Writing Thrillers on Trains, Visual Story Ideas, and Kidnapping Plots with Rachel Amphlett

Podcast episode 28Thriller author Rachel Amphlett grew up reading thrillers. She mentions both Dick Francis (perhaps my all-time favorite mystery author) and Enid Blyton in our chat; those were two authors who introduced me to the world of mysteries as a young person as well.

I asked Rachel about writing in a genre that is predominantly occupied by men, but like JF Penn, she doesn’t let that phase or stop her. Her Dan Taylor series concerns a former British soldier struggling with PTSD, as well as an injury received during a run-in with an IED.

You can find out more about Rachel and all her books on her website RachelAmphlett.com. And as with so many of my guests, Rachel has a book – and two book extracts – available for free. You can find that on her website.

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on iTunes. And listen on Stitcher.

You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.

Transcript of Interview with Rachel Amphlett

Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery” podcast and I’m here today with Rachel Amphlett. Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: Hi.

Alexandra: How are you?

Rachel: Good, thanks, and thanks for having me on the show.

Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. It’s great to have you here. Let me introduce you to our listeners.

RachelAmphlettBefore moving to Australia in 2005, Rachel Amphlett lived in the UK and helped run a pub, played guitar in bands, worked as a TV and film extra, dabbled in radio as a presenter and freelance producer for the BBC, and worked in publishing as a subeditor and editorial assistant. Her thrillers appeal to a worldwide audience and have been compared to Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, and Clive Cussler.

Thank you so much for being here with me today, Rachel. The thing that I found so intriguing about your books, or one of the things, is that you’re a woman writing in a man’s world. We mentioned J.F. Penn just before we started recording and the conspiracy theory-thriller genre really is dominated by men.

Can you talk a little bit about that? What drew you to this genre?

Rachel: That’s quite easy. The genre is what I read. I started off, like a lot of thriller authors, we started probably starting off at the age of five or six with Enid Blyton’s “The Famous Five.”

I subjected my poor classmates to some of my own short stories at that time, which my mum had to type up because my writing was so bad back then. I think one of my early school reports, the teacher actually wrote, “Her writing looks like a spider walking across the page.”

From “The Famous Five,” I quickly progressed to whatever books were available to me at that time. And I always recall a time where I was staying at my grandparent’s one rainy weekend, all of my reading material was gone. I’d worked my way through it. And my granddad handed me a battered old copy of Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle Has Landed” and I was hooked on thrillers from that point onwards.

I then read all his Dick Francis books, all the Alistair MacLean books each weekend that we spent down there. And from then in my teens and going through my 20s, I discovered people like Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Vince Flynn, etc., etc. Andy McNab. So it’s my comfort zone.

Alexandra: Right, yeah, exactly.

You’ve written the Dan Taylor series, which has I think six books in it now?

Rachel: Not quite. It’s got four and a short story. So the fourth story, the fourth novel came out last month.

Alexandra: Okay, perfect. And then you have three stand-alone books, which are still in the same genre.

Rachel: Yep.

Rachel: Dan Taylor came first. “White Gold” was my first full-length novel and that, I really wrote for myself. I’d got back into my creative writing a few years ago here in Australia and I’d done some short story courses and I’ve had some successes, publications and competitions both here in Australia and in the UK, and this idea was bubbling around in my head for something that was gonna be a lot bigger than a short story.

WhiteGoldI had the context of the plot before I had my character. And then I bored my other half to death over the space of a couple of months and he said…I think it was Christmas Day and we were pretty broke. We’d just bought a house and we’d agreed that we weren’t going to buy each other presents that Christmas and we just got little things for each other. And he handed me this soft laptop case and then I said, “Oh, well, thanks,” you know? “I’ll start writing the novel when I’ve saved up to get the laptop.” And he just handed me the laptop and went, “For goodness sake, just go and write the book.”

I spent the following year learning the ropes of how to write a novel. It took me about eight months to write “White Gold” and over that time, I obviously got to know my character and the novel. So yeah, “White Gold” was just for me basically and then I learned all about publishing.

Alexandra: Right, yeah.

Tell us about Dan. So he’s a British Army officer. Or soldier.

Rachel: He’s a soldier, yeah.

Alexandra: Injured by an IED and so tell us a bit more about him.

Rachel: Yeah, Dan’s a really interesting character. I really like the series “24.” I love the new James Bond films. I adore the Bourne films. But apart from James Bond, you know, all the action characters and a lot of thriller writers in the genre that I read are all based in America. And I don’t think based in America, yet. I’m working on it.

But obviously I know the UK and they always say, you know, “Write what you know.” So I thought, “Okay, I’ll make him British,” and I had quite a lot of contacts within the armed forces so I could pick their brains for information and research purposes.

The best advice I was given…I was doing a novel writing course during that eight months that I was writing “White Gold” with my local writer’s center and it was an online course so it was really easy…and the best advice I ever got during that course from the teacher was, “Do you know what your character’s doing at 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon? And go and write that…it doesn’t have to appear in the book, but that’s how you get to know your character.” And that’s how Dan grew.

