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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 89: Rachel Abbott (Don’t Look Away)

Charlie and Rachel Abbott (Don’t Look Away) discuss young carers and the guilt they can feel, trafficking in Cornwall – both fact and fiction – and having her series’ policewoman staying in the background of the story rather than take the spotlight. (We talk about that a couple of times, I loved it!)

Please note that there are mentions of suicide in this episode.

And So It Begins
Stranger Child
Come A Little Closer
Sleep Tight
About the trafficking at Newlyn Harbour in late 2019

Release details: recorded 4th September 2023; published 8th January 2024

Where to find Rachel online: Website || Twitter || Facebook || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

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01:40 The inspiration for Nancy and Lola’s story
03:15 Nancy’s feeling of guilt as a young carer who failed to save her mother
06:23 The way Rachel really fleshes out the non-police characters in her thriller
11:05 How long Lola will be in prison
13:48 Research Rachel does in terms of the police
16:55 How important is policewomen Stephanie (the linking factor of the books) compared to Nancy (one of this book’s victims)?
20:18 Stephanie is written in the third person and Nancy is in the first person…
22:20 Why set the book in Cornwall, and why create a fictional village in Cornwall
25:36 The trafficking in the book and real situations
29:34 How Rachel goes from one plot to many – the expansion
33:15 How Rachel uses technology in her books as opposed to finding tech makes things too easy
35:03 What’s next for Stephanie King, book 4 in the series?
41:26 Was there anyone that Rachel’s editing agent didn’t like, or did really like?
43:26 Rachel’s current work on her next Tom Douglas book


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 89. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Rachel Abbott, author of the DCI Tom Douglas series as well as the Sergeant Stephanie King series. We’ll be talking today about Don’t Look Away, Rachel’s latest thriller from her Stephanie King series. Almost a dozen years ago, Nancy, her father, and her sister Lola went on a holiday to Cornwall, staying in their aunt’s cottage. Nancy had spent two years caring for her sick mother but sadly, despite the fact the doctors said that Janice would get better after her stroke, she never did. On the holiday, Nancy becomes upset and rages at Lola who storms off – Nancy’s had a lonely holiday but Lola’s been living it up. But come morning, Lola still hadn’t returned, and she was never found. Then, a few weeks later, their father killed himself. Now, in the present day, Nancy is back in Cornwall, having inherited the cottage. She wants to get things in order and sell the place quickly but the past has other ideas. And, on a possibly related topic, a boy has found a skeleton in a cave that’s been resting there from about the time Lola disappeared. Hello Rachel!

Rachel: Hi!

Charlie: It’s lovely to have you on. And Happy New Year, everybody – I should have said that first. Can you tell us about the initial inspiration for Nancy and Lola’s story?

Rachel: Most of my inspiration for stories comes from a single phrase, a small thing that happens. So, for example, And So It Begins, which was the first in the Stephanie King series, the inspiration of that came when I made a visit to a women’s prison and a conversation I had with the governor; that one conversation was the inspiration. In this case, I think that the inspiration for Don’t Look Away came, actually, from the back of a toilet door in Heathrow Airport [laughs]. Now, that’s a bit unique, but on the back of the toilet door there was a sign saying, ‘can you see me?’ And that’s what this book was originally going to be called, but my publishers didn’t like it so much. But the can you see me really related to trafficked girls working in nail bars and in hospitality and people not realising that they were trafficked and that they were trapped. And it occurred to me that can you see me applied to lots of people beyond just those trafficked girls, which is bad enough, but it can extend to so many people who are living lives that they don’t want to reveal to others. Things that are going wrong in their lives, things that are making them desperately unhappy, but for lots of reasons, they don’t tell anybody. And so they bury those secrets. So that created the idea in my head about buried secrets, buried pasts, and buried guilt from other people of not actually identifying what those problems are.

Charlie: Well, you do have a lot about guilt. I mean, Nancy has done so much in life for other people. The end of her childhood years and her 20s has been given to her family completely, and yet she still feels guilt, which as a reader, obviously, you really feel for her and you hope she’s going to heal. And I think we get an idea that she will. But can you talk about this – guilt as part of the story?

Rachel: So she cared for her mother, as you mentioned in your introduction, she cared for her mother who had a stroke. And I think one of the things that I read about, when I was reading about young carers, is how guilty they feel. They feel guilty that they don’t do more. They don’t actually realise the amount of pressure that’s on them. And all the time they don’t think they’ve done enough. And in the story, Nancy is wearing herself down. She’s worn herself to a frazzle, really. And the doctor advises to take a sleeping tablet. And then of course, that’s when she sleeps through what happens to her mother. So she lives with the guilt of that. And then when Lola runs away, she thinks she was the big sister, why didn’t she know that there was something wrong with Lola? Why didn’t she realise that Lola was troubled? So all the time she’s thinking about what she should have done. And then you mentioned that her father kills himself, which comes out a bit later in the story, that that’s what happened. But she thinks, well, what’s wrong with her that first her mother dies and her sister runs away, and then her father kills himself – so it must be her that’s at fault. So she heaps all this guilt and blame on herself.

