couple of other rubbish novels by then, and a half dozen short stories I’d written to try and get an idea of who he was. Some of the other recurring characters first appeared in those short stories too, like Grumpy Bob, Dagwood and Chief Superintendent Jayne McIntyre.

In short, before Natural Causes came out, I had known McLean for a long time. I’d established a lot of the dynamics behind his team, his private life, his past and the kind of Edinburgh in which he lived. That’s probably the only reason I was able to take the success of the first novel and build on it as swiftly as I have done. While Natural Causes and The Book of Souls were both already written when a publisher picked them up, the eleven books that follow on from them (with a twelfth in progress) have all been written in the past ten years.

It’s not easy though, as that number creeps up, to keep things new and interesting. I’ve introduced more characters – Madame Rose, Emma Baird, Mrs Saifre and Janie Harrison to name just a few – and we’ve said goodbye (or good riddance) to some others. Each book is its own story, with new villains and supporting actors to drive the thing along, too. It’s important with series fiction to strike that balance between the old and the new – enough explanation to keep first time readers up to speed without boring those who’ve been along since the start of the ride.

I made the mistake early in the series of trying to stretch a significant plot arc over more than one book. Emma, Tony’s long-suffering partner, went travelling (possibly accompanied by the soul of Tony’s long-dead fiancée, but let’s not give too much away), and was out of the picture for almost all of books four, five and six. She sent him postcards from all parts of the globe, which kept him sane and maybe protected him from the worst kind of temptation, before reappearing at the end of The Damage Done just in time.

It was the kind of story arc that works well in comics, where the episodes arrive every month or week. Less successful when played out over almost two years and three books, I had many complaints about the unresolved plots and managed to annoy quite a few readers. Lesson learned; series fiction might mean recurring characters, but each book needs to be its own thing.

I’ve always had the main arc of each book told from McLean’s viewpoint, with occasional short scenes from the point of view of the victim or the killer just to break things up a bit. One other way of injecting a little novelty into the stories is to tell them from a different point of view, and so I decided to introduce a second narrative character – Janie Harrison – in All That Lives. Without too many spoilers, Tony’s missing for a large chunk of the second half of that book, so it was kind of necessary.

Nobody complained, and I found I quite liked writing for Janie, so I gave her even more to do in For Our Sins, including a memorable scene with a rather too handsy senior officer. It helped open up the story to new ways of telling and gave me a different perspective to work from. I should probably have done it earlier.

But in the end, the best way to keep a series fresh is both the simplest to say and the hardest to carry out. Try to write the best book you possibly can. If readers enjoy what you’ve written, they’ll keep on coming back for more.


For Our Sins by James Oswald is published by Wildfire, priced £20.00

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