By Elaine Viets
Today’s entry by an anonymous Brave Author has the intriguing title “Dearest Executioner.” Read this first chapter, and then I’ll give my critique. I look forward to your comments, readers.
Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat. Her hands were bound behind her back, heavy rusted shackles rubbing her wrists raw. The moon hung low. Lights of the distant manor dwindling into darkness. Would the souls wandering those warm halls shudder at the echoes of screams? Or close the shutters, certain they heard nothing more than howling winds? As it was, no breeze rustled her hair.
Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.
Her gaze flicked to the other man aboard. Shrouded in a fine black tunic and gloves, hood hiding his face. A grin split her chapped lips.
“Did someone tell you executioners wear black, or had you read it in a silly book?”
His shadowed visage angled away from her.
“Yes, surely the marsh is more fascinating than your soon-to-be victim.” She leaned closer to him, the wood creaking beneath her. “Don’t you wish to hear my crimes, dearest executioner?”
“Your crimes are against Lord and Lady Loch. That is all I need know.”
She nodded her head several times. “A sensitive family. Easy to offend. And quick to punish. Murder seems rather disproportional a sentence for honest speaking, but who am I to decide what’s fair?” She tipped her head. “How have you offended them?”
His attention snapped to her. Voice cruel. “I’ve done nothing.”
“Oh, but you have, you have. Perhaps murdering me is how you atone? A dark gesture of loyalty and all is forgiven? I think, no. Evil things haunt this marsh. Hungry things. Oh, dearest executioner, you’re as dead as I.”
He stared at her a long moment. “You’re mad.”
“Perhaps a giddy spirit has taken claim of my wits. They’re about in this unholy marsh, don’t you know? Others, too. Others dead, but not.”
“There are no unnatural beings here,” he said. “Only we three.”
The little bubbles rose, coming out as tremulous giggles. “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”
You’ve done a fine job of setting the mood here, Brave Author. This is an impressive piece of writing. While you’ve painted an eerie scene, it doesn’t go anywhere. A first chapter is supposed to deliver three things: Time, Place and Point of View.
Your POV is quickly established: This is third-person omniscient, a good choice for storytellers. First-person would be too limiting.
But this first chapter is floating in time and space. What century are we in?
What season is it? I’m guessing, from the sounds of the insects, that it’s either summer or fall, but let us know.
Where are we? What country? I’m guessing it’s either Scotland or Ireland, but tell us.
Mara is a little too mysterious. What has she done that’s condemned her to this lonely death? Did she commit treason? Is she a witch? What she part of a plot?
Please tell us.
Who and what are Lord and Lady Loch? Are they powerful land owners? Rulers of the county? We need to know this.
These issues can be quickly fixed. Most of this information could be added in the third sentence. Something like:
“The witch (or traitor or rebel) watched the moon hang low over the Scottish highlands . . . .”.
There’s fine writing here, Brave Author.
The title immediately captures my interest.
I’m impressed that you didn’t need to tell us that Mara was in a boat. Instead you said:
“Mara sat atop the splintered bench between the oarsman and executioner, hysterical laughter bubbling in her throat.”
That not only says where she is and that she’s on her way to her death, it establishes her own mood.
I admire the death images in the second paragraph:
“Mist sat stagnant over the fetid bog. Insects hidden in the reeds chattered their solemn eulogy. The oarsman guided the decaying ferry through the thick muck with practiced rhythm. His rows slow, steady. As though allowing his passengers time for morbid reflection of their sins. Ought she contemplate her own? Perhaps no. No journey would be long enough. The urge to laugh intensified.”
One small quibble. It should be reflection “on” their sins, not “of.”
There’s foreshadowing, too, as Mara warns the executioner: “You’re a sure man. A sure, sure man. A man who will not survive this night.”
Good job, Brave Author. A few small changes and you’ll have a first-rate story. I can’t wait to read it. What about you, TKZers?
Win the new e-book version of Catnapped!, my 13th Dead-End Job mystery, set in the strange world of show cats. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com