Character development is probably my favorite things about stories. Any kind of story; books, films and TV shows. Today my guest, author Malcolm Richards, seems to share this obsession with character. His psychological mystery series features an amateur sleuth whose own journey is as central to the story as the mystery she is solving.
The author of four novels, with another just about to be released, Malcolm Richards has an interesting past career as a pirate. (I’m just kidding about the pirate part. He’s from Penzance though, so we have to make that joke.) 🙂
You can also watch the episode on YouTube.
Transcript of Interview with Malcolm Richards
Alexandra: Hi everyone, I’m Alexandra Amor, this is It’s a Mystery Podcast and I’m here today with Malcolm Richards. Hi, Malcolm, how are you?
Malcolm: I’m good, Alexandra, how are you doing?
Alexandra: I’m good. We’re here today to talk primarily about your two Emily Swanson mystery novels, and so let me just introduce you to everyone.
Cornish-born Malcolm Richards, is the author of the psychological mystery novel The Hiding House, and the Emily Swanson mystery thrillers, a dark and emotionally driven amateur sleuth series. Filled with characters from the sidelines of society, his novels are as much about the protagonists finding themselves as they are about finding the next tightly plotted clue. Malcolm lives in London, and has worked as a teacher of young people with emotional and behavioral needs, a teacher of creative writing, and as a copywriter, scriptwriter, and editor. So, it’s great to have you here today, Malcolm. I love that you say that your books are as much about what the characters are going though as about the plot and the mystery. Those are the books I like to read and to write as well. Yeah.
Malcolm: Yeah, me too. Because I’m into kind of character-driven different stories. Definitely.
Tell us a little bit about Emily. I read the description of the first book and I loved that it said she’s a troubled young teacher who has moved to London. As soon as I read that I thought, “Ooh, tell me more.”
Malcolm: I think the crux of the first book is that there are two mysteries going on. One, very much centered around Emily and who she is and where she came from, and the driving mystery though the novel of the missing tenant that she’s trying to find. But so, I think, we learn that Emily is from the countryside, she comes from a small village and she’s just moved to London and the mystery around her is the fact that she’s moved there with not knowing anyone. She has no job and no one seems to know anything about her. And she moves into this apartment building called the Homeswood, where she meets her neighbor, Jerome and another neighbor, an older lady called Harriet.
And while she moves into this flat, she finds out that the former tenant has gone missing. And most people think that she’s run away, or left her violent husband. But Emily is not so sure. There are a few things that she finds in the apartment and a few other things that she learns that might say otherwise. She becomes very curious, in her nature she is a very curious person, and becomes embroiled in this mystery and manages to get Jerome embroiled in this mystery as well. And they form this duo, but it goes very wrong for her very quickly and dangerously.
And yeah, so while that’s happening, like I said, there’s the mystery around her and Jerome is wondering why she’s so guarded. Why doesn’t she talk about her past? Why is she not keen to let people get close to her? So, and those two mysteries become entwined and it’s very hard to talk about the story without…not talking about the story. Because there’s little twists and there are certainly turns, and what’s happened to Emily in the past is very integral to her solving this other mystery. It’s one of those stories, the less you know, the better.
Alexandra: Okay. Good. Yeah. Well, you had me hooked with the description. It does sound really interesting. And then the second book, which we were just talking about before we came online, was just released yesterday.
And for those people who are listening, that was the last week of February 2016. Because that’s when we’re recording this. And so in that one, Emily goes to, and I love this, a digital retreat. Is that what you called it?
Malcolm: A digital detox retreat.
Alexandra: Digital detox, right.
Alexandra: So, she’s been on her computer too much, wants a break.
Malcolm: Yeah, well, without talking too much about what happens at the end of the first one. It’s set two months after, so although it’s a standalone story and all the stories I’m planning for Emily are kind of standalone, but they’re all kind of connected, one leads into another. So, in Cruel Minds, which is the book that came out yesterday, it’s actually months after Lost Lives. And what’s happened has left her feeling slightly frazzled, shall we say. She’s kind of suffering little bit of post-traumatic stress. She’s having nightmares, she can’t sleep, and she just wants to get away from London and get away from people, and just go somewhere that’s really quiet and peaceful.
