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Writing espionage novels as a female author #GuestPost by Rachel Amphlett @RachelAmphlett

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A short series of guest posts explores what it means to be a female author…


By Rachel Amphlett

Back in 2011, I published the first novel in what would become my Dan Taylor series of espionage books under my own name.

I didn’t even think back then that using my initials or a male pseudonym would encourage more readers to discover the book, but it did turn into something that would plague me for a long time afterwards.

By the time I’d brought out book three in the series in 2015, I was beginning to wonder whether I’d made a mistake with the branding of it. Should I overhaul it and lose my own name in favour of a couple of initials?

But I stopped short of doing that, and instead challenged my own doubts.

The first question that sprang to mind was, why was I thinking of changing my name on the books?

Why did I think that readers were put off by a female author writing spy novels?

Dame Stella Rimington has been doing it for years, after all.

I think some of my fears stemmed from my own perceptions about not having the “right background”. I haven’t been employed by anyone’s secret service, I haven’t served in the military, and my own attempts at adrenalin-fuelled pursuits scared the bejesus outta me. (This is coming from someone who went white-water rafting in her early twenties, even though she’s a rubbish swimmer and hates putting her head underwater!)

Photo by Simon Schmitt on Unsplash

Photo by Simon Schmitt on Unsplash

Oh, I read all the right books. My earliest memory of devouring a book that wasn’t written for children was when my grandfather leant me his copy of Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed when I was about 12 or 13, closely followed by the rest of the spy fiction on his bookshelves including Alistair McLean, Len Deighton, John Le Carre, and Frederick Forsyth.

But, that was as close as I got to the real thing. It was all in my imagination.

As the Dan Taylor series grew, I struggled to find like-minded female writers I could buddy up with to chat about this sub-genre of crime fiction – sure, I was lucky enough to meet Stella Rimington when she was in Brisbane to launch a new book, but I had no-one amongst my close writing friends who were writing what I was writing.

At writing masterclasses and seminars, when I spoke about what I was writing, people’s eyebrows would shoot up, and I’d be asked: why? You’re female. Why are you writing that?

And that was coming from both sexes.

The problem was highlighted by early reviews from male readers, who stated outright that they’d never have picked up a spy novel written by a female writer, but were badgered by a friend or family member to do so and, rather reluctantly in some cases it would seem, had to admit they’d enjoyed it.

The second question was: what could I do to convince readers to give me a chance and demonstrate I knew what I was talking about?

If I enjoyed writing these stories, what could I do to challenge other people’s perceptions and show them that, in fact, my books were as close to real life as I could possibly make them?

When I started to develop the idea for the first book in the series, I read as much military non-fiction I could get my hands on. This included Andy McNab and Chris Ryan’s individual accounts of their legendary SAS escape and evade exploits, and autobiographies by British Army bomb disposal experts.

What was missing from the jigsaw was my own confidence. I wasn’t ready to stand up to those that tried to put me off writing espionage novels – and I was starting to believe them.

So, I started to network – I put the word out amongst family and friends that I wanted to speak with and listen to experts who had lived the life of my protagonist, and could tell me if I was doing something wrong.

Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash

Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash

I learned to shoot – I’d never held a gun in all my life, but a work colleague’s wife was a State champion. They kindly invited me to their pistol club on the Sunshine Coast one weekend, and taught me from scratch so I’d know what it was like for my protagonist when he was shooting a gun.

I tried flying a Black Hawk helicopter simulator, and found out what it was like to be a gunner on one of those aircraft in a virtual reality world that opened up a whole new concept to my writing for me.

And, I keep learning. I read news articles, books, visit museums and talk to curators, and all of this goes into my espionage novels. I apply the same diligence to my new crime fiction series.

My writing’s gone from strength to strength and, slowly but surely, so is my confidence – and readers who continue to discover the series seem to be enjoying the ride.

So, in closing, has being a female author writing espionage novels been a challenge?

Yes, but it’s one I’ve enjoyed facing up to. I’ve learned so much more than if I’d taken the easy route and either rebranded – or, heaven forbid, quit. I believe that if there were any detractors about my being a female author writing this stuff that they’re long gone, and that the people enjoying the stories don’t care at all about my gender.

Readers want a good spy novel to read that’s fast-paced and feels real, and thank goodness because I love researching and writing them!

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Rachel Amphlett is the bestselling author of the Dan Taylor espionage novels and the new Detective Kay Hunter series, as well as a number of standalone crime thrillers. Originally from the UK and currently based in Brisbane, Australia, Rachel’s novels appeal to a worldwide audience, and have been compared to Robert Ludlum, Lee Child and Michael Crichton. She is a member of International Thriller Writers and the Crime Writers Association, with the Italian foreign rights for her debut novel, White Gold, being sold to Fanucci Editore’s TIMECrime imprint in 2014, and the first four books in the Dan Taylor espionage series contracted to Germany’s Luzifer Verlag in 2017.

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