Friday, 11 November 2016

‘Flash fiction makes the daily discipline of writing a lot more fun. And it can spark real creativity’

Guest Post by Margot Kinberg, academician, writer, and blogger. She recently released her fourth novel, Past Tense, in her acclaimed Joel Williams series. Margot also writes short stories and flash fiction, and regularly blogs about crime fiction at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

© Margot Kinberg
Writing is a lot like any other skill: it needs to be honed. And that means writing on a daily basis. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is through flash fiction.

One thing I love about flash fiction is that it allows the writer to play with ideas without the commitment to a long story or a novel. And that allows for all sorts of experimentation and exploration. To put it another way, flash fiction makes the daily discipline of writing a lot more fun. And it can spark real creativity.

Flash fiction is also really versatile. For example, my host, Prashant, is quite skilled at 100-word stories called Drabbles. That structure encourages the writer to use powerful language that tells a story in just a few words. You can even try a shorter format – the 50-word story that author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin has called the Dribble. Both formats help the author to reduce a story to its essentials, and convey quite a lot with a few well-chosen words. That’s got much to recommend it.

Those micro-stories aren’t for every writer. Some writers choose slightly longer flash fiction stories. Those allow for a little more atmosphere and character development, and they can be really helpful for the writer who’d like to work on those skills. Again, it’s an effective way to some vital daily practice.

Because flash fiction is flexible, that means the writer can try different voices, different genres, and so on. It also means that established authors with a continuing series can ‘test the waters’ with new characters and settings.

The benefits of flash fiction go beyond helping the writer hone skills. Flash fiction also helps to build (or keep) a reading audience. Publishing flash fiction on one’s blog or other website introduces the author to readers. Then, when there’s a forthcoming book, readers are more likely to be interested. The same may happen for editors or agents who are looking for new talent.

Flash fiction can also provide interesting opportunities for publication. Sometimes, magazines or other journals open up to submissions of flash fiction. There are also flash fiction competitions. All of those allow the author the chance for wider recognition.

Sometimes, an idea that comes from a flash fiction story can develop into something more substantive. Just one element of a shorter story can inspire something longer – even a novel. For example, in one of my flash fiction pieces, Planting Season, a body is found buried at a landscaping site. It got me to thinking about how remains might be discovered, and that’s just what I needed for a novel I was writing.

That novel turned out to be Past Tense, which has recently been released. In Past Tense, construction workers uncover a 40-year-old set of remains that turn out to be connected with a missing person case from 1974. My protagonist, former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams, works in tandem with the police to find out the truth behind that death.

Admittedly, the main plot of Past Tense isn’t very similar to the plot of Planting Season. But the idea from that flash fiction piece helped me put together a plot element that I needed. And that ‘fed’ the novel. I got other little bits of ideas for the novel from other flash fiction I’ve done.

And that’s the thing about flash fiction. Not every piece will lead anywhere. Lots of mine don’t. But you never know when one or another piece might fill in a plothole, give you an idea for a character, or add a touch of atmosphere to something larger you’re writing. Some pieces might even evolve into a novel.

Thank you very much, Prashant!

Here’s more about Past Tense

A long-buried set of remains…a decades-old mystery

Past and present meet on the quiet campus of Tilton University when construction workers unearth a set of unidentified bones.

© Grey Cells Press
For former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams, it’s a typical Final Exams week – until a set of bones is discovered on a construction site…

When the remains are linked to a missing person case from 1974, Williams and the Tilton, Pennsylvania police go back to the past. And they uncover some truths that have been kept hidden for a long time.

How much do people really need to know?

It’s 1974, and twenty-year-old Bryan Roades is swept up in the excitement of the decade. He’s a reporter for the Tilton University newspaper, The Real Story, and is determined to have a career as an investigative journalist, just like his idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. He plans to start with an exposé article about life on the campus of Tilton University. But does everything need to be exposed? And what are the consequences for people whose lives could be turned upside down if their stories are printed? As it turns out, Bryan’s ambition carries a very high price. And someone is determined not to let the truth out.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Innocent Justice

A short story by Prashant C. Trikannad

The old proprietor of the country liquor shop on Market Road dropped the coins in the drawer and handed Kiaan a bottle of hooch wrapped in a plastic bag.

"Now you be careful with that, son," he said, leaning over the counter and pulling the young boy's raincoat together.

Kiaan nodded without looking up.

"Tell your father I said hi."

"He's not my father," the boy said.

"Uh, okay. You take care," the barman said. "The rain gods are in a foul mood tonight."

