Sea of Bones; a simmering psychological thriller

Out of the blue I was sent an advance proof copy of Deborah O’Donoghue’s debut novel Sea of Bones. Also enclosed was a request from the publisher Legend Press for an endorsement if I felt it was worthy of one. Although I was intrigued I initially kept quiet about this – I mean, what if I hadn’t liked the book?

Phew! I had no need to worry! As my endorsement shows (which is now on the front and inside covers of the final published copy 🙂 ) I discovered Sea of Bones to be a simmering psychological thriller set against a backdrop of political intrigue. It reeled me in as it delves deeply into a seedy world of power and corruption.


Grief stricken over the alleged suicide of her beloved niece, Juliet travels home to the Scottish Highlands where Beth was found dead. Struggling to accept how Beth died, Juliet’s doubts intensify as she delves deeper. Yet as her professional, political and personal lives collide, Juliet is not prepared for the dangerous powerful forces determined to silence her .

Sea of Bones gripped me; and thanks to Legend Press, I was given the opportunity to interview its author Deborah O’Donoghue.

Q. I was intrigued as to why you chose to base Sea of Bones around Elgin (Moray) in the Scottish Highlands (especially as I have family there)?

A. When I started writing I thought I was going to set it in Sweden, near Umea, where I had stayed with friends in their coastal summer house. Then I realised I wanted to write a book set in the UK and so began researching locations where I could create a legitimate UK Scandi feel, with the right sense of isolation and a nearby design school. I honed in on Moray and stayed in Inverness, and travelled along the coast there and completely fell for the place.

Q. Sea of Bones is a brilliant title and really fitting for this novel. How did the title come about?

A. Thank you! I worked really hard and probably put a bit too much time into the title, despite being told several times that debut authors rarely get to keep their own. People said all I needed was a title good enough to show commercial and genre awareness. But I became a bit obsessed with finding ‘The One’, like it was a matter of pride.

I did go through some dreadful iterations along the way though.

Eventually I did a kind of word association thing: I wrote all the relevant words I could think of on separate sticky notes on a board. Things like Sound, Wash, Tide, Bodies, Dark, Song. I included some small words, articles and prepositions. Then I started moving them around next to each other, trying to break my expectations.

It wasn’t until I read about Moray’s geology and spent some time at Culbin that I really thought Sea of Bones could stick though.

Deborah O’Donoghue

Q. Sea of Bones is a gritty, tense read set against a backdrop of political intrigue. What inspired you to write this novel?

A. I think it was a combination of rage and experimentation. It was my first attempt at writing a full-length novel and I wanted to try something different. I’d been writing short stories, which were quite literary, pared back and sparse – a bit like poems, where small images and events take on a huge significance. In retrospect, I can see that although I thought I was doing something very different with Sea of Bones, that stark short story voice was a good match for a Scandi-style thriller.

I’ve always been a political animal, but I’d been used to writing about small, contained events, so my first attempts to ‘invent a scandal’ were pathetic. I needed to up the ante and so I read up about a load of past and present scandals in public life, and while I was doing that it seemed like the world went crazy. Migrants were being left to drown in the Mediterranean, our newspapers were full of hatred and lies, and our political classes were failing spectacularly. I poured my rage into the writing. Every time I thought, ‘Is this too much . . . will people believe it?’, something else like #MeToo found its way into the news cycle to spur me on.

Q. What came first, character or plot?

A. I had the plot outline reasonably early on. The characters revealed themselves to me more slowly and I did a lot of layering in of character information in later edits.

In many ways though, location came first. I went to Sweden and visited friends and stayed in their coastal summerhouse in the forest. It was so eerie and beautiful and I knew it would make a great location for a book. The place was like a character itself. It shifted and breathed. But ultimately, I wanted to set the book in the UK, so then I had the lovely job of seeking out a suitable UK location where I could draw on all my previous thoughts.

Q. The plot takes quite a few turns that are unexpected. Did you plan it this way or did the turns surprise you?

A. Although I had the plot outline early, it did undergo changes and yes, I was taken aback at times. The chemistry between Toby and Juliet surprised me. I’ve always thought it sounds nonsensical when authors say things about being ‘surprised’ by their books. After all, aren’t you the one in creative control? You have a plan for what each scene needs to reveal and the information that needs including. But sometimes you’re writing a scene and it seems to take on a life of its own. An idea comes to you out of nowhere for something a character would say or do and you make an unexpected connection or leap.

The opposite can happen as well: you think you’ve got a plan until you realise that something just doesn’t work. For instance, I had a crisis and a long creative block about two thirds of the way in, where I realised that I simply couldn’t plausibly get one of the characters out of the situation I’d created. They just wouldn’t get out of there alive. It took me ages to sort that out. 

Q. This is your debut novel? Have you got plans to write a second novel? If so, will it continue Juliet’s story, or would it be a complete new story with new characters?

I’ve got plans for many, many novels – I’ve been making them up since I was a little girl. It’s just what I do. In bed at night, I tell myself stories. It’s not always good for getting to sleep!

I’m a full outline and a few chapters into writing a sequel to Sea of Bones. However, I’ve got a brand new novel on the go as well. It’s another psychological thriller, set in the entertainment industry this time.

When I was talking to editors about Sea of Bones, I also pitched a Graham-Greene-meets-Alex-Garland type novel, with some of the action in Spain and some in the UK, and their ears seemed to prick up. So, I guess we’ll see where it goes!

Thank you Deborah O’Donoghue for a great interview and also for an emotional psychological thriller that brilliantly portrays the true strength of women. Thank you also to Legend Press, especially Lucy Chamberlain for sending me an advance copy, inviting me to endorse Sea of Bones and helping arrange my interview with Deborah.

For those of you that are regular followers of my blog, you’ll know that I also included Sea of Bones in my recent Top Summer Reads You Shouldn’t Miss post.

Sea of Bones is published today (1st July 2019) so you can easily grab your copy from Amazon and all the great book shops out there.

I’ve been invited to kick off the blog tour of Sea of Bones, which is an absolute pleasure. To follow the blog tour and read the reviews from my fellow book bloggers also taking part, please see below.

Sea of Bones blog tour poster

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