Backstory Fatigue

Maybe it’s just my own declining attention span (thanks Jim for another reminder of the issue in yesterday’s blog post!), but I’m increasingly growing weary of complicated, anguished backstories in crime shows. I admit I haven’t been reading much in the way of mysteries lately, as I’ve been focusing on research for my latest WIP, but I often turn to TV crime shows (usually of the British variety) to relax. Lately, however, I’ve found my interest waning as the backstories in the latest crop of shows I’ve started (but not finished!) have become increasingly overwrought and intrusive.

I like to watch as characters take shape slowly over many episodes, evolving alongside their cases, rather than having a backstory thrust upon me right from the get go in a way that I find intrusive and (often times) underwhelming. The current show that’s got me peeved the Netflix original series Paranoid. In the first few episodes we get an intriguing murder but also (in my opinion) a rather heavy handed introduction to the backstory for each of the main protagonists – a panic attack ridden investigator, a know-it all junior officer with a lying alcoholic lying mother, and a female investigator who goes from cocky to crumbling wreck after her boyfriend dumps her (she wants children, she’s in her late 30s. etc. etc.). While I will probably persevere with the show, I feel like I’m already experiencing backstory fatigue and I’m only up to episode 3!

The best crime/mystery shows and novels allow the protagonist’s backstory to unfold and inform the story as well as intrigue the reader. I wonder, given the crowded marketplace, whether we’re currently experiencing a bit of ‘backstory overload’ as a means of trying to differentiate the show/story/characters. For me, however, this often feels like a character’s backstory is being foisted upon me right from the start in an effort to either impress or unnerve me (neither of which usually work!). In Broadchurch, I was willing to buy into the multitude of character ‘issues’ because their stories evolved alongside the case and thus felt organic. I’m not sure the same can be said for Paranoid (for me the jury is still out).

So how does this help inform the writing process when it comes to character development and backstory? For me, my current irritation has helped solidify the following advice…

  1. A character’s backstory needs to evolve rather than be rammed down a reader’s throat. That means no huge exposition dumps or digressions too early on and no ‘overloaded’ backstory for a character that feels imposed rather than organic.
  2. The ‘iceberg’ approach works best – let the reader know there is far more beneath the surface of the character than the tip that the reader sees initially. Let the water recede to reveal the extent and depth of the backstory as the plot/story unfolds.
  3. Make sure to consider the multifaceted nature of human beings. Sometimes genre characters can feel too ‘one note’ (the classic depressed, alcoholic loner as a detective for example) but sometimes they can also feel way too overwrought and unnatural…so make sure you feel like you’re creating a real person.
  4. Don’t try too hard to create the world’s most anguished or unusual detective. Again, this seems to be evident in TV shows more so than novels, but after a while, backstories can start to feel like gimmicks rather than genuine human foibles.

So what do you think about when creating your characters’ backstories? How do you approach backstory development? Which TV shows or novels do you think have explored backstory well, and which have given you (like me) a bit of ‘backstory fatigue’?

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Over the End of the World

One of my twins loves reading pre and post apocalyptic YA novels, but even he has reached saturation point. There’s really only so many stories you can digest involving the horror, chaos and disintegration of society that comes from either impending doom or the aftermath of an end of the world scenario. In many ways, our mutual ‘apocalyptic’ fatigue (after all, I’ve read almost all the same books) is indicative of market saturation as well as stagnation. It also raises issues, to follow on from Jim’s post yesterday, about how writers nurture their ideas to execution.

I think it’s safe to say the market has pretty much covered these scenarios:

  • contagion/epidemic
  • alien invasion
  • ecological disaster
  • Impending meteor/asteroid strike
  • vampires/werewolves/demons/zombies/robots/monsters/mutations etc. taking over the world
  • government conspiracy/police state/total control/thought control/emotional control
  • evil schemes that generally involve youths in competition to kill or hunt each other down and/or destroy society

Note: Feel free to add to this list by the way…

But the key element I think (at least on the fatigue front) is that many novels now feel merely derivative of stories that have come before and which deal with the same or similar ‘apocalypse’ event. It’s hard, given what has already been written, to come up with a new idea or new way of executing that idea that doesn’t feel tired or hackneyed. It is, in some respects representative of the classic dilemma facing all writers – namely, how do you put a new/fresh/unique spin on an idea/mystery/predicament that has already been done to death? This is where I think it is critical for writers to take a step back when considering their idea for a novel (before what Jim calls the ‘green light’ stage) and evaluate the key elements of concept and premise (that my fellow blog mate Larry Brooks is so good at describing).

