First Page Critique: Death in London

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a historical novel entitled Death in London. My comments follow. Enjoy!

Death in London

The messenger arrived mid-morning. Sam had been at the office since dawn, trying to update and reconcile the Tangier accounts. When the young urchin coughed Sam was startled.

“God save me boy, I didn’t hear you.What do you want?”

“Beg your pardon Sir, Message from the Duke, Sir.”

Ever since the debacle with the Dutch fleet, the Duke of York had become obsessed with wanting regular updates about the provisioning of the fleet. As if Sam didn’t have enough on his plate, now he had to go to Whitehall immediately.  He knew the tide was coming in, so Sam decided to go by water. The walk from his office in Seething Lane to the wharf only took a few minutes. With the incoming tide came the smell of salt on the air, and the promise of the fine autumn days to come.

Sam was short but stocky, and had large inquisitive brown eyes.  His mouth, when it wasn’t smiling, looked as if it was going to. His full lips looked like they were made for kissing, and he used them somewhat more than he should. With autumn underway, these mornings were getting cooler, so Sam had put on his favourite cloak, he especially loved the plush lining in deepest red. His boots were shining with the silk ribbons shining in the sunlight, so he felt dressed well enough for the visit to the Royal Court.

As he sat in the back of the ferryman’s boat Sam had that feeling of sadness that still came over him on a regular basis. Not as often as it used to, but regular enough. Elizabeth’s death had been so sudden, and such a shock. He realized with a start that it had been just over a year ago. Work kept him so preoccupied that it was only these times on the river that he had time to think and mourn.

Sam had plenty of female company when he wanted to. Too much according to his closest friends Will, and Jane. But when you lose the person you married when she was only 14, and had had the tempestuous life they had shared for fourteen years, “getting over it” was easier said than done.

At the Duke of York’s chambers in Whitehall, Sam was able to put the Prince’s mind at rest. The spars coming from the Baltic would arrive in good time and be of high enough quality for His Majesty’s fleet. When it came to the detail, Sam was grateful he was able to talk numbers that befuddled the Duke. Some years before Sam has made sure he was schooled in some arithmetic, so was able to give the Prince more information about quantities than the he was able to absorb.

My Comments

Overall, I found this first page engaging and interesting. I wanted to know more about Sam and his life and would definitely have kept reading. There was good use of selective background details and a great sense of place – in fact I would have liked a little bit more about the sensory impact of traveling the river and the London streets as Sam made his way to Whitehall.

Even after just one page, Sam is an interesting protagonist which is why I think I would prefer the third paragraph not be focus on his outward appearance. The physical description didn’t really sound like one Sam would give of himself – and it took me out of the story – while the other paragraphs provide a good balance of Sam’s thoughts and feelings as well as his background, while keeping the momentum of the story going. I preferred the close POV with Sam and his inner thoughts.

Specific Comments

Historical era/period:  I wasn’t entirely sure when this story was taking place. References to the Duke of York as ‘Prince’ made me think we must be around the Georgian era (I am assuming the Duke of York is Prince Frederick, George III’s son-??)  but I wasn’t exactly sure. The costume description sounded Georgian-ish (cloak and ribbons on boots) but there weren’t enough obvious cues (wigs etc.) and the fact that Sam married a girl of 14 threw me off a bit. I’m no expert on Georgian or Regency era marriages but this seems pretty young – so then I wondered if this was set earlier than I thought. The fact that I was second guessing the time period as a reader signals to me that the writer should give some more clues to ground the reader right from the start in era/historical time period. Given how well the writer created a sense of place with the river and the trip to Whitehall, I think the writer will easily be able to do this.

Tension/Suspense: For a first page, I think I would have liked a little more ‘oomph’ and dramatic tension – perhaps something that can foreshadow the mystery to come (I’m assuming there’s a mystery given the title ‘Death in London). This foreshadowing could come anywhere in this first page (not necessarily the first paragraph as I like how it moves us straight into dialogue and acton – it provides good momentum). At the moment all the reader knows is that Sam is good at finagling the accounts for the Prince/Duke of York – which doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of dramatic tension.

Minor quibbles:  

1) A general reader may not know that the Duke of York is also a Prince so switching between these terms could be confusing.

2) Non-nautical types (like me!) might not know what ‘spars’ are:) A little more context for the fleet would be helpful.

3) I was unsure why Sam wanted to befuddle the Prince with the numbers – is he trying to swindle or cover something up?? That didn’t seem in keeping with his character (at least what we know so far)

All in all, I thought this was an engaging first page and most of my comments are pretty easy fixes. Bravo to our brave submitter!

TKZers what advice or comments would you provide?


17 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Death in London

  1. I also had problems pinning down the time period, and with the Duke of York title. It’s so specific, and been created only a handful of times. The use of the word ‘urchin’ made me think Victorian (too much Dickens, I guess), but then the single title Duke of York doesn’t fit. Unless this is a historical novel dealing with a specific Duke of York, perhaps the author might want to consider a fictional dukedom.

    Marriage to a 14 year old just sounds icky. Also, a quick internet search for average age of marriage in historical England was much older than 14. What I wanted to know is what is it about sitting in the back of the boat makes him think of Elizabeth? Is it a sight or a smell? What evokes the emotion? I think that detail would make this bit stronger.