And Jerome suggests trying a retreat, which she’s never done before. And she’s experimenting a little bit with meditation and she’s kind of having therapy at this point. And so she goes to Meadow Pines, which is a digital detox retreat, where there are no phones, no computers, no internet allowed, nothing. So, you are in the middle of a new forest, surrounded by miles of trees and nothing to do apart from reconnect with yourself. And, while she’s there, one of the other guests winds up dead. And so, yeah, another mystery for her to solve.
Alexandra: What was I going to ask? It’s gone out of my head. There was something there about the plot.
What’s it like for you, writing from the point of view of a woman? So, you have two other books in addition to the Emily Swanson pair.
Alexandra: And one of them is about children, The Hiding house.
Alexandra: And the other one is a novella, Walking After Midnight. And I noticed that’s from the point of view of women as well. So, tell us a little bit about that. What’s that like for you?
Malcolm: I grew up in a house of women and growing up surrounded by women. I’m one of four children and I’m the only boy.
Malcolm: I’m the second oldest of the siblings. My mom was a very strong character in my life, and my dad…when I was younger, my dad was working away a lot. So, it was just me and my mom and my sisters. And I kind of grew up in that environment. And I’ve always had a very strong connection with women in that way, I guess. I think of myself as a feminist and promoting equal rights for women and stuff.
I’ve always kind of been like that. I’ve grown up in a female environment, where I see women struggle every day. Yeah, with kind of getting what they deserve, equal rights, etc. I guess I find that I identify with women better in some ways. And so I find female characters a lot easier to write in some ways. I think I find them more interesting, to write about, in the sense that with likeable male characters, it’s all their bravado. Tough guys and stuff. And I don’t find that very interesting.
And that’s why it’s quite fun to write Jerome, as well, because he’s not like that at all. He’s quite sensitive but funny, and he uses his humor as his strength. But he’s sensitive and he is, like, not a typical bloke guy sort of thing.
I admit, I quite enjoy writing female characters. And my editor, she’s also one of my oldest friends. She’s also an excellent writer. She’s really good at kind of keeping me on track with Emily and making sure she’s believable, and that her motivations are believable, and her actions are believable. So, she won’t hold back in telling me, “She wouldn’t do that sort of…” Even down to, “She wouldn’t wear that.”
Malcolm: We had a lengthy discussion in book one about…I think I had her wearing a knitted hat, which basically what was just far too…what’s the word I’m looking for? Frumpy and just plain. She’s your heroine, she doesn’t need an old knitted hat. So yeah, she keeps me in check.
Alexandra: Oh, good. Yeah, that was going to be my next question. Did you have a woman who could give you feedback, who could read early drafts.
Malcolm: My mom reads them, my sisters read them, and a lot of female friends. That means generally, I’ve had no complaints so far about it not being a believable portrayal of a character. I’d say she didn’t think so. People find it quite interesting when they first meet her, because she’s not the easiest character to get to know or to empathize with, really, because of the mystery surrounding her and because she is so close-guarded. It’s very difficult to kind of empathize with her, I suppose. Until you find out what’s happened to her, until you kind of get to know her, until she opens up and you get to know her and get to kind of care about her. Yes, and I found that writing her as well I was very worried that people wouldn’t like her at first.
Alexandra: Oh, interesting, yeah.
Malcolm: Because I thought she was kind of, like I said, shut down, and it wasn’t until towards the end, and I really worked really hard to make her sort of more open and likable towards the end. Once you learned what has happened to her, what she’s been through…no spoilers.
So then by book two, I worked really hard again, because she’s on a big journey, and I think the whole story arc for her, across the series, is a journey of self-discovery. She’s going through therapy and she’s trying different things out. Her whole life is starting over again. So it’s really fascinating to write her. But I have to try and keep the empathy there.