I jot all my ideas down in a notebook – most of which will never develop into a completed novel – either because the idea itself is to thin, or the execution/story that surrounds the idea doesn’t turn out to be novel enough, or complex enough to sustain itself. When considering any new WIP, I take my idea, produce a detailed proposal and then (because I’m an outliner) map out the plot for the story. As part of this process, it soon becomes apparent if the idea cannot sustain a novel, especially if I couldn’t answer these critical questions:

  • Why should readers care about my story/idea?
  • If it deals with well worn tropes, what makes my idea or POV unique or significantly different (I don’t count trivial distinctions)?
  • How would this story stand out from all the other novels out there?
  • Even if I think the idea is sufficiently novel to warrant a story, do I really know what the concept/premise behind this is in sufficient detail (anyone who’s read Larry Brooks knows that many stories collapse because a failure at the concept or premise stage).

At the moment (thankfully) I’m not considering any a pre or post apocalyptic story ideas. Although my son and I have reached the tipping point we could still be brought back with a unique twist/edge or story about the end of the world. The key issue I think is that, when considering a new idea, read extensively before committing to the story. In a crowded market, you have to stand out (even when you’re writing about chaos and the end of the world…)

So, are there any types of stories you are totally ‘over’? How do you approach developing your ideas when facing a a crowded/saturated corner of the market?

 

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First Page Critique: the Silencer

Happy Monday! Today we critique the first page submission entitled The Silencer. As always, kudos to those brave enough to submit. My comments follow.

The Silencer.

Friday, 9:45 a.m.

But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

The worst part about waiting to testify is I spend the entire time terrified the lawyers will uncover some huge mistake that screams how lazy and incompetent I am. I tell myself a hundred different ways that I always do the best I can … but I don’t really listen.

After so many appearances in court you’d think I’d have no problem when it comes time to testify. But it never fails. Every time the bailiff comes to get me from this small waiting room, the cycle begins. My therapist once told me my fear in court had more to do with my lack of control then my ineptitude as a witness. I disagree. Then again, she also said I joined the police in an effort to stop for others what I couldn’t stop for myself when I was younger.

The door swung open and a big woman with a horsey face and short gray hair stepped inside. Her uniform hugged her well-nourished figure. The web belt is off-center and sagged to her right, the holster almost resting on her thigh. She looked directly at me and I’m waiting to see if her voice sounded like John Wayne.

“Detective Rebecca Watson?” she asked in a soft voice.

“That’s me.” Like clockwork, my stomach twists into a knot, pushing its contents toward my throat as I stand and follow her into the courtroom.

The courtroom is overflowing with spectators and media. Knees trembling, my high heels echoed off the marble floor as I approach the witness stand, carrying a red binder, also known as a murder book. Today is going to be a very tough day. This is no ordinary case. The Florida Supreme Court awarded Leonard Lee Lucius a new trial or whatever verbiage they used. Some crap about tainted evidence. Anyway, his new defense team argued a crucial piece of evidence, the knife used to kill his girlfriend, Teri Goodson, was exposed to foreign fibers after being collected from the crime scene and before being signed into the evidence locker.

Apparently, neither the jurors nor his lawyers saw fit to argue this point during the previous trial. The jury found him guilty. The District Attorney sought the death penalty, but Lucius ended up with life.

All eyes in the courtroom focused on me. I kept my head straight to avoid their stares. As each foot stepped in front of the other, it feels like I’m the one on trial. This isn’t true, but I can’t wrap my head around the fact they’re judging me, even before being sworn in.

