I’m so happy to be part of e-friend Damyanti’s book tour for her debut “You Beneath Your Skin”. Read all about the book and a guest post by Damyanti.
Damyanti On Writing Crime Fiction
It is not easy for me to speak about my journey into fiction, because I never imagined I’d be a writer. And ten years ago, if you’d have asked me if I’d be a crime writer I would have laughed.
I’d started writing by then, but I thought I would write realistic, literary stories.
Always been a compulsive reader—it is hard for me to survive without reading—even on days I don’t have time to eat or sleep—I read a little, of something. It is mostly reflex action. One of the reasons I write fiction is because I’m insatiably curious, and curious about people. Reading does not always satisfy this curiosity. I want to know what makes people tick, to figure out why humans do the mundane and extraordinary things they do. In my writing, my effort is to render the mundane extraordinary, and to examine the unusual and make it familiar.
Stories come to me from characters and my urge to understand them– and in so doing, in a curious, intangible way, to understand myself.
Some of my first crime stories began as attempts to make sense of human nature—I wrote about a voyeur first, ( we had a voyeur in our neighbourhood) and then another story about an unrequited lover avenging the death of the woman he’d been devoted to. Yet another was a traditional woman, a forensic expert, who realised that the long-distance online relationship she’d been having was with a fraud, who’d been cheating her for money. She avenges this by shooting him and burying him in her backyard. I proceeded to write about a husband taking care of his moribund wife—we do not know if he mercy-kills her in the end, but we suspect it.
The turning point came with reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This was literary writing, but described horrors we humans are capable of. It made me think of writing about the characters who had haunted me over the years. Anjali, specifically. And she appeared in Delhi, a city I’d spent many years of my life in, and one rather infamous for crimes against women. As the novel evolved, and I worked with Julia Bell, my mentor from Birkbeck University, I realised I had a crime novel on my hands.
I studied under various tutors, understood POV and characterization, plotting and dialogues, and the novel kept changing shape and size, morphing into the being it is today.
Engaged in telling the best story I could, I found acid attack as a plot point, and being the obsessive sort of person I am, I wanted to meet at least one acid attack survivor before I wrote the draft. That changed many things, because having met acid attack survivors, heard their stories and held their hands, it was impossible to turn back. I was still writing a crime novel, but you cannot reduce horrific pain and devastation into plot devices—you must either write about them exclusively, or if they fit into your story, write about them with the greatest respect and as much authenticity as possible.
This is how You Beneath Your Skin came about. The framework is of a crime thriller, and it can be read as one. But my years of supporting Project WHY has somehow trickled through—the alleyways I’ve visited, the people I have met there. The acid attack survivors and their pain has seeped into the story as well, and all my proceeds of the novel go to Stop Acid Attacks and Project WHY. [Ronel: check out these causes @projectwhydelhi and @stopacidattacks on Twitter, Instagram and FB.]
Writing a crime novel, here’s what I have learned:
- Characters are everything. Many readers have written to me about how much they cared about the characters, how pleased or disappointed they were for these fictional people—Anjali, Jatin, Maya, Pawan, Nikhil. How the novel stayed with them. So I believe characters must be 4-dimensional, unique, independent beings.
- Setting. No one thinks of New Delhi as a cold place, but it gets close to freezing in winters. For the last few years smog has been a huge issue—New Delhi now has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city. All that grime and dark lent well to You Beneath Your Skin. When writing crime novels—whether cosy or hard-boiled or literary, the setting needs to be a character, and be used for the plot. In You Beneath Your Skin, the smog and traffic become effective blocks in the plot.
- Motivations are important. Whether you’re writing a traditional whodunit or a literary whydunit like my novel, you must know what motivates each one of your characters. Who is doing what is important, but the novel becomes stronger if the reader knows why they’re doing it.
- Pace is important. Not imposed pace, but pace that comes from all the story questions raised. Each chapter must end on a story question or a revelation that leads to more questions. The plot must follow this path: Incident> Insight> Decision> Consequences> Insight> Decision> Consequences.
- You can’t be didactic. You Beneath Your Skin raises many issues, but that’s because New Delhi is a very complex city and all the issues are part of its fabric. In a crime novel, story trumps everything—if you raise issues, they should be a corollary of the story, not its main thrust.
- Research. Make your novel as real as possible. If the details are right, the reader sinks into a fictive dream, believing all of that happens in the story is real. That’s what you need in order to keep them turning the pages.
Writing crime fiction is not for everyone, but it can be a very rewarding experience. It leads to tons of fascinating research, a deep insight into human nature and the thrill of creating scenes that lead neatly from one to the other.
What about you? Do you read or write crime fiction? What kind of crime novels do you read or write? Why or why not?
About the novel
You Beneath Your Skin is a gripping crime novel about the investigation of an acid attack on a woman from Delhi’s upper class, set against the backdrop of crimes against underprivileged women. They are assaulted, disfigured with acid, and murdered.
It is a whodunit, but also a whydunit, because violent crime unravels those affected: the people, the relationships, the very fabric of society, and we get a glimpse of what lies beneath. That’s why the title, You Beneath Your Skin.
About the author
Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog and twitter.
What do you think about Damyanti’s book and about crime fiction? Any questions for Damyanti?
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