Heil Safari – First Page Critique

Today let’s welcome another Brave Anonymous Author who offers the first page of Heil Safari.

Title:  Heil Safari

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot. He had stepped to the caution line and put one foot on the other side. The caution line, marked with wooden stakes and a strand of wire across the top, warned the prisoners of war from getting too close to the wire fence fifteen feet beyond. On the fence going around the entire prison camp there were signs in English and German that read:

ATTENTION!

Forbidden to Move Inside

Restricted Area

Violators Will be Shot

The American guard in the corner watchtower shouted, “You there! On the deadline! Git back!” The guard raised a rifle to his shoulder. “I said git back!”

But Fritz didn’t move.

“You damn Nazi,” the guard yelled at Fritz. “Git back or I shoot!”

Fritz still didn’t move, apparently not taking the threat seriously. Or caring. But Beyer took it seriously. He cared.

Returning to his barracks after doing his morning toilet, Beyer now stood still, uneasy. Then he heard the click of a breech bolt coming from the guard tower at the other corner of the compound. In horror he saw a guard hunkered behind a machine gun. He was covering the south end of the compound as if at any moment there might be a general uprising. The nearby prisoners, however, remained still and only stared.

But Beyer had to do something other than stare to see how the crisis would turn out. He couldn’t afford to lose Fritz. The only mining engineer in the Officers Compound, Fritz was essential to the success of Hermes. Beyer was desperate for Hermes to succeed. Being too long cooped in the densely packed prisoners and buildings of the enclosure, Beyer, much like Fritz, was becoming unnerved. Beyer frequently broke out in night sweats, his breathing rapid and shallow, and sigh a low, agonizing moan.

Considering that Fritz might be shot, a shiver of fear raced through Beyer at the prospect of a catastrophe. Without Fritz there may not be a tunnel completion, no one would get out, all the hard work done up to now remaining unfulfilled.

“Damn you! Stop!” the guard with the rifle shouted.

The shout startled Beyer, then he noticed Fritz beginning to take mincing steps, his short height straddling the wire in his crotch.

 

Okay, let’s get to work.

Usually first pages arrive naked and unadorned at TKZ, without genre or background information. Page One must stand entirely on its own. That’s good because a strong first page is critical to whether or not a reader buys your book.

However, this submission included a synopsis. And the synopsis was intriguing. For that reason, I’m going to handle this critique a little differently than normal.

Most writers would rather endure an IRS audit than write a synopsis because it’s damn hard to do well.

In the summary, Anon explained the novel was based on a true but largely-unknown incident during World War II at Camp Trinidad in Colorado. I Googled it and found this article. Essentially, The Great Escape got turned on its head with German prisoners of war trying to escape American captors.

Show, don’t tell is oft-repeated advice for fiction. However in a synopsis, telling is permissible because it’s the most efficient way to introduce characters, lay out the story problem/conflict, and set up what’s at stake.

Anon handled that summary very well. German prisoners plot to escape a POW camp in Colorado because they are going mad from wire enclosure fever. A main character, Beyer, would rather die than endure another day in captivity. But there is dissent among prisoners, some of whom are die-hard Nazis while others are not. There are additional complications because Beyer’s friend Fritz, the chief engineer in charge of building the escape tunnel, is teetering on the brink of insanity. Anon sets up external conflict between German prisoners and American captors and among the POWs themselves, internal conflict with severe psychological stress, and a ticking clock with a race to see if the tunnel can be finished before the engineer completely loses it.

Lots of great potential for a historical thriller. Congratulations on a clear, competent synopsis, Anon.

Unfortunately, on this first page, Anon is mostly telling when s/he should be showing.

The POV character Beyer observes the events unfolding not only from a physical distance but also an emotional distance. Anon tells us he’s concerned but the reader doesn’t feel his apprehension, his helplessness, his panic that Fritz’s actions may not only lead to his death but also ruin the escape plan that can’t proceed without him.

The stakes couldn’t be higher–life or death–which is a great way to kick off a first page.

But the problem is: the reader doesn’t care.

Because we’re not inside Beyer’s skin. We don’t feel his guts churning, smell the nervous sweat under his armpits, taste the bile rising in his throat. We don’t see what he sees—the madness in the wild eyes of his friend Fritz who’s trying to commit suicide. We don’t hear the angry bark of the guard with his twitchy finger on the trigger.

