RWD: “Midnight at Malabar House” chapter one

Dear Writers,

It's time to read another novel!

We are now discussing Midnight at Malabar House, by Vaseem Khan. It is a historical mystery set in India in 1949.

Today we're just looking at the first chapter.

(Please feel encouraged to share this email with your writer friends!)

I'll give the weekly reading schedule at the end of this email, too.

Synopsis: Inspector Wadia is working on New Year's Eve, 1949, when the phone rings. She has to convince the incredulous caller that she is the highest ranking officer available: he tells her that "Sir James Harriot" has been murdered and she must come to the crime scene.

Craft lesson: the arc of a scene

In this opening, we can see the way the telephone call structures the opening scene in a pleasing and clever way.

On the largest scene-level, the phone rings on the first sentence of the chapter and the murder is announced in the final sentence. The loop opens from the first moment -- why is the phone ringing? -- and closes only at the very end -- because there has been a crime. As a reader, we are usually inclined to read until an open loop is closed: it just makes sense as a narrative experience.

Within that overall loop, Khan also uses the call to give the scene forward motion and movement. Wadia is sitting at her desk the whole time, not seeking something specific nor trying to accomplish something that existed prior to the phone call -- but the stages of the phone call give the scene energy and push.

These stages include:

  • "A moment's hesitation" -- the caller can't believe a woman is answering this call.
  • "May I speak with your superior officer?" -- he doesn't want to talk to her
  • The request to visit Laburnum House
  • The correction about her title
  • The reveal of the murder

Within those beats, Khan then reveals elements of Inspector Wadia's life and her emotional reactions to this latest encounter with sexist attitudes: the loss of her mother, the national reaction to her hiring, her distance from the rest of the police force...

The arc of the phone call provides the forward motion; the backstory gives it meaning and weight. The two plot threads or elements of the scene are interwoven, alternating: phone call - Wadia's life - phone call - Wadia's life.

Now, this is not as easy to do as it sounds. Try it out: imagine an opening scene of a novel. You might need a pen and some paper.

In the first sentence, a puzzle is announced.

"Bob was surprised to see his wife was calling."

Then lead up, over five or so phone call "beats" or moments, to a reveal or twist or call to action. Between those five beats, add in information about your protagonist / Bob so that when we get to the reveal or call to action, we know how important this will be for Bob / your protagonist.

Share the elements (complete or incomplete) that you come up below.

I'm looking forward to reading what you invent!



Note 1: In our conversations about this novel, whether by email to me or in the discussion thread -- please, no spoilers. Don't reveal stuff or make amused comments about what is coming next.

Note 2: To everyone who follows my approach to plotting, I do want to be clear -- this opening is not what I call "character-first." This is, instead, the standard exception to the rule that everyone cites when they learn about my plotting system: the crime novel opening. The announcement of the murder, combined with the personal struggles of the detective protagonist, provides all the energy the story needs to get started.

In chapter one of Midnight, at least, there is no A plot -- there is only B and C.

But let's see how the story progresses! Perhaps an A plot will emerge.

Note 3:

The reading schedule for the novel -

Chapter one: today

To chapter nine: Oct 7th

To chapter seventeen: Oct 14th

To chapter twenty-five: Oct 21st

To the end: Oct 28th


Thank you, again, for joining me on this reading experience.

  • Here’s my attempt at a scene with an arc, beginning with Bob’s surprise phone call:
    Bob was surprised to see his wife was calling. She was working a thirty-six hour shift at the Women’s Shelter and rarely, if ever, called when on duty. The ringtone had an insistent, louder-than-usual quality, which made Bob react instantaneously to answer the phone. He chided himself on being too eager to please, a trait he was trying hard to cut back on. But it was Penny, his wife, and it might be urgent. Penny sounded breathless and stressed, “Bob honey, do you remember that weird guy who worked at the Quick Lane and you sent to jail for putting his girlfriend in the hospital? What was his name?”
    “Do you mean Jensen, Brad Jensen, he was a nasty piece of work, but he’s probably out by now.”
    “Yes, that’s him. I think he’s the one who’s been spotted hanging around the Shelter in the past few days. At least the description I got from the woman who saw him sounds like it might be him, he has a very distinctive look. Could you dig out a photo of him and see if there’s any current information about him. I don’t want to send you and your team after someone who’s innocent and trying to rehabilitate.”
    “I’m off to the Station in about a half hour, but I’ll see what I can find on the computer here. OK to call you if I find anything?”
    “Yes, and thanks! Talk to you soon, love you,” and she hung up abruptly before Bob could answer.