My comments

Overall I enjoyed this first page, but there were a few critical elements that held me back from being fully engaged or invested in this story. I’ve summarized these under two main headings: Character Development and Dramatic Tension. I’ll deal with each in turn.

Character Development

  • The main protagonist, Detective Rebecca Watson, seems in the first paragraph at least, to be a rookie who is understandably nervous about appearing in court. The second paragraph, however, indicates that she has appeared countless times and it sounds like her anxiety is more of a deep-rooted issue (one she sees a therapist about) based on a traumatic event in the past which is what drove her (at least in the therapist’s opinion) to being a police officer. This sense of inconsistency, makes it hard to get a handle on Rebecca as a three dimensional character . By the end of this first page I have to admit, she seems rather generic and her anxiety makes her feel less believable as a seasoned detective. This meant I wasn’t totally invested in her as the main character.
  • I also felt like I needed some action and drama rather than merely exposition about Rebecca as a character. I wanted to feel like I was in Rebecca’s head hearing her unique voice but also seeing her in action.
  • Although I feel like the writer knows his/her character, as readers we aren’t on a firm foundation (I don’t quite buy Rebecca as a detective yet). Why does she feel like she’s constantly being judged? Why does she lack confidence in her abilities – is it this case, or part of her own neuroses? If I’m going to like Rebecca and root for her as a main character, I feel like a need more depth even on this first page. This may come more in the form of intriguing specifics that can be fleshed out later but at the moment there’s not enough that goes beyond the standard ‘cop’ genre to really draw me in. Action demonstrates character far more than mere description or background.
  • Also, there seems a few contradictions on this first page – she seems nervous and anxious, yet she’s supposedly experienced. She is a detective but she says ‘new trial or whatever verbiage they used’ when speaking of the Supreme Court when, as a detective she would know exactly what was ordered.
  • We also get far too much detail about the bailiff when compared to the protagonist – If Rebecca was a detective wouldn’t she already know most of the court staff? We also don’t know whether Rebecca was involved in the initial investigation or her role in the tainted evidence question that is the reason for her court appearance (we assume).

Dramatic Tension

  • A first page is first and foremost a powerful lure that draws a reader in. It has to set the scene as well as the main character and, most importantly, it needs to have dramatic tension to ensure a reader is immediately invested in the story. At the moment this first page seems more of an introduction than a dramatic entry point to the story. We learn about Leonard Lee Lucius’s new trial in a rather cumbersome way with details that should come later or should be used in the first page to greater dramatic effect (perhaps by way of a scene in which the police are confronted by the tainted evidence).
  • Overall, it felt like there was too much time spent on Rebecca’s worries/feelings of inadequacy that on establishing a dramatic scene that confronts and intrigues the reader. I was left wanting more ‘oomph’ to keep me going and a stronger, more consistent main character that had flaws as well as depth but who felt ‘real’ from the get go.
  • I also wasn’t sure how the biblical quotation at the start of the page relates to the story – while we don’t need an answer per se, I think readers would like to get a sense of how it illuminates the story to come.

So TKZers, what are some of your comments and feedback? How can we help this writer punch this first page up to the next level?

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The Power of Book Clubs (?)


When I lived in California I was a member of a book group/club for almost ten years and,  once I became a published author, it became apparent that tapping into the interest of book groups like ours was a great way of connecting with readers. Flash forward almost a decade and I’m wondering, in a world where social media is so overwhelming and influential, if book clubs across continue to be a powerful force for ‘word of mouth’ recommendations and publicity for authors (?).

I am currently a member of a book group, but our meeting schedule and commitment to actually reading the books selected is less ‘fixed’ than it used to be. In many ways this reflects the greater craziness of lives that now involve kids, work and a multitude of other interests all competing for our limited attention. Still, I love being part of the group as it  enables me to read books I would never have chosen on my own – and has thus exposed me to countless amazing books I would have otherwise never read. However, even I find myself stretched too thin to make it the group meetings or finish the book on time.