Charlie: Well, you’re saying that and I’m thinking she comes to Cornwall, she doesn’t want to stay in Cornwall, but you almost have this essence in the book, in a way, of a found family coming through slowly with Effie and Angie a little bit. Even the Nan, I think, the Nan who’s at the end, which is lovely, she’s finding things. She’s also obviously got her nieces and nephew at the end, who’s becoming her literal family in many ways, which is just so nice, yeah.

Rachel: I like to think that at the end of my books, even though they can be quite dark during the reading of them [laughs], I do like to think at the end that there is some hope. I don’t like to end books on a note where there is no hope and no way forward, even though it won’t be easy. One of the things I really don’t like writing is a book that ends happily ever after because it’s not realistic? There’s not usually a defined endpoint in real life stories. So when I write books, often the end of the book still leaves stuff hanging, as does this book, there’s still stuff hanging -we’re not sure what’s going to happen, because tying it all up neatly just doesn’t seem realistic to me.

Charlie: Your book, a) with the Cornwall sections that are focused on the cottage, it’s very sunny, which isn’t something that I expected from a thriller; this is the first book I’ve read of you, it’s not going to be the last by any means, my goodness, no [laughs]. But there was just such a nice sunny feeling to your writing and to the setting, but then I also found something that I don’t think I found with another thriller, I really engaged with the victims of your book. Yeah, in a way that I don’t usually [when] I read a thriller, I like it, but then it ends and it’s fine. It’s ended, that was a good book, cool, next one. But with yours, I did leave the book feeling that I wanted to have another book about Nancy, even though I understand that you couldn’t really do that. It have to be a completely different genre and I expect it would run out of steam very quickly because there’s little to say, really. But yeah, you’ve just got this feeling of these characters that are just so well fleshed out. I like that a lot.

Rachel: Well, that’s really nice to hear, thank you. To me, character development is critical. When I start to write a book, I probably spend at least a month working on my characters and really trying to understand their past. Most of it will never appear on the page, but I need to understand them; I need to know what makes them tick, I need to know why they behave the way they do. And, to me, that’s the critical part of writing, so that I care about them. I care enormously about them. One of the things I frequently say is I really feel for my husband because when I’m writing a book, we have these long conversations about characters that don’t actually exist, but in my head they exist. And when people say, oh, this is how you should end the book, and I just think, ‘hmm, that’s not going to happen because that’s not what they would do’. A classic example of this is one of my earlier Tom Douglas books, which was Stranger Child. And Stranger Child is about a young girl who turns up in the kitchen of her stepmother; this child disappeared when she was six years old, she was abducted when she was six years old and then she turns up in the house; and there’s a lot of story which I won’t go into here. But at the very end of the book, I remember having the conversation with my agent saying, I can’t decide how the book’s going to end. And she came up with a suggestion, which is a perfectly plausible suggestion. And I started to write it, and I just thought, no, that is not going to happen. This child would not do that. And in the end, she walks off, she disappears; she leaves the house at night when nobody knows she’s there. And I got so much mail from readers saying, so what happened? What happened to Tasha? What happened to Tasha? And so that’s the only time I’ve ever written a sequel. And I wrote a novella because, actually, I wanted to know what happened to Tasha as well, because I didn’t know. I knew that she had to leave the house, she wasn’t going to settle down and become this perfect child because she’d been brought up in a drug family where she was sent off selling drugs and all sorts of stuff. So I couldn’t have her just becoming this nice, neat little child, because that wasn’t who she was. The characters drive the story, in the end, is a long way around saying, that.

Charlie: That’s interesting then, so I suppose if readers have read your book and they want to know, kind of like me, they want to know more about Nancy and Lola, if they all start emailing you, then we might get a sequel? [Both laugh.]

Rachel: There’s not enough to say, really, at the end of this story. I mean, it’s left in the air, about the one character – she does say, I’m not worried. Stephanie, and I will find him; I just think that we have to accept the fact. I do have one book in which the final scene is a woman holding a meat cleaver above her partner’s head [laughs], and people say to me, did she hit him or didn’t she? And I said, well, you know the character, you have to decide for yourself what she would have done?

Charlie: Which one is that, which book?

Rachel: That one is Come A Little Closer.