  • From the first few pages I have developed a liking, sympathy, and admiration for Wadia, a female detective from India no less, and thus I am hooked and want to continue to read this book. I would want to anyway because it’s a choice in our RWD book group, and because I’ve not read any detective stories set in India before. I wonder if Wadia is the only female Indian detective to grace the pages of a mystery? Does anyone know of others? Thank you for choosing this book for us Daniel, I think we will learn a great deal from it.

  • Linda Gold says:

    where do I get or purchase this book?

  • webb.cynthia says:

    I was so relieved when you pointed out that this is an exception to the “character first” rule.

  • I’m not sure that I got the “elements” quite right because I tried to round off the scene with a happy ending, rather than a call to action, but here’s my effort at replicating the technique:

    Alone at last. I was just beginning to relax and enjoy the massage when my phone broke through the DND (Do Not Disturb) with an urgent call. I had to take it. There were only two people in the world who could break through my DND and they were both together, three thousand miles away on the other side of the country.

    The ringing stopped, then started again. I suppose I took too long to answer, but I had waited over six years for this tiny bit of self-indulgence. I looked at the number; it was my oh-so-irresponsible-ex in whose hands the courts insisted I had to leave the light of my life for one week at Christmas and three weeks every summer. I mumbled to the therapist that I had to take the call and she demurely left the room, giving me my privacy.

    “What do you want? Is Joey okay?”

    “Hey Ellen, how’s it going?”

    I couldn’t believe that even he would take the time just to have a casual chat when Joey was with him. He never wanted to be with Joey and me when we were supposedly still a couple, and he certainly didn’t call between one visit and the next. I didn’t understand why he insisted on his paternal rights anyway. He chose to ignore Joey entirely between visits, and Joey felt this. At six years old he was already complaining about having to go to see his father.

    “Just tell my why you’re calling—or put Joey on the phone. Better yet, hang up and get Joey to call me on the phone I gave him before visiting you.”

    “Chill, Ellen. It’s like this. Joey was unhappy, so I put him on the plane to return to you.”

    “What? He’s only six years old! You put him on a plane, by himself, without even calling me first!” Oh my god, I had to get to the airport. I had to call the airline and find out what their escort-for-minors policy was. “Which airline? What flight number? When did it take off? When’s it due to arrive?” I continued rattling questions not giving him time to answer, so I finally drew to a stop and caught my breath.

    “He should be landing soon. I forget the details, but I didn’t want to wake you, what with the time difference and all. I figured you’d have time to get to the airport.”
    I got an incoming call notification. I hung up on him.

    “Mommy. I’m at the airport. A nice lady is taking care of me and said I should call you. She wants to speak with you,” said the tiny voice of my Joey.

    I spoke with the ground stewardess who was quite sharp with me, exasperated that I, the mother, was not there to collect my son. But she mellowed toward me, and turned her anger to my ex when she discovered I had only just then learnt my son was on the plane. Re-assured that my son would be taken care of until I arrived, I dressed, then tipped the massage therapist (it wasn’t her fault I missed my session) and left immediately to claim back my beloved son.

  • Daniel – thanks for this exercise. I’m just starting my writing journey. Instead of using your Bob prompt, I framed it for a book currently only in my head. I feel like I tried to cram in too much back story and need more balance. I’ll take a run at the Bob prompt for more practice.

  • Here is my attempt…
    The red and blue flashing lights outside of the Mulligans Consignment shop pierced the early morning sea mist. Meredith Eagan Ryan slowed the pace of her jog – three cars? Two local and one from the neighboring town. This wasn’t a case of an errant alarm – not if Wanpeq PD was involved.

    Niben Cove was a sleepy coastal town during the colder months. Summers hopped with the requisite visitors and the love/hate tensions that tagged along. Crime on the summer menu was limited to parking tickets, speeding, and beach fire violations, punctuated with the occasional theft, disorderly conduct, or domestic disturbance. Nothing that would warrant three cars thought Meredith. She began looping through all of the possibilities.

