Do writers need a ‘special place’ to write?

One of the alleged benefits of writing is that you can do it anywhere. Literally anywhere. But the reality is that professional authors (or those who aspire to be) quickly learn that some places are better than others for knuckling down and completing the next chapter in your magnum opus.

No one venue works for everyone.

I have author friends who like to work in noisy coffee shops surrounded by grungy-hoodied students and hipster-bearded failed musicians. They find the hustle and bustle stimulating and are somehow able to tune everything out. Others require absolute silence – the slightest sound gets under their skin like a dripping tap at night and they quickly find themselves descending into the sort of authorial madness last seen in Stephen King’s The Shining.

I’m somewhere in between. I prefer to work in silence but often find the presence of others stimulating. I have a comfy office at home but occasionally feel compelled to abandon it and walk down to the local library with my laptop to spend a few hours in the company of fellow book lovers (as well as feral teenagers, the occasional drug user, hobo, and crazy-eyed evangelist).

vas.jpg

I work in central London and you can often see me on the Tube reading through edit notes, usually with my face stuck in someone’s armpit – it’s one way to (mentally) escape the bullpen-like crush, I suppose. In the summer, I like to take my laptop to the cricket pitch and work on the sidelines when I’m not actually playing. There’s something wonderful about sitting on the grass and thinking through plot ideas with bees buzzing among the wildflowers and the crack of willow on leather resounding across the outfield.

Every writer needs to get into the ‘zone’ – that sweet spot when the entire processing power of your mind is engaged in the story. The right environment is critical to enabling that. What constitutes the right environment varies dramatically from writer to writer, though sometimes it is a matter of necessity rather than choice.

John le Carré wrote his debut, Call for the Dead, on train rides to work from Buckinghamshire to London. Agatha Christie and Maya Angelou both enjoyed writing in hotel rooms – there’s just something about being locked away in a room with clean sheets and an en-suite bathroom with room service just a phone call away. Christie was also famous for writing whilst soaking in a large Victorian bathtub; Benjamin Franklin went one further and wrote in the nude, a habit I would personally discourage. James Joyce wrote in bed, lying on his stomach – otherwise known to the rest of us as ‘sleeping’. JK Rowling famously wrote the first Harry Potter book in The Elephant House, a café in Edinburgh. The café is now a pilgrimage site for fans from around the world.

Virginia Woolf had it right when she said that every writer needs a “room of one’s own” to be productive. But there are times when inspiration can be better found in a less secluded spot. Frankly, it’s whatever works!

If you’d like to know what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, competitions and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Competition! – Midnight at Malabar House – DEADLINE: Midnight, 31st Dec 2019

After five novels and two novellas in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, my next book will be a historical crime novel set in 1950 in India. It’s called Midnight at Malabar House and introduces Inspector Persis Wadia of the Bombay Police, India’s first female police detective.

My reasons for writing this book are simple.

The Baby Ganesh books are set in modern India, featuring Inspector Ashwin Chopra and the baby elephant sent into his care. I lived in India for a decade and these books are my chronicle of a country that has undergone an incredible transformation over the past two decades.

But modern India is also a reflection of her past.

India’s historical legacy permeates everything you see on the streets of a place like Mumbai (once Bombay), from the ubiquitous slums to antiquated cultural attitudes. A large part of that legacy is also tied up with the 300 years of the Raj, and the cataclysmic end to that period in late 1947.

Midnight at Malabar House opens on New Year’s Eve 1949, just two years after Independence, the horrors of Partition, and the assassination of Gandhi. India is still trying to work out what sort of democracy it is going to be. Social, political and religious turmoil is rife in the country. Economic reform is pitting the old nawabs, maharajas and feudal classes against the newly enfranchised masses. Yet Bombay remains in its own bubble, incredibly cosmopolitan, a city of jazz and self-indulgence, with tens of thousands of foreigners still living and working in the city.

As India celebrates the arrival of this momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia stands vigil in the basement of Malabar House, home to the city’s most unwanted unit of police officers. Six months after joining the force she remains India’s first female police detective, mistrusted, sidelined and now consigned to the midnight shift. And so, when the phone rings to report the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot, the country’s most sensational case falls into her lap. As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world’s largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself investigating a case that becomes more political by the second. Navigating a country and society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder – whatever the cost.