Charlie: Okay. Just in case people want to check that out, because that’s an ending! [Rachel laughs.] So can we assume that you don’t necessarily have an ending in mind yourself for what continues after the pages? Or do you have sort of an idea when you write…

Rachel: I have an idea, yeah. When I write it, I know from my mind what will happen next. I just don’t want it to all end on one day where we know what happens to Lola, we know to the kids, we know what happens to the dad, we know what happens to… we don’t want all of that to be all neatly tied up into one day. And I also kind of hate books where there’s this bit at the end of the book, like a big denouement, if you like, where everything is tied up and everybody knows who did what and when and where, because it just doesn’t seem realistic to me.

Charlie: I agree with you on that, I know exactly the kind of thing you mean. So I will ask this first, then – so you say about not knowing exactly where everyone ends up, but one thing that I was wondering if I could ask in that respect is with Lola; given everything that’s happened with her and the backstory that Stephanie King knows, and you can assume more people in the prison system and the police are going to know, how long would someone in that sort of situation be expected to be in prison?

Rachel: Yeah, I think, you know, she was involved in basically kidnap, in a sense; she was involved in trafficking, but she was being controlled, so there was an element of coercive control. And it’s all quite difficult – so the first book in the Stephanie King series is about coercive control, and as I said, the inspiration for that came from a visit to a prison. All the women I was speaking to, many of them were in for life, which probably meant that they’d killed their partner. And in many cases, we might think that the partner may well have deserved it, so being realistic about this. And I remember saying to the governor, so why couldn’t they get off, then? And she said, well, because self defence is one thing, but the only way they can get off is through something called ‘loss of control’. So with loss of control, it’s not about defending yourself in the moment, it’s about everything building up to the point where you lose control, and that’s when you actually commit the murder. And in a sense, because Lola was being controlled and it was coercive control – you either do this or we send you back to your dad, which is what she thought would happen – and all the problems that would have ensued with that, there will be an element of her defence being that she was being controlled. So I don’t imagine she would have got a very long sentence, but she would have been sent to prison. She’d have to be sent to prison, obviously.

Charlie: Yeah, obviously you hope with everything that’s happened, it’s not going to be too long. I mean, she has got her kids, and that’s going to be quite a roller coaster for them anyway, the whole thing.

Rachel: Yeah, absolutely. Particularly as there aren’t that many women’s prisons, so she’s unlikely to be close to where they’re living. I think Nancy mentions that, that she may have to move because she wants the children to be able to go to see their mum. And it depends where they imprison her, but it’s not going to be in Cornwall. So she’s got to make that decision, which, again, leaves quite a lot open. I do tend to look at what the prison sentences are like to be, but there are so many variables in this, and a lot of it will come down to how good the defence is, really.

Charlie: Yeah, of course. On the subject, if we take it back to before the book, effectively – research and what you’ve done. What kind of things, apart from the prison system, did you have to research, regarding the police? I know, for example, the first time around that they look for Lola, they don’t really do their job too much. And then the second time, it goes really well. But also you’ve got the finding the skeleton, you’ve got Molly and Carla, who are looking at the bones and working everything out. What kind of research overall do you do into the crime element?

Rachel: Well, I’m very, very fortunate that I have an excellent police advisor. My stepdaughter had a friend who was a fairly high ranking policeman, and when he was lower down the levels, he used to help me. But when he became more senior he felt that he couldn’t really do that. So he put something out on the police intranet, and this guy who was about to retire contacted me and said, I’d love to help if I can. And so he’s been my police advisor now for years. He was an ex-detective chief inspector, and he worked on murders, so that was his job. So, yes, I’m very lucky indeed to have such an excellent police advisor. For this particular book, I needed a forensic anthropologist, which is Carla’s job. And I didn’t know any of those. So I researched the Society of Forensic Anthropologists or whatever, and I just wrote to the first person on the list who happened to be Carla Davis. Her name is Catriona Davis, actually, not Carla, I used her surname, but not her Christian name. And I contacted her, and I said, Would you be interested? And she said, yeah, I’d love to do it. And first person I asked said yes. And her advice was just tremendous for the way in which you could examine the skeleton and what information you could get from the skeleton. And I think one of my key memories of this was I asked her the same question that Gus asks her, how can you tell the gender of the skeleton? And her immediate response was, the skeleton doesn’t have a gender, gender is something that we choose ourselves. What we have is the sex of the skeleton. And I think these days we’re so used to using the term ‘gender’ as opposed to ‘sex’ when we’re talking about individuals, that you just want to be correct in the way that you refer to it. So I said ‘gender’, and she said, no, it’s the sex, so I can tell you what his sex was, I can’t tell you what gender he decided to be known by. But she was really amazing. The information about the hair morphology and all of that kind of stuff. So I’m very, very keen on getting the research correct.