So I have a question for all you readers and writers out there – how important do you feel book groups are these days (in terms of generating interest in books and perhaps helping boost word of mouth recommendations). Are you in a book group at the moment? As an author, are you still making appearances or phoning in for calls to book groups (I spoke at  one in December and I have to say, it was awesome!). For those of you who have a book coming out soon, are you targeting book groups as part of your marketing plan or is social media outlets more important?

I’m hoping that book groups continue to be an amazing force for good – encouraging reading, book discussions, and a general interest in all things literary, but I have to wonder,  are book groups still as meaningful as they used to be (if, indeed, they were!).

My inquiring mind would love your input!

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The Fear Factor

“Do one thing every day that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m writing this blog post on Thursday in anticipation of a long weekend in which I am (finally!) going to learn how to ski (cue drum roll…) I’m sincerely hoping that come Monday when this blog post will be posted, I will have survived the experience in one piece (no broken bones, smushed body parts, or too many bruises at least). The hardest thing for me will not be the physical aspect (although, to be fair, I am immensely uncoordinated) but the mental ‘fear factor’. I’ve been cross country skiing before and loved it – basically you get to hike with skis on and you don’t have any shrieking speed issues unless you take a wrong turn. Actual downhill skiing, however,  is quite another thing –  something that involves overcoming my fear of speed (or, more precisely, careening out of control).

My husband snowboards and my boys have been taking skiing lessons since we moved to Denver so I’m the last hold out (if you don’t count our collie Hamish, who, to be sure, would love it if he could have skis on his paws).  It seems strange to me that I think nothing of moving continents or taking risks with my writing, but skiing (like bicycle riding) remains a definite ‘fear factor’ to overcome. I managed to combat my fear when it came to bicycle riding (although I’m still a slow poke!) so I’m sure I’ll survive skiing – the question is whether I can overcome fear to actually enjoy it!

I’ll keep you all posted, but, hopefully, by the time this posts on Monday and I can respond to comments, I will have mastered the basics of downhill skiing!

So TKZers, what is your ‘fear factor’ and are you planning on overcoming it in 2017?…If so, how?

 

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Welcome 2017!

Welcome back TKZers!

Hope you all had a safe and happy holiday season and are ready to tackle all your writing resolutions in the year ahead. As always, I have a few resolutions after all my holiday eating, drinking and writing slackness, but in 2017 I want to focus on what I’m calling ‘deep writing’. For me, 2016 was definitely the year of ‘distracted writing’. It may have been all the politics or just the overwhelming onslaught of news, social media posts etc.,  but whatever the cause, I have now (thanks TKZ’s own James Scott Bell) purchased Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World‘ and intend to fully embrace the concept of ‘writing deeply’ this year.

Rather than calling this a New Year’s resolution, I’ve decided ‘write deeply‘ will be my mantra for 2017. I will be chanting it in my sleep by the end of January and, hopefully, I will notice an improvement in focus, concentration and maybe even the quality of my writing (!) by the end of the year.

So what about you? Do you have a mantra you would like to adopt for 2017?

Also any tips on how I can ensure mine gets through the post-holiday thickness of my skull, will be gratefully received….

6+

Call the Typo Police!

Last week I was helping an author friend of mine with some final proofreading of the galley proofs her publisher had sent – she sent me and other friends approx. 50 pages each to do a final typo check and, to her dismay, everyone still found some. The manuscript had been through so many rounds of revision, editing and proofreading that it seemed incredible that there were still minor typos to be found – but, as any author will tell you, those little buggers manage to elude even the most eagle eyed amongst us…

This got me thinking about my own proofreading process (or, to be honest, the lack thereof!). Obviously, I use spell check and have beta readers (although they are mainly there for content feedback) and I do as many careful run-throughs of the manuscript that I can before I email it off to my agent. Then, whatever revisions are needed are completed and another proofreading occurs before the manuscript is (hopefully) ready to go off to publishers. If you go the traditional route, publishers also have line editors who are the last line of ‘typo defense’ and usually the process results in a relatively clean manuscript…although inevitably (as readers will always point out to you) there are still  typos that slip through the dragnet and end up in the published book.

