First Page Critique: Somewhere in Texas

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a historical novel entitled ‘Somewhere in Texas’. As always, my comments follow

Title: Somewhere in Texas

Autumn, 1850

McLennan County, Texas. 

“I did not travel five-hundred miles cramped in stuffy stagecoaches, with the never-ending prattle of gossiping women, to wait now.” Father’s voice grew in volume as Ellena Bradbury drew the curtain back and peeked through the narrow carriage window.

The cowboy he addressed set his battered hat on his head. “Suit yourself, mister. Y’all can wait in the house for the boss.” He motioned to his right, then turned to lumber away.

Father pulled the carriage door open, his thin lips tight beneath an equally thin mustache, as he offered his hand. “Come, Ellena.”

Ellena shifted away from the window. “’Twas a long drive from the village.”

“After traveling so great a distance from Louisiana to Houston, the short drive seems especially lengthy.”

Ellena slipped from the muggy carriage into blazing Texas heat, and drew in a deep breath.

A huge, single-story house stood before her, its crude plank siding dark in the shade of a wide porch. Black and white spotted chickens pecked the barren yard, only to lift their heads and squawk in alarm when they saw her.

Beyond the structure, McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass.

Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home.

Ellena pivoted and clasped her hands. “Where are the horses and longhorns?”

“Hush.” Her father’s blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows.

Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena.

She spun around, but everything was as it should be. House in place. Peaceful, dry pastures waived in the breeze.

What did the carriage driver see from his high perch? Ellena stood on her tiptoes. A red-tailed hawk sailed through the sky, screeching as it dove low and out of sight. Father stepped to her side and a wind gusted only to cease into eerie stillness.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. “What is it, Father?”

The pounding of a horse’s hooves on earth sounded far off. Ellena held her breath as the pattern grew louder.

A man raced around the side of the house on horseback, his red shirt bright against a black vest. “Stampede! Stampede!” He reined in near the porch, his lean muscular body taut as his gaze met hers then narrowed. “Run!”

Comments:

Overall, I think this first page successfully evokes a sense of time and place and introduces a dramatic initial element which has the potential to keep a reader turning the pages. I liked how the writer chose to begin with an approaching stampede, but there were a few minor issues which almost pulled me out of the story, and I think there were a few missed opportunities to make this first page even more compelling.

The first of these was backstory: Now in a first page we certainly don’t want any dump of backstory information, but I did want just a sentence or two to give me a little more context for Ellena and her father’s move to Texas – something that would add emotional depth to the characters and their feelings upon their arrival. Initially in this first page, it sounded like they were coming to a place they’d recently bought, but when the cowboy tells them dismissively they can wait for the boss, I wasn’t entirely sure why they were there (which is fine, but I’d prefer a hint so I care more about why they’ve come). Dropping just an intriguing snippet or two would do – anything to make this first page also stand out in terms of specificity. At the moment it verges on being a little too generic (outsiders coming to ranch, unprepared for the realities or dangers etc.). I’d like to feel more intrigued…Why have they come from Louisiana? What have they left behind? Why is it just Ellena and her father?

Specificity when it comes to characters also provides much needed emotional resonance. I wanted to understand how Ellena felt about coming to Texas so I could care more about her as a character. The line ‘Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home‘ is the perfect set up for just a sentence or two to capture her emotions and contrast her expectations to the realities she sees before her.

Another aspect of specificity is the use of dialogue. I thought the dialogue in this first page sounded reasonably authentic (though I’m no expert on 1850’s America) but perhaps it could have been used to capture her father’s Louisiana accent (if he has one) or to give the reader a better sense of their background. Both Ellena and her father sound more upper-class, almost English to my ear (especially with Ellena saying ’twas a lengthy drive the village’ – would they even use that term for a town in Texas??) so it would be helpful to have some context for this.

I did get a little confused towards the end of this first page with the paragraph: Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena. I’m not familiar with horses but wouldn’t slapping the reins against their backs signal them to start moving? Also I wasn’t sure what ‘stilled then inched up’ or  ‘base tone’ really meant.  Similarly, I thought saying the man ‘raced around the side of the house on horseback’ sounded clunky. These are all easy fixes, but they will help keep a reader grounded in the scene.

Finally, I would perhaps edit out the descriptions of people’s gazes / eyes and focus more on the landscape to give a sense of foreboding – for instance the phrase ‘blue-eyed gaze pointed beyond her as he arched dark brows‘ seemed a little clumsy. And, finally, a nitpicky comment:  When the initial title specifies ‘McLennan County, Texas’, I’m not sure it adds anything for the reader to then say: McLennan County rolled away in pastures of sun-dried grass. Just keep one or the other – it is repetitious on a first page to have both.

Overall, kudos to our brave writer for submitting this – I think it has the makings of a compelling first page! What do you think fellow TKZers?

6+

16 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Somewhere in Texas

  1. A good start by the author. I agree with your comments, Clare, especially about the story seeming a little generic. Another issue I had was trying to determine Ellena’s age. Maybe add a hint somewhere? I can’t tell if she’s six or sixteen.

    I do love a good stampede (who doesn’t?), but I’d rather Ellena is more involved than simply being told. Maybe she sees a cloud of dust on the horizon heading their way or something? She doesn’t know what it is and her father grabs her hand (or picks her up depending on her age) and starts to run?

    Overall though, great start with a tease of upcoming action. Good job, author!

    • You make a good point about the stampede (cool action!), Tom, to which I would like to add:

      Never seen a real stampede but seen many on TV and movies. I remember that what you get is a muffled sound first — hundreds or thousands of hooves pounding the ground. Remember the buffalo entrance in Dances With Wolves? Creepy at first then overwhelming in its grandeur and power.

