Trainspotting (in fiction)

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My fascination with trains began well before I realized that I wanted to be a writer. In fact, it was probably a train journey that first led me down the writing track. Bad pun aside, I did write my first poem after a train ride to Puri as a little girl. The poem was published in a magazine called Friends, not in circulation anymore. I still remember the first four lines:

If you are going to the sea

Please take me

For that’s the place

I’m longing to be.

I learnt much later that train journeys have provided fodder for many famous writers. One of my favourites, Agatha Christie, has written several murder mysteries that feature trains. 4.50 from Paddington is about a woman who witnesses a woman being strangled on a train that runs parallel to hers. The Murder on the Orient Express and The Mystery of the Blue Train are some of her other novels with trains in them.

Train also feature prominently on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Then, there is the famous E Nesbit novel, The Railway Children and a thrilling climax on Ian’s Fleming’s From Russia With Love. More recently, there is Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train where a woman witnesses an incident from the train that sets her off on a bizarre journey of her own. The delightful Harry Potter series is full of stations and train journeys much like Enid Blyton’s popular Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Closer home, there is Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series. Shonar Kella for instance where Feluda and Topshe meet Jatayu who becomes a dear friend and goes on many adventures with them.

Two of my short stories published by Juggernaut Books feature trains as a backdrop to incidents in the lives of protagonists. In The Magazine Seller, a young woman meets a man selling magazines on the train she boards to get to university. In A Chance Encounter, two people in unhappy marriages are drawn to each other while travelling in the same train compartment. Click on the links to read them.

Do you have any favourite train stories to add to this list?

The Last Draft

Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft, A Novelist’s Guide to Revision is a useful book for writers who have completed the first draft of their novel and need help in producing the final – polished version. I’ve never owned books that offer help with writing in the past. This is my first. Writing, for me, is instinctive. I’ve never needed an instruction manual. So I did approach this one with a certain amount of cynicism.

Scofield is a critic, longtime teacher, and award-winning novelist with many writing workshops to her credit. In this book, she offers practical tips on how to re-look at the vision you have for your novel and approach the writing process with the new, improved larger picture in mind.

“Revision is a significantly different process because you work from a complete manuscript rather than a moving platform. Also, there is more analytical work in revision, more deliberate application of craft.”

Sandra Scofield

She gives helpful suggestions in each chapter and what personally worked for me, are the exercises that have been listed at every step of the way. You get to compare your novel with other books in the same genre and analyse how the authors have approached the theme and the narrative arc. This is a book for novices as well as experienced writers.

The Last Draft is a book that you can keep coming back to. As Scofield herself points out, a lot will change in the writing. Later, you will come back to the same questions, the same advice, the same exercises, and find you have gone somewhere altogether different from where you were headed. That’s just fine. That’s writing. The real book might appear in the margins of your draft. You can’t revise what you haven’t written down.

Note: This is NOT a paid review. I put up reviews of books that I buy as and when I feel like it.

The Last Draft

A Novelist’s Guide to Revision

Sandra Scofield

Penguin Books

Rs 499

Why do you want to write?

Image courtesy: Freepik

Hello again.

I meet many people, some young, others not-so-young, who tell me that they want to be a writer. A lot of them have never written anything in their lives. While that is not a disqualification, it helps to have some clarity about why one wants to be a writer.

If you read my last piece and did the exercise towards the end, you should have some initial thoughts on why you want to be a writer. You should also have figured out what timing works best for you and your writing spot.

In that case, let’s talk about writing for a while.

Writing is a form of communication. We can write for ourselves or we can write for others. One of the reasons people write is to communicate, get some sort of interest or action from the reader or the person they are communicating with.

When we are writing for ourselves, we are putting our thoughts down on paper. It helps us reflect and understand. Writing for ourselves is mostly private but one may want to share their writing with others.

When we write for others, our work may be reviewed and shared with the public.

There are a couple of good things about writing.

When you write, you exercise the mind. It’s not enough to exercise your body, you should do the same with your mind as well. Writing helps you do that.