In the indie route, it’s really up to the author to make sure this ‘typo’ cleaning process is done and dusted before the book is uploaded and made available to the reading public. While there isn’t the same formal process as a traditional publisher undertakes, I assume most professional indie authors go through the same multiple ’rounds’ of editing to ensure the cleanest manuscript is produced.

I am acutely aware of my own proofreading limitations. While I am pretty good on the content editing side (and willing to take constructive feedback on that front and revise as many times as needs be) when it comes to the laborious task of proofreading I know I fall way short. The main problem is that I am too close to the material to spot typographical errors any more – and, if my friend’s experience is anything to go by, often multiple people can miss some typos even in a rigorous proofreading process. Although it’s much easier to proofread someone else’s work, when it comes to your own manuscript it can often be hard to find friends or family who are all that keen on acting as the ‘typo police’ after they’ve already read the book in its many iterations before.

So TKZers, what is your process for dealing with ridding your manuscript of all those pesky last minute typos? How do you handle the dreaded proofreading stage?

4+

Marathon Effort

unknownA couple of weeks ago the boys and I were in New York City to watch hubby run the New York City marathon. It’s been almost twelve years since he last ran a marathon(!) and, to be honest, we just wanted him to finish without injury, incident, or trauma…Thankfully, he finished well and was even able to board a flight to India the next day(!)

Naturally, the whole marathon thing (coupled with November being NaNoWriMo month) made me think of the similarities between writing a novel and running a marathon. When people ask me for advice, I usually say writing and getting published is like a war of attrition where the last one still seated and writing usually wins, but running a marathon is a more apt metaphor (and one closer to my heart, having seen my husband train for five of them!)

Like a marathon, writing a book requires training. Just as my husband had to build up the miles, so too do writers. There are very few of us who can sit down for the very first time and pump out a novel or two – the majority of us have had to spend a number of years honing our skills, enduring false starts, half-written attempts, lousy drafts as well as set-backs. The key, just as in marathon training, is to keep going.

In order to avoid injury, part of any marathon training should involve something other than just running (cross-training, weight training, Pilates, yoga etc.). Similarly, writers need to read widely as well as write. Depending on the type of fiction you want to write, you should explore different writers in your genre, learn the implicit ‘rules’ that function within that genre and then also read outside that genre to become a more ‘well-rounded’ writer.

Just like in a marathon, a key aspect to writing a novel is pacing. You have to keep churning through the miles, but still understand how your writing process works so you keep a steady pace, don’t burnout, and have the strength to finish. As with any long race (and let’s face it that’s what completing a novel can feel like!), it also always helps to have someone cheering you on, especially when you hit the wall at mile 21… All too often I meet people who claim to want to write a novel but fail to understand the sheer stamina required to complete and revise (and revise again) a novel until it’s the very best it can be.

And finally, just as with any marathon, all your skills need constant refinement. While in running you usually focus on issues of technique, breathing and pacing – in writing the focus is more on honing skills (characterization, plotting, dialogue etc.) as well as editing and revision. When aiming to complete a novel that is publication worthy, there’s no place for sloppy skills.  I usually find those final miles of revision feel just as long (if not longer) as the ‘completing-the-first-draft’ marathon (perhaps I should tell my husband that writing a novel is worth running at least two marathons…!)

So what do you think? If you were to describe writing a novel as an endurance sport, what would it be?

 

 

 

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“Real World” Problems

imgresToday we welcome Barbara Nickless as a guest blogger. Her new novel, Blood on the Tracks, has just been released and today she talks about some of the real problems involved in researching this great book. I’ll be on the airplane home to Denver after cheering my husband on in the NYC marathon so I hope you give Barbara a great TKZ welcome and lots of comments!

“Real World” Problems

As soon as I decided to write a police procedural about a modern-day railroad cop in Colorado, I knew I had to set my thriller in the very real city of Denver. Denver is a major hub for western railroads, which have large operations there. As a railroad cop, my protagonist’s territory would cover 35,000 miles. But she—like her railroad—would be based out of Denver.

