If you like psychological thrillers in the vein of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you’re going to love this interview with best-selling author Rachel Abbott.
As you’ll hear me mention in the beginning of the interview, Rachel is one of the UK’s very best selling authors. And for good reason. She writes taught, twisty, psychological mystery-thrillers that keep her readers guessing until the very last page. If you’re looking for some books that will keep you up at night, turning the pages, you’ve come to the right place. 😉
Rachel is an incredibly busy – and generous! – author. She speaks at many live events each year, and also at prisons, which you’ll hear her mention. I am so grateful that she took the time to speak to me for this episode of It’s a Mystery Podcast.
No personal introduction on the audio from me today. It was a long weekend in Canada and I’m late getting the show out as it is. Enjoy!!
Links and resources mentioned in this episode
- Click on any of the book covers to go to Rachel’s books on Amazon
- Rachel’s website: Rachel-Abbott.com
Sadly, technology was not our friend during this podcast, so there is no corresponding YouTube video.
Transcription of Interview with Rachel Abbott
Alexandra: Hi, mystery readers, I’m Alexandra Amor. This is “It’s a Mystery Podcast,” and I’m here today with Rachel Abbott. Hi, Rachel.
Rachel: Hi, Alexandra, how are you?
Alexandra: Very well. How are you?
Alexandra: Good. Well, thank you so much for being with me here today. I’m gonna give our listeners a little bit of an introduction to you.
Rachel Abbott was born and raised in Manchester and is now the internationally bestselling author of seven crime novels, including her most recent, “The Sixth Window.” In August 2015, Amazon revealed that Rachel is the U.K.’s bestselling independent author over the last five years. She is also listed at number 14 in the list of U.K. bestselling authors both traditionally and independently published over the same five-year period, outselling authors like Jeffrey Archer and Jojo Moyes. Her books have been translated into seven different languages. Rachel presently lives in Alderney in the Channel Islands, which are between England and France, where she writes full time.
You have a really great story about how you began writing that involves a snow storm.
Why don’t you share that story with our listeners?
Rachel: Well, yes, it kind of does. I’d been thinking for quite a long time that I would like to write. But like a lot of people, I couldn’t find the time to do it. And I decided I really wanted to write about 10 years before I started, but I was still working full time, and so as I drove to work to and from work every day, I used to actually plot murders in the car which was quite an interesting way of passing the time, really.
Eventually I sold my business and took early retirement to go and live in Italy, which sounds idyllic. And it is, it’s a beautiful place to live, but everybody thinks the sun shines all the time, and that’s not quite true. So one particular winter, we were snowed in, and I’m not a great fan of housework at the best of times, and I thought, “How on earth? What am I going to do with myself?” Because I’d read a couple of books and I thought I need to do something. So I took myself off into the office and I thought, “Right, I’m gonna have a go. I’m gonna try and write that book.” So I did. I sat down and I made a start on the book. And according to my husband, I didn’t reappear out of the office for eight weeks.
Alexandra: Oh, my goodness.
Rachel: I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But because I’d had the idea for so long and I’d really worked out the plot in massive detail during these long drives to work, it was very quick to write the first version. It took a lot longer to get it to the final version, but writing the first version was very quick. And then when I finished it, obviously, that’s when the hard work really starts. But, yeah, I just used to appear for the occasional meal and to stock up on chocolate biscuits, and that was about it, really.
Alexandra: And we should mention that if listeners haven’t read your books, they’re full of all kinds of psychological twists and turns.
I imagine that that must be something that’s fun for you to write and to plot out. Is that true?
Rachel: Yes, I like thinking about dilemmas, and that’s how the first book actually came about. I saw a television program. I can’t remember what it is now, which is a real shame, but it was about a woman murderer, and not many of us women are actually murderers. And so I thought, “What set of circumstances could be so bad that a woman would have no choice but to murder a man?”
That was really what got me started. And so what I wanted was I wanted a perfectly normal, rational woman to have no other choice. So I had to discount anything else she could do. She couldn’t go to the police. She couldn’t tell family. There was no way out of it. The only way out of the terrible situation she was in was to kill him. So, not only did I think that she needed to kill him, but I also wanted her, strangely, to get away with it, or at least to stand a chance of getting away with it. So it made it quite an interesting one to pursue, really.
Alexandra: And once you had it all plotted out in your head, then do you move onto like a mind map or an Excel spreadsheet or anything?
