Author Interview: Rachel Abbott on character development, research techniques and self-publishing
Rachel Abbott launched her first novel Only the Innocent in November 2011. The book was self-published in the UK through Amazon, and reached the number one spot in the Kindle store just over three months later. Since then, Rachel has written a further five best-selling novels.
Rachel spoke to Holly Newson about character development, research techniques and the challenges and rewards of self-publishing.
You can listen to the interview above.
Could you start by telling anyone who might not be familiar with your work a bit about you and what you do?
I write thrillers, mainly of the psychological variety really. I like to include real personalities - they’re more about the relationships and the lives of the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes, than about the police. Although, there is a police character that’s run all the way through the first six of my books. That was more by accident than design, because in the first book I wrote somebody dying in the first chapter, so a policeman became a necessity really. He was introduced and then people said, ‘Oh, we really like Tom Douglas’, so he’s carried on through the series of books.
You’ve written six books now and they all involve Tom Douglas, do you think of them as a Tom Douglas series? Or do you think of them as stand-alone books?
I think of them as stand-alone books really, because the only bit of the story that really continues is Tom’s story. But it’s not vital to the book itself, because the focus is very definitely on the victims of the crimes, rather than on Tom. When I say six books, it’s sort of five and a half really, because one of them is a novella. When I wrote Stranger Child, a lot of people wanted to know what happened to one of the characters after the book had finished. So I wrote a novella, Nowhere Child.
I think that’s very kind on your readers. There’s a lot of books out there, which you read and get to the end and you think, ‘What happens to so-and-so?!’
It was a difficult one really, because for me it was the right ending, for a lot of people it was the right ending. But because with my books – I suppose because there’s a lot of relationship involvement in them, people do tend to get quite tied in with the characters. So when that happens, of course they want to know - as if they were real people, which is brilliant! I think it’s fantastic that people feel like that, that they really want to know what happens next. And that’s one of the issues with having Tom Douglas in, because people have become very interested in him and particularly his love life, which makes it quite tricky to keep him going really.
When you’re writing, you said you focus a lot on characters, do they come first, before the story and the setting? Or does it all formulate together?
What comes first is the general idea, the premise, what the book is actually going to be about; but not necessarily in a massive amount of detail. So, for example, the third book was very much about obsession, so I started off by thinking about obsession and then the characters came, and then as the characters develop, it’s much easier to work out what might or might not happen to them.
So when you write, do you have a process that you go through?
In theory! I am quite a planner, I like to plan what happens in my stories. So I do have quite a detailed plan of what’s going to happen, but things to tend to go off in their own direction a little bit. I do have a beginning, a middle and an end, and within that I do have very specific points that have to come across and have to happen. But I find that as I’m writing, the characters take over quite a lot, and the characters to me are what it’s all about.
When I define my characters, I define them in massive detail and I have photographs. So I search the internet to find photographs of the person I have in mind. In the book I’m writing at the moment, I have this image of one character who’s very young – well she’s in her mid-twenties - and she’s had her hair cut really, really short. It’s cropped and its white blonde. I just searched the internet for somebody with that sort of hair that looks like the character I’m imagining, so that when I actually talk about her, I can be very consistent.
So are there people out there on the internet who are, unbeknownst to them, characters in your book?
That’s very funny! So, prior to writing, you ran an interactive media company and you renovated a couple of houses in Italy. Writing is obviously a bit removed from that, were you confident when you started writing that it was something you would be good at?
No, not at all! I wrote the first book for a bit of fun really. When I sold my company, we bought the houses in Italy, and that was actually quite a bit of fun, doing what we did with those. But once they were done I found I was a bit bored. I’d had an idea in my head for the first book for years and years, and on my way to work, I used to plot what happened in the book. My journey to work was only 15 miles but it took over an hour each way. You know, sitting in traffic jams. So there was nothing better really.
I used to alternate between learning Italian, so I could speak Italian when I went over there, and plotting my book in my head. It was a really good way of passing the time, so when I did eventually find some time to write I just sat down and wrote really. I had no intention of doing anything with it at the end. Nothing at all. It was for my personal benefit and my own pleasure when I wrote the first one.
Did you have to do a lot of research into it? Into the police force and that sort of thing?
Yes, I was very fortunate – one of my stepdaughters has a good friend who’s a policeman and he helped me with the first three books. But because he was still a serving policeman, he said it was becoming slightly difficult. So he put up a notice on some kind of police message board, and I was contacted by an ex-police chief inspector who was in the murders squad in Lancashire and he’s been absolutely amazing. That research was quite good really, as I was able to just fire off emails and ask ‘what would happen here, what would happen there’.
It was the other research that was fascinating: my husband was convinced that I was actually going to get a knock on the door one night because I was searching things like, ‘how to murder somebody,’ and for the first book I think I was researching Eastern European prostitution and all kinds of stuff like that. Sometimes some of the things I had to research were quite interesting!
And have there been any books or authors that have inspired you?
Well I’ve read voraciously throughout my life so I don’t think that there’s any one person that I’ve tried to emulate. I’m not a huge fan of books that are very focused on the policeman. I know some people think that my books are, but that was never the intention. My problem with that is, if the book is from the point of view of the policeman all the way through, you kind of know that chances are, they’re going to come out of it alive.
