Monday, March 12, 2012

Guest blog: Mistry Monday by Sarwat Chadda

As a friend of MFB and one of those cool guys who you can talk to about anything and everything, we were really pleased to agree to a have Sarwat chat to us about what went into making his new novel Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress.

A bit about the novel:

Varanasi: holy city of the Ganges.

In this land of ancient temples, incense and snake charmers…

Where the monsters and heroes of the past come to life…

One slightly geeky boy from our time…


Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage's masterplan – the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia…

Research and the truth about your writing

I love researching for a new story. I love reading history books and visiting places and talking with people as I’m growing an idea for a new book. In fact, the actual book is almost just an excuse to do the above.

A friend of mine will spend months and months absorbing the minutiae of a medieval farmer’s existence before writing a single word. But by the time he starts he came describe what the man had for breakfast and the date of a dozen saints’ days and how to build a reed boat. That works for him and the books are totally immersive.

As long as I’ve got the dates roughly right and the right people in the right place, that’s me good to go.

It takes about six months to get all the bits falling into place. With Ash Mistry it took a lot longer because I went way too far. Research is not story and you don’t win prizes for showing off how much you know. You win them for a great story and that, my friends, takes a huge chunk of making things up. Fiction, in other words.

I knew the story, a British-born Asian boy goes on holiday to India and fights a whole bunch of demons. The research was broken down into the following rough chunks:


Setting. Okay, we’ve got India, but where? It’s a big place. Fortunately I was able to rely on the ‘write what you know’ and I knew Varanasi, India’s holiest city. It was exotic, ancient. The old city was a labyrinth of narrow alleys and hidden temples. The river was lined by the burning ghats and, most importantly, there was this amazing maharajah’s palace down river. But setting is more than just geography and a few buildings. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the feel of the place. You want the reader to breathe the spices and dust and feel the heat and crowds. That meant a visit out there (no real hardship) and getting down feet first on the streets I wanted to write about. I found out who gets cremated and who doesn’t. I found out what crocodiles inhabit the reeds on the river bank. I re-visited the old, dilapidated maharajah’s palace with a writer’s eye, looking at where events in the book might happen and how far the river was from the battlements and what other buildings lay nearby. How far was it from the city? I was there a week, just walking and chatting and making notes. I took the train and watched the porters sleeping under their thin shawls on the platforms and the vendors delivering curry as the train rolled in at 4am. Not all of it went in (some I’m saving for book 2). Maybe 30%? But it gave me the confidence to write what I wanted to write and, if there were gaps (and there always is) how best to cover them with something that felt right.

History. I love history and I’ve accumulated a lot of odd bits of data over the years. I have a crap memory of faces and names but a good one for battles and generals. Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is steeped in ancient history and it all needed to tie up. No shortcuts here because it’s easy to check. The book’s premise concerns the ancient civilization of Harappa, and I went out to the four-five thousand year old city to look for myself. It’s not a huge part of the book, but it’s in the foundations. You may not see it but the tale won’t stand without it. There was stuff about the East India Company and the Raj and the old dynasties of the subcontinent. It supports the setting but in a different way. You can go too far and forget when to stop and that was my problem. I wanted to add it all. Then, like an over-spiced curry, it became unpalatable. Maybe the paragraphs in Hindi were a tad too much.

The goddess Kali
Mythology. The big one. The book is set in India, so the usual vampires and werewolves and ghost just wouldn’t hack it. The myths, the magic, the bad guys had to have that Indian angle too otherwise I might as well not have bothered. The most popular legend in India is the Ramayana, the tale of Prince Rama and his battle against Ravana, the demon king. I read loads of versions of the tale, looking for themes and the bits that appealed most. It has everything. Quests, epic wars, armies of monkeys! Again, moderation is the key. Not all of it at once (the monkeys will be in book 2). The central philosophy of the country includes the concept of reincarnation and that struck deep and hard. What if Ash was Rama, reincarnated? Suddenly the book had so much more depth and connection. Ravana, the greatest evil the world had ever known was about to be freed from his thousands’ of years of imprisonment and fate had decreed his nemesis, Rama, was needed. But instead of a noble prince he’s a plump, cowardly 13 yo boy, Ash Mistry. Sorted.

Ash Mistry
The personal. No matter how much of the above, if the reader doesn’t connect with the protagonist then they’ll not read it. All research must be balanced by what you feel about it. What emotions and thoughts does it generate. A holiday brochure can show you more about a country, and quicker, that four hundred pages of text. This is about a boy, discovering he’s a hero. Finding his place in the world. Realising that what he does has, and will, echo through history. He’s been here before and he will be back. How would he react? How would you react? That’s what I mean about personal. We’re in on Ash’s adventure and for all the scenery and history its about how he gets your heart pumping and the sweat rising as he faces demons and horror and fear under the most intense pressure imaginable. What would you be willing to do for the ones you love? That’s research within yourself and the truer you are, the better. But it’s hard. But that’s because it matters most.


Gaah! Now I'm watching over my shoulder for Ravana and Kali - thanks, Sarwat.  Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress is out now from all good bookshops and online.  But also, Sarwat has worked hard with his publisher and they've put together such a fab new website for Ash.  Do check it out - the artwork I have linked in the blog is from there.  The photos for Varnassi and Harappa I've sourced from tourist sites online.

No comments: