First Page Critique: Prologue (Helston, England 1864)

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

 

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Photo image from iStock, purchased by Jordan Dane

Enjoy the first page anonymous submission (as yet untitled) for your consideration and feedback. My comments are on the flipside.

Prologue

Helston, England

December, 1864
The moonlight shined through the window, casting an eerie sheen down her caramel-colored hair.  Her fingertips, well-manicured with a light pink coating, gently held the stem of her wine glass.

The large house was empty save for the two of them, and as his eyes surveyed the dim living room, photographs of family members cluttered the mantelpiece above the fireplace.  The colorfully decorated Christmas tree reflected in the glass of a framed picture, the holiday lights so magnificent that he could hardly see the middle-aged couple depicted in the shot.

She smiled, and as she did so, he mimicked her gesture.

“Supper was great, thank you.”  Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon.

“I am glad you enjoyed it,” she responded.  What was her name?  He blinked.  Catherine.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight.  Long, wavy light brown hair, just a hue darker than blonde, cascaded down her back.  Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…

He sighed impatiently.

She leaned forward, tucking her hands underneath her chin.  “I must allow myself to admit I am relieved that Mrs. Norfolk has not returned.”

“For ought I know, she is on her way.”

Laughter jumped along the air.  “Oh, pray not!”

He narrowed his eyes as he studied her, trying his best to recall the letter that arrived at his flat just last week.  The girl was twenty-two.  Her birthday was to be on New Year’s Eve, just three weeks away.  Her parents, as he had suspected when he had coerced her into inviting him to dinner, were out at a social event.  They are clearly well-respected within the community, Cam commented, noting the high ceilings that resembled a cathedral more than an actual home.  If being wealthy counted as a community.

“I cannot believe we talked for so long,” he heard himself say.

“I know.”  She glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner.  “Three hours.”

“And I really should be going.  Any longer and I shall be missed.”

Lie.

She leaned back in her seat.  “Oh.”

His lips curved into an easy smile as he stood.  His right hand shoved inside his pocket, clacking coins together.

 

Feedback Comments:

1.) Historical World-building – After my first pass through, I went back to read the tag line and remembered this was a historical piece. By the dialogue and the prose, I did not get a sense of the period. I would have appreciated more setting that triggered my senses to place this story intro into the period. Is it cold in December? What does that look like or feel off the stone walls? Is there a fire in the hearth? What does the place smell like? These details do not have to go on forever, but a smattering of notions can put the reader into that room without much effort.

2.) Dialogue – The dialogue is more modern as well. The writing is sparse in general, mostly dialogue, but if this is to be a period piece, readers of the genre expect proper research. Simple phrases like “the large house” and “living room” do not reflect the time. I would have expected wording like: the manor and parlor, for example. Dialogue like “I cannot believe we talked for so long” might be changed to ” rarely do I engage in such congenial conversation, madam, and at such length.” (Come on, historical authors. Help me out here.)

3.) Point of View & Awkward Phrases – Most of this intro is seen through his perspective, but there are moments where the lines are clearly envisioned through her. This reads as head-hopping. I would recommend selecting one POV and sticking with that, per scene. If there is reason to keep his motives secret, for the sake of mystery and the plot, then I would select her POV as the main one. Or this intro can be cleaned up by making every line as seen through his eyes only.

POV problems and Awkward Phrase Examples:

Her fingertips…gently held the stem of the wine glass – Unless he knows how much pressure she is putting on that stem, he wouldn’t know how gently she is grasping it. He can only guess at it. Without the subject being him, this reads as if it’s her POV.

He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight – I had to read this again. It drew me from the reading. She is either beautiful, in his estimation, or she is not. And it seems he is enjoying her beauty quite a bit since he’s described her hair more than once and is noticing every aspect of her body. It also wasn’t clear to me why he couldn’t enjoy the sight, but perhaps that comes later.

Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth.  And her heart, beating through her black dress…– These descriptions make it seem as if her eyes (as the main subject) are not connected to her body or her heart is the only thing in that dress. By using pronouns in a better way, rather than purely writing for imagery, the meaning would be clearer – ie He admired how her sky blue eyes refused to meet his gaze as she glanced along the maroon tablecloth. When her bosom heaved, he imagined her heart raced under the dark ribbons and lace of her frock. There is also a POV problem where the last line is clearly in her point of view since he can’t know how fast her heart is beating under her dress.

Laughter jumped along the air – This line is very awkward. It tossed me from the reading. Anyone else? This generic reference to laughter also does not indicate who is laughing. I assumed it was her laughter, but then why not say it?

