Fiction blog: Reading between the railway lines

17 Apr 2013 @ 8.56 am
| Entertainment

They chose their railway reading matter carefully in the Sixties…
helen-cadbury-bylineTrains and stations are evocative places both to read stories and to set them says Helen Cadbury

As March pretty much disappeared under a snowdrift and a mountain of work, here we are in April and spring is very tentatively springing. We had some great submissions for our Valentine’s flash romance. My top three are included at the bottom of this post, with the honours going to Julie Corbett who managed to cram so much into a short space.

Part of my busy work-life imbalance last month involved a great deal of train travel. The writer Michael Stewart (King Crow) commented on his Facebook thread about how few books were being read in a train carriage he was travelling in.

I checked out the reading habits of the 7pm East Coast service from London to York and was also disappointed by a complete lack of books (except mine, Steve Mosby’s Black Flowers in case you’re interested, and you should be, it’s great.) There was a copy of Marie Claire, several iPads and a plethora of free Evening Standards.

The chilly world of Mosby’s thriller was perfect for the weather, but I was in a spectacularly noisy carriage, so reading was a struggle. The conversations on the other hand would have made very nice starter material for a short story or a novel.

In my debut novel there are several moments on trains taken from my own experience. The man on a Birmingham to London train who, in 1999, accused my two-year old son of deliberately kicking him (he was just swinging his legs, as two-year-olds do) has been now been immortalised in my penultimate chapter. Actually, I should have had my revenge and had him pushed off.

I caught up with local writer Pauline Kirk to find out how trains have influenced her.


Reading and writing on the train: Pauline Kirk
Reading and writing on the train: Pauline Kirk

What do you read on the train?

I often do proof reading. I’m editor of Fighting Cock Press and on Dream Catcher‘s pre-editing team, so a train journey is a useful quiet space. I also check whatever I’m writing myself at the time, or catch up on books and magazines that have been lying beside my bed. I have an eclectic taste so there is not one particular type of book. I seldom buy a newspaper, but find other people’s headlines fascinating.


Do you write on the train?

Yes, even if it’s only in my head, staring out of the window. I’ve learnt the knack of writing between judders, resting a pad on the pull-down table. I book a seat in the quiet coach if I can. Other people’s mobiles can drive me crackers, though the overheard conversations can be fascinating, especially as you only hear the one side. I have stolen several passages of dialogue that way.


Are some train journeys more inspiring than others?

I prefer the train to flying and have travelled long distances on trains. Some of the journeys I remember best: a rickety old sleeper to Milan, watching the sun rise in Switzerland; to Amsterdam through the bulb fields; travelling overnight across Northern Victoria to Adelaide and the Orient Express to Verona. But train journeys anywhere give me ideas, even just across the Pennines or to London – journeys I do a lot. I see towns flicker past and wonder what life is like there. Watching or listening to other passengers can give me inspiration. I must have a sympathetic face because I often find myself being told someone’s life story. They all go into the blend.

Tell me about the train journey in your novel.

Poison Pen opens with a train journey across India in the late 1950s. I haven’t travelled across India myself, but I talked to friends who have. I also researched older accounts to get the sense of period, and drew on memories of journeys in Britain as a child.


Extract from Poison Pen: A DI Ambrose Mystery

The rattle of train wheels echoed round his head. He couldn’t think.
“I feel dreadful,” James Marshall said. The smell of stale sweat, food and smoke made him worse with every minute…
“You got Montezuma’s revenge?” the young man asked, looking concerned. “Why don’t you get off at the next station? There must be a doctor somewhere.”
“No. I’ve got to get to Calcutta,” James insisted. “There won’t be any doctors here.” He peered out on a horizon of brown fields and the occasional dusty village. A livid yellow sky dazzled his eyes. “Could you let me have a drink of water?” he asked. “I’ve drunk all mine.”
“You don’t want to be drinking water,” the American replied. “Not in this country. Here, have a proper drink.”
The scotch made James cough. At the end of the carriage a man was frying okra on a primus stove. The smell of ghee and paraffin made James feel sick. Urgently he stood up and stuffed his head out of the window…

Poison Pen: A DI Ambrose Mystery, by PJ Quinn, mother and daughter team Pauline Kirk and Jo Summers
Stairwell Books 2012, £9.50 UK/$14.95 US    
ISBN 978-0-9833482-8-3    
Stairwell Books is based in York and the USA.