Rachel: I do. I use every possible sort of technology actually, Alexandra. So my company was an interactive media company, so I started off as a systems analyst. And as a systems analyst, obviously, you have to do lots of things like flowcharts, or you used to have to. Probably, things have moved on now. It’s a long time ago. But I like flowcharts, and so I do do flowcharts either on paper or I use Scapple which is a piece of software provided by the same people that write the new Scrivener.
I also used another piece of software, and I can’t remember what it was called, but it was a really, really good, very similar to Scrivener in the way that it works. You could write individual scenes and put them all together how you wanted. But it had a great flowcharting section to it. I stopped using it because Scrivener has got other features that I liked a lot better. But it was great to be able to do an individual story line for every single character and flowchart all of that, which I loved.
Alexandra: You must have to keep really close track of what you know, what the readers know, and what the individual characters know or don’t know.
Rachel: Yes, I do, and one of the reasons why I really like using Scrivener because I use keywords quite a lot. So for example, in the first book, there’s a telephone, a mobile phone. But when I was writing it, I wrote that he couldn’t find his mobile phone. And at the time I wrote it, you must know this, right, because you write yourself, but at the time I wrote it, I had no idea what had happened to this mobile phone. I didn’t even know why I’d mentioned it.
But once it was there, it had to have a story. So using keywords in Scrivener, I can actually attach the keyword mobile phone to whichever scenes it’s mentioned in. And then at the end, I can just read all the scenes or the chapters where the phone is mentioned to make sure that it makes perfect sense all the way through the book.
Alexandra: Right. Okay, that’s a feature of Scrivener I’ve never used and so I’m writing it down because I’m going to have to go back.
Rachel: It’s great, actually. It’s really good. You’ve got lots of things to keep track of. And I also have spreadsheets. So I was doing a spreadsheet yesterday for the current book that I’m writing. I’ve nearly finished the book, and I’m only just doing the spreadsheet, which sounds back to front, but it was only as I was writing it that the time scales seemed to make sense to me. And now, as I go back to edit it, I have to make sure that not only do they make sense to me, but they make sense in the book. So I’ve now done a spreadsheet with all the timings of what happens to whom, when, etc.
And I even go to the lengths of the second book I wrote. It’s called “The Back Road,” and in it, it starts or more or less starts with a dinner party, and there are eight people around the table. And it suddenly occurred to me that as you’re writing a book like that, you say somebody turned to their right. So who was sitting next to them? So I actually did a table plan because I wanted to know whether people had to lean across the table to talk to a certain person or turn to their left, or whether they were next to them. And that kind of detail, I think, makes a huge difference.
Alexandra: Oh, absolutely, yeah. If it’s clear in your head, then it’ll be clear in the reader’s head for sure.
Rachel: Well, that’s the plan.
Alexandra: Yeah, yes, yeah, exactly. Given your background in technology, your books are quite psychological.
Has human nature and psychology always been an interest for you?
Rachel: That’s an interesting question as well because I was only saying to my sister last week that I really wish that I’d done a degree in psychology because I, just now, find it so fascinating. I keep coming across different aspects of human nature, really, and different personality traits that I’ve not heard of before. And I love exploring them and seeing how they come about and what makes people behave the way that they do.
When I was writing “Kill Me Again,” which was the one before “The Sixth Window,” I was investigating the dark triad, which is a person who has the combination of Machiavellianism, also…let me just think what else they are. They’re narcissists as well and, you know, they’re psychopaths as well. So those are the three. That’s the dark triad. I just think it’s fascinating, all these different characteristics. And even more fascinating when you learn that something like 6% of all men are narcissists. It may come as a surprise to some of you listeners.
Alexandra: Yeah, maybe, maybe not. Oh, goodness. And because your books are so twisty and turny, where do you find that the ideas come from? I mean, the first book, “Only the Innocent,” you said you were working on it for a while while you commuted.
Where do the others come from, do you think?
Rachel: They all come from different things. So the third book, “Sleep Tight,” that came about because I’d read about a tiger kidnap. So I don’t know whether you know what a tiger kidnap is? I didn’t know what it was so I don’t necessarily expect other people to.
Basically, a tiger kidnap is when, well, a person or a group of people kidnaps the family of a person in order to make him commit a crime. So for example, the family of a security company…they would be kidnapped and then the person that worked for the security company would be then basically blackmailed into saying, “If you don’t get into the company and take all those gold bars out that you’ve got in your cellar, your family will die.”
Alexandra: Okay, no I hadn’t heard of that either.
Rachel: Right, so that’s a tiger kidnap, and there was a big security company raid in the U.K. and that’s how it came about. But I always then like to twist it. I don’t want it to just be like that. I want it to be: But what happens if actually the man whose family were kidnapped was in on it, and he was actually pretending that he was a tiger kidnap so that he could get some money, too?