Kiaan gripped the bottle by the neck and went out into the night. Rain was falling hard and the narrow bridge leading to the other side of the creek, where he lived, was dark and deserted. The storm had taken out the street lights. As he trudged through the rain, murky waters swirled around his legs and escaped between his wet shoes, which made a sucking sound.

The night had a strange eeriness to it. Like walking through an old desolate house and sensing a forbidding presence. Another kid would have shivered with cold fear. Not Kiaan. He felt only anger and hatred, and a burning desire to kill his stepfather. He wasn't sure how he was going to do it. He shook involuntarily and his fingers tightened around the bottle of cheap Feni.

Tonight would be the last time his stepfather sent him out to fetch the bottle. As he walked the bridge, he looked at the ghostly shapes of trawlers bobbing in the distance where the creek joined the Mandovi River.

His father had died when he was six. Four years later, his mother had married his dad's best friend. She said she took the step for their sake, and because she felt he needed a father figure in his life. What they got instead was Jekyll by day and Hyde by night. His stepfather turned out to be a violent alcoholic and his sadistic abuse of Kiaan's mother started almost immediately after they returned from their honeymoon. Night after night the boy cowered under his blanket, trying to drown out the unnatural sounds from the other room, abuses and grunts alternating with screams and whimpers, and cried himself to sleep. Till one day, he swore to kill the man who’d destroyed their lives.

*          *         *

Kiaan crossed the creek, turned into a dark lane, and stopped. The rain was coming in torrents. Lightning waltzed through the sky and a thunder of applause rent the air. He looked down and found himself in almost knee-deep water. It felt cold against his skin and he shivered momentarily. He waded through the long shadows of dilapidated buildings on either side, their windows in wartime blackout. Suddenly, he gave a startled cry when he felt something crawl over his feet and crawl back again. Terrified, he ran, splashed, ran as fast as he could through filthy water and floating junk, clutching the bottle tightly in his right hand. 

When he reached the end of the lane, he turned left, climbed the footpath, and entered the last building. Light from a ceiling bulb danced in the pool of water on the floor. Flecks of yellow paint peeled off the walls. An ‘out of order’ sign hung on the metal-caged lift. Pigeons cooed in the ventilation above the doorway. There was no one about. Only the storm intruded on the stillness in the gloomy hallway.

The kid pushed back the hood of his raincoat and carefully removed the bottle from the plastic bag. He went to the entrance, dipped the bottle into the water, and smashed it as hard as he could against the wall. It broke on the third blow. When he lifted it again, he was holding the neck of the bottle with jagged edges dripping blood and water. Tears rolled down his face as he pulled out a shard of glass from his hand. He wiped his face on the sleeve of his wet raincoat and hurried inside. 

He waited at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes searching for movement. Finding none, he began to climb, one step at a time — holding the bottle away from him, like a blood-stained knife. 

*          *         *

Kiaan stood outside his door at the end of a dimly-lit corridor. He was breathing heavily and his heart was racing. Just like it did every night his stepfather returned home reeking of cheap liquor and stale smoke, and went after his mother. For the first time since he'd left the bar, he was frightened. He knew what awaited him on the other side of the door. What he didn't know was what would happen after he went in.

With tears in his eyes and a quivering hand, he inserted his key in the lock and turned it slowly when the door flew open and slammed against the wall. Kiaan pulled back with a start and dropped the bottle. The storm drowned out the crash of splintered glass. No doors opened. He stood there, frozen.

His stepfather was just inside the door, swaying on his feet. He was clutching his throat with both hands. Blood, the colour of dark red cherry, oozed through his fingers and trickled down his arms and smeared his bare chest.

“Kiaan, my boy!” he croaked, like a raven, and fell on his face at the boy’s feet.

At that moment, lightning flashed through the living room like disco lights. At first he thought he was seeing a ghost. Then he saw that it was his mother. Only now she wasn’t his mother. She was something else. An apparition of a beautiful woman without her soul.

“It’s over, Kiaan.” She reached out with her hand.

Trembling, he backed away till his hands found the cold wall.

© Prashant C. Trikannad, 2016

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Drabble #9: A story in 100 words

I used earthworms as bait to catch tiny crabs. I dug them out of wet earth, dropped them into a bottle and ran to the jetty. I put a hook into a wriggly worm, leaned over the side, and lowered the line past a million barnacles. A dozen crabs crawled out of nowhere and clawed at the dangling bait. When one got lucky and held on to its lunch, I pulled him up and checked him out. I let him have the worm and lowered him back into Mandovi river. He ate it without getting impaled. Fishing sure was fun.