This new series is my way of drawing together the threads of India’s past and using them to shed light on India’s present. It is also a celebration of female pioneers on the subcontinent. Indian society has a reputation for being intensely patriarchal. Even now many women struggle to enjoy the same rights that women in other countries take for granted. Persis, however, is a woman who refuses to be told what her place in the new India should be. She believes in herself and in her right to pursue the career that speaks to her own notions of justice and equality. She is a singular woman, fierce, committed, intelligent, a trailblazer in a sea of antipathy.

I would love for you to join her on this journey.

 

Competition

This is your chance to be immortalised in my new novel and become a part of Persis’ remarkable story. One lucky reader will have their name given to a minor character in the novel. All you have to do is answer the following question: “Who do you think is the greatest female pioneer of all and why? – Answer in max. 50 words.”

You can answer via this form. Deadline to enter is midnight, 31st December 2019. I shall announce a winner in the New Year on my social media (so follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK or Facebook if you don’t already) and in my next newsletter (which you can join here: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/ ).

You can find out more about the novel here and pre-order if you wish.

Although we haven’t finalised a cover for the book yet, here is a little flavour of India in the 1950s… This advert demonstrates how Indian society saw the role of women. Clearly, Persis has her work cut out as the nation’s first policewoman. I want to invite you on that journey with her. She could do with a few more of us in her corner!

pic2

 

Bloody Scotland: Murder most Fun.

Bloody Scotland. The very name conjures up Macbethian visions of dark deeds and foul murder. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s plenty of murder here but it is confined to the pages of the hundreds of crime novels discussed, dissected and debated over the course of three wonderful days in Stirling.  This was my first visit to speak at the festival and I was struck by the collegiate and fun atmosphere, something the organisers have worked hard at instilling, ever since the first edition of the festival in 2012. 

Arriving late on the Friday – following a delayed flight which meant that I missed the torchlit parade down from historic old Stirling castle (where the McIllvanney Prize was announced) – I walked straight into a great first session – seeing David Baldacci speak. The American author was humorous, humble and incredibly honest. Particularly fun was his anecdote about Absolute Power, the novel that made him famous all those years ago. When Clint Eastwood bought the movie rights, he apparently took one look at the book, and decided that the protagonist that he was due to play would no longer be killed off – in fact, he would become the hero and the previous lead – a young lawyer – would simply vanish from the story. Now that’s star power! 

Following this I attended the live podcast session hosted by Steve Cavanaugh and Luca Veste, of Two Crime Writers and a Microphone fame, which also featured TV’s Richard Osmond, and some truly toe-curling extracts from the bad sex (in writing) awards.

Early on the Saturday my good friend and fellow crime writer Abir Mukherjee took me up to see the Stirling Castle, with beautiful views over the town and nearby Bannockburn. Whilst there he attempted to teach me how to say the famous Robert Burns poem “To a mouse”– Burns has a great history here; he actually once stayed at the Golden Lion hotel where the festival takes place. My attempts at reading the poem in Scots dialect were only marginally successful, but I gave it my best shot. Take a look here, if you don’t believe me:

Later that afternoon, I took part in the annual football match between English crime writers and Scottish ones, playing for the English team, captained by Mark Billingham, with the Scottish team led by Craig Robertson. The match was played in a small field, with grass so long it was like wading through the prairies of South America. With a hot sun on our backs it was tough going for two 25 minute halves, but both sets of players were cheered on by an enthusiastic audience. It was a tight fixture with England eventually triumphing 3-0, but the spirit between the teams was friendly and afterwards both teams retired to the nearby Brewdog where the likes of Ian Rankin turned up to ruminate on the fixture.

EE_fK7mXkAE6c1_

I next attended a thought-provoking session on the “India Connection” led by Abir, discussing new voices in crime fiction from Indian backgrounds, including Ajay Chowdhury and Trisha Sacklecha. This opened to a wider debate on diversity in the genre.

My own panel took place in the sumptuous ballroom at the Golden Lion, and dissected what ‘cosy crime’ really means. We agreed that much crime fiction so labelled – including mine – is grittier in tone than the word ‘cosy’ would suggest, and that there is a fine difference between comic writing and using humour to illuminate a particular narrative or theme which may be serious in tone. The panel was chaired by Laura Wilson, and included Catriona McPherson and Lynne Truss.