Charlie: This ties into the other thing that I really enjoyed – many things I enjoyed, one of the things I enjoyed – where you are good at giving us the information. When you start to present the information and suggest that there’s going to be information, but that sort of thing, people having ideas and thoughts, you do give it to us straight away or within a very reasonable amount of time. I know that we’ve talked about everybody but Stephanie here, who is the linking factor. That’s something that I did like as well, that she is there and she’s definitely the person, and I was waiting for her to come in – this is my first book of this series and as I said, my first book of yours completely. And you do have her there and she is a linking factor and she does have her own storyline, but you do allow the plot and other characters to really shine. How important is Stephanie King herself to this story compared to Nancy?

Rachel: That’s a really good question; Nancy is the important one. I consider my books always to be about the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes. The police have a very useful role to play in that they’re there to guide the story, if you like. When I first started to write, even with the Tom Douglas series, and I’ve written twelve of those now, and with Stephanie, in both cases, in the first book, they were not supposed to be part of a series; they were standalone books in which the police were essential. So in the first Stephanie book, the opening chapters is Stephanie discovering this body. So the police were essential, but then once you start to write about them, you have to give them, I feel, not necessarily, but I feel you have to give them, again, a life off the page. They are somebody other than the policeman who’s going around and knocking on the door. And so you then start to develop interest in those characters. And certainly with the Stephanie and Gus story, it’s really started when Stephanie is in this house where this body has been found and the detectives arrive. Devon and Cornwall is a massive, massive, area, so they have individual police areas where there are detectives; so Stephanie is in the Penzance area. But if there’s a murder, then the murder team has to come in, in this case from Newquay. And in comes Gus Brodie, who was her ex-partner – she lived with him for a while. And I just needed there to be something between the two of them, something that had gone on in the past, and [so] basically they’d lived together but she’d booted him out, and so it created some tension between them and creates a development of their characters as well, otherwise they just become puppets. So although in my mind this is Nancy’s story, Stephanie has to have a real character and has to have a real background and a real life outside the police force as well.

Charlie: That’s interesting. So you’ve got these three stories now with Stephanie, so in each case, she is in the background, I’m assuming?…

Rachel: Well, kind of – she’s foreground in the sense that she’s investigating, and it’s through the things that she and Gus discover, that the reader gets to understand more of what’s happened, because otherwise it would all be internal thought from the characters, if you see what I mean. So it would all be Nancy’s internal thought, as opposed to, there’s an opportunity for Stephanie to be explaining to Gus what happened. And if that wasn’t there, then it wouldn’t hang together quite as well, I don’t think.

Charlie: Okay. On this, you have Nancy written in the first person and Stephanie written in the third, which I love. Was this something that just felt natural? Was this something that you came to a conclusion on to do?…

Rachel: I used to write everything in third person, close third person, so I was in the point of view of the third person. I wish I could remember which was the first book when I changed that, it may well have been And So It Begins. I’m not sure; I’d have to actually go back and check, which was terrible. The fact that I don’t know is terrible.

Charlie: You’ve written loads of books. I think it’s all right [both laugh].

Rachel: I think it was that there was so much that had to go on in this person’s head, and I really wanted the reader to feel as if they were seeing things directly through the person’s eyes. And so you kind of had to be Nancy. So, for example, the scene – it’s actually the prologue, but it also comes later on – when she’s in bed and she wakes up and she realises there’s someone in the room with her; she can sense that the room, the air in the room, has changed. And I feel like that myself, I feel that I can sense when there is somebody in a room and when there isn’t somebody in a room. I have no idea why, I’m not suggesting for 1 minute that I have any sort of extrasensory perception – it must be, literally, something telling me in the sense of the way the air moves or whatever. To my mind, I couldn’t have written that in third person – you had to be Nancy to experience what she was experiencing. So since I’ve started to do that, I usually have maybe just one character in each book who’s first person, and the rest are all third person.

Charlie: Okay. That’s interesting. You say about the prologue, I expected that to be Lola… I suppose, obviously? I don’t know. But yeah, I liked how you brought it back in; we’ve got the two different perspectives. Very interesting contrast there between the sunniness of Cornwall, which is the first few chapters, and that there. Yeah, great. I liked it. But, talking of Cornwall, actually: Why Cornwall? But also, particularly, I think you’ve created Trevyan?…

Rachel: Yeah.

Charlie: Yeah. Why create a village? That sort of thing.

