First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

By Sue Coletta

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. My comments will follow.

The Invisible 

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this. The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

“What about those?” Marge said, pointing to a large cluster.

Bette tsked. “I’m sure we can do better. Do you want the girls eating green tomatoes? What if it was—?” She stopped mid-sentence, glanced down, and wiped her boot on a rock. “Oh, my,” she chuckled, shaking her head. “Well, if that’s the worse that happens today, I’m counting my blessings.” She continued her search. “What time did Paige get in last night?”

“Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

“I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. “I just worry she’s not getting enough sleep.”

“She’s a student. They aren’t supposed to sleep.”

“Who’s not supposed to sleep?”

They looked up to see their boarder, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand, cut across the dewy lawn. “We were just saying,” Marge said, “that you don’t get enough sleep, dear.”

She laughed. “Can’t argue with that. But my paper’s due Monday, and I’m nervous about it. By the way, was that apple pie I smelled, or am I still dreaming?”

“Oh, my pies! I almost forgot.” Marge squeezed Paige’s arm. “If you wait a few minutes, you can have a piece.”

“It’s tempting, but I really need to get to the library.” She waved to the sisters as she hurried to her car. “Save me a slice.”

“We will, honey. Now don’t work too hard. Remember, life is short.” They watched her head to campus, after which Marge rushed off to check on the pies, promising to be right back.

Bette continued down the rows, her persistence eventually paying off. As she removed an almost perfect Brandywine tomato from its vine, a high-pitched scream split the air. She snapped her head around in time to spot a red-tailed hawk, something squirming in its beak, swoop below the treetops. Her heart was still pounding when a calloused hand grabbed her ankle, causing her to drop the basket. She jerked free, only to discover the hand was an out of control cucumber vine.

Though the sisters seem sweet, not much happens on this first page … unless you’re a research junkie like me and have studied this particular murder weapon. Which is genius, by the way. Kudos to you, Brave Writer. For those who didn’t catch it, I’ll explain in a minute.

Let’s look at your first line, which I liked.

Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.

Your first line makes a promise to the reader, a promise that must be kept and alluded to early on. Just the suggestion of green tomatoes is not enough.

Now, let’s look at the first paragraph…

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

I assume Brave Writer discovered that tomatoes contain a few different toxins. One of which is called tomatine. Tomatine can cause gastrointestinal problems, liver and heart damage. Its highest concentration is in the leaves, stems, and unripened fruit. Red tomatoes only produce low doses of tomatine, but the levels aren’t high enough to kill.

Like other nightshade plants, tomatoes also produce atropine in extremely low doses. Though atropine is a nasty poison, tomatoes don’t produce enough of it to cause death. The most impressive toxin from green tomatoes is solanine. Which, as Brave Writer may have discovered, can be used as murder weapon. Solanine can be found in any part of the plant, including the leaves, tubers, and fruit, and acts as the plant’s natural defenses. People have died from solanine poisoning. It’s also found in potatoes and eggplant.

If Marge eats, say, potato pancakes along with green tomatoes during that brunch, it’ll increase the solanine and other glycoalkaloid levels coursing through her system. *evil cackle*

The nice part of solanine poisoning from a writer’s perspective is that it can take 8-10 hours before the victim is symptomatic, which gives Brave Writer plenty of time to let her stumble into more trouble to keep the reader guessing how or why she died.

If I were writing this story, I’d study the fatal solanine cases and put my own spin on it.

Hope I’m right about this. If not, my apologies. In any case, the weekly Girl’s Club (no hyphen and only capped if it’s the official title of the club) brunch seems important and so do the tomatoes. What I’d love to see on this first page is why. You don’t need to tell us, but you do need to hint at the reason to hold our interest.

What if Bette plucks the deadly fruit from the vine and notices how strange it looks? You’ll have to research to nail down the minute details of a toxic green tomato, if any differences are visible to the naked eye.

There’s one other problem with this first paragraph. Here it is again:

The Schuster sisters came out to their garden this morning in search of tomatoes for their weekly Girl’s-Club brunch, and though their basket was nearly full, Bette insisted they needed one or two more.

Who’s narrating this story? It isn’t Bette, as your first line indicates. And it isn’t Marge. An omniscient point-of-view is tricky to pull off. Newer writers should focus on one main character and show/tell the story through their eyes. If that character doesn’t hear, see, feel, taste, experience, smell, etc. something, then it must be excluded.

Yes, some writers (me included) use dueling protagonists, alternating scenes between the two, and even include an antagonist POV. But when we’re still honing our craft, especially when we’re learning the ins-and-outs of POV, it’s easiest to concentrate on one main character throughout the story. For more on mastering point-of-view, see this post or type in “point of view” in the search box. We’ve discussed this area of craft many times on TKZ.

As written, my advice is to keep the first line and either delete the rest and find a different starting point (sorry!) or better yet, saturate it in mystery regarding these tomatoes. That way, the reader will fear for your main character while the fruit lay on a bed of lettuce on a serving platter during the Girl’s Club meeting. If you choose this route, one of your goals is to make the reader squirm. “Don’t eat that tomato, Marge!”

What say you, TKZers? Please add your gentle and kind advice for this brave writer.

 

7+

12 thoughts on “First Page Critique: Can You Find the Murder Weapon?

  1. Sue, thanks for the great lesson in toxins. I knew tomato and potato leaves were poisonous but not the rest of the plants.

    I agree that not much happens in this first page but, as a rule, cozies tend to start a little slower, building the story world and character relationships first, then introducing the conflict. This well-written excerpt reminds me of Arsenic and Old Lace.