For more information about Pauline’s work, and other local writers, visit the York Authors website


This month’s fiction task

Now it’s your turn. Writers, this month’s task is to record, as faithfully as possible, a few lines from a train, or bus, spoken by someone unknown to you, and then continue the story, up to 500 words this time. You never know, if we generate enough short stories we could create something to give to people to read on the train.


February’s flash fiction romances

In the last fiction blog, I set you the task of writing a short love story which begins “The only thing that stood in their way was…”. The first piece is from Julie Corbett. It packs humour, local reference and suspense into exactly 150 words. It is also a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, which is a triumph in such a short piece. My only quibble is with the title, which slightly confused the storytelling for me.

Twins At A Wedding by Julie Corbett

The only thing that stood in their way was several small children, three great aunts and the feud.  He looked devastating in his hire suit and those vintage cufflinks from Molly’s alley cat stall in the Shambles. She was aloof and crisp in Debenham classics. No better than she ought to be, said some. You could tell she attended Zumba just by the way her body, with sinuous motion, reached the desserts. He took the more muscular approach using handshakes to turn folks aside. The atmosphere in the room became hushed as family and friends of the bride and groom realised the weight of history moving towards the pastries and trifles. A collective gasp of horror as the glint of steel from a knife flashed in the summer sunshine, a sigh as it sliced through the Fat Rascal. Two plates, two portions but still it ends as only one passion.

My second pick was from Bruce Barnes in Bradford, whose romance occurs between two people in a card shop who haven’t even spoken to one another. The titles of the greetings cards stand in for their untold feelings. The glimpse of a story beyond this moment, especially as one of the pair is buying a “get well card”, is really pleasing. This is what good fiction does, it gets us asking questions and guessing for ourselves. As he didn’t give it a title, I have just called it story.

Story by Bruce Barnes

The only thing that stood in their way was a squeaky card dispenser. Each sensed the other as they faced the levity of birthdays or the sadness of In sympathy cards; they had after all caught each other’s smile and were monitoring the shop door for departures. Both felt a tug towards Sorry you are leaving. She thought Thank You cards were superfluous, one said it so often that it didn’t need to be committed to paper. He had come in for a Get well soon until seeing her had knocked him off course.
And that squeak was irritating, squeaking at the predictable events of life, demanding one hazardous spin of the wheel. The dispenser obliged, toppling over, scattering cards across their surprised laughter.

My third choice goes to our very own poetry blogger, Carole Bromley. Yes, it’s an inside job I’m afraid, but it did make me smile. I chose it because there was a temptation in nearly all the entries to use an extended metaphor throughout and I liked this because the two characters involved were straightforward and quite believable. I realise that I hamstrung you all with the opening lines. It’s interesting to note how the tone of the first eight words predicted the style of the next 142. I’d gone for romantic cliché, so well done to all of you for doing your best to subvert that, even if what we ended up with was satire. But then maybe that was Jane Austen’s game too…

Mind The Gap by Carole Bromley

The only thing that stood in their way was the word limit. He knew he’d never talk her round in 150 words. She knew it was hopeless, that she liked to take it slow. Romance, after all, is a delicate plant requiring patience.
Plus, he was only twenty and she was forty three. His parents would never stand for it. Hers would have disapproved if they’d still been around to comment.
And yet. There was the way he looked at her. No-one had given her the eye like that for years. There was the way she looked at him. No-one, not his childhood sweetheart, not the girl he’d pulled at the Freshers’ Hop, certainly not his current girlfriend with her withering scorn had ever seen the man in him.
The seminar was over. The lecturer was gathering up her marker pens. Do you fancy a coffee? She nodded.

to-catch-a-rabbit-coverHelen Cadbury is a York-based writer whose debut novel, To Catch A Rabbit, is joint winner of the Northern Crime Award, and will be published by Moth Publishing, May 2013. To find out more about Helen, check out her website