Past her left shoulder through the window, the silhouettes of bare tree branches scratched at the moon – This should be in his POV, yet he is not mentioned at all. Several descriptions are disembodied. I had to reread this particular line, thinking at first that it might be a dangling participle.. It’s not, but it through me out. It would be cleaner if the sentence flowed more simply with him as the subject – He gazed over her left shoulder to see the dark silhouettes of bare tree branches scratching at the moon.

He heard himself say – This could be simplified to: He said.

Overall: – There is obvious tension in this scene. The author does a good job of focusing on body language to set that mood. Adding more on setting can only enhance this friction and expand on the mystery of what’s happening. If the point of view were clearly in one head, there could be more mystery layered into this piece to make it more intriguing. Imagine if the POV is in his head and he does not trust her beguiling manner. Who is playing whom? And a better defined setting would not only add to the mood of the scene, but also set the stage in history.

What do you think, TKZers? Please share your constructive criticism.

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About Jordan Dane

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She is the author of young-adult novels written for Harlequin Teen, the Sweet Justice thriller series for HarperCollins., and the Ryker Townsend FBI psychic profiler series, Mercer's War vigilante novellas, and the upcoming Trinity LeDoux bounty hunter novels set in New Orleans. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs. To keep up with new releases & exclusive giveaways, click HERE

17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Prologue (Helston, England 1864)

  1. Since I don’t read historicals often, I can’t comment on the authenticity of the dialogue, but I was often confused about who was speaking (e.g., Past her shoulder…made me think she was speaking.) I wondered why the writer didn’t use the characters’ names, especially in an historical…made the piece feel a bit like a trope used in thrillers or mysteries (perhaps this is a historical mystery?)

    Although there were moments of freshness (e.g., scratched at the moon), for me most of the descriptions felt a bit overused. I think Jordan’s examples help a lot. Personally, I’m not a fan of a listing type of description, even for main characters, i.e., the practise of describing lips, hair, eyes, clothes, etc., unless the descriptions are new and fresh, and always in the context of something else (character-revealing or mood or setting, etc.) I prefer it when the writer creates a picture for me, a feeling (e.g., he had more dandruff than hair.) However, I suspect that the listing type of description may be common in historicals because it gives the reader a better idea of the period.

    I got the feeling the writer was trying too hard, slaving over finding the right word instead of focusing on the flow of the story, and that s/he hasn’t found her/his voice yet.

    This kept me from getting involved in the story, and definitely reminds me of the first draft of my first chapter when I started writing fiction. You wouldn’t believe how much time I spent on that chapter.

    Although I felt some tension, I didn’t know whether it was sexual or something more sinister, i.e., I was confused, and that definitely weakened the tension in the piece. Some word choices conflicted with each other, too, i.e., pleasant words mixed with tough words added to an inconsistent mood for the scene.

    Finally, I wanted to have a hint about what this story is about, and I didn’t get that, but perhaps I missed it.

    All that said, I think the writer has talent. More studying of the craft and more miles under his or her writing shoes, and a writing voice will emerge and shine.

  2. I found the style forced, like someone said, “Oh, this is how historicals are supposed to sound.” The dialogue felt stiff to me. I know it’s 150 years ago, but I find it hard to put any faith in dialogue that sounds so stilted. Didn’t people speak with contractions in the 19th century? So far it’s sort of warmed-over Austen, although I suspect the guy is going to turn out to be a vampire, or at least a serial killer. He’s obviously a bad’un.
    A phrase like the first sentence – “The moonlight shined through the window, casting an eerie sheen down her caramel-colored hair.” – could be improved by recasting so it’s not two thoughts, it’s one – “The moonlight shining through the window cast an eerie sheen down her caramel-colored hair.” That kind of construction, so self-conscious – abounds.
    All that said, I admit I wasn’t ready for it to end quite where it did. I was waiting to see if the guy flashed fangs, or a stiletto, or whatever. So it worked to that degree.
    Thank you for having the courage to share it, unnamed author.

  3. Thanks for your feedback, John. I, too, got the feeling he was a predator of some sort.

    I liked your thoughts on the first line, to clean it up and make it smoother. Thank you.

  4. I managed to handle the head-hopping okay, but the anachronisms threw me. The implication in the story of bountiful Christmas lights reflecting off a mantle cluttered with pictures? Photography was not widely used in the mid-19th century and Christmas lights would have been candles – if used at all.

    If makes me wonder if the date at the top is supposed to be 1964, not 1864. Some of the dialogue would mesh better than way, too.

    For those interested, At Day’s Close recounts (at length) the attitudes, fears, and facts of pre-Industrial society. It will change the way you write about the dark hours.

    • Good input, Paul. Setting is very important in this piece, because it’s historical. It’s vital to do the proper research. Thanks for the research tip.

