THOUSANDS of people are locked into metal cylinders every day. Their surly guards are indifferent to their suffering, while the mysterious power that controls their every movement taunts them with a recording, which promises sarcastically that “CityRail apologises for the inconvenience…”
It sounds like it could be the plot of a fantasy novel but, instead, it was the place I chose to write my fantasy novel. Instead of the stereotypical artist’s garret or just somewhere peaceful and calm, I wrote not just one book but a trilogy while on the train, commuting from my home on the Central Coast to Surry Hills.
That’s more than 750,000 words written and, later, typed onto a laptop.
It meant I struggled with character development and plot points among crowds of people with strange physical habits, the bizarre need to share their lives with the rest of the carriage via the mobile phone, snoring problems, issues with personal space and various illnesses.
In some ways it was a fantastic place to write. It’s mostly air-conditioned, the seats are mostly comfortable and my fellow travellers are mostly normal. Sure, you get the days when the remnants of Saturday night’s kebabs are strewn all over the carriage – hopefully still undigested – or a school excursion takes over the carriage.
But an iPod helps you tune out the distractions. And when the alternative is listening to Dodgy Headphone Man with his doof-doof on maximum or Social Girl catching up on all the goss on her mobile phone, it’s an easy way to beat writers’ block. Plus, with two small children at home, even the old blokes offering free life advice to any poor unfortunate close enough to listen are bearable.
Most of all, it was the knowledge that four hours of my life each working day were not wasted. Rather than resign myself to another long session at the whim of CityRail, I could escape to this world I was writing – and the journey sped by. I could even accept delays (as long as I was on the train, rather than waiting on a rain-swept platform), reasoning that it was more writing time.
Of course there were challenges.
Probably the biggest one was the daily fight over the arm rest.
You see, you need a little bit of elbow room when typing. Sitting in the aisle seat was perhaps the best position because, apart from being knocked by every schoolkid with a large backpack, your elbow has room to run free.
But get the window seat and, while you can luxuriate in the space if you’re by yourself, you’re always dreading who’s going to sit next to you. Small student doing their homework is good, the fat bloke who ate the Cabbage Surprise for dinner, not so good.
My book, although a fantasy, does not feature any magical creatures _ although I saw plenty of strange ones at different times on my travels. While Cityrail country trains have two armrests, one for each seat, many commuters seem to feel they need both, and a swift game of Elbow Fencing can ensue. One of the stranger encounters was when a lady tapped my elbow until I lifted it, then used a cleaning wipe to make sure the armrest was spotless, before politely sharing it with me for the rest of the trip.
I have caught some people watching my screen curiously, particularly when I am writing something gruesome or when I am editing a book and the words “Chapter Sixteen” in 20-point type scroll across.
Quite possibly they thought I was mad, writing a book on the train. Quite possibly they were right.
But not only was it a huge amount of fun (and how many people can say that about their daily commute) but if I can see someone reading my book on the train, it will be all worth it!
PS: CityRail isn’t quite as bad as I made out.
Duncan Lay is a layout designer and headline writer at the Sunday Telegraph. He lives on the Central Coast of NSW. The Wounded Guardian is his first book and is now available throughout Australia. Visit Duncan’s blog to find out more about him and his writing.