I have good friends that have a particular football club that they support, so I thought, “Well, I’d better make him like that club, because if I put in a different one, they’re gonna slay me.” And the dialogue that he has, the temperament that he has, it’s just based on people I know.

UnderFireOver the course of the four books, he’s grown as a character, but so have the supporting characters as well. Dan starts out, as you say, as a soldier recovering from PTSD and he’s in a pretty bad way at the beginning of “White Gold.” And his character arcs through that story is how he, he doesn’t get better because I don’t think you ever do with PTSD. Speaking to people that have had it and having researched a lot about it, I think it’s more about how people learn to cope with it.

And so that journey, he goes through that journey in “White Gold.” And then through the next books, “Under Fire,” “Three Lives Down,” and then “Behind The Wire,” he really grows and becomes…he’s still not quite a team player and he still doesn’t follow rules gladly, but he’s becoming better at it, shall we say.

Alexandra: Very good. And one of the things I’ve wondered, as a writer myself, is that, thrillers are really page-turners and I was reading some of your reviews and they were just glowing and one was really sweet. It said, “If you have dinner plans or something important you have to do, don’t pick up this book because you won’t be able to put it down,” which I thought was really great.

As you’re plotting, do you plot them that way or do you write sort of a larger story and then cut bits out to make it really tight and a page-turner?

Rachel: I’m not a pantser. I started off with “White Gold” completely pantsing it because I was still learning the craft.

With “Under Fire,” I tried the same thing but struggled. That took me a long time to write that book and in the end, I ended up scrapping 20,000 words because I hadn’t plotted it. I set off down a path that then didn’t work and I learned a hard lesson that way and I took a break from the series to write “Before Nightfall” and the idea popped into my head…actually the opening scene popped into my head and I didn’t know how my character got into that situation or how she was gonna get out of it.

It was very important then to just sit down, write out some bullet points of each chapter so I knew where I was going, and that worked so well because I write on the train going to work in the mornings. It meant that if I didn’t feel like writing one particular scene because my head space wasn’t there, I could jump to a chapter that took my interest and just make sure that I kept writing and that worked so well.

BeforeNightfallI had the first draft down of “Before Nightfall” in nine weeks. It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book.

Now I do that with each of my books. I get the initial idea, I decide whether it’s going to be a Dan Taylor one, if it suits that, and usually if it’s gonna be a Dan Taylor one, I can already see him in scenes. The way I get my ideas when I see something in the news or something like that, I start actually seeing scenes in my head as if I’m remembering scenes from movies I’ve seen. That’s the best way I can describe it.

I build those scenes from my head into bullet points, slap them down into a few chapters. Yes, there are still gaps, but it just means that I’ve got at least two-thirds of the book written before I have to go back on the second draft and fill in the spaces.

Alexandra: You anticipated one of my questions so I wondered, if you have an idea, how do you know if it’s a Dan Taylor or not, if it’s set outside that? Are the other criteria other than just not being able to see him in the story?

Rachel: Not really, no. You know, “Before Nightfall,” the opening scene is a woman with a sack over her head and she’s tied to the chair. She’s obviously been kidnapped or something’s going horrendously wrong or someone’s playing some sort of sick joke on her.

LookCloserAnd with “Look Closer,” that’s probably one of my favorite stand-alones. In that one, Will, the protagonist, he’s just an ordinary man in completely extraordinary circumstances. He’s got no special skills. He’s not an ex-soldier. You know, he’s a museum curator.

Often the ideas come to me prepackaged, if you like. I’ve already got a character in mind, so I’m quite lucky in that respect. And the more I do it, I wouldn’t say it’s been easier, but the process happens a lot quicker.

Alexandra: And you touched there on current events as well in saying that they inspire you a little bit. I noticed that in some of your reviews, people were intrigued by the things like terrorism, natural resource acquisition, all that kind of stuff.

I’m guessing you’re inspired by what’s going on currently and then twist it a little bit for the purposes of the plot?

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think I’d probably get into trouble if I told people how to really build a bomb. I really don’t want our Federal police knocking on my front door either. That could take some weeks of explaining and no one would know where I was.

I’m a bit of a news junkie. I struggle these days to try to find unbiased news, but I do seek it out and I’m just interested in a lot of things. I’ll read something and then the little idea will sort of start bubbling around, it’s like, “Ah, what if,” and then I just go off down a tangent.

That would be my advice to anyone wanting to write this sort of stuff is keep reading the news because there’s so many ideas out there that haven’t been used.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah, exactly. And so you mentioned the protagonist in the book about kidnapping, Kate, I think her name is…

Rachel: Yeah.

Alexandra: And what’s it like for you writing…because most of your main characters seem to be men…so what was it like, was there a bit of a shift you had to make to write about a woman?

Rachel: Yeah, I really enjoyed the shift, too. I didn’t want Kate to be a damsel in distress. You know, I’ve done martial arts. I’m the only girl in my family. I grew up fighting my way out of a few scraps with my brother and the occasional cousin, so it would never work for me if one of my female characters was just simply a damsel in distress.