      I always tell folks in workshops, when trying to describe something, get the ORDER of the sensory input right — what would register first, then second, then later? I think you’d hear hooves, maybe even feel a tremble in the ground? Then you’d see a cloud on the horizon, from which dark forms emerge — animals.

      The writer should apply this idea, too, to the man rounding the corner on horseback. The man himself (which the writer puts first) would register a split second after the horse, I think. A small difference but important — you’d likely see the furious blur of a galloping beast coming at you, almost like man and horse are one — and then you notice there’s a man and what he yells out.

  2. I’m a little confused about the scene. Where are we? “Somewhere in Texas” doesn’t work for me. That’s too lazy. And who are these “prattling women”? Only Ellena is there.

    • Thanks Elaine – I’d just assumed the prattling women had already gotten off at the village:) Although the title does say McLennan County (not that I know where that is) I agree that being more specific about where we are (near Houston I’m assuming as that’s where they said they’d travelled to from Louisiana) would be helpful to ground the reader.

  3. I have been near a stampede. You can FEEL the ground trembling before you hear anything. I think Tom Threadgill’s suggestion of dust or the ground moving would make it a little more realistic. Also, is the ranch hand telling them just to run somewhere? Surely he’s experienced and would say run to the porch or wave them toward where he was (near the porch) or something.

    I could see the scenery and feel the heat and understand what time in history it was. I think the brave writer did a good job setting the scene!

    • Priscilla – you make an excellent point as someone who’s been in a stampede (!) I hadn’t thought about the ranch hand but you’re right, he probably would tell them where to take shelter. If I was them I’d have no idea what to do!

  4. I wouldn’t add any backstory into this. The point of the first scene is to raise as many questions as possible, so reader wants to read to see what’s that all about, who are those people, and why they are there.
    What I want to see is more internalization – her feelings. (Not about their departure, voyage, or previous home, but how does she feel NOW).
    Is she angry, tired, bored, excited?

  5. The best Westerns are the ones that can transport the reader across time into that brief but legendary point in our history. I could feel the heat and humidity, but little else. It was as though I was sitting comfortably in my living room, watching it on TV. There is an arm’s-length quality about this piece that I find disquieting. I think Clare’s point about a touch of backstory might go a long way toward bringing me into the scene. A little more (but not much) about Ellena and her father would help out, since the West was all about people migrating to this unimaginably vast land for their own private reasons.

    I was also confused about exactly where they were. Ellena says it was a “long drive from the village”. I’d like to know what village. It would add a little more authenticity and perspective. Especially since her father comes back by saying it was a short drive that “seemed lengthy”. I’m assuming they would be traveling south out of Houston, since that’s where most of the Texas cattle country is. But you see what I mean? A little geography here would really help drop the reader into the picture.

    It wouldn’t take much to fix this opening and transform it into an evocative, compelling Western piece. Then the readers would be reeled in.

  6. I do like a story that takes place in the past. Granted this is only the first page so there is no idea of genre, but assuming it is something I read, I would read this.

    I don’t think I have ever said this before on this site, but I disagree with almost ever comment made so far.

    Personally, I’d get rid of all the dialogue up front. Not because I am anti starting with dialogue, it just doesn’t add anything but a bit of unnecessary backstory. At this point I don’t need to know where they have come from and how long it took them to get here or that they haven’t been traveling alone. This line, for instance – “After traveling so great a distance from Louisiana to Houston, the short drive seems especially lengthy.” – seems forced, like the writer is determined to give US information. Remember, these characters know where they came from and how long it took, they don’t need to tell each other.

    I would start with –
    Ellena slipped from the muggy carriage into blazing Texas heat, and drew in a deep breath. – I would change carriage to stagecoach since this would be the first mention.

    I certainly didn’t get the impression -it sounded like they were coming to a place they’d recently bought, as Claire did. It seemed to me that this was not their destination, they don’t seem as if they were planning on getting out of the stagecoach.

    This would be enough to tell me they have changed from their usual location –
    Beautiful, though not as picturesque as home.
    Ellena pivoted and clasped her hands. “Where are the horses and longhorns?”

    This is a good indication that something is wrong –
    Behind him in the high seat, the carriage driver lifted the reins to slap them against the horses’ backs. He stilled then inched up to stand. “Lord, have mercy.” His base tone sent a shiver through Ellena.-
    As discussed, the order of events for a stampede, he is the one who is up highest so he would see ‘something’ first so reacting to his reaction seems logical. I think Ellena should both feel and hear the horses – (I too thought slapping the horse would make it move, maybe instead he could secure the ‘brake’.)

    I don’t think her age is important at this point, we know she is old enough to stand (and hopefully old enough to RUN!) We can learn all that information when she is safely inside watching the stampede go by out the window – Why did we have to move to Texas after mom died? You never have to worry about this kind of thing happening in LA. I wish I was two (ten) years older, I would have stayed home. – there would be plenty of time for contemplation, the backstory.

    • Michelle – thanks so much – it’s always great to get a different take on a piece. Writing is so subjective and I think the more comments there are with different points of view, the more the author can see what resonates with him/her and incorporate what works for them.

  7. I hesitated before writing this because it is nitpicking. Sol Stein said Tension on every page. This has environmental tension but little in the characters. That’s why it feels at arm’s length. Elena needs to hate this godforsaken ____ hole, as the President might say. And learn to love it as part of her character arch.

  8. Pardon my late arrival ~ (you know stage coach schedules)

    If I my pick a nit~ besides McLennan County being “somewhere” in Texas (center-ish of the state, home to Baylor, Waco, and, most recently/famously, HGTV’s Fixer Upper), it is almost as far from Houston as the “generic” (and unnamed “somewhere” in) Louisiana – i.e., hardly a “short drive.”

    In fact, nowhere in Texas is a short drive to anywhere else in Texas~ 🙂

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