EFAsVtnXsAELwak

Nearby, Ian Rankin was being interviewed by Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, another coup for the festival.

The evening finished with another dose of fun – watching crime writers singing at the Coo bar, and Scottish dances at a ‘ceilidh’. And finally a visit to a late night kebab shop that Abir swore blind was nutritious, tasty and cheap. He was right on one count – it was cheap.

All in all, a wonderful event and one I wholeheartedly recommend to all those interested in crime fiction, be ye reader, writer, blogger, or industry pro. Well done to Festival Director Bob McDevitt and the entire organising committee. 

NOTE: Abir and I will be discussing the festival in more depth and also chatting about Robert Burns’ legacy in the next episode of our own podcast, the RED HOT CHILLI WRITERS. Check it out here and subscribe if interested: http://redhotchilliwriters.com

RHCW logo - quill

Visiting Jane Austen

Jane Austen needs no introduction. One of Britain’s greatest literary exports, her cannon of work has become immortalised in countless onscreen adaptations earning the author a popularity that has far outlasted her short life. For Austen novices: she is known primarily for her six major novels, which critique the British gentry at the end of the 18th century. Her plots, using irony and humour, often focus on the dependence of women on marriage in the pursuit of favourable social standing and economic security. Sadly, her novels were published anonymously and brought her only moderate success and fame during her lifetime. Austen’s books include Sense and Sensibility (1811),  Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began another, eventually titled Sanditon, but died before its completion – it has just appeared on British television. 

In August, my brothers and sisters and I (all fans of Austen) decided to stay on a series of ‘wilderness’ cabins run by Jane Austen’s estate, in Chawton, Hampshire. The cabins lie in a field, with a sheep meadow on one side and a field of deer on the other. They are a delightful retreat, especially for a city-dweller like me. There was no wifi – which is pretty terrifying these days – and I was awoken each morning by my screaming nephews and nieces, enjoying the delights of the countryside.

Five minutes away is the Jane Austen’s House Museum, the house where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. She moved here in 1809 with her mother, sister Cassandra and friend Martha Lloyd after a period spent living in lodgings. The house was owned by Jane’s brother Edward, who had been adopted by the wealthy Knight family and had since inherited the Chawton Estate. The house – a 17th century building – was offered to the women rent-free for life.

The trip to Jane Austen’s house was wonderful. A sunny day and visitors from all over the world made the house and garden come alive. Here I am dressing up as Mr Darcy in Jane’s old parlour. Writing with a quill is harder than it looks!

And this is Jane’s desk, where she wrote Pride and Prejudice. A true piece of literary history.

On the walls of her home are tributes from the great and the good, including this letter from Winston Churchill, a fan.

And this is a sample of Jane’s own handwriting. I have to say, as a writer, I was strangely moved. 


Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 after a period of ill health. She never married and had no children yet lived a full life nonetheless. Her impact on world literature cannot be understated.

It was a wonderful trip and one I thoroughly recommend.

Tea with the Queen… almost: an author at a Royal Garden Party

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Royal Garden Party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. You have to be nominated to attend, and my nomination was kindly provided by the Society of Authors, after I judged the Betty Trask Prize, a national competition for debut authors aged 35 or under. Having never ventured anywhere near the rarefied air of the palace before I was intrigued as to what goes on at one of these occasions. Here I present a short guide for anyone fortunate enough to be invited along for tea with the Queen…

palace

Firstly, a gilded invite pops through your letterbox, with very strict instructions about timeliness, security and, most importantly, what to wear – suits for men (tip: lounge suit just means suit), hats for women, or weird little feathery things which I have since discovered are called fascinators… Fascinating!

On the day, I turned up in good time for the three o’clock start… and discovered a queue half a mile long outside the palace’s front gates. Surely, the most well-heeled queue on the planet! On the dot of three, the gates swung aside and, like prisoners at chowtime, we slowly shuffled inside, our IDs being thoroughly scrutinised by armed police, together with a terse warning not to take photographs on the front court.

We herded en masse through the palace, past framed portraits of Queen Victoria and Albert, and out into the rear gardens, a vast, perfectly manicured space, dotted with pavilions, tents, and two brass bands heartily going at it as a means of welcoming the roughly three to four thousand people in attendance.