Writing helps unclutter your mind. There is a lot of noise inside our heads. Often, the noise distracts us, makes us lose focus. When we write our thoughts down in a diary, journal or even a document in the laptop, it helps unclutter the mind.

Writing helps mine memories. I find this particularly useful when I’m writing. Of course, not all memories are pleasant but the happy ones are worth remembering, eh?

Writing down ideas often ends up generating more ideas. Whenever you get a brainwave, say an idea for a story, a blog post or even an article, write it down immediately. Storing things inside your head is a bad idea. You might end up forgetting them which would be a huge loss. When you write things down, you add to your inventory of creative ideas.

Writing is a great way to improve your communication skills. You have time to choose your words, polish your language and put together elegant sentences and phrases.

Are there any more reasons one should write? Do you want to write for yourself or do you want to write for an audience?

First things first. Form that habit.

Image courtesy: Freepik

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up

Jane Yolen

Of all the writing advice that I’ve read over the years, this is the one I like best. The one that makes complete sense to me. I think of writing as a habit – something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it. I started writing seriously when I was 21. I had a job as an apprentice journalist with a leading business daily. I had to write or edit something every single day, whether I liked it or not. There were days when I had to write articles at a moment’s notice and if I said anything about writer’s block, I would have been fired immediately! Over the years, I wrote and wrote and now, not a day goes by when I don’t write something.

If you are an aspiring writer, it would help if you treat writing as a habit and develop it over time. It’s a bit like exercise. If you want to be fit and healthy, lose a few pounds along the way, you must get into a fitness routine. Walk every day or do a bit of yoga. It’s the same with writing. Here are some things that I do that might help.

Set aside some time to write every day. Once you do that, guard that time ferociously. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is. There are writers who write at the crack of dawn while others write at night. The pandemic has turned me into an owl so I write at night, after all my chores are done. Choose a time that works best for you.

Once you have sorted out when you are going to write, make sure you spend a couple of minutes (to start with) every single day writing something. It can be a few lines of a draft for a story, a character sketch or even a poem. Whatever catches your fancy. The idea is to keep doing it till you get into the habit of sitting down either in front of the laptop or with a piece of paper and pen and write something. As Yolen says, exercise the muscle. Form the habit. It doesn’t matter if what you write doesn’t see the light of day. It doesn’t need to.

Choose a spot. It could be your desk, the bed or even a corner of the dining table. I have a desk but I usually write in bed. Once you have a spot, make sure you turn up every single day with your laptop or your diary. If there is something you are working on, continue with your project, else figure out what you want to write and get cracking.

Exercise: Why do you want to be a writer? Take a sheet of paper and write down three reasons.

In my next post, I’ll give you some ideas on how to get started. For the time being, choose your spot and time. Think about why you want to write.

See you next week!

Delicious Death

I have often wondered why murder mysteries are referred to as delicious. I have used the term myself on several occasions but death isn’t very savoury, is it? Or sweet for that matter. So why does fictional crime get our literary tastebuds tingling? As far as I know, Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of murder mysteries first introduced the term in one of her books. She writes about a Delicious Death cake in A Murder is Announced.

The cake is “rich, rich, of a melting richness” and the ingredients needed include “chocolate and much butter, and sugar and raisins”. The cake also has chocolate frosting and “Good Wishes” written on top. In fact, the cake is the last thing one of the characters in the story eats. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind bidding my last farewell with a cake like that. Death by chocolate cake.

Before I start rambling on the topic of food, let me get back on track and tell you about some delicious … erm … delightful murder mysteries I’ve read this year. It’s been such a wretched year that I’m surprised I got any reading done. But there’s something very comforting about curling up with a gripping detective novel. You know a crime has been committed and there’s a vicious killer on the loose but there’s redemption. Evil will ultimately be punished in the fictional world.

The Sentence is Death – Anthony Horowitz

This was my third Horowitz novel and to say that I loved it would be an understatement. The way the author blends reality with fiction in his novels in masterful as is the first-person narrative. I loved the fact that there was a Bengali in the book. I chuckled quite a bit when she and her son were introduced.