    The conversation about the boarder not getting enough sleep seemed to go on too long. It’s probably foreshadowing but I felt a few repetitious lines could be cut, leaving more room to exploit the pending conflict.

    The screeching hawk is a good image but would that really cause Bette’s heart to pound? Seemed an overreaction for someone who’s used to being outside in nature. Startled sounds more realistic.

    “Life is short” sounds like a cliche but likely is subtle foreshadowing. Somebody gonna die soon!

    I think cozy fans interested in gardening and cooking will find a lot to like about this story, esp. if Sue’s prediction of poisoning comes true.

    Nice job, Brave Author!

    • Thanks for the assist, Debbie! Cozies aren’t my preferred genre, if that wasn’t obvious. 😉 I’m so glad you were able to help Brave Writer.

    • I was pulled out of the story briefly by this passage:

      “Well, it was past 9:00—when we went to bed. She rents a room; she doesn’t answer to us.”

      “I know that, Marge.” She moved down the row. …

      Would two sisters living together with the third really need to say this to each other? “She rents a room” tends toward info dump, especially when a few lines later she is identified as their boarder. If these lines are necessary to the story, they could be handled more subtly.

      Try cutting it, and adding it in later (while also enhancing Deep Point of View by eliminating “They looked up to see…” )

      “Here came their boarder now. Paige cut across the dewy lawn, backpack over shoulder, mug of coffee in hand.”

      • Forgive my neglect for not mentioning how much I liked hte piece overall!

        • Thanks for weighing in, Robin!

          “They” also causes problems, because if we were in Bette or Marge’s head, she would say, “My sister and I” or in 3rd POV, “Bette and her sister.” We would never think “they” about ourself.

  2. I do love atropine. Naturally occurring in the nightshade family. A little and a bad heart rhythm straightens out. A lot and your heart stops. Reminds me of my copy of “Handbook of Poison”. My father’s copy is now with my favorite mystery writer.

    The problem, besides a boarder who doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, is that you need quite a few tomatoes to kill with them. Of course, if the intended victim was already on heart medications, tomato leaves in the salad with a nice green tomato vinaigrette might do the trick.

    Yeah, I don’t find a in bed by 9:00 college student first page material. Maybe chapter two proves me wrong.

    Overall, I would turn the page.

    • I do love atropine. Naturally occurring in the nightshade family. A little and a bad heart rhythm straightens out. A lot and your heart stops.

      Haha! I’m with you on that, Alan!

  3. I learned something from this submission. Here’s how it goes:
    I’m sitting in front of the TV watching talking heads going on and on over the corroded virus. I want something to take me away from all this, so I fire up the laptop and go to Amazon to find a great book. Thousands. I find one. It’s got a good, not great first line. But the next paragraph goes on about two people in a garden and tomatoes. It doesn’t seem to connect to the first line. I move on.
    While your analysis is interesting, I wasn’t hooked. I just didn’t recognize the clever stuff about tomatoes. I click open another book. The first line reads: “My sister had been dead for nearly fifteen years when I see her on the TV news.” The next paragraph introduces the main character who is clearly vested in the first line. I buy it because it hooked me. We are all competing in the same league and that’s tough. I would think that a good editor could help the writer whip this into shape. Good luck.
    The first line I mentioned is from “When We Believed in Mermaids.” by Barbara O’Neal.

  4. Overall, I liked this opening. But I agree with some of the other comments, too.

    I was hung up a little bit on the first line, though. “…but not like this” confused me, but I kept reading.

    I was totally mis-directed away from the green tomatoes. “Bette always joked Marge’s baking would be their demise—but not like this.” Later, pies were mentioned. So, I connected the dots and thought the pies were gonna do someone in.

    These are nits, I’m sure, but I had to re-read it after reading your critique, to understand the bit about the green tomatoes.

    This opening reminded me of the beginning of some of the “Murder, She Wrote” episodes. I envisioned Angela Lansbury next door in her own garden overhearing the two old bitties’ conversation, with that twinkle of interest in her eye. 🙂

    Thank you for this interesting submission, BA!

    • “Baking” tripped me up, Deb. But I don’t think there’s such a thing as a poisonous apple (in real life). I figured Marge or Bette would bake with the tomatoes since Brave Writer chose to show us picking them, but I could be totally off and this scene has nothing to do with the untimely death, in which case it’s definitely the wrong place to start the novel.

      This reminded me of Angela Lansbury, too!

  5. If green tomatoes were that toxic, half of the population of the American South would be dead, including me. We fry them, we eat them raw, and we use them to make various types of relish for almost every meal while they are in season. The biggest danger of tomatoes is that the leaves and stems can cause a rash on some people if they brush against the plant.

    This source says that there’s no record of anyone dying from it from tomatoes.

    https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/vegetables/tomato/tomato-plant-toxicity.htm

    Info dump conversations are called “As you know, Bob” in the science fiction community because lots of really bad sf used to have one scientist explaining things another scientist knows already.

    Readers aren’t stupid, and they don’t need everything explained. A simple “Morning class, Paige?” would tell the reader that the girl with the bookbag is a student. “Such a lovely child” by one of the elderly ladies to the other as Paige leaves would say that she’s not a relative.

    These two women are the amateur sleuths since a cozy almost never starts with the victim, but with the sleuths. However, a body may be found among the cukes, and the renter will probably need to be protected from a murder charge.

    Most of the foreshadowing is heavy-handed if it is, indeed, foreshadowing, but the author is at least trying to build some tension. The had-I-but-known first sentence outside of the third person viewpoint is an extremely common error for newer writers. Delete that puppy, Brave Writer, and stay in close third-person.

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