Rachel: So, my Tom books are all set in Manchester, well, the first one isn’t, but generally they’re all set in Manchester – Tom’s from Manchester and I’m from Manchester, so I know Manchester really well. When I came up with the idea for And So It Begins, although I got the idea from the women’s prison in Manchester, as soon as I had the idea, I had an idea for the setting, and that book had to be by the sea. Don’t ask me why it had to be by the sea, I actually couldn’t answer that question; but I just wanted to have this phenomenal house that’s basically hanging off a cliff with floor to ceiling windows and just looking out over the sea. And obviously there’s not much of that in Manchester, so I thought Cornwall; because I live in Alderney, our house in Alderney is surrounded on three sides by the sea. So the bit of land that it’s on juts out into the sea. We’ve got sea all around us, crashing onto the rocks. And although the house itself is nothing like the one in my book, it was just a dream of a house. And that came to me pretty much at the same time as the whole idea, and I couldn’t shake that. And so from that point onwards, it had to be somewhere with magnificent, glorious cliffs, and wonderful sea. And so I thought of Cornwall.

Charlie: And you created Trevyan then?

Rachel: Yes. So I’ve been to Cornwall a couple of times; I went when I was younger, but we went on a research trip as well, and I could see the kind of bits and pieces of places that I wanted to make up this village, but I never found anywhere that was exactly like the village that was in my head. So Mousehole was probably the closest, with cottages overlooking a beach, but it was much busier, too busy. I do tend to create places that don’t exist, because the last thing I want is people saying, oh, that’s all wrong. I did that, actually – my third Tom book is based on Alderney, I’d only just come to live here, and it’s based in Manchester, but then it ends up in Alderney. And I took some liberties with the geography of Alderney to make the book work. Oh, my goodness me! You wouldn’t believe the trouble I got into. ‘Well, that’s not how it works. There’s no cliff there. What cliff are you talking about there?’ So I did put at the end of the book, ‘I do apologise to the very good people of Alderney for the fact that I have taken liberty with the geography’, but they don’t like it. So I don’t want to come up with real places and then mess with the geography any more than I really have to.

Charlie: So your neighbours are your readers, then?

Rachel: [Laughs.] Some of them, yeah!

Charlie: That’s great. Yeah, I mean, you’ve done it with Cornwall, but the sound of your home and stuff, if you ever happen to move away, that sounds like a good place for a thriller plot anyway. That kind of setting. Yeah. You’ve mentioned the information in, I think you said, Heathrow Airport toilet, about trafficking. This is something that’s happening in Cornwall. Was there any sort of inspiration or is there any sort of connection that you saw of the type of trafficking that we’ve got exactly from real life that you brought into the book? Or have you created something completely yourself?

Rachel: There is actually a mention in the book of something that did really happen in Newlyn Harbour where a few years ago… I can’t remember the exact details now, fading brain, I think, here, but there was a situation where somebody actually was shipping people from… I think they were Vietnamese, actually, and they just pulled into Newlyn Harbour and marched about 20-odd of them up there. And the police were like, what’s going on here. I mean, it was the most ridiculous thing to do; they’d managed to get them all the way across the Channel without being stopped in any way. And it wasn’t small boats. This was somebody in a fishing boat who had brought all these people into Newlyn Harbour, and that is a real, genuine case. So if you look up Newlyn Harbour and ‘illegal immigration’, you’ll see there’s pictures of it. I mean, it’s just ridiculous. And so that made me think, OK, so they definitely are shipping people in. And then I spoke to a friend who’s the assistant harbour master here in Alderney, about how people would be tracked on boats, and he told me all about the AIS system… I think that’s like saying VAT tax, actually, it’s AIS. The S means system, I think. So how boats are actually monitored when they’re in the Channel and how clever they would have to be to transfer immigrants from one boat to another boat without it actually being picked up by the Coast Guard. And I also had quite a lot of help in this one from the Coast Guard in relation to doing rescues and stuff like that, which was all very interesting. So everybody’s so helpful to writers.

Charlie: Maybe also quite nice to know that they’re helping for something that’s fictional, maybe [laughs].

Rachel: Yeah!

Charlie: That bit where they transfer the trafficked people, it sounded like, yeah, it was in the middle of the sea, but at the same time you’re reading it thinking, how did no one know? It must be either tiny boats or… without anyone noticing. That was quite a surprise, I think, to read that, completely believed you, but yeah.