I do feel like, in book two, Cruel Minds, she’s much more her own person. I think in the first book, having Jerome and Harriet and people like that who are much more emotional around her kind of made up for her being so closed out. The reader could maybe relate to that, to that sort of emotional side of things.
Alexandra: Yeah, and you’re from Cornwall originally, correct?
Malcolm: Yeah, that’s right.
Alexandra: And have moved to London, and Emily’s from a small town as well and has moved to London.
I imagine that you share some experiences of being new Londoners, you and Emily. How much of a character in the book does London play?
Malcolm: In the first book, it plays quite a bit of character, I think. Yeah. Emily finds it very difficult when she’s first there. When you get to book two, you find out that she’s actually from Cornwall as well.
Malcolm: Yeah. But yeah, London’s quite a big character in the first one, in the sense of locations. She gets to travel around a little bit. Maybe not to all the sort of sight-seeing places, but she’s certainly going to get to travel around a few places you might not necessarily have heard of unless you live in London or are familiar, and she has to travel outside as well.
But I think it’s interesting, her battle with living in London, it’s quite a bit of a metaphor in the book I suppose about her own battles with coming into new life and things. And the difficulty that it’s very loud, there are millions of people. Yeah, for me, when I first moved to London, which was a long time ago now, I’ve been here since ’97…
Alexandra: Oh, wow.
Malcolm: I remember moving here from Penzance, which has, you know, a population of a few thousand people, to a population of several million. It’s overwhelming. It took me a long time to get used to it. And now I’m here, and I’ve been here for a long, long time. I find the longer I live here now, the further I move out. And now I’m kind of living in southeast London and, like, barely London. I quite like that.
But I think with Emily, she’s going through that initial sort of trauma, I think you’d call it, that some people go through when they first move to London. Because it is so big, and it’s so overwhelming, and it’s so, so noisy.
Alexandra: Yes. Yeah, exactly. And then you mentioned too that nature is really important to you.
Alexandra: So, it kind of makes sense that in the second book, Cruel Minds, she’s out in the forest.
Malcolm: The forest is one of my favorite places to be. You know, where I grew up, it was a small fishing town, but it was right on the edge of the countryside as well. When I was younger, my sisters used to go walking in the woods. We’d disappear for hours and it would be fine. It was the ’70 and early ’80, you could do that then.
Malcolm: But obviously surrounded by nature, it’s always been a big thing in my life. I like to write about it a lot. My first book, The Hiding House, is very much set in that time, or actually in that environment, the forest, the countryside. And again, in book two of Emily, Cruel Minds, it’s the forest again. And I think, for me, it’s about peace and quiet, and it’s about stillness. And I think that’s what Emily’s looking for. So, it seems quite natural for her to then go to somewhere like that in the second book.
Malcolm: And, I’m kind of toying with this idea as well because I’m planning at least six books around Emily. And I have ideas for most of them. But I have a kind of idea where she will be alternating. One book will be in the city, one book would be somewhere out in the countryside. It’s interesting for me and also I think just kind of as a gimmick or grounding, or whatever. It’s quite fun to do something like that. And it’s good for her as well, I think, because she starts to like London more in book two. But she’s still indecisive about whether she wants to stay there, so, good for her to go and try different places now in case she wants to defect.
Alexandra: Yes, right?
One way that you described the books was that they’re sort of a mystery/thriller hybrid.
Alexandra: So, they’re fast-paced.
Alexandra: But they have the clues coming up, just like a mystery does. And I like that combination, along with the psychological development of the character. That must be a lot for you, as the author, to grapple with.
Malcolm: Yeah, it is. I don’t know why I’ve done this, so… The first book was…to be honest, the first book, Lost Lives, was supposed to be a standalone. It was basically like a mystery thriller. But then the way it ended, I really liked the character and I wanted to continue it. You know, I’ve always been a big mystery fan and a thriller fan, growing up watching mysteries and reading mysteries from, like, The Hardy Boys and things like that. I used to love…there used to be a series of kids’ books called Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators. Which I really liked.