We don’t feel the urgency driving both men to risk death because they can’t endure another day in captivity.

Showing is more than visual—it must be visceral and emotional.

The synopsis used the term “wire enclosure fever.” Unfortunately there is no sense of  fever in this first page.

A few suggestions to consider as you rewrite:

Lead off with a simple dateline that immediately sets the date and location. The reader right away understands this is historical fiction set in a military environment. For example:

Camp Trinity, Colorado, 1943

Next, climb inside Beyer’s skin and stay there. Use sensory detail to bring action to life. Actions trigger Beyer’s thoughts and feelings.

As Jim Bell often recommends, “Act first, explain later.” Give the reader just enough information to set the scene and prevent confusion.

A lot of repetition can be cut and condensed. Consider the first two sentences:

Captain Martin Beyer wondered in alarm how he could save his friend’s life. His friend, Second Lieutenant Hans Fritz, was in danger of being shot.

These two sentences essentially repeat the same information that could be combined into a single sentence with much more punch. Again, it’s telling rather than showing. Instead of having Beyer “wonder” how to save Fritz, he should act. His action may help the situation or it may make it worse. But either way, it moves the story forward.

Every scene needs to accomplish at least five tasks:

  1. Set the scene;
  2. Reveal character;
  3. Introduce a problem or goal;
  4. Demonstrate the stakes if the problem is not solved or the goal is not met;
  5. Propel the action forward.

How do you build a compelling scene? By stringing together groups of sentences that accomplish these tasks.

How do you build a compelling book? By stringing together compelling scenes.

In a fast-paced thriller, each sentence must build on the previous one to push the plot forward. Treat each sentence as a springboard that induces the reader to jump to the next sentence to learn what’s going to happen.

Below is one possible way to rewrite this first page, using additional details gleaned from the linked article.

Captain Martin Beyer fastened the last button of the drab uniform shirt that shamed him every day with its PW insignia: “prisoner of war.” He stomped his feet on the wood steps of the officers barracks to knock the fine silt off his once-shiny Luftwaffe boots. Barbed wire surrounded this desolate, barren patch of dirt named Camp Trinity. On the fence, signs in German and English warned that anyone would be shot if they crossed the caution line, the restricted buffer zone that was fifteen feet inside the compound fence.

“Hey, Nazi, git back!”

The shout from the watchtower caught Beyer’s attention. He turned to see an American guard aiming a rifle at Beyer’s closest friend in the camp, Hans Fritz. The young second lieutenant had stepped beyond a wire stretched taut between wooden posts.

One foot over the caution line into the restricted zone.

Beyer’s gut cramped as he prayed his friend would heed the guard’s warning. Lately, he never knew if Fritz taunted the Americans for sport or if he truly sought death rather than endure another day inside the prison.

There was a wild gleam in Fritz’s wide blue eyes as he teetered on the line, one boot in life, the other in hell.

The metallic click of a breech bolt sounded from the opposite watchtower where another guard hunkered behind a machine gun. “Git back or I’ll shoot!”

“Don’t do it, Fritz,” Beyer muttered. If Fritz died, the escape tunnel plan died with him.

 

The above is about 230 words and conveys most of the same information more concisely plus gives a deeper glimpse into the POV character.

Work on sensory detail that draws the reader in. Let the reader see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the story world you’ve built.

Work on showing emotion and feelings in the POV character. It’s not enough to say he felt alarmed—show his alarm with his sensory reactions.

Examine each sentence. Ask yourself if it repeats information previously stated. If so, choose the strongest version and delete the weaker. Or combine two sentences into one.

Count how many of the five elements listed above are included in each sentence. I try to pack sentences with at least two elements, preferably more. When you compose a sentence, choose an action that reveals character as well as demonstrates the stakes. The consequences of that action either solve the problem or make it worse.

One last point: the title Heil Safari is vague and doesn’t hint at the meat of the story. “Heil” made me think of the Nazi salute so I deduced it took place during World War II. But how does that connect to “Safari”? Maybe refer to the escape tunnel to freedom. Or perhaps the perils that lie beyond the tunnel if they escape successfully. You can find a better title to convince a potential reader to click the “buy now” button.

Don’t be discouraged, Brave Author. You have a compelling storyline based on historical events that are not widely known. World War II history buffs will find this interesting. A strong foundation in fact serves as a solid platform on which to build your fictionalized version. Work on your craft and you should have a good book.