Rachel: I think it’s perfectly feasible, I wouldn’t have put it in if it wasn’t feasible. The first time we went to Cornwall on a research trip, we went to Newlyn Harbour and we went to the lifeboat people there. And I said, look, this is a really tricky question, let me just tell you that I am actually a writer, and I brought out some books with my picture on to prove that I was. And I said, I need to know if somebody fell into the sea, at this point – and pointed to where I wanted – if they were dead, where would they wash up? And they were like, oh, that’s an interesting one. And they called everybody in and they were like, oh, I think actually it depends on the tides, but I will go for this. And they was a bit of a debate on that. So they were really helpful. And there was a guy in the Coast Guard’s office who responded to masses of questions, very little of which I’ve had to use, but just things like the Coast Guard isn’t allowed to intervene in a situation which is threatening in any way. So at the end, where they’re trying to get into the caves, if they thought somebody in the cave was in a threat, had a gun or a knife or anything like that, the Coast Guards wouldn’t be allowed to intervene, that has to be the police. And then there is the Marine Police Unit as well, which had to be taken into consideration. So lots of really interesting stuff in that book in terms of research.

Charlie: That is interesting and interesting to know. Talking on this, and bringing in what we’ve discussed, I know when I was reading that I saw the Lola story, and even though quite early on, we get an idea that the skeleton probably isn’t Lola – and I did wonder if she was going to be found alive – I was reading it and thinking, okay, this is a good story, I like this. We’re going to find out about Lola, if something’s going to happen to her. And then you have this whole mystery and story expanding so much, which I loved. I don’t think I necessarily expected or needed, if that makes sense, [it] to happen. I was enjoying it anyway. But I just loved how you expanded it so much and there was so much more going on. Is that something you particularly enjoy doing? Taking an initial – or something that will seem like initial – idea to the reader and opening it out quite a lot?

Rachel: Yeah, because as I said earlier, when I develop the characters and the plot, there is so much more lying underneath that that may get exposed over time. So I always had the idea of Nancy having had this first love affair with some sexy guy with his big boat who looks like the picture and everything, and then how he would break her heart and how that would all lead into everything that happened then with Lola; now she’s stormed off to take issue with him and all of that kind of stuff. It’s just the complexities of the characters. And in most my books, this one included, a lot of the stuff develops as I write. So I am a big planner. I’m a plotter. Having been involved in computers for most of my working life, I’m used to doing flowcharts. But I’ve now reached a point in my writing where I will flowchart the major points, the big things that have to happen, but how they actually get there, has now become a more complex situation where I let the characters dictate what they might or might not do. So, for example, small things, like when Nancy is in the shop and she realises she’s getting a bit of earache about how she’s treated her new friend, she doesn’t really take issue with it because she’s not that person. You or I might turn around and say, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But she’s, like, completely shell shocked by this because she’s obviously done something else wrong, because that’s her character. And I get a bit frustrated sometimes when readers say, well, nobody would respond like that, because I want to know who this ‘nobody’ is. We all respond differently under different circumstances, to different things and so characters have to stay true to themselves, not to how I would behave, but to how they would behave. And so that’s fundamental to me.

Charlie: Yeah, I know that bit, I remember it. And it’s very easy as a reader to think that way and think, well, why didn’t you do this? But, yeah, you’ve got to let the character do their thing.

Rachel: Well, it’s like, in real life, how many people do you know personally who you think, why on earth did you do that? People get themselves into really difficult situations sometimes, and we might all sit round and wonder. And I never do that now with people because I just, basically, understand that people make decisions, good and bad, for all kinds of reasons, all kinds of internal insecurities, internal conflicts, and they make these mistakes, and we shouldn’t really judge. And so I try not to judge my characters. I just try to let them be who they are.

Charlie: I can see where some of the success of the characters has come from, definitely, that’s cool. Completely, sort of completely, out of left field question: We’ve got mobile phones. They make communication very, very easy. Do you find the whole thing of mobile phones and technology difficult when coming up with a plot?

Rachel: No, because I love technology, love technology. So I used to run a technology company. So that’s the company that I ran; I’ve mentioned before that I ran that company, and then I gave that up, sold the company, and it was a few years after that that I started to write. And it was a technology company, and I love everything to do with technology. In fact, I’m working on a plot for a book at the moment that uses quite a lot of AI, of artificial intelligence, but I’m not sure whether I’m going to use it or not. But I love anything to do with technology and there’s usually quite a bit of it in the book; there’s not very much in this one. There’s more in the Tom books, really, because they’re more city-based, I suppose, crimes. So there’s lots of things like people using phones to confuse the police. So leaving phones in places with locations switched on and actually teeing up text messages to be delayed and go later, which not very many people know how to do. And lots of stuff that you can do with phones that can confuse everybody, including the police. Cell sighting is now quite common, they use it a lot in TV programmes, people using cell sighting. I used it very early on because of my policeman. He said to me, ‘well, this is what we would do. And so we can usually find out where people are, where they’ve been and all that kind of stuff’. So I really quite like that because it means that my criminals have got to be cleverer, or they’re really stupid and they get caught very quickly because they haven’t realised what they’re doing [laughs].