The Suspect – Fiona Barton

Barton is one of my favourite authors. I’ve read all her books. She weaves a fast-paced gripping plot that switches between Bangkok & Britain effortlessly. It is chilling but heart-breaking at the same time. Every parent’s worst nightmare come true. I found the reverse narrative method of storytelling particularly intriguing. Barton is one hell of a storyteller.

Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Higashino,

One author I keep coming back to and he never disappoints. Keigo Higashino is a master of his craft. He never fails to surprise me. You think he’s given away the plot right at the beginning and you are confused. How can it be that simple? But the man draws you in and keeps you turning the pages in anticipation with twists and turns along the way. Every. Single. Time.

The Aosawa Murders – Riku Onda

“Connections to people are a curious thing.”

This one was a gift from a generous friend on Twitter and I’m really grateful I got a chance to read this book. However, hype notwithstanding, The Aosawa Murders didn’t work for me. It started well but the narrative style was confusing. Personally I like crime stories with closure. This one didn’t give me that.

The Detective Diaries – Supratim Sarkar

The Detective Diaries, gripping accounts of 11 case files of the Kolkata Police, is a sequel to Sarkar’s brilliant Murder in the City. Having read about many of the cases in the newspapers, it was fascinating to find out about the criminal minds at work behind them. The only thing that put a dampener on the plot was the translation. It could have been better.

Moonflower Murders – Anthony Horowitz

I got to read two of his books this year so I’m taking that as a silver lining.  A book within a book, that requires you to use your “little grey cells.” Besides, one is in the company of writers, the best kind of company really — even if they are fictional. This was unputdownable. Just don’t read this before you’ve read Magpie Murders. You need to be able to connect the dots.

The Newcomer – Keigo Higashino

My second Higashino this year, Newcomer started well but the narrative lost steam midway. Not as compelling as his other novels. Malice remains my #1.

The Legacy – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The Legacy was terrifying & gut-wrenching in equal measure. Be warned, this book is not for the faint-hearted! I’d be interested in reading some of her other novels.

Murder in Midsummer: Classic Mysteries for the Holidays 

Nothing like a good (fictional) murder to take your mind off things. A fabulous collection of stories from some of the masters of crime fiction including one of my favourites, Ruth Rendell. Plenty of sun, sand and corpses. An enjoyable collection.

No Trespassing – Brinda S Narayan

A book that stunned me with its sheer brilliance – I finished it in one sitting over a few hours. Gripping plot with terrifying twists and fluid writing. A must-read thriller like nothing I’ve read before.

Before I sign off, this is not a paid post. None of these authors paid me to write about them. I write a thread on my favourite books on Twitter every year and this is just a compilation of that thread. Happy Reading and Merry Christmas in advance!

The Pop-Up World!

Pop-up books are probably the reason I started reading early. The very idea of a book that would move, that you could manipulate with the help of flaps and triggers to reveal surprises at every step, was fascinating for me. I suspect my mother loved pop-up books too since there were loads of them lying around the house when I was growing up. Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood were a few of my favourites.

Mostly I loved the surprise element. Having things jump out at you when you turned each page. Princesses, teddy bears, fairies. Hidden objects that came into view when you pulled flaps. It was like a tableau being enacted in front of your eyes. One you were in complete control of.

When I became a mother myself, I tried to get as many pop-up books as I could for my daughter. I wanted to share them with her. I had so many questions about the books. I was curious to know how it all began. Who invented the first pop-up book? How were they made? So I did some digging.

I found out that the first movable books were not intended for children. They were used for texts on medicine and astronomy. The earliest example is a manuscript dating to 1121, titled Liber Floridus that demonstrates the orbits of the planets around the Earth. Catalan mystic and poet Ramon Llull of Majorca is also believed to have used a revolving disc or volvelle to illustrate his theories in the 13th century.