Over to you, TKZers. Suggestions and comments for our Brave Anonymous Author?

 

If you’re a member of Amazon Prime, you can read Debbie Burke’s bestselling thriller Instrument of the Devil for free. Here’s the link.

 

 

 

 

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Significant Sites

When my last blog post was posted, I was on may way to Kraków in Poland – a place I didn’t know a great deal about but which I’ve always associated with the Second World War and the Holocaust (for obvious reasons). I didn’t know much about the old town or Wawel Castle (both of which I visited) but I knew my visit wouldn’t be complete without visiting the former Jewish quarter, the site of the Jewish ghetto, and Schindler’s enamel factory. As a writer of historical fiction, I find visiting significant historical places has a powerful, often visceral impact which informs not only my writing but my sense of self. On this visit, it was my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau that left the greatest impression.

I can’t say it was an easy decision to even make the journey to Auschwitz but both my husband and I felt it was a necessary pilgrimage to make. I’ve never done extensive research on the 1930s but, as my twin boys were studying the Holocaust this last school year, I revisited Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally and read for the first time Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night (the book my boys were required to read as part of their Holocaust unit). This helped, but it in no way truly prepared me, for what I would experience visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was shocked by the immediate physical effect stepping into the camps had on me. I felt nauseated, upset, horrorified as well as, inexplicably, anxious. The initial, almost casual attitude of many of visitors angered me as did their desire to photograph everything – even the most horrific and terrifying aspects of what we saw (would you really show friends photographs of the ruins of the crematoria?) but I did notice that as the tour progressed a somber silence fell amongst even the most chatty groups of tourists. By the time we had completed our visit to Birkenau, you could sense that everyone had been profoundly affected by what they had experienced (and rightly so).

As a writer of a historical fiction, the act of visiting sites such as Auschwitz-Birkenau also gives me a renewed sense of purpose to my work. In many ways, though, I felt that my humanity demanded that I make this visit. I left feeling a renewed sense of outrage, horror, and also – after our visit to Schindler’s factory – hope.

So TKZers, have you ever visited a site that left a similarly lasting impression – one that affected you not only as a writer but as a human being?

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When Fiction Meets Reality – The Challenges of my Current WIP

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Falkue at German Wikipedia

I’m 75% finished with my latest novel and I can’t stop dreaming about it. It’s keeping me up. I hope that’s a good thing. I’ve never had this happen before. Have any of you?

My novel is something very far from my comfort zone. For a large section of the story, my characters time travel (in an odd way) to Victorian London where they hunt Jack the Ripper. They have their reasons and the clock is ticking.

Whenever I add paranormal elements to any of my stories, I want the premise to almost seem plausible. You know how most people get scared when sitting around a campfire, telling ghost stories? That’s the visceral feeling I hope readers will get when they come along for a ride to the streets of White Chapel 1888.

I not only had to research the many resources on the Jack the Ripper case and take a view on what I think might’ve happened for the sake of my plot, I also had to research the time period to recreate a setting that will come alive on the page. In 1888, London was not the progressive modern city it is today. This was before proper sanitation, plumbing, and before police investigative methods were improved.

Tenement slum houses held large families of immigrants contained in small rooms rented by the day. Disease ran rampant with poor options for drinking water. Within close proximity to these slums lived wealthier Londoners who attended the opera and dined in fine restaurants. A newspaper called The Star had started in 1888, the year Jack had been born to evil. It had originally provided a voice for the common folk on injustice, but anything on the White Chapel murders turned a profit for the newspaper and became the driving story of the day.

A challenge has been to add enough details for history buffs yet recreate this world for readers who might be more interested in the peril of the characters. There’s always a balance and a consideration for good pacing.

My story is seen through the eyes of a young woman in present day who is desperate to find justice for a murdered friend in New Orleans. She’s obsessed with the Ripper case because she thinks it is related to the death of her friend. She steals a vintage necklace off a body and brings it to a mysterious yet reclusive psychic, only to find that she is correct that the jewelry is linked to her friend’s investigation. When held in his hand, the necklace catapults the psychic to two horrific murders. The vintage piece is the key to locating Jack the Ripper on the night he kills his 5th victim, Mary Kelly. I can’t give too much away, but I hope you’ll see the many moving parts of this story.