Screen Shot 2019-05-24 at 16.13.20

There followed a lot of milling about and making friends, then queuing up for a very posh plate of sandwiches and cakey things, with tea or cordial. Crowds swirled around, chatting in clumps, or just taking in the occasion.

tea

At four pm, everything stopped, and a rousing rendition of the national anthem announced the arrival of members of the royal family – on this occasion the Queen could not attend and it was left to Prince Charles and Camilla to grace the occasion. The crowds gathered round to get a glimpse of our hosts and possibly take a pic or two.

 

charlie

Charles pottered about chatting to a few of his guests, before repairing to the royal tent for his own tea and crumpets. At around five-thirty the royal members made their way back inside the palace, escorted by liveried beefeaters. After that, it was a free-for-all for the exits.

beafeater

Overall, the occasion was an interesting window on royal life and, more importantly, on people’s perceptions of our royal institutions. I chatted to a medley of individuals from around the country, and a few from further abroad, including this finely dressed gentleman from north Africa, and the one thing I gleaned from all was how pleased they were not only to be present, but at the fact that we have a monarchy that, by and large, still inspires fondness.

morocoan

Royal Garden Parties have been a tradition for well over half a century. On the evidence of this one, I suspect they will be around for a good deal longer.

 

 

 

 

 

Granite Noir – a festival of firsts

Last weekend I flew up to Aberdeen to participate in Granite Noir. Held annually in the ‘granite city’ of Aberdeen, this relatively new festival has quickly become a fixture on the crime writing calendar, and for good reason.

I arrived at Heathrow airport early on the Friday morning to find fellow crime writers Mark Billingham (of Tom Thorne police procedurals fame) and Renee Knight (author of hit psychological thriller Disclaimer) on the same flight, a flight that ended up delayed for two hours. Apparently our plane didn’t have the necessary low visibility tech to take off in early morning fog. What we were flying on, I wondered, a cart with wings?

In the event the flight went off without a hitch and an hour and a half later we were in sunny Scotland. And, yes, it really was sunny. One of the warmest days in Aberdeen on record, apparently. I’d like to think we brought the sun with us, but quite possibly the credit goes to global warming.

Our chatty cab driver pointed out the highlights of Aberdeenshire’s capital: the new exhibition centre, the beautiful granite-faced buildings, the gorgeous central library, the Brewdog pub. He dropped us to our hotel, a luxuriously-appointed Residence Inn Marriot, and a few hours later I wandered along Union Street to the Music Hall to see my great friend Abir Mukherjee (who writes the brilliant Sam Wyndham novels set in 1920s Calcutta) in conversation with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The event was a great way to end the first day of the festival and a masterstroke of PR by the festival’s organisers. (The First Minister is a great lover of crime fiction and was an eloquent and very humorous chair, in case you were wondering.) To celebrate, I offered to buy Abir dinner at any of the many terrific restaurants that Aberdeen now boasts. Anywhere, I says. The world is your oyster.

Abir chose KFC. The man is pure class.

On the Saturday I rocked up to the author’s room at The Lemon Tree, the picturesque venue for many of the events, and chatted to the chair of my first panel, TV and radio presenter James Naughtie. James and I had actually met before, a couple of years earlier out in the desert at the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai, where we’d somehow ended up on camels together. Don’t ask.

My first event was a panel with Scottish author Doug Skelton and the Queen of Icelandic Crime, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, whose work I have enjoyed for a while now. We chatted about characters, how they change over time, and how they sometimes take control of the narrative. For me it’s never been much of an issue, as Chopra is just a reflection of my own experiences and feelings about the social fabric of modern India, where my books are set and where I lived for a decade during my twenties.

After signing books and chatting to knowledgeable local readers (and many from further afield) I was rushed off to my second event of the day, a session entitled “How Murder is Detected” with Dr Kathryn Harkup. We spent an enjoyable hour in Aberdeen’s vast Central Library (it reminds me of the maze from Dungeons and Dragons) chatting to another full house about the scientific aspects of murder. Kathryn is an expert on poisons, especially those used in Agatha Christie novels, and happily explained which poisons one should seek out if intent on murdering a loved one without fear of being detected…

For my part I spoke about some of the research by my colleagues at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. For instance, we are currently looking at the truly terrifying ways in which Artificial Intelligence is being harnessed by organised criminal gangs to commit high tech crime. I also spoke about crime scene basics, such as the use of forensic entomology, that is, the study of how insects colonise dead bodies. Did you know, for instance, that the first insect to arrive on your corpse will be a blowfly? By examining the type of insects on a corpse and at what stage of development they are, we can determine time since death and even location of death.