The first movable for children, the turn-up book or the harlequinade as it was known was printed around 1750. Blue Ribbon Press filed the first copyright for the term “pop-up” for a book in 1932. Among the renowned artists in the history of movable books were Kubašta and the leader of the form, Lothar Meggendorfer. In fact, an award named after Meggendorfer is given by the Movable Book Society for paper engineers, the people who create the movable pieces and work with illustrators and printers to bring pop-ups to life.

How are pop-up books made?

You need a plan for the story at the start. The engineer figures out which parts will be the pop-ups and creates a prototype using card stock. The pop-up then goes into production. The fantastic part is that they are still made by hand as each story is different. One can use software to design it but the design needs to be cut into shape by hand.

Different kinds of pop-ups

Transformations: When you pull a tab and a new scene is created.

Volvelles: Involves the use of rotating parts.

Tunnel books: You can view the book like a tunnel.

One of my favourite books in our collection is this collectible, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Robert Sabuda. Sabuda is one of the most innovative children’s book creators who is known the world over for his amazing pop-up paper engineering. I don’t know about my daughter but I never tire of looking at it.

Here’s a list of some of the must-have books for your collection!

The View-Master

It started out with wondering how travel would look in the post Covid world. Would virtual and interactive online tours become the new normal? Or could we put on smart glasses and travel like Johnny English with a few hard knocks and tumbles along the way?

It was then that I remembered the View-Master, my favourite toy from childhood, my own smart glasses if you please, that allowed me to see many sights and be part of many stories from the comfort of my bed. My father had bought the View-Master on one of his trips to Japan. My mum would guard it like the Grail Knight. Her grouse was that we kids (there were three of us) would fiddle with the slides, putting our grimy, mucky fingers all over them and she was worried the gadget would get ruined and she wouldn’t be able to fix it. So we were only allowed the View-Master as a treat on special occasions. When we did well in school or when we were unwell. While my older siblings weren’t particularly interested in the thing, they were outdoorsy children, I loved the View-Master. I actually looked forward to getting sick so that I could get it as a treat. Luckily, I fell ill a lot when I was a child as I had weak lungs and was prone to coughs and colds.

I called it কটাং কটাং (Kotang Kotang), because of the sound the trigger would make when you changed slides. I wish I could translate it but it’s just a word for the specific sound in Bengali. A clang clang if you will in English. Or a click click. You get the drift. All day long, I would watch slides. Babes in Toyland, Bambi, Prehistoric Monsters, Dinosaurs, Pyramids, Pagodas. My physical discomfort, raging fever all faded into insignificance when I was on these virtual tours into fantastic worlds.

I was just thinking of how much pleasure the little gadget brought me when I was ill. If virtual travel turned out to be something like that, it might prove to be a panacea for a lot of discomfort that we face from day to day. Covid included.

Facebook tells me that my septuagenarian mother has already signed onto a virtual trip to Jerusalem. Perhaps I will join her. After all, it’s only a trip to her bedroom – next to mine. I do wonder where the View-Master went though. I must ask her to look for it. I wouldn’t mind another go at it.

The Bait

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If you’ve watched the Satyajit Ray classic film Nayak, you would remember the character of Pritish (rhymes with British) Sarkar played by the inimitable Kamu Mukherjee, the owner of Spectrum Publicity, who wasn’t averse to pimping his wife Molly to help him get a business deal. While he was happy to flaunt her in public as being just a “housewife”, he didn’t want her to work. He tells her to be nice to Mr Haren Bose so that he can clinch a deal with him. “It’s a game,” he exclaims when his wife gets upset and locks herself up in the toilet of the train.

Ever since I watched the movie, first as a child and then later on when I was older, the character of Pritish Sarkar has always intrigued me. It was possibly one of Mukherjee’s best roles — the advertising man with shades of grey. A man using his wife as bait to help him catch big fish. In fact, it has always been a dream of mine to reimagine that character in a modern-day, corporate context. The character of Ranjan in my newest short story, My Trophy Wife, is inspired by Ray’s Sarkar. A man who uses his wife to help him rise up the career ladder. Does it work? You will have to read my story to find out.

Click here, it’s free to read. Do leave a review if you like it.