First Page Critique: Historical Thriller

Today we have a historical legal thriller to examine as part of our regular first page critiques. Sometimes historical fiction can be intimidating – especially when (as is the case in this first page) we are unfamiliar with the period or location in question. My goal as a historical fiction writer is to provide a story which helps overcome that initial uncertainty through: 1) a well established sense of place and time; 2) an authentic, period appropriate voice; and 3) a sensory evocation of the period that helps immerse a reader in that place and time. In addition to these three goals, I also hope to provide a rich layer of drama and intrigue, characterization and plot (…pretty much what we hope for in most novels!). Luckily, I think today’s first page manages to establish a pretty good foundation to achieve all these goals. Kudos to our brave submitter and read on. My specific comments follow.

Title: In the Matter of Lucy

Genre: Historical Legal Thriller (1840s)

Chapter One

Narrative of Orlando B. Ficklin, Esq.

A law office is a dull, dry place.

Leastways, that’s what “Mr. H” told me on my first day as an apprentice.

God, but I could use some dull and dry right now. You wouldn’t believe what the people of a backwoods Illinois county can get up to in the way of shenanigans in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven. Lying, cheating, stealing, screwing, welching, divorcing – there seems no end to the vices of this hamlet. And the half of the them – and not always the better half – find their way to me.

This week has been a busy one for laying bare offenses, large and small. The circuit court is in town for the spring session. It’s a regular curia regis: Judge Hopkins and an itinerant band of attorneys traveling through the “realm,” arguing and dispensing justice, when they aren’t eating, smoking, drinking, whoring, and swearing. Our courthouse, such as it is, is a backroom of Deskin’s Tavern. It’s no unusual occurrence to find judge, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, and jurors at the same dining table.

Yesterday, I defended the Meisenhalter brothers.  David Adkins had sued them for slander. Once, for Levi calling Adkins a “damned pig thief,” and again for Robert calling him a “damned infamous pig thief.” Fortunately, the truth was our best defense: Adkins had, in fact, stolen five hogs a few years back in another county. The jury found for my clients and I got my own hog – rightfully earned – as compensation.

Today, I’m watching – and learning – from the master: Mr. Lincoln.  He’s representing Eliza Cabot in a slander case, one more titillating than my own with the Meisenhalter boys. Eliza is suing Frances Regnier for saying that Elijah Taylor was “after skin” and had got it with Eliza, that Taylor “rogered” Eliza, and that Elijah “has got some skin there as much as he wanted.”

Lincoln has just asked Taylor if he knows the difference between adultery and fornication. After some thought, Taylor answered: “Well, I’ve tried both…there’s no difference.”

The galley roars with laughter.

Despite the performance, I’m distracted.  My mind wanders to this morning’s “mail”: a rock, thrown through my office window, with the following note:

“Take on that damned ni – – er’s case, and I’ll see you in Hell.”

Specific Comments

My comments focus on the goals I identified above:

1) A well established sense of place and time

What I enjoyed about this first page is that I felt we immediately had a well established time (1847) and place (some small backwoods town in Illinois) without the need for any unnecessary data-dumps or overly long descriptions. I could easily envisage the setting without being given much in the way of description as the key elements were all there (the back room of Deskin’s Tavern for example and the two law cases that were highlighted with humorous specificity). This first page demonstrates that historical novels don’t need a huge amount of period description at the start – just enough to evoke the time and place and allow the reader to step into the scene quickly and easily.

2) An authentic, period appropriate voice

Overall I think the voice in this first page is strong and authentic. I had some minor quibbles with word choices (like ‘leastways’) but those were just personal preferences. The first person narrative is strong and humorous and the voice of Orlando Ficklin Esq. seems to be one that has enough interest to sustain the story. Given it is his narrative, I did wonder whether we needed the quotation marks around the words realm and mail – they seem to distract as other quotation marks are around other character’s actual speech/dialogue. I also wondered why the ‘n-word’ in the final line of the page was censored, as I assume the threatening note on the rock thrown through the window would not have been. I was also briefly taken out of the narrative by the term ‘rogering’ as I associate that more with British slang – I have no idea if this was used in the USA in the 1840s – but would just advise the author to double check all the words used to make sure they would have been in common usage at that time/place.

3) A sensory evocation of the period

Most often we associate ‘sensory evocation’ with descriptions involving sights, sounds and smells to evoke a historical scene. In this first page we don’t really get any description of what people are wearing or sensory based period details but I think we get enough in terms of scene setting with the snippets of conversations provided and the first person narrator’s view on the circuit court proceedings. I expect as the novel progresses more period details will be provided that will fill out the historical scene for the reader.

So far, at least for me, we have a solid basis for a story that I would be more than happy to continue reading. The last line also provides a great set up for the drama and intrigue that is to come. What do you think, TKZers?

19 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Historical Thriller

  1. Oh! Something with a historical angle! I’m in! 😎

    Like Claire, I feel the author gave us a sense of place early on so we didn’t have to wonder what time period this is, or where it is. A few words stopped me in my reading, 2 because they felt like more modern words: “leastways” which etymonline says has actually been around since 1825 (which just goes to show that our perceptions can be wrong) and “screwing”–I couldn’t find info on etymonline, but that also sounded more like modern usage.