And his family weren’t going to come to any harm, but then what happens if all that went wrong and his family did come to some harm? So, I just like to take the basic idea and then turn it on its head and see what happens if things are not exactly the way you think they might be.
Alexandra: Right, it sounds like you tend to see an idea out in the real world and then, as you say, turn it on its head or twist it a bit.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s exactly what I do. Then, one I’m writing at the moment came about as a result of…I quite often do talks at prisons or I try to do them. I’ve not done that many. But, I do try to do talks at prisons whenever the opportunity arises. And I did a talk at a women’s prison a few months ago. And I found that to be fascinating, but also it did give me a very good…well, I hope, it’s a very good idea for a book.
Alexandra: Oh, yeah, well we’ll have to wait anxiously and see if that comes about. And then you had an interesting thing happen. Your fourth book was called “Stranger Child,” and when it came out, you got a lot of feedback from readers about the end of the book. And subsequently, you ended up writing a novella to follow on from “Stranger Child.”
Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Rachel: Yes, it was a really strange thing, actually, because when I wrote “Stranger Child,” there is a young girl, and this is the tiger kidnap one. So, when the tiger kidnap originally took place, the little girl was abducted, but she wasn’t returned to the family home. And when she’s 13, she turns up. She turns up back in the family home.
And she’s obviously had a very, very difficult and rough upbringing. And she’s not the ideal 13 year old. You know, they’re not renowned for being the easiest, but she’s clearly the worst. But as you get to know this child, you realize how conflicted she is and how confused she is. And then when I came to write the end of the book, my agent said to me, “Oh, what do you think it should end like?” And we had a chat about it, and we agreed that it was all going to end quite nicely.
When I started to write it, I thought, “No, that’s not what would happen at all. It would end completely differently to this. This child would not have said, ‘Oh, I’m so glad to be back in the family home.’ It just wouldn’t have happened.”
So I sat down to write it, and the ending I wrote was completely different to the ending I had in mind. And to me, it was the right ending. It was the perfect ending.
But loads of people started to write in, “Oh, we want to know what happened to Tasha. Can you tell us what happened to Tasha?” So I thought, “You know, I’m gonna have to do this.” But I loved writing it because it was actually for me as well. It was a really good way to round it all off because I’d left her very much in limbo with no intention at all of ever writing any more about her. But once I did, I was really glad to have done because, you know, you know, yourself, when you write, these characters become like real people.
Rachel: And you need to be sure of their ending, that everything in their life is the way you would want it to be, which might not be perfect but is, you know, hopefully the way you’d like it to be.
Alexandra: Yes, exactly. I thought it was so fascinating. We should say that the novella that follows on is called “Nowhere Child,” and it’s a shorter book. And it follows on with Tasha’s story from “Stranger Child.”
Rachel: That’s right.
Alexandra: Yeah. And so I know, just from knowing you a little bit, that you are incredibly busy and travel an awful lot giving talks and traveling all around the U.K. and other places speaking to readers.
Do you have a writing routine or do you just write when you can?
Rachel: I try to write nearly every day. One of the things that I do…again, this is using Scrivener although you could do it different ways. But in Scrivener, I decide that most books that I write, I aim at about 100,000 words in a book. Sometimes, it’s more. It usually ends up more, but you know what it’s like as well.
You start writing and you think, “Oh my goodness, this story is going to be over in 40,000 words.” And then panic sets in, thinking, “How am I going to do this?” But once you start writing, the story just flows. But what I do is I give myself…this is my deadline, and nobody else’s deadline. But I give myself a deadline. And then Scrivener calculates for me how many words I need to write each day. And if I write more than I should have done, then obviously, it reduces the words per day and so on. So it just keeps me focused so that I don’t end up, you know, in two months’ time, realizing that I’ve only written the first two chapters or something.
Alexandra: Right, yes, yeah, exactly.
And when you’re traveling, do you try to write, then, as well?
Rachel: If I can. It depends what I’m doing. So the week before last, I did a book tour in the northwest of England, and the talks were all in the afternoon or the evening, most days, both, actually. But there was nothing in the mornings so I was free until about 11:00.
And because I was out of the office, even though I was still getting emails and stuff, I always feel when I’m out of the office, that as long as I keep on top of the essential stuff, the rest of it can wait until I get back. So I did actually keep up with my word count then.
But next week…well, actually later this week, I’m speaking in Guernsey, which is only just across the water from here, but by the time I’ve got on the plane, got off the plane, got there, done what I’ve got to do and all the other stuff, I’ll probably lose the best part of two days even though that’s the closest place to go. So it very much varies. And if I do that, I make up the words within the next week so that I’m back on track.