Note: For previous Drabbles, click here

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Witty acceptance speeches by British actors

A peek at some Witty acceptance speeches by British actors for Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, Audio and Video over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

When Peter O'Toole walked on to the stage to receive a well-deserved Honorary Oscar from Meryl Streep in 2003, there must have been an air of expectation among his celebrity audience who were probably eager to hear his rich and distinctive voice, and laugh at his wit and intelligent humour. It was a short speech but I'm sure he didn't disappoint them.

After greeting Streep and accepting the Academy Award from her, Peter O'Toole said after the extended standing ovation, and I quote him verbatim:

“Meryl Streep, members of the Academy, distinguished guests, viewers, ladies and gentlemen. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride—my foot! I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part.

“I wish the Academy to know that I am as delighted as I am honoured. And I am honoured. The magic of the movies enraptured me when I was a child. As I totter into antiquity, movie magic enraptures me still. Having already bagged this baby, as it were, and so spared uncertainties prior to the opening of an envelope, I'm able to think. I think of our colleagues, our old friends, now gone, who played their parts in this ceremony. I think of the sumptuous talents alive and well and with us now. I think of the astonishing young, the gifted and able young men and women who I meet practically every time I go to work and from whom I grab energy in handfuls. I think of the United States and of the loves and friendships I've known here for more than half a century, and of how much the nation has given to me both personally, privately and professionally. And I am deeply thankful. And now, at this last, you have given me this delightful shock. You're very good. Good night and God bless you.”

Years later, when I watched that Oscar night on YouTube, I marvelled at the renowned British-Irish actor's choice of words which evoked instant mental imagery and laughter. At one point, when O'Toole said, “As I totter into antiquity, movie magic enraptures me still,” his compatriot Michael Caine laughed out loud, and I couldn't help laughing with him.

It was a good acceptance speech, the kind of speech whose lines you remembered long after they were delivered.

Over the years and until his passing in December 2013, Peter O'Toole was no less hilarious in his television interviews. He once rode in on a camel on David Letterman's The Late Show, reprising his famous role in Lawrence of Arabia, and proceeded to regale viewers and spectators with his disarming charm and humour. Except, he wore a suit and smoked a cigarette through a holder.

O'Toole comes from an impressive roster of British actors who are as witty in real life as they often are on screen—actors like Michael Caine, Hugh Laurie, Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Maggie Smith, John Cleese, Kate Winslet, Rowan Atkinson and Jim Broadbent, who deliver their lines with deadpan humour, be it in a speech or an interview.

In 1998, Caine had the audience in splits when he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor–Musical or Comedy for Little Voice, 1998. He opened his speech with this gem—“Oh, what a shock. My career must be slipping. This is the first time I've been available to pick up an award,” as if the awards were there for the asking. The rest of his speech was peppered with funny lines, which included the confession that he didn't work a lot without producer Harvey Weinstein. The Miramax co-founder was beside himself with laughter.

Colin Firth showed his funny side when he took home the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The King’s Speech, 2011.

He said, “I have a feeling my career has just peaked. My deepest thanks to the Academy. I'm afraid I have to warn you that I'm experiencing stirrings. Somewhere in the upper abdominals which are threatening to form themselves into dance moves. Joyous as they may be for me, it would be extremely problematic if they make it to my legs before I get off stage.” Firth remained impassive throughout his speech which made his appearance that much more hilarious. Don't they feel like laughing too? They are, of course. masters of their craft and I suppose they can hide their emotions. Or, maybe, they don't mean to be as funny as we think they are.

I watch award shows like the Oscars, Golden Globe, American Film Institute, Emmy, and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor only for the acceptance speeches, in the hope that some of the winners will make me laugh with their wit and wisecracks, and liven up my day just a bit.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Jack Higgins and Tom Sharpe

“Godber was murdered,” said Lady Mary. “I am fully aware that you refuse to believe me, but I know.”
— Opening line of Grantchester Grind, a Porterhouse chronicle, by Tom Sharpe (1995)

Last week, fellow readers and bloggers commended me for the restraint I exercised at the Books by Weight exhibition where I bought just four paperbacks—thank you! But that restraint lasted for all of one week, as I went back and picked up four more novels—two each by British thriller writer Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson) and English satirical novelist Tom Sharpe. What’s with me and number four, I wonder?

My wife, ever the discerning reader, bought a lovely hardback edition of The Wind in the Willows (1908), the acclaimed children's novel by Kenneth Grahame.

This time, too, I took a few pictures one of which threw up a surprise. As I noted on my Facebook wall, I completely overlooked another fine paperback of Ray Bradbury's short story collection Long After Midnight, especially after having bought The October Country the week before. I noticed it only after I returned home and scrolled through my image gallery (see below). It was like developing the family pictures in the dark and discovering a ghostly figure staring over my grandmother’s shoulder.