I really liked mystery, and I wanted to sort of blend the two, or three, in the psychological… So, I think it’s more kind of elements. I think really at the heart of both the Emily Swanson series, they are mysteries, but they have elements of thriller. There is running, and there’s chasing, and there’s fighting for your life, and people trying to kill you. But it also has the mystery element, where she is following a clue, and one clue leads to another, and a bit more is revealed and a bit more is revealed. And then it has the psychological element, which is really more about Emily’s state of mind and a progression of her state of mind.
It’s quite a lot to juggle. I think the first book was hard to write, as it was the first book in the series. And I did have it sort of planned out, and it just turned out that way. It wasn’t an intentional thing.
But with book two now, and now I’m down to start planning…well, I have started planning book three. Now, it’s kind of like, “Well, I’ve started something now, so I’ve got to continue with these themes.” With Cruel Minds, I think, again, it’s different from the first book. It’s much more of a murder mystery. It’s a whodunit, really. But it does have thriller elements, and there is chasing through the woods, and attempted murder, and a lot of psychological stuff going on. Because thematically, it’s about exploring the mind and it’s about exploring…sort of healing the mind and recovering from trauma, really.
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
You have the third one planned. Do you know when you might expect it to be out?
Malcolm: I’m hoping, again, for maybe around end of May, beginning of June . I’ve set myself a goal. Trying to bring a book out, in the series, every three months. I was a little late with Cruel Minds because I lost time in November and had planned for it to come out in January. I think I spent about 18 months writing Lost Lives. And I set myself a goal of three months with Cruel Minds. Well, that turned into five months. But you know, you live and learn.
Alexandra: Exactly, right? You learn with each book. Yes. So, the third one will be out this year, then? May…
Malcolm: Oh, yeah.
Alexandra: …summer time. Yeah
Malcolm: My 2016 plan is to get another three books out this year.
Alexandra: Good for you.
Malcolm: So, book three, for Emily, is going to be May-June. I’m kind of two minds because I really want to start another series, as well, another mystery series, which will probably be actually a trilogy. It’s set in a small town, which probably would be set in Cornwall. And I want to do a kind of dark murder mystery that’s set across three books. I really want to do that. But at the same time, I really want to carry on with Emily. So, I think I’m going to get to book three. I’m going to see how I feel.
But either way, by the end of the year, we’ll have the rest of Emily Swanson or we’ll have another series. And if that happens, then Emily will continue next year. But we’ll see. And we’ll see what readers think as well, because that’s important. If people really want more Emily, then I’ll give them some more Emily.
Alexandra: Yes. Yeah, Exactly. Oh, good for you. Well, this has been awesome, Malcolm. Thank you so much for talking to me today and I tweeted out a few minutes ago that you’re my first pirate ever on the show.
Malcolm: Yarr, then.
Alexandra: Yeah, that’s right. The Cornish… Sorry, say that again.
Malcolm: Just wanted to say thank you.
Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. The Cornish pirate from Penzance. I love that little mention on your website.
Malcolm: Yeah, with my pirate tattoos.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, exactly. So, tell everyone where they can find your books, and what your website address is.
Malcolm: Sure, well, you can find…Lost Lives at the moment is on all the major platforms. You can actually get it for free on Nook and Kobo and iBooks. It hopefully should be free on Amazon in the next week or so. Cruel Minds is on Amazon at the moment and will be going to other platforms soon. But you can visit my website, which is malcolmrichardsauthor.com. It’s M-A-L-C-O-L-M and Richard’s has an S on the end. Just have to say it because people spell my name wrong all the time.
Malcolm: Okay, so malcolmrichardsauthor.com. And you can actually get Lost Lives for free from my website with a Lost Lives case file, which is sort of DVD-style extras to go along with the book like a companion piece, just for signing up to my readers newsletter list.
Alexandra: Oh, awesome. Okay. For sure. Well, I’ll make a note of that in the show notes as well.
Alexandra: All right, well, thank you so much again. It’s been great chatting with you.
Malcolm: Yeah, you too, Alexandra. Thanks for having me.
Alexandra: Take care.
Malcolm: Yeah, you too. Bye-bye.