    Meredith’s family had spent most summers at their Niben Cove family cottage, now her home. The summer crowd was fairly consistent through the years with other families like hers taking advantage of legacy cottages. The teens flocked together each summer and immersed themselves in their microcosm. Some were new, some were absent, but there was a consistency they didn’t know they needed that bolstered them as they moved on to their adult lives. They stayed out on the beach too late, drank too much beer, played their music too loud, but the town and the diminutive police department kept a watchful eye over them – course correcting when needed. Meredith mourned the shift and often wondered if it was just that she was getting old. No, the increase in Airbnbs and summer rentals had definitely changed the summer vibe and sense of community. Now it was more of an us vs. them communal feeling, yet all knew too well that Niben Cove was heavily dependent on the financial influx.

    Meredith immediately recognized Joe’s frame in the dawn and caught his eye as he exited the New England-style cottage shop. She detected the not-so-subtle “stay out of this” glare.

    Joe didn’t seem to mind Mer getting involved when he needed a sounding board, some of her contacts, or even more so, her sleuthing abilities. Their relationship had no clean edges and they both seemed content to leave things ragged. For the time being, neither wanted to invest in the effort to delineate boundaries. But she’d be damned if she was going take orders from him – this was her turf.

    Meredith quickly shifted her gaze from Joe to the surrounding activity and law enforcement traffic in and out of the cottage. She saw Officer Johns from the NCPD on his cell phone. She saw a grim countenance she had not seen on him before. Mulligans Consignment had never seen so much hustle and bustle.

    During the summer, Mulligans was a convenient stop for the ill-prepared tourists. Summer nights in Maine were brisk yet so many arrived without appropriate sweaters or layers. LL Beans was too far to pop over and grab a “Camp Cardigan” or a “Rangeley Flannel”. Many-a-visitor grabbed a used sweater or sweatshirt to fight the evening chill. Mulligans was lonely in the winter.

    An ominous sense of dread had wafted around Mer when she had first rounded the corner from Sea Rose Lane onto Main Street and noticed the oscillating flashes of color. Now that dread formed into a visceral punch in the gut when she saw the ambulance arrive sans siren. Renee.

    • I liked this, especially in light of your comment to Daniel in the second post. Well done. I was drawn in to the summer resort type atmosphere of bygone days versus now, with the emergency services outside the shop.

  • Rather than use the suggested prompt, I tried rewriting part of the first chapter of my WIP. Here is my initial attempt. If I decide to use this, it will need more showing instead of telling, more sensory detail, …

    My mobile phone buzzed.

    It had to be either Wendy, Zeblon, or Hansie. They were the only people who had my number, and there were times when I regretted giving it to them.

    The crowd progressed as one towards the airport exit, with me in the middle, arms trapped by my side. I dismissed the thought of stopping, releasing my luggage, and hunting for the offending instrument. I would have been trampled to death as though by a crash of rhinos.

    Who was calling? Neither Wendy nor Hansie would dare phone at this time of the morning. Also, Zeblon was the only one who knew my flight from Australia had been delayed for twelve hours at Dubai. That’s why I arrived back in Durban at dawn instead of dusk.

    So, it had to be Zeblon. He and I had met at secondary school as teenagers over twenty years ago. We’d been best friends ever since, although now he was my financial adviser, dealing with the royalties from my books.

    What does he want that is so important?

    We burst into the fresh air, and the heat and humidity stifled me. My T-shirt was already damp. Not surprising—-it was January.

    The mob dispersed as though it had never existed. The stench of unwashed humanity was replaced by the smell of the ocean.

    “Hello, Zeblon. What’s the problem?”

    “Hi, Nelson. Welcome home. Where are you?”

    I changed my name twenty years ago—I had to—but I’m still not accustomed to it.

    “Thanks. Just landed at Durban airport.”

    “I need to see you.”

    That usually meant trouble. “Is it urgent? Can’t it wait? I’m exhausted.”

    “Yes. No. Too bad.”

    It took me some seconds to decipher Zeblon’s reply. So it was urgent, it can’t wait, and he didn’t care. What’s so important? I gave in.

    “I need to be with Moira first, then unpack and shower. How about in two hours?”

    “Good. See you at seven at your house. Should I bring breakfast?”

    “No thanks. But make sure you are not followed.”

    I searched for the Uber driver. Being taller would have helped.

    • “Dlvlk” – I want to read more…(I also got a chuckle on your last line…being a pre-COVID “road warrior” I frequently thought the exact same thing).

      • Kelley—Thank you so much for your encouraging comments. David

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