The problem? Even though I live only 60 miles away, Denver might as well be on the other side of the world for all I knew about it. To write a believable book, I had to go beyond geography. I needed to understand the workings of the Denver Police Department, the ins and outs of the railroads operating out of Denver, and Denver’s history, demographics, economy, and government. I had to get a feel for where my heroes would dine, work, study and live. Just as important, I had to know where my villains would lie, cheat, steal and murder.

Unsure whether to use actual settings for your novel? Here are some dos and don’ts if you decide to play it real.

Do get your facts straight. Errors will jolt your readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Start by learning as much as you can about your locale upfront. Online resources like Wikipedia and Google Earth provide everything from weather conditions to street views. There are websites for businesses and institutions where your characters might work, as well as information on museums and restaurants where they can conduct meetings or relax. Additional digging can turn up articles written by the locals, which will give you a feel for the local lingo and tell you what about their city makes them proud (or ashamed). Look at online magazines and newspapers, too, and consider subscribing. When I needed a swanky home in a swanky neighborhood for one of my characters, the Denver magazine 5280 told me the best areas of town, while Zillow offered maps, prices and photographs. And speaking of maps! I bought a large city map, a Denver street guide, a railroad map and a police precinct map. Hang them on your wall and add satellite or street-level photos. Or use pushpins to mark where the bodies are buried.

Don’t think everything has to be real-world. Feel free to make up some locales, especially if bad things happen there and you want to avoid a lawsuit. For my thriller, I took real neighborhoods, gave them the twist I needed, then sometimes renamed them. Denverites who’ve read my novel tell me it’s been fun trying to pinpoint neighborhoods and separate fact from fiction. Another huge part of my setting is the railroad my cop works for. Since railroads are privately owned and I didn’t want to risk offending the actual businesses, I created my own. While I’ve done my best to get general railroading facts straight, I’m free to make up the details.

Do travel there if you can. Nothing beats on-the-street research. For my novel, I was fortunate to find a retired Denver PD detective who also loves trains. Not only did he take me on tours of the Denver Crime Lab and police headquarters, he helped me pinpoint train track locations and find hobo camps. The railway cop who provided invaluable information for my book told me where hobos “catch out” (hop a freight train) and gave me a tour of the yards. He also banished my preconceived notion that railway police, like a lot of traditional police, have partners to help shoulder the load.

Don’t worry about getting it perfect. In Blood on the Tracks, I added a disclaimer at the end of the book stating that I’d taken a few liberties not only in the layout of my settings, but also in the institutions I portrayed such as the Denver police and the U.S. Marines.

What about you? Does your book take place in a real setting or a fictional one? And what are some of your tricks for handling either situation?

7+

First Page Critique – Tree of Heaven

Happy Monday!

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a book entitled ‘Tree of Heaven’. My comments follow.

Tree of Heaven

18 September 1833, Zoar, Ohio

“I’ll get what’s coming to me, I will!”

The bellow of a man’s voice punctured the late morning’s peace and brought Adelaide Bechtmann to a standstill outside Josef’s log cabin.

She ducked under the low-hanging branches of an apple tree, snagging a bonnet tie on a leafy twig. She jerked it loose. What should she do? Call out? Had they seen her? Heard her?

A glance through the open door of the cabin allayed her concern. Engrossed in their argument, the men saw none but each other.

The Separatists’ leader faced the stranger across the table that centered the one-room cabin. His face flushed, and his fists tightened on the edge of a chair. “I owe you nothing, nothing.”

“You signed her indenture.”

What? Indenture? What did he mean?

Adelaide studied the man stylishly dressed in gray and white striped trousers, checkered waistcoat, and long-tailed black coat. Whatever was he doing in Zoar? Plain-dressed and plain spoken, the Separatists seldom saw such finery, though Adelaide had encountered men so adorned in Bolivar when she’d gone to the city for a birthing.

The man shook a paper in Josef’s face. “You owe me for—”

“She died, you fool.” Josef batted the paper away. “You can’t collect from a dead woman.”

Dead woman? Who’s dead? And what’s an indenture?

The man’s chin jutted. “You signed for her.”

“I signed for them all. I was, am, their leader. And I settled all my debts before I left Philadelphia.”