Higgins is an old favourite and I have several of his secondhand war and espionage fiction. Higgins was at his best from 1959, when he published his first novel Sad Wind from the Sea, through the seventies. Although he wrote almost every year after that, sometimes two to three a year, they were nowhere as good as his early novels.

Hell Is Always Today (1968) is a departure from his traditional plots revolving around the Cold War, British Intelligence, reformed IRA assassins, World War II, and Nazi Germany. This is actually a crime fiction about an escaped prisoner who stalks women on the streets of London and kills them in cold blood. Can Detective Sergeant Nick Miller hunt him down?

We’re pretty hot on on parking tickets, but not so good on maniacs who walk the streets on wet nights murdering women.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate Jack Higgins 9 because his stories are filled with adventure, romantic ideals, and suspense, and are yet uncomplicated and entertaining. I’d rate him shoulder to shoulder with that other fine storyteller Jeffrey Archer.

I grew up on a regular diet of riveting stories by popular bestselling authors of the second-half of the last century. Writers I can always rely upon to tell me a good story even now. I'm fortunate that I haven't read all of their novels.

© Photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A book pilgrim’s journey to Books by Weight

I was a model of restraint during my biannual pilgrimage to the Books by Weight exhibition at Churchgate in South Mumbai, last week. I picked up only four used paperbacks in mint condition. The books had a familiar musty smell, as if I’d pulled them out of a rusty trunk in the attic. I like the way old books smell. Some people religiously sniff pages of novels and newspapers before reading them. It’s supposed to bring good luck. A quaint habit and one I indulge in occasionally.

The four titles I picked up, out of a million-odd books, were Guzman Go Home by Alan Sillitoe, another of my favourite authors; The October Country by Ray Bradbury, whose paperbacks have some of the best illustrated covers; And So To Bed by William Ard, whose western novels I’ve read as Jonas Ward; and Lie Down Killer by Richard S. Prather, whose crime and mystery have been on my wish-list for a long time. See the topmost picture.

I found these in one of a dozen open boxes strewn across the floor in the large and roomy auditorium at Sunderbai Hall. There were at least two cartons filled with mid- to late 20th century fantasy, sf and horror novels mostly by authors I’d never heard of. I can’t imagine what I missed, especially since I was the only one pouring over this section. Most people were picking up popular and contemporary authors, such as, Stephen King, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Danielle Steel (still widely read in India), Jonathan Kellerman, Elizabeth Gilbert, Peter James, Mary Higgins Clark, Ian Rankin, Joanna Trollope, Ellis Peters, and J.K. Rowling, to name a handful.

Apart from the boxes, there were eight rows, each the length of a bowling alley, stacked with hundreds and thousands of paperbacks and hardbacks across several categories. The books were pressed so tightly against one another, their spines facing upward, I was afraid they’d suffocate to death. Books have life, after all.

The one carton I eyed with unconcealed glee at Books by Weight was the one that contained my most favourite writer—Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson). I pulled out many of his Book Club hardbacks only to drop them back into the box. I’d enough of his novels at home. And yet, when it comes to books, there’s never too much of a good thing.

© Photographs by Prashant C. Trikannad

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Martian and the Mumbaikar

A short story by Prashant C. Trikannad

The young Martian sitting beside me in the first-class compartment of the 7.45 am Churchgate local did not look as weird or creepy as the ones in Mars Attacks! He was a proper native of the Red Planet but he wasn’t scary or anything like that. His skin was a translucent green. His head was the shape of a rose apple. He had oversized eyes and no ears. He had a nice set of yellowish-white teeth. And he wasn’t sneering. He seemed like a decent bloke for an alien and quite friendly, for twice at least he tried to strike a conversation. I was in no mood to talk. I was engrossed in reading my e-book. I wanted to finish it before I got off in downtown Marine Lines so I could start on Ray Bradbury’s A Graveyard for Lunatics on the way back home.

“What’s that you’re reading?” He asked suddenly in a metallic but not unpleasant voice.

“A book,” I said, without looking up.

“I know it’s a book. But what’s that thing you’re holding in your hand?” He pointed a long thin finger at my tablet. I noticed he didn’t have nails. The tip of his finger was bulbous and curving outward.

“It's a tab,” I said. “I’m reading an electronic book as opposed to a paper book. It’s called an e-book. Do you guys have anything like this?”

I looked at him and almost jumped when I saw my gaunt reflection in his luminous black eyes.