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  6. “Her fingertips…gently held the stem of the wine glass . . . Without the subject being him, this reads as if it’s her POV.”
    If you want the prologue to be from his point of view, then perhaps a good thing would be to start in active mode. In the very first lines, you sayf” the moonlight shined.” Perhaps “. . . and he loved the way the moonlight shined . . . . ” Or, “the moonlight shining through the window reminded him of that Christmas Eve, the last one with Mum.

    As to her gently holding the wine glass, perhaps, again, it might be you could cast the touch in his own experience. Since we don’t yet know whether or not the couple is on intimate terms, it could be she “gently held the stem of the wine glass.” It may be that he know that touch. It’s how she held his finger just before their first kiss. Or, he could imagine the touch of her fingers. She had slim, gentle fingers, just like his mum’s. “She held the stem of the wine glass–her cool fingers were like his mum’s. He knew her touch. It had to be gentle [or scratchy, or greasy and so forth], He could imagine what the touch would feel like.”

    Good start.

  7. Overall, I agree with most of the other comments.
    I’m a ‘perfect’ reader of historicals, simply because I know so little that mistakes in historical accuracy will slide right by. I assume the authors do their homework. I was curious about whether there was nail polish in 1864, so that was a minor hiccup for me, but there’s no reason to assume it was “modern day” nail polish on her fingers.
    I’m a stickler for POV, but I think omniscient was more the norm back then, so I’d be forgiving, assuming that’s the style the author was using.
    I found ‘shining’ and ‘sheen’ to be echoes in the opening.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Terry. Period pieces (as well as foreign country details) tend to have different turns of phrase. A good way to get a feel for historicals is to read other authors and books of that period. I truly admire authors who get it right consistently.

  8. I agree with your comments, Jordan. I got lconfused when the name Cam was introduced, and thrown by the line, “clearly they are well respected”. I had to reread to understand that he was saying that, rather than making another internal observation. Plus, would a wealthy young lady dine alone with a relative stranger in 1864? I don’t think so. But Overall, I sense an interesting character and story trying to emerge here. I think the writer should address the points that have been mentioned, and forge ahead!

    • Absolutely agree, Kathryn. There’s some foundation worth pursuing, in this story as well as the author’s style. Thank you.

  9. I, too, am having trouble reconciling the language with the time period. Oddly enough I’m currently reading SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY by Mary Robinette Kowal, which is a fantasy set in the Regency period. In my estimation MRK pulls off the period language more successfully. For the most part it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how it is off. I agree with your comments that reading other authors and books of the period would be useful for the writer here.

    Specifically, I also had issues with all the photographs. Photography was less common in 1864 than now, and not cheap. While it’s certainly possible that there may have been a photo of a family member or two, that photo would have been special, and the display described is ordinary. Also, “shot” is a modern term for a photograph; “snapshot” does not enter the lexicon until 1890.

    As for the heart beating in the dress, it made me wonder if the unnamed male was a vampire.

  10. “He could faintly tell she was beautiful, and regretted he couldn’t enjoy the sight. Long, wavy light brown hair, just a hue darker than blonde, cascaded down her back. Light blue eyes—sky blue to be exact—glanced at the maroon table cloth. And her heart, beating through her black dress…”

    I had somewhat of a stumble with this. It must be dark if he can only faintly tell she was beautiful. It’s just them having dinner there. Did they just both appear at the table for dinner? They never met, so he doesn’t know if she is beautiful or not? How does he know her hair cascaded down her back? Is she facing him, and if her back is to him and he sees her hair cascading down her back, how is he able to discern her eye color, and can he really hear or see her heart beating through her black dress?

    I think some of my issue with this first page is the detail. A slow pace gives me an opportunity to scrutinize like this, so I apologize for not getting an over-all feel. I think the ambiance is good if I can get over asking myself these confusing questions while I’m reading.

  11. I read through it 3 times to be fair. Close, but missing the mark. The anachronisms are troubling. Also, the first line tells us her hair is caramel, no need to describe it again as a darker hue than blonde.

    Try combining some elements to give more of a sense of place and of her beauty which is key to the story.

    The moonlight through floor-to-ceiling windows in the drawing room competed with the candles to lend shine to her flowing caramel hair.

    You know what I mean.

    For the queen of quick scene-setting in historicals, read a couple of Barbara Cartlands. That old biddy had it down to an art form. A heroine with glistening scarlet hair would be described as, “He stroked her absurdly beautiful hair, more suited to a circus than a drawing room.”

    As to the other comments, take them to heart on POV, historical setting, and world-building. For some reason, I had a noir vibe, like I expected it to be the 30s where a society lady might be daring enough to dine alone with a man.

    Love these pages! Terri (back to lurk-mode)

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