The stranger waved toward the outdoors, and Adelaide scooted back against the tree. “All this land, this industry, this prosperity that you’ve built on the backs of these people. You’ve the money to pay.”

They did indeed. Pride rushed through Adelaide. Only ten years old when they’d arrived, she’d watched her fellow Separatists work hard to carve their village out of the wilderness, helping as she could, totting baskets, buckets, and boxes to waiting workers. By their efforts, tenacity, and, Josef would say, the grace of God, they’d prospered in this new land.

My comments

Overall, this first page successfully sets a scene of a conflict in what I assume is a straightforward historical fiction novel (at least on the first page I don’t see the signs of either a mystery or thriller to come). I liked the way that Adelaide stumbles upon the argument and how we get, quickly and easily, a sense of the conflict to come. The speech and inner voice sounds authentic for the time period and I like the immediacy of the situation. My main quibbles really come down to two main areas: Historical grounding and voice.

Historical grounding

I admit I am not well versed in American history, so I did look up Zoar and Bolivar in Ohio and the early 19th century German separatists who settled there. However, the key to any historical novel is that a reader shouldn’t have to have (1) any prior understanding of the historical period; or (2) have to look up the historical references to understand what is going on. I do think, even on this very first page, we need more grounding in the historical period. One option, if the author doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of the first page, is to have a brief summary in either a prologue (yes, the dreaded prologue) or another hint – say a newspaper or historical excerpt that gives the reader a quick ‘heads up’ before the story begins. For example, if I’d had a quote from one of the German separatist leaders about their reasons for coming to Ohio, their journey, and settlement then I would have been able to place everything on the first page in better context (rather than having to do an internet search to see who the separatists were and why they had come to America).

I do like the paragraph about her noticing the stranger’s clothes – especially the old-fashioned use of words. This definitely felt authentic. Th page could have done with more description to be able to visualize the setting and the characters. In historical fiction, you have a little more leeway to introduce exposition like this early on as it helps ground a reader in the time period (particularly for readers who have no real sense of what the 1830s would have been like in America). More sensory information would have been great to really make a reader feel like they were there (the smell of smoke from the fire, maybe cooking (?), the stranger’s cologne or other elements to make us feel we are right there with Adelaide looking on at the scene).

That being said, I liked that we didn’t get a huge historical data dump, and that the author led with action and character interaction in this first page. This, however, leads to my second comment, which is a question of voice.

Voice

In this first page we don’t really get a strong sense of voice from Adelaide yet. Her inner questions suggest someone young – maybe a teenager or young adult – and yet we aren’t entirely sure why she seems to have no idea what indenture meant. Again, not being an expert on American history, I don’t have a strong handle on this time period, but based on what I have read it sounds like indentured servitude was a common practice given the need for labor at the time. So my question would be, why would she not know the word? Also when Josef speaks of the woman being dead I would assume in a small knit community Adelaide might be able to make some guess as to who the dead woman might be – rather than thinking ‘what dead woman’, I would expect her to think ‘did he mean X?’ or perhaps she knows Josef is lying…again, that isn’t clear on this first page.

Voice is critical to any first page – it’s what sets a book apart and what draws a reader in from the start – so my key recommendation is to make Adelaide’s voice stronger and unique. If she is a young adult then make sure the reader knows her age and understands her confusion. At the moment she sounds hesitant (doesn’t want them to know she’s there) and naive. This is fine but sometimes a stronger, more interesting voice can intrigue a reader. I, for one, wanted two girls to be there – one (Adeliade) who was quite prepared to go striding in there and demand to know what was happening and the other a girl holding her back (representing the more historically ‘appropriate’ type of young woman). At the moment there’s nothing about Adelaide yet that makes me want to keep reading her story (and because it is her POV as a reader I’m assuming it is her story).

Overall, I think this first page had a lot of appealing elements. It sounds like an intriguing time and place for a novel and I would love to read more about the separatists’ experience in America. With some fine tuning I think this first page could start a compelling historical novel – with the focus being on historical grounding and strength of voice.

So TKZers what do you think? What constructive comments would you give our author?

 

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