As well as speaking, I attended a number of talks, bought books, and saw some terrific authors in action, learning about new ones (such as Jørn Lier Horst and his Nordic Inspector William Wisting series) and listening to old favourites such as Kevin Anderson, the American SF author who carried on Frank Herbert’s DUNE series with Herbert’s son Brian Herbert. (I’m a huge fan of SF and DUNE remains the very best SF novel I have ever read.) In a first for crime festivals in this country Anderson was beamed into the festival onto a giant screen via an online connection. The magic of modern technology! Another coup for the organisers of Granite Noir.

All in all, a wonderful event, and I returned on Sunday morning with a store of fond memories of both the granite city and an occasion that more than did justice to the crime fiction genre.

(NOTE: Granite Noir is produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts in partnership with Aberdeen City Libraries, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives and The Belmont Filmhouse.)

New year’s resolutions for writers (or how not to be a dick at networking events)

New Year’s resolutions. We love to love hating them. And yet each year, once the Christmas dust has settled, we begin to ponder on just how many of them we can make and subsequently break. Because the essence of a good new year’s resolution appears to be its inherent lack of achievability. Authors are no different. So, what exactly might a set of halfway relevant resolutions look like for the average author? Here’s my take…

Procrastinate in a more efficient manner.

Procrastination and being an author go hand in hand. Every author I know goes through phases when literally anything is preferable to opening up the laptop and staring at that giant unblinking eye. Anything. Reading the backs of toilet products whilst sitting on the pot. Watching endless reruns of Big Brother. Poking your eyes out with a spoon. There is another school of thought, however, that suggests that these bouts of vegetative nothingness are essential to the creative process. Leaving the field fallow and all that. The trick is to find a way to scrape yourself out of that protracted brain slump and get back on the horse. In 2019, resolve to ‘make procrastination great again.’

Stop being such a dick at networking events.

We all know that writer. You know the one. Turns up for an author social armed to the teeth with beautifully embossed visiting cards – book jacket on one side, meta-funny mankini author pic on the other – and proceeds to ‘work the room’. Barging into the middle of conversations, interrupting, talking over, and generally making themselves as welcome as a bout of gonorrhoea. All to tell you what they’ve written, what they are doing, and how they’d love to connect with you. A quick clammy handshake, a blast of beery breath in the face, and they’re off to accost the next hapless victim. There is nothing wrong with socialising and telling people about what you do as an author. But you are not auditioning for ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People, The Movie’. It’s light touch. In 2019, resolve to be natural. To be yourself. (Unless yourself is the dick described above.)

Be more understanding of your agent, editor and publicist’s constraints.

Authors are needy people. The world always revolves around them. How many times have I heard the refrain that my agent/editor/publicist doesn’t love me, doesn’t cuddle me enough, is spending all their time with that big knob with the la-di-dah multiple bestsellers. It’s time to get real. Agents, editors and publicists are human (most of them). They have only so many hours in the day and they have to operate a process of triage to get the best out of their time. Some authors need more handholding, some less. Some a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on. Some need a club to the head. In 2019, resolve to think more kindly of this holy trinity.

Spend less time on social media.

With everyone telling you that an author MUST be out there whoring themselves day and night on the twit-face-blog-o-sphere, it soon becomes an addiction. Like any crazed meth fiend you become jittery if you don’t get your fix. And once you are sucked into the matrix it’s oh so hard to pull yourself out. Click leads to click, tweet to tweet, and before you know it hours have been misspent looking at pictures of cats hilariously spooning with hedgehogs or joining in twitter rants about hip hop star battles where someone called someone else something that you don’t actually even understand. The Internet is incredible, and has changed our world. In 2019, resolve to use it a little more wisely.

Pat yourself on the back.

An author’s output matters. To someone. Somewhere. Even if only six people read your last book, you have fundamentally altered their lives. For those few brief hours they were absorbed in something you created. You rocked their world. (Hopefully.) Own it. You are a writer. Published or unpublished doesn’t matter. So toot your horn. Get out there and tell people you are an author. Buy a sandwich board if you feel like it and stick it on there in great neon letters. In 2019, resolve to be proud of your writing accomplishments, be they ever so humble.