Charlie: Yeah. So going to have to talk on Stephanie King, then. If I say, we know to an extent what’s happening with Nancy and we have to fill in the blanks ourselves, which is totally reasonable. But what’s next for Stephanie King? Tell us about your next book because I believe there’s one more book in the series coming?

Rachel: Yeah, I’ve already written it, actually. But when I say written it, I’ve written the first draft; I sent the first draft off. My agent does the first developmental structural edit, which often means she comes back with some fairly strongly worded, ‘this isn’t working. I don’t like any of your characters’ which is you know… [both laugh]. She’s brilliant; my agent is the best, honestly, she’s fantastic. Because she tells me as it is, she doesn’t try and say, oh, well, I did like this character, but what about… she just says, don’t like him, change him. So I will get back from her very shortly, her notes on it, and that will mean probably at least a month’s work in sorting out the characters or the pace or the story. There’ll be all sorts of things. And there’s a lot of technology in this one. A lot of technology. Nothing that the readers won’t understand. You don’t need to understand it, but I need to understand it to make sure that it’s technically possible. But, yeah, so it begins with Stephanie on holiday with her mum, because we’ve not seen much of her mum. She does get mentioned from time to time, but she’s on holiday at a hotel with her mother. She’s people watching, much to her mother’s annoyance, who keeps saying to her, Stephanie, will you listen to me when I’m talking to you, she says, sorry, Mum, but there’s something really interesting going over on the other side of the room. So she notices all this strange behaviour between these people. And then she goes back home to work, and four days later, she gets a call from Gus to say that he’s off to investigate a murder, [and] she might like to come with him because it’s at the hotel that she just left.

Charlie: Right.

Rachel: And then she says to him, who is it? He said, I’m not going to tell you. And she said, what do you mean you’re not going to tell me? And he said, because you will start hypothesising, because you will have seen these people and you will have already reached a conclusion before you get here, so I’m not going to tell you. And she gets really cross with him and [laughs]. Yes. So that’s how that begins. Well, it does at the moment, unless it comes back from my editor saying, you must be joking [both laugh].

Charlie: Well we’ll see how things have changed when we read the book, from when this has been recorded. So I suppose also we’ve got the story of… Gus’s daughter is going to come into this book?

Rachel: Yes. So, it was interesting, actually, introducing that, because if people have read the previous books, Stephanie lost a child early on. Before, even before And So It Begins. So the reason that she and Gus initially fell out was because she told Gus she was pregnant and he didn’t leap about with joy. And so she just kicked him out. And he’s tried to explain to her that it was because he was in the middle of a really difficult case, and he was just like, okay, so that’s happening, so how are we going to handle this? And he was just trying to rationalise in his own head how it was all going to work, because they haven’t discussed it; it wasn’t that they were looking to have children, it was completely out of the blue. So Stephanie, being stroppy, which she is, kicked him out. And then whilst he’s been kicked out, he then has a one night stand with somebody, and she gets pregnant, and he has Daisy, who he’s only just found out about. So it was quite interesting that, because she’s going to have to develop a relationship with this child, and all this was going on at the same time as Nancy is thinking about developing a relationship with her nephew and nieces. So there were quite a few synergies between the two stories. And that often seems to happen when I’m writing – there often seems to be some pull between all the different elements of the story that knit them together and mean that she’s got to get to know this child now, obviously, because Gus wants to, and how that’s all going to work out. So, yeah, I was quite pleased about that.

Charlie: It’s made me think of something else that I really liked – that I didn’t feel like I’d jumped into the middle of a series. You gave us so much information that worked and didn’t feel like it was any info dump or anything like that for Stephanie King. So, I suppose I’m saying this, if anyone’s listening to this podcast who hasn’t read any Stephanie King, wants to actually start on this book because this is the one we’re talking about, you can, absolutely do it. Yeah.

Rachel: Yeah, I think so, I mean I think that I’ve kind of done that with the Tom books as well; because the police are there to serve a purpose, but they have got a backstory as well, they’re not driving the story. This is one of the things with my books that sometimes people find quite difficult to get a handle on, and that is that they’re not police procedurals because there is quite a lot of police procedure in it, but because they’re generally told from the point of view of the victims, or in some cases, from the perpetrator of the crime’s perspective – because of that, the police relationship, you need to know a bit of their backstory for what’s happening in their lives now to make sense, but it’s not the driving factor. So you don’t need to know about how Tom’s marriage broke down in the Tom books, to know that his wife is an ex-wife is a complete and utter pain in the neck [laughs]. You don’t need to know about the history, you just need to know that it happened. And there might be a sentence which gives you a clue. But the last thing I want to do in any book is write a paragraph of historical information. It has to come out in the dialogue or in the internal thoughts of the characters and not in some long dirge, dump of information. I feel like that’s about most things, really. I feel like that’s about descriptions of locations. I don’t want somebody to be standing still looking at a field, I want them to be walking through it and then feeling the grass on the side of them and smelling the lavender or whatever it is; I don’t want people to be standing still and looking at something, I want them to be actively involved in it. And that’s what I try to do with backstory.