Alexandra: Right. Oh, that’s great. That’s such a great feature that Scrivener has that way.
Alexandra: I remember reading an article, an interview with Alexander McCall Smith, who writes “The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” and he said he can write on airplanes, he writes in hotel rooms, if he’s sitting in a departure lounge. I can’t even imagine. I need way more focus than that.
Rachel: Well, you see, I definitely write in hotels. That’s what I was doing when I was away. And I find that really easy, actually, to write in hotels. I go to Italy quite a lot because we’ve still got property over there. And so when I’m in Italy, I find it really easy to sit outside, not in direct sunlight, obviously, but I sit outside where it’s nice and warm and I can get very focused there.
But also, in airport lounges and things. I’ve had some very strange conversations with my husband. We’d be sitting next to each other in an airport lounge, and I’ll say to him, “You know, so what can she use to kill him? I don’t want a knife.” And you suddenly realize that everybody around you is looking at you in a very strange way. So I do have lots of chats, and I always have a little notebook with me. And even when we were on holiday last year, we were on a little boat, a canoe, actually, a motorized canoe, and I was sitting scribbling because I just had this idea. So all the time, it’s in my head. Never leaves my head.
Alexandra: Yes. It’s the same with me. So we should mention, too, that there are some characters that run through all of the seven books that you’ve written so far. And one of them is DCI Tom Douglas, who your newsletter subscribers and fans are a huge fan of because he’s quite handsome.
Why don’t you tell a little bit about Tom and what he’s like and where he came from.
Rachel: Well, that’s an interesting one because I’ve never expected or intended to write a series. So I’d always thought that I would write…each book would be a standalone story and…but when I wrote “Only the Innocent,” somebody gets killed in the very first chapter. They get killed in the prologue, and at that point, I realized that I needed a policeman.
So I brought in a policeman, as you would do. And everybody seemed to fall for him, including me, actually, because he’s a nice guy. He’s not a bad guy, but he has really bad taste in women. So in “Only the Innocent,” he’s just really had his heart broken by his ex-wife, who ran off and took their child away. So he’s only moved to London because he wanted to be near his child.
And so he’s got all of that going on, but he does tend to get himself emotionally involved maybe when he shouldn’t. And he also struggles because sometimes, he thinks that what’s right, legally correct, is not morally correct. So he sometimes has his own dilemmas, you know, whether or not the guilty person should be guilty or whether, in fact, they should be innocent because of the reasoning and the rationale behind what they’ve done. So, yes, he’s quite conflicted in some ways, but he’s a nice guy.
Alexandra: Oh, well, that’s lovely.
Have you learned things about him as you’ve gone along and written the seven books?
Rachel: Yes, very much so. Well, for a long time, I didn’t know who he was or what he looked like. And so I used to have these things on my Facebook page, “Okay, so who do you think is Tom Douglas?” And people would send all these images in and stuff. And quite strangely, considering that he obviously is a guy with blond hair and blue eyes…and some people have put Idris Elba. Now, I don’t know whether in Canada, you would know who Idris Elba is, but he’s a very attractive, very handsome black man.
Rachel: Which is absolutely fine, but he hasn’t got blond hair and blue eyes.
Rachel: So it’s interesting how people actually perceive the different characters. But as I’ve got to know him, I’ve got a really clear image now of who he looks like and what he looks like. And I’ve got to understand him a lot better.
Alexandra: Oh, good. Well, that’s great. I don’t think I have any more questions for you today, Rachel. It’s been so great having you on the show. So why don’t you let our listeners know where they can find out more about you and your books.
Rachel: Okay, well, it’s been lovely to talk to you, too. And the best place is probably on the website, which is www.rachel-abbott, that’s A-B-B-O-T-T, .com. There’s a link there to my blog as well, and obviously, I’m on Facebook and Twitter. And the easiest place to find out more about the books is probably on Amazon.
Alexandra: Okay, cool. And we should say, too, that when people sign up for your newsletter list, you write the most amazing newsletters with incredible contests, and reader groups, and all kinds of stuff. I just can’t believe the effort that you put into them. So I’ll put a link…
Rachel: Thank you, that’s very kind of you.
Alexandra: I’ll put a link in the show notes so people can learn more about where to sign up for that.
Rachel: Okay, thank you very much, Alexandra.
Alexandra: Oh, you’re so welcome. So thanks again so much for being on the show, Rachel. I really appreciate it.
Rachel: Thank you.