“No, but we have this,” he said, and raising his finger in the air drew a three-dimensional holographic image of an open book with strange signs and symbols which I guessed must be some kind of Martian script.

“Wow,” I said. “How did you do that?” A stupid question. His civilisation was light years ahead of ours. By the time we caught up with it, the Martians would have inhabited half the universe; if that was, indeed, possible, the universe being without beginning or end.

“This is how we read books. In fact, this is pretty much how we do everything back home.” He traced an invisible line across the image and the astral projection vanished. The two office goers and the college kid who sat facing us were staring goggle-eyed at the Martian.

“Iron Man does that in his dream lab,” the teenager blurted out. He was a medical student. He was reading a chapter titled A brief overview of cranial nerve anatomy from a large open book on his lap. I was reading J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye whose confused and rebellious young hero seemed to be the antithesis of the studious lad before me.

“Who’s Iron Man?” The Martian inquired.

I smiled, “He’s our superhero. I mean, he’s not real but we like to think he is. We all need a hero to look up to, and watch our backs.”

“We Martians have a hero, too. He’s called the Great Alphard. We worship him just as you earthlings worship your gods. He’s the absolute, supreme one. Except...” He paused a moment before continuing. “...we don’t fight over him.”

He couldn’t have been on earth for more than a few hours or days. No idea how much that was in Martian time. But, already, he knew enough about us.”

“Can you see him?”

“No, but we can feel him, here...” he pointed to the right of his chest, probably where his heart was, “...and here,” he said, tapping the side of his head. “He comes whenever we call out to him.”

At least we had something in common, even if our practice of faith went in opposite directions.

*        *        *

We fell silent. I went back to reading. The Martian looked out of the window. The train pulled into Dadar station where a dozen people jumped off even before it came to a halt and dozens more rushed in even as it moved out again. The compartment filled up and people talked in excited tones. To one uninitiated in suburban rail travel in Mumbai, it’d have felt like a party atmosphere.

Two large Martians managed to disengage themselves from the herd of perspiring commuters and pushed their way to where we were sitting. They were Martian Police. They wore bright red uniforms and yellow-ringed tin badges on their lapels. The badges represented their logo, a red cross against a dark green background. They were not allowed to carry firearms in civilian areas. That was the deal with the Martian Federation. 

“Blimp,” one of them said curtly.

So that was his name. I turned to look at Blimp. His green complexion had turned ashen. He was shaking violently, no doubt with fear. And his eyes were spinning in their oval sockets.

“Easy, Blimp. What’s going on?” I asked, putting a hand on his shoulder.

“They have come to take me back to Mars,” he stuttered.
I don't want to go back.” He was almost in tears.

“But why?”

Before Blimp could answer, the second Martian cop said, “He is wanted in Kraz for a crime of a considerably serious nature. He must face trial and punishment. It won’t be easy for him, I tell you.”

“What is Kraz? And what crime?” Although I barely knew Blimp I’d already grown to like this young Martian who showed prospects of a good friendship.

“Kraz is the largest city in the province of Zanzar in the northern hemisphere of Mars. I was born and raised there.” He was so terrified I was surprised he even spoke.

“What did you do, Blimp?”

“He ran away,” the first cop said.

“How is that even a crime?” I asked, incredulously.

“Sir, under Martian law running away from home is equal to defection or desertion. He did more than that,” the second cop said pointing at Blimp. “He abandoned our world for yours.”

“So what?” I shouted.

“He had no permission for interplanetary travel. You see, he’s too young, only a thousand years old. He was a stowaway on the Centaurus that came in last week.”

*        *        *

There was a buzz of excitement in the compartment as people, normally starved of a public spectacle, jostled each other for a glimpse of the runaway Martian. Some of the commuters were clicking pictures on their phones. The ones behind Blimp and me were taking selfies and probably had them up and running on social media already. We were soon going to become notoriously famous. Me more than him. You can’t really tell one Martian from another.

“How can Blimp be a thousand years old?” I asked the Martian cops who were by now struggling to stay on their feet.

But even before either of them could say something, there was a loud commotion — “Chalo bhai, Lower Parel, chalo, chalo, jaldi chalo!” — and the two Martian policemen suddenly found themselves off their feet and herded towards the exit and out on the platform, where they stood with bewildered expressions on their faces.

As the train moved away from Lower Parel station, Blimp stared openmouthed at the empty space where the lawmen from the Red Planet had been moments before.

“What just happened? Where did they go?” He looked astonished.

I laughed out loud and put my hand out to shake his. “Welcome to Mumbai, Blimp! My name is Epic. Have you been to the Gateway of India?”

© Prashant C. Trikannad, 2016