To discover how others are working, Loretta Flockhart speaks to writers and illustrators 

about their creative spaces, processes and inspirations.

This month we hear from writer James Nicol.

James Nicol’s latest middle grade book, The Cloud Thief, is a magical fantasy adventure with an eco-twist. Set in a world where the weather is a commodity and is bought, sold and controlled by the mysterious and powerful Cloud Factory. Mara Keysmith sets out to steal a piece of cloud to heal her father’s illness but ends up on a grand adventure with Eban, a cloud attendant, and a stolen cloud!

James' previous books, The Spell Tailors and The Apprentice Witch series, have been highly acclaimed bestsellers and his books have been translated all around the world.

James at work in his creative space

What’s your ideal creative space and where do you usually end up working?
My ideal space would be a lovely little cottage in the dunes overlooking a nice sandy bay with no one around . . . oh I got lost in that daydream for a mo, sorry!
I’m lucky to have a lovely writing room at home that overlooks the garden and I’m sure most people would kill for it.

When do you do your best work or feel most inspired?
With two small children and a part time job I have to work when there is time rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. So I mostly work in the evenings which is how it was when I was first started out 13 years ago!

Where do your ideas come from?
From everywhere. I love that some ideas just sort of drift towards you and stick and others you have to hunt down or catch with a snare!

James' latest book, The Cloud Thief 

What are your favourite tools for writing?
I tend to start with a notebook and mechanical pencil, a Faber Castell Grip Plus – I have several of them. I don’t really have a preference on the notebook and have probably enough notebooks for the next 5 books – please don’t tell my husband though as he is under the impression I am always in need of new notebooks.
Once I get onto the laptop I use Scrivener for the early drafts and I love it.

Notebooks and pens

What inspires your work?
So many things inspire me – other writers, music, films, snatches of gossip. I’m often inspired by a place at the early start of a story, a bit like the curtain rising on a stage just before the characters walk onto the set. Then it depends on the story I am hoping to write as to where I might turn next for inspiration. 
Pinterest is a given. Then building a soundtrack for the story as I write. This can be sound effects, ambient noise and music. I try to keep open to all sorts of inspirations and see what sticks!

What encourages or hinders your work?
I think it’s the same things that do both!
I’m wildly inspired as a parent but at the same time my focus is mostly on the children. I find deadlines very encouraging!


The Apprentice Witch series by James Nicol

How far into a new project do you feel comfortable sharing your ideas?

I’m always sharing ideas with someone, be it writer friends or my agent early in the process then as I write the story and feel confident with it, I might share with close friends and family. 

So much can change in the writing and editing process but once things settle – ie my editor is happy – then I’m more likely to tell you what’s next.


Do you work in the same way for each project and proposal?
Yes, though I really should write my process down at some point – like a recipe – as I always seem to forget how I do it whenever I start. But then like all the best recipes we don’t need to have them written down. We know how it goes!

Has the way you create changed over time or is it the same as its always been? 

It evolves with each book but in small ways that you probably don’t notice. I do feel that my process of is different from when I first started out. 

I work on a solid outline now before I begin a project. This goes past my agent and publisher and might get revised before I start writing. This can be time consuming but as I’m not a natural plotter this helps me know where I’m headed.

The story still unfurls naturally though as the outline may only cover big plot points and main character development so there’s plenty of surprises as I write and get to know the story.  

I also enjoy the editing process now as I didn’t know what it involved before.

Have you surprised yourself about the way your creativity flows?

When I first started I used to spend so long getting everything set up that I used up much of the time I had to write faffing about or procrastinating. I can now write in small snatches and pretty much anywhere – though I’ve not tried it at a soft play centre yet – that may be a ball-pit too far!


The Spell Tailors by James Nicol

Best bit of creative advice?
When I was working with the brilliant Bella Pearson at The Golden Egg Academy she told me not to worry about the beginning and ending of the story as these are the bits that get changed the most during the editing process. That freed me to stop worrying over it and just do it.
I hold that to my heart each time I start a new project.

Why do you write children’s books?
Because they’re the best! And there is something so powerful in the books that we read as children that means they stay with us forever and shape us in a way very few other books ever will.

What was your favourite book as a child and do you still have a copy?
The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith was really the book that made me into a reader. It was a gift from my beloved Nana who bought it at a jumble sale. It’s safely behind me on the book shelves as I type, though the cover has come loose so I try not to fiddle with it too much.

*Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo

**All other images courtesy of James Nicol  


You can find James on Instagram and X: @JamesENicol and on website is 


Loretta Flockhart is the Creative Secrets editor for Words & Pictures
You can find her on X  @lolajflo 


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.
Contact them at 


Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact her at: 

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