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?

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 Climbing Spinach Trellis

I fell in love with short stories when I was in school. We had to read from a textbook of Bengali short stories and I was introduced to a man named Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay (12 September 1894 – 1 November 1950) is possibly one of the greatest writers of modern Bengali literature. His best known work is the autobiographical Pather Panchali which was later adapted (along with Aparajito, the sequel) into The Apu Trilogy of films directed by Satyajit Ray. He wrote 16 novels and over two hundred short stories.

His stories were set in rural Bengal and he wrote about ordinary people, their dreams and desires, of mundane, often commonplace things and situations. Yet his stories had a lyrical quality that elevated them beyond the ordinary. There was no unnecessary drama or conflict just vignettes of life.

Pui Macha or পুঁই মাচা (The Climbing Spinach Trellis) is one of my favourite short stories. It is a poignant tale about a mother’s relationship with her gluttonous daughter. When I first wrote about the story, many asked for an English translation. I have finally managed to find a translation on the Internet! While this version has a few typos and grammatical errors, it still conveys the essence of the story.

Read the story here.

I must confess that I read it this morning (after a gap of nearly 25 years) and it still made me weep.

Such is the power of Bibhutibhusan’s storytelling.

The Heart of the Matter

A friend asked me on Twitter after reading my post on writing short fiction, how does one get the reader to experience an emotional connect with what you are writing? There are some stories in which the plot isn’t particularly new or extraordinary yet they manage to make the readers feel a myriad of emotions.

Now I can list out all the different techniques that you can use to write your stories so that your readers get hooked. The way you create your characters, using plot, descriptions and twists in the narrative to hold their interest. You will find most of that on the Internet if you look for it.

What about the emotional connect then? How do you write something that will move your readers? In the words of Ernest Hemingway: write hard and clear about what hurts.

As a writer, you need to feel emotion when writing to be able to convey that feeling successfully to your readers. If your writing leaves you cold, how can you expect your reader to be moved to tears by it?

It’s a dangerous proposition. Difficult even. It can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. But whoever said writing is an easy job? And the simpler your tales are, the more complex emotions they will tap. You need to be prepared to journey to the dark places inside your soul, play with your own feelings and life experiences so that you can tell your tales convincingly. You have to make people believe, giggle uncontrollably, shed a tear or perhaps feel terrible rage.

These journeys will not be easy and they will leave you emotionally drained. But it will be worth it. That part I can guarantee. My last short story, The Red Thread, about a young apprentice tailor who falls in love with disastrous consequences left me weeping after I had written it. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience but recent events and a trip down memory lane prompted me to write it. Do read and tell me what you felt. I’d be curious to know.

Have you ever read a story that moved you to tears or rage or intense contemplation? Have you wondered what it was about that story that made you feel this way? Write back, I’m waiting to hear from you.

Meanwhile, you can read some of my other short stories on the Juggernaut Books app here.

The Long and the Short of It: Writing Short Stories

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“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

(Neil Gaiman)

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many different forms of writing but the short story has always eluded me. Always by accident, never by design. In the light of recent developments, I view this as a shame.

I have recently finished writing a collection of short stories and I find that writing short fiction is hugely enjoyable, at least for me! It holds a lot of promise. I would actually go so far as to say that short stories are, perhaps, the most challenging thing I have ever worked on in my entire career.

You may ask me why. Well, I’ll tell you why.

Brevity

You don’t have the luxury of writing till the ink in your pen runs dry or the battery in your laptop out of charge, the latter a more likely scenario. You don’t have the luxury of 50,000 words or more. Short stories are typically between 1,000 to 7,500 words though some pieces of short fiction can be as long as 30,000 words! But let’s forget about that for a minute. Say you have a limit between 2,500 and 3,000 words to tell a good story. You need to make sure you keep that limit in mind when setting out or else you may get terribly lost and waste precious time.

Plot

It’s always good to have an idea fleshed out into a tidy plot before you start writing. With a well-defined plot in hand (or in mind) you will find it easier to stick to the word limit rather than amble along as you may have in the case of a longer work of fiction or non-fiction. Figure out how the storyline will develop within the word count. I found it helpful to have a beginning, middle and end and have an approximate word count for each section.

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Characters

Don’t go overboard with a host of characters with complicated sub-plots. Keep it fairly straightforward unless you have a plan to weave all the different characters and their stories into your main plot. Remember, you are not writing a novel and it’s difficult even for an experienced writer to have different things going on at the same time. The story becomes heavy, clumsy and loses focus.

Twists don’t always work

You don’t necessarily need a twist to make your tale work. Often, there is great value in simplicity. Also, open endings work really well. The reader can interpret it whichever way he or she likes. That increases their engagement in the story and which author doesn’t want the reader to get engaged?

Short stories are good practice before you go ahead and write the longer novel if you haven’t written one already. You can write a couple of short stories and then expand them into proper novellas or works of fiction. One of my short stories was actually an idea that I had (inside my head for years) for a longer novel.

My head is already buzzing with more ideas for stories I’d like to write down. What about you? Go on, give them a try.

If you would like to read my short stories, do click on this link: http://bit.ly/2x7mBUm

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