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?

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 Bait

Image courtesy: http://www.getbengal.com

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.

The Name of the Game

If there is anything that puts me off about the process of writing, it is the part where I have to figure out what to name the characters in my short story or novel. Short of pulling names out of a hat, I do everything humanly possible to come up with interesting names. Names that reflect the personalities and quirks of my characters.

I think it is important for the main protagonists in your manuscript to have names. I’m talking about the characters that drive the narrative and contribute towards the progress of the plot. The reader should be able to connect with them from the first instance and a memorable name helps build that connection. Look at it this way, don’t you remember people you meet who have interesting, even unusual names? It is the same with the person reading your work.

I do not believe that all characters, especially the insignificant ones, need a name. Too many names can lead to unnecessary clutter and readers may get distracted. In a pacey crime novel for instance, a reader might get confused with too many names. In short stories, characters don’t necessarily need names. Ernest Hemingway didn’t believe in giving all his characters names. You must read A Clean Well-Lighted Place to understand what I mean. The latter is one of his finest short stories.

When I was writing Mr Eashwar’s Daughter, naming the characters was a huge challenge. Since my book was a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, I wanted the names to have some similarity to the characters in the original novel. So Anne Elliot became Anamika “Anna” Eashwar and Commander Frederick Wentworth was Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera. But I didn’t name the characters on a whim. Farrokh’s parents were music enthusiasts and they named him after Freddy Mercury while the Eashwars were landed gentry and Eashwar was a title they adopted.

A few rules that I follow. You might find them helpful.

Do your research well: It is always a good idea to research the period you are writing about or even the region or country and then name your characters accordingly. Inaccuracies stick out like a sore thumb and readers’ can always tell.

Unusual & interesting: I like names that have an interesting ring to them, quirky names even. Or names that reflect the personality of the character I am writing about. Mrinalini from Dragon Aunty Returns! was a staid, prudish Bengali girl and I thought that name would be perfect for her. No offense to anyone I hope, living or dead.

Does it sound good? That’s the question you must always ask at the end of the day. Does the name have a pleasant or unpleasant ring to it? (depending on your character’s traits) Would you give your own child the same name? Your book is your baby, isn’t it? Give it the same importance then.

A word of advice: do not name your characters after your friends, relatives or lovers. It is never a good idea unless they ask you to do it or you get their permission in advance. Make sure you get it in writing so that they can’t take you to court later. Just kidding. Store the note safely somewhere though!

Click here to find out how authors named their famous characters.

Retelling Jane Austen

 

I read Pride and Prejudice when I was eight years old. Along with Les Misérables, Mill on the Floss and Lorna Doone. My father had just died and a generous friend of my sister’s had loaned me a collection of her books and comics to help me deal with the pain of losing a parent. It was an abridged version of Austen’s classic, dog-eared with big lettering and black and white sketches.

I loved it.

I was always slightly precocious for my age, the youngest of three siblings, and the story of a mother trying to get her three daughters hitched to wealthy husbands appealed to me. I was hooked. I devoured all the books in the pile. As I grew older, I read the unabridged versions one by one. The pleasure I got from reading them was undiminished.

Austen’s novels take a humorous look at society and life in the late 1700s. There is irony and realism in her plots, characters and the worlds that they inhabit. So much so that if you transport any character to the current world that we live in, they would fit in quite well and you would relate to their predicament. Women, marriage, dysfunctional families, money problems, greed, pride and the biases that all of us hide. These are things we come across daily, don’t we?

The reason Austen’s appeal has stretched across centuries.

Imagine my delight when my publisher Juggernaut Books commissioned me to retell one of Austen’s classic novels last year. Persuasion is the last novel fully completed by Jane Austen and was published at the end of 1817, six months after her death. The novel follows the life of Anne Eliot and her ex-fiancé Commander Frederick Wentworth.

It took me three months to write the novel. While there have been many retellings of this particular tale, I didn’t read a single one of them. I wanted to stay true to Austen and write the story in my own way keeping the modern milieu as a backdrop. My novel takes readers to North Bengal (Siliguri & Jalpaiguri), Kolkata, Gurgaon, Dharamsala and Mcleodganj – towns and cities which are special to me. There’s music, tea, doomed relationships, quirky parents and second chances. Not just that, the protagonist is named after legendary singer Freddy Mercury. In my novel, Commander Frederick Wentworth is reborn as Farrokh “Freddy” Wadhera.

Mr Eashwar’s Daughter is available on Juggernaut Books. You can buy the book here.

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