There’s certain things I can’t or won’t do. And it’s interesting, I’ve had conversations with people like Zoë Sharp, she writes the Charlie Fox series, and she’s very, very much like me. Her female characters can stand up for themselves as well. Yeah, it just fit the story.

I really liked “Before Nightfall” in that Kate became very resourceful. Everybody started up at the beginning of the book not thinking that she was learning from her predeployment training course, and I think she surprises herself, how much she does remember once she’s actually in the situation.

Alexandra: And getting back to Dan a little bit, do you have plans to continue the series?

Rachel: Yeah, yeah. I published “Three Lives Down” at the end of last year and again that was a very quick write because I’ve been away from those characters for so long, so it’s kinda like hanging out with old friends, which sounds completely bonkers unless you’re a writer, so that came together very quickly but because it had been so long between “Under Fire” coming out, “Three Lives Down,” I think it was about 18 months because I’d written the three standalones in the middle.

ThreeLivesDownI gave…without giving anything away, I did give myself and out that if the book wasn’t received well, I can sort of go, “Okay, well, that’s that one then. I’ll move on to another project.” And everyone enjoyed it so much that I obviously had to rethink things and that’s why I published “Behind the Wire” last month. I think it had published a week before we got on the plane to come back to the UK for Crimefest. And it’s just been received so well and it’s really fun because I do like those characters, so yeah, as long as people keep reading them and they want them, I’ll keep writing them.

Alexandra: So it is based a bit on reader reception.

Rachel: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, time is precious. You know what it’s like as a writer. You’ve only got so many hours in the day you can write and if there isn’t the market for that book.

I was listening to a another podcast during the course of the week and I think they were interviewing Russell Blake and he basically said, “As an indie author, you’ve got to look at doing the business side as well as the writing side, the creative side of it. You’ve got to view each of your stories as an agent would. Are readers going to like this?”

He said, “Yeah, okay, do the occasional one for self-indulgence, but at the end of the day, you want to reach out to readers, you want to entertain your readers, you want to keep them, you know, buying books and supporting you.” I thought that was really good advice.

Alexandra: That is good advice. That’s great.

We should mention that “White Gold” is available for 99 cents.

Rachel: That’s right. That’s the opening one, and earlier this year I really…again, without giving anything away…I really enjoyed the opening scene in “White Gold.” I had a lot of fun doing that. I really like the feedback I’ve been getting from people that were in the Gulf War and also in Iraq, they said it’s very, very realistic.

LegacyDeviceAnd so I published a prequel short story to “White Gold” called “The Legacy Device” to give a little taste out to people and that’s available for free as well. So people can just sort of test me out and not spend any money.

Alexandra: Yes, exactly. Give it a try and see if if it’s…

Rachel: Yeah, try before you buy.

Alexandra: Exactly.

You just published the most recent Dan Taylor. Are you working on something else right now?

Rachel: I am, yes. I’ve got a new three-part espionage series that I’m about two-thirds of the way through. That started off as a single book. That was going to be a standalone and then the supporting characters became so interesting to me. I was like, “This is an opportunity wasted if I just make it one book.”

I’m going to wait until all three books are ready to come out and then I’ll probably just bring them all out in one go. And I’ve got a couple of other standalone ideas rattling around in my head and, of course, I’ve got to start researching the next Dan Taylor.

Alexandra: Yes, yeah. Never a dull moment, right?

Rachel: Oh, no.

Alexandra: And you say you write on the train. I’m just curious about that from a writer’s perspective.

Do you wear headphones like you’re wearing now or do you have the big noise canceling ones?

Rachel: I don’t have the noise canceling headphones. It’s really weird. Normally I’ve just got these in. When I first started writing I had to be in complete silence. I couldn’t have any distractions or anything like that. And when I started writing on the train, because I realized that I wanted to increase my output, I wasn’t writing enough to keep up with the ideas that I had.

MistakeCreekWe’re very lucky here in Brisbane, our trains have what they call quiet carriages, and so that’s normally where, like, usually big bundles of people read books or whatever. Occasionally it can get a bit noisy on there, so I got into the habit of listening to music and now it’s…there are particular types of music that I can listen to and it just becomes like white noise in the background and it works quite well. It really does.

Alexandra: That’s great. Good for you. I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t know if I could write in public.

Rachel: I think it’s like anything. After about four to six weeks, you develop the habit. And these days, as soon as my bum hits the seat when I get on the train, I’m writing, so it’s doing well.

Alexandra: Oh, that’s fantastic. That’s great. Well, Rachel, it’s been so lovely talking to you and all the way from Australia, so why don’t you let us know where we can find your books? What’s your website address?

Rachel: My website address is www.rachelamphlett.com and you can find me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Alexandra: Great, thank you so much. And we should say Amphlett is A-M-P-H-L-E-T-T.

Rachel: …L-E-T-T. Thank you so much for having me today.

Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. Take care.

Rachel: See you.

Alexandra: Bye.

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