So I like to actually write about the people, their own struggle and their relationships. On who to believe, on how to act if you do believe something - especially if it’s somebody you’re very close to. Things like, how long does it take you to realise that the person you thought was okay was really, not in any way shape or form, an okay person.
And are there any writers that you love reading?
Oh, lots! I think the book that stuck with me the longest from when I was younger was Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier - I absolutely loved that. So that’s a bit of an inspiration.
Nowadays, I like Sharon Bolton’s books (she used to be called S.J Bolton, but now Sharon Bolton), and the early Harlen Coben books, Val McDermid - there’s lots of people whose books I enjoy.
In August 2015, Amazon announced that you were the UK’s bestselling independently published author of the past five years, which is obviously a fantastic achievement! What do you think self-publishing offers that traditional publishing can’t?
That’s a really good question. I think you have to be of a certain mind-set to be self-published. It is extremely hard work and there are lots of benefits. The obvious benefit of being self-published is that you take a much bigger cut of the returns. A lot of people only see that, and what they don’t see is the rest of it, which means that you have to do absolutely everything else for yourself.
I’m very fortunate that I have an excellent agent and she is an amazing amount of help to me. I also have a really good PR company that I work with now and they do a lot. And I’ve got PAs – I’ve got one PA here where I live and I’ve got another one who lives in Canada because there is so much to do!
It’s not just a matter of choosing a cover designer, you have to work with them and you have to communicate what it is you’re trying to achieve with your cover. You have to do all that yourself. But it’s the marketing - the marketing is a massive, massive task. I love it, because I’ve always been involved in marketing, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. There are four million kindle books now, and to get noticed as a self-published author is extremely difficult and challenging. When I published there were only two million, still a tall order! But it was easier, it was easier then than it is now.
Would you say there’s been a learning curve for you over the last five years?
Oh a huge, huge learning curve. When I first started, I hadn’t expected anything. My target was 1000 books. I can remember Christmas Day 2011 it must have been - I sold six books and I was just delirious. I thought, that’s fantastic! But then I thought to myself, I used to run a business, and I used to write marketing plans all the time, why haven’t I written a marketing plan for my book? So, I sat down and wrote one and implemented it, and within six weeks the book had got to number one.
Now you speak to others and you also blog about digital publishing and promotion, what made you decide to share that knowledge?
Well because I think that it’s hard, and I think that any help that you can get and give is a good thing really. I don’t do as much as I should do, and when I noticed that the London Book Fair was just around the corner, I realised that I've actually been promising for a year to write a book to help people.
There’s a lot of books on the internet that say ‘this is how to self-publish and how to get to number one’, and I find it very irritating when they're written by people who have never had a bestselling book. They're making money telling people how to do something that they’ve not actually achieved themselves. So I would do it and I would give it away, which would probably annoy a lot of people! But I’m happy to do that, and I’m happy to tell people what I did, because if people are prepared to put in the effort... I know a lot of self-published authors now that have done amazingly well, but they have worked so hard.
And how long does it take you to write each book?
Oh, it takes a year really. It was a struggle this year to finish Nowhere Child and finish Kill Me Again, which is the new book that came out on the 17th February. It was very hard work and very long hours. So I would say it takes a year, but not a year of solid writing.
I can probably write the first draft of a book in about three months. But then it goes off to my agent and she sends it back with lots of notes about what she thinks isn’t so good, and what could be better, and what I should change. Sometimes it means fairly substantial re-writes, but as long as the structure of the book is okay, and all the characters are sorted in my head, those re-writes don’t take so long. Then it has to go back and forth, and back and forth, with lots of edit stages, and then the copy edit - so it takes quite a long time.
What can you tell us about your latest book, Kill Me Again? Which, as you said, was published in February.
Well Kill Me Again is the story of a woman who is married, happily married with two children. She comes home one night and finds that her children are alone in the house and when she speaks to her son, he says that his Dad has gone out. She says ‘what do you mean he’s gone out?’ He’s only eight and he’s left alone with his five year old sister – and he says that the dad said he was sorry and just left.
That day she finds out that her husband left after he received a picture of a woman on his phone. Later that same day her son identifies the picture of the woman because she’s on the news. I won’t tell you any more about that because it will give it away. But this woman is on the news, and the mother realises that there’s far more to his disappearance than she had first suspected. So she has to try and unravel not just the present day, but discovers that there was a lot in the past that she wasn’t aware of.
I'm already gripped! So what’s next for you? Have you got a bit of a breather, or are you working on a new book?
I’m working on a new book. I’ve had quite a few ideas. Sometimes you sit there and you think, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to write about next’; this time I had about five ideas. So I sent them off to my agent and she discussed them with my agent in America (I have a sub-agent in New York), and we decided which would be the best way to go.
I’m going to do about the first 20,000 words of that - I’m nearly there now. I’ll send that off to them and see if they like the way the story’s going and whether to continue with that one or start one of the other ideas. But I think it’s going quite well. And this one – it may well not have a Tom Douglas in this one, it may be time for him to have a bit of a holiday.
Thanks to Rachel Abbott for speaking to us.
Listening Books members can find books by Rachel Abbott in our library catalogue, available on MP3 CD and to download and stream.