    I had never heard the term “rogered” before so I had no idea what that was.

    The author definitely had a grabber by the end of the submission & I would definitely read on to check the story out further.

    By the end of the first page I am lukewarm about the narrator–not yet fully sold on him, but I would want to read on to see if they do become someone I root for, even though they are mildly off-putting in the first page (i.e. denigrating remark about the ‘backwoods’ Illinois people and the narrator’s gossipy-seeming nature). But I am willing to read on.

    • It’s always tricky with word choices in historical novels as many that sound modern actually turn out to be used earlier than we thought – but I agree that the author should just be a little careful as, even if correctly used, a particular word choice can take a reader out of the story if it sounds too modern. It’s always a delicate balance that’s tricky to maintain – be historically consistent yet accessible without sounding too modern…I liked the humor/gossipy tone of the narrator and I expect the character will become more three dimensional as the story progresses.

  2. Brave author, I’m hooked.

    A strong witty intelligent voice carries the story. The period details of the itinerant attorneys traveling the circuit, the tavern doing double duty as courtroom, and the mention of Abe Lincoln all draw me in.

    My only quibble is the too-similar names of Eliza and Elijah. At first, I thought it was a typo, but on rereading it appears they are two characters, Eliza Cabot and Elijah Taylor. Eliza is suing a third party (Regnier) for spreading gossip about an alleged affair between Eliza Cabot and Elijah Taylor. The archaic sexual references required a bit of effort to understand, so trying to sort out the names on top of that added to my confusion. Easy fix and the punch line is great.

    I’m with Clare on the censoring of the n-word. In that time period, it would have been used freely. If you’re trying to avoid it, perhaps you could substitute an intentional misspelling, “niger” for instance, b/c most people were not well educated then and spelling was hit and miss. You’d still get the point across w/o the actual offensive word.

    Looking forward to publication of this intriguing tale!

  3. I agree with everthing that has been said. I love history, and nothing in this first page seemed forced.

    The only thing I would add: give me a small paragraph to ground the narrator. Show him actually in the room, sitting on a chair or whatever, because the whole page seems like events that had-been until he started thinking about the note. Then I started wondering about those details.

    • There you go! Who knew the term ‘rogered’ was used so early – once again going to the issue of word choices and the balance needed in historical novels. I will always associate it with UK slang but that may be entirely the fault of Blackadder!

  4. One thing, though. I was taken out a bit by God, but I could use some… This sounds too contemporary. Back then, even among non-believers, the name of God was not bandied about lightly. Perhaps more acceptable would have been Lord, but I could use some …

  5. I liked this and think it shows real promise and polish. The voice feels authentic and not once was I jerked out of the past by an anachronism or tone shift. I am wondering if “Mr. Lincoln” isn’t of course THE Mr. Lincoln. 🙂

    I would, as someone else suggested, like to get a better sense of our narrator. But this is a small sample so I am trusting that will come, though it is difficult to “show” who our hero is within the limits of first person POV. The only suggestion to his personality is “I am learning from Mr. Lincoln” which suggests the narrator is young(er). The writer needs to be looking for more opportunities to slip in such info/details that help us “see” the protag.

    But an excellent start, I’d say.

  6. I am going to assume that the author did not spell out the word on the rock for the purpose of the critique, but does in the actual story. In which case I applaud the writer for his appropriate decision.

    I had no problem with the Eliza and Elijah names, but I can see why some people might. Unless it is for historical accuracy (a real case) you might as well change one of them.

    The author has done a good job bringing me into the time and setting, all without beating me over the head with it – unnecessary description of smell, sound and taste. The line – Once, for Levi calling Adkins a “damned pig thief,” and again for Robert calling him a “damned infamous pig thief.” – really ties the reader into the timeframe.

    I would replace “mail” with ‘mail’ – this is simply his humourous thought description and not an actual quote.

    In regard to the use of rogered – I have no problem believing that Orlando B. Ficklin, Esq.- would have knowledge of the word (US law and case history relying so much on UK law and case history at the time) so if the use of the word is his choice for his notes – fine. However, if this is supposed to be Eliza quoting Francis – then I see a problem with the word choice – granted Francis might have a very colorful vocabulary.

    The last line was perfect for piquing my interest. It is nice foreshadowing while also telling me that we will be getting some good backstory leading up to the ‘mail’.

    I would certainly be interested in reading more. If you need a beta reader feel free to contact me.

    Keep up the good work.

  7. I’m so thankful there’s no info dump. I try to keep little details in my head (“remember that, must be important if it’s on the first page”) and then lose track of the fun stuff that’s happening. And I found this first page fun.

    Would a 19th C narrator use present tense?

    I’m intrigued, I laughed, I liked it.

  8. Bravo, and I agree with the general consensus.

    I would expunge the quotes from all but direct speech. Quoting “realm” and so on puts distance between those words and the writer – holds them at arm’s length – but why? Let Orlando own his voice.

    I was curious that the narrator did not seem to feel embarrassed for the masterful Mr. Lincoln, who was bested by Elija Taylor’s quip. The exchange made me smile. Very nicely done, Brave Writer.

  9. I thought this was excellent. I think you are at the stage where too many cooks might spoil the soup. : ) I found it engaging and fun, and I most definitely want to read on.

    Well done, brave author.

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