Charlie: That sounds good to me. Definitely. You said about your editor.

Rachel: Yes.

Charlie: It does sound like a good working relationship and stuff and definitely works well. Was there anyone that she didn’t like that maybe you had to tone down a bit? Or was there someone she really, really liked?

Rachel: She liked Effie.

Charlie: Yeah?

Rachel: Yeah, I think the first version, the early version, Nancy was a little bit too self-indulgent. In the very first version, Nancy goes to Cornwall with a friend and of course this friend had to have her own story as well in order to make her interesting. And then she had to leave because all the stuff that happened to Nancy had to happen with her being on her own. So she said to me, you really don’t need this character, this character is a complete and utter waste of page space, basically; you need to get rid of her. And I said, but she needs somebody who she can bat off; having an individual just on their own with nobody for them to talk to and interact with… And she said, so introduce somebody but they don’t have to be there all the time and you don’t need to know all of their backstory. So I had to dump the back character completely. And then that’s when Effie came in as a bit of a bright spark to brighten everybody’s day up. But she had a role to play, but she didn’t have much of her own story other than where it tied into Nancy’s. Like with her Nan for example.

Charlie: Fascinating! That’s really interesting to hear about that, yeah. You do get a sense that she’s there and she always brings something to the story whenever she turns up.

Rachel: Yes, this other character didn’t bring anything to the story. We spent far too much time on her own story which was splitting up from her ex-husband. My agent – editor agent, she’s my agent but she also edits – she was absolutely right that she has absolutely no part to play in this story; get rid of her. And you think, oh god, I’ve got pages and pages, OK all gone then.

Charlie: At the end it makes the novel better [both laugh].

Rachel: Absolutely.

Charlie: I feel I should ask you – we’re talking about Stephanie King, obviously we’re focusing on the Stephanie King books, but is there another book that you’re working on that’s outside of those, that you can tell us about?

Rachel: Well, I’ve only just finished the fourth in the Stephanie series, which I finished, as I say, last week. So I’m just kind of mooching around in my own head now about ideas for the next Tom Book. Because in the last of the Tom series, Tom’s gone on Sabbatical; his brother, who has got a very interesting history, which I really won’t bore you with now because it’s very, very complex, loads of my readers just love his brother – he’s disappeared. And he’s got a very interesting past in that he’s actually hiding from the law and has been all the way through the series, even though he’s Tom’s brother. And he’s broken lots and lots of laws, but not for necessarily bad reasons, if that makes any sense at all, which I won’t bore you. But anyway, Jack has now gone missing as has his wife and three kids. And so Tom has taken a sabbatical to go and look for him. So I’m just trying to work out where he’s gone and why. I’ve got a pretty good idea why. And I did have a really good idea for what he could be doing because he’s a real hacker. He’s a technology wizard, his brother, and always has been. And so I did have a really good idea for that, but I don’t want it to become a book about technology, it’s got to be about emotions and personalities and relationships. So somehow I might have that in there but I’ve got to think about how all the emotional stuff works into it.

Charlie: Can see that’s going to be really thrilling for readers of the series. Most definitely, if you say that the brother is the character that people really like, yeah.

Rachel: Yeah, I mean, he doesn’t appear in every book. He pops up from time to time and always does something outrageously badly behaved. But Tom’s going to look for him, so I’ve got to decide what he’s doing! And I do think I know what he’s doing, and I do think I know why he’s doing it, I’m just trying to decide where he’s doing it. It’ll be somewhere in Italy, probably.

Charlie: Okay. So, Rachel, this has been fantastic. And yeah, I’m going to have to go and pick which book to go next to. I feel like with your books, it’s nice – I don’t feel like I necessarily have to go back to the start, even though I may well. But yeah, thank you for being here today and for talking about Don’t Look Away.

Rachel: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

[Recorded later] Charlie: I hope you enjoyed this episode. Do join me next time. And if you have a moment to spare, please do leave a rating and/or review of this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Podcast Addict. Thank you! The Worm Hole Podcast episode 89 was recorded on the 4th September 2023 and published on the 8th January 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.

Photo credit: Andrew Crowley.


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