    • I agree with your last point, Cat, that the thoughts about Elizabeth come out of nowhere. I think of this as a non sequitur “transition,” in that one sentence or phrase does not flow logically into the other. (So technically, there is no true transition). A memory as important as his beloved ex wife should be triggered by something. And coming as it does, as an interruption in his central thoughts about the prince, it makes no sense. Also, it is too much backstory too early in the narrative. Set up the conflict first and then, when there is an appropriate triggering event, usually at a quiet contemplative moment, have him remember the wife. It doesn’t belong here, imho.

      • Great points – The Elizabeth memory should be triggered by something – maybe a memory of a day like this when they were together (maybe the smell of the river triggers it). I’d almost rather have a flashback but I always caution against these on the first page:)

  2. Thanks, Brave Author, for letting us take a peek at your first page. Clare gave you an excellent critique. Here are my added two cents:

    I like Sam already. It will be easy to cheer him on as the story unfolds.

    I want to see more conflict. There appears to be tension between the Duke and Sam, but we don’t see it. For example, we see Sam and the messenger interact, but we’re simply told that Sam befuddled the Duke.

    Be careful of echoing. You have “shining” twice in one sentence, and you have “some” twice in a sentence. You might try reading what you’ve written out loud. I find it helps me catch my echoes and determine if I should keep or change a repeated word.

    I got a good sense of place, not sure of the time though. One way you could sneak the time in there is to date the message from the Duke.

    I already like Sam and the setting. If you upped the dramatic tension as Clare suggested, I would turn the page for more. Good luck, Brave Author, on your continued writing journey.

    • I agree that the character of Sam is already a likable one (which can be hard to achieve in just one page – so bravo to the submitter!) and with some real dramatic tension the reader is going to be thoroughly invested in him as a character.

  3. Not a bad start, but it could be stronger in rewriting. I like the character, although I think the writer should go lighter on the backstory so early and as others have said, the description is lacking in sensory detail. Also, I am unclear on what exactly Sam’s profession is. Any way to slip this in? Two other points to consider:

    This opening is a variation — albeit an old twist! — on the detective getting a phone call to come to the scene of the crime. The call via urchin instead of iPhone, but it’s still the same cliche, and I always wonder when I see an opening like this, why not get into the scene later? A phone call-to-action is throat-clearing, I think. Start with the actual action.

    Second, and we talk about this a lot here — there’s a lot of grammar, punctuation and untidy wordage here. Which goes to the idea of professionalism. Examples: “With autumn underway, these mornings were getting cooler, so Sam had put on his favourite cloak, he especially loved the plush lining in deepest red.” Should be two sentences there, period after cloak. And: “His boots were shining with the silk ribbons shining in the sunlight.” Two uses of shining. And: “Some years before Sam has made sure he was schooled in some arithmetic.” Typo-slippage into present tense. All small points, yes, but they add up and give a less-than-professional first impression.

  4. I’m thrilled with all these comments. Believe me they will be taken on board.
    Time period is 1670, our protagonist is Samuel Pepys. Action takes place about a year after he finished writing his diary.

    • Oh wow. I remember hearing about that diary from my college world history course. It was famous in its glorious detail. Are you going to use it within the narrative? And will Pepys solve a crime central to the story? Interesting guy!

      • I think a mystery with Samuel Pepys is a great idea! I didn’t get the earlier time period (I guessed about 100-150 years later…my bad!) so I think a few more clues for this would be great. Also given the time period the comments about ‘Sam’ versus ‘Samuel’ might be a good one to consider.

      • Haven’t got that far in my planning. Bit organic. I do have an issue with Pepys personal life. He was a notorious womaniser, sometimes in a nasty way. Do I bring that into the story as a character flaw, downplay it or leave it out altogether?

        • That’s always a tricky one – especially if you want your protagonist to be recognized as Samuel Pepys (as opposed to just a character loosely based on him). You have to decide how to deal with the womanizing aspect – and be prepared to face criticism no matter what you do:) My advice would be to either stick to him as a real character (warts and all) in a fictionalized setting/plot or change him to be a completely fictional character and then you can do whatever you want!

      • I’ll certainly be referencing events in the diary. The plague, Great Fire, war with the Dutch, and of course all the women!

  5. Small quibble. Use the diminutive Sam felt out of place for the time. It may be correct but I think Samuel would be better.

    • Funny you should mention that Brian. I watched the splendid Lion In Winter last night and all through it, King Henry kept calling his son “Geoff” (pronounced Jeff) instead of Geoffrey. It felt jarring at first but given the quality of the script, I’d have to think James Goldman knew what he was doing!

  6. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. You’ve gotten some great suggestions. Here are my comments to throw into the mix:

    General Advice on Openings

    Take a look at the article entitled “Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right” by Paula Munier (posted on Jane Friedman’s blog). Do the exercise with colored markers, and then revisit your first page with fresh eyes. The opening of your novel should be mostly action and dialogue with a clear scene. Show the reader a character with a goal/motivation/conflict. Try to weave the backstory, inner thoughts, and description into the action and dialogue in small bits. Think about what would be happening if you were filming the first scene. Show that on the page.

    Also see Barbara Kyle’s article called “Making an Entrance” (available online in a PDF file).

    Repeated Words/Phrases

    The phrase “was able to” was used at least four times in your opening.
    The word “when” was used at least six times.
    The word “was” was used at least eleven times.

    Lots of writers have issues with repetition (don’t feel alone), but if this kind of stuff doesn’t leap out at you when you’re self-editing, use software to find it for you! Sometimes you may need to use was, but many times the word can be eliminated. Here’s an example of how to eliminate was, which you should do to the extent possible:

    John was a tall boy.
    John towered above the other boys.

    Hope this helps. Best of luck, and keep writing!

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