In order to recreate time travel, the hunters (led by the psychic) must be willing to suspend their bodies in a near death coma. Similar to how dreams work, a willing mind can share the common existence of a shared dream. My twin sisters often shared the same dreams. For most that would be scary, but it was normal for them. It’s been said that if you dream of your own death, you die in the dream. How many of you believe that is possible? Does it make you think twice before imagining it?

While my characters hunt the Ripper in spirit form, they are invisible to everyone except their one spirit guide (someone from 1888 that they must find in order to remain tethered to their world). As you can imagine, there are challenges to not having a physical body, yet they must be presentable in period clothing to the one guide (their citizen of heaven) who is capable of seeing the traveler.

Another challenge was to create believable dialogue during the time travel segment. What my modern woman hears from the people she meets must sound authentic. That involved a lot of historical research as well. It helped that my narrator was a modern young woman. For most of the historical part of the plot, her voice dominated, but I made sure she overheard the locals to make sure the color would be there.

But things are not what they seem in the netherworld between life and death. Evil and Fate combine to change history in ways my team of hunters will never foresee. Their worst fears are exposed and they must face their worst nightmares. As a writer, it’s my job to make my characters pay for the daring things they do to become a star in their story.

Thinking through all the ramifications of affecting history or interfering with fate–while doing it in a way to create mysterious twists in the plot–has been another fun challenge. Every time I think I know where the story is going, it changes course again, in a good way. I’ve surprised myself in ways I couldn’t have foreseen. The plot had to develop and the characters’ dilemmas had to rise to the top in order for me to see different outcomes and motivations. I’ve added layers to my story that I never would’ve seen coming. That’s a good feeling.

This is the first book in a new Trinity LeDoux series for me. The working title is – The Curse She Wore. Trinity is a 24-year-old wannabe bounty hunter, trying to get her license in New Orleans. At the start of the story she is homeless, but everything changes after my hermit psychic sees something brave yet vulnerable in her.

The first time I visited New Orleans, I sensed the layers of richness to the setting and understood why so many writers find the location completely captivating. I’ve waited to write a story set in New Orleans. This is it. I’m bringing in a Cuban influence, the Santeria faith (used for the concept of an ancestral spirit guide or citizen of heaven), a discreet Voo Doo shop for true believers, and a reclusive psychic from an old wealthy family who lives on an historic plantation. He’s got secrets of his own.

My tag line for this story is – “They had Death in Common.”

For Discussion:
1.) Tell me about the challenges of your current WIP. Anything interesting to research?

2.) Have you ever worked in the details of a real murder into your work of fiction? How did that work for you?

If you’re on Instagram, please find and follow me at this LINK.

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First Page Critique: The Heights of Valor

Happy Monday TKZers! Today, I have a first page critique that I think is really terrific – which means I don’t have a lot of comments as a result (though I have some you can read at the end). I think this submission demonstrates what a tight, well-written, historically authentic first page should look like!

THE HEIGHTS OF VALOR

Platteville, Wisconsin

April 26, 1898

The white-haired man behind the desk threw the newspaper down on the blotter. “It is completely out of the question,” Jeremiah Dawson sat back in the leather chair and stroked his beard. “The semester is not yet over. If you fail to complete the term, you shall not graduate with your class next year.”

The well-built young man sitting in front of his elder responded with a sober nod. “I am aware of that, Father. After my service in Cuba, I can return to the campus and take my final examinations. I have spoken to my professors. My standing in the class has earned me some measure of…leeway, let’s call it.”

“Charles, I–”

The young man leaned forward. “If you’re concerned about me delaying my joining the firm, rest assured, Father, I have every intention of coming back here once I complete law school. When the new century dawns, I will be here, at your right hand. Just as you and Mother planned all these years.” He sat back, crossed his legs and joined his hands. “I know that was her wish, God rest her soul.”

“It was most certainly not her wish for her only son to become cannon fodder.” The older man frowned, then stood, boosting himself up with a hand on the heavy oak desk. He reached for a cane. “You have no idea,” he whispered, shaking his head. He walked to the display case on the far wall of the office, unable to hide his limp. Pausing before the case, he placed a hand on it. “Son, war is not a lark. It is not…it is not some grand adventure.”

The young man stood, tugged at his waistcoat, and strode confidently to his father’s side. He moved with the easy grace of an athlete, and indeed he was one of the best boxers at the University of Wisconsin. He’d also taken up polo, further developing the horsemanship skills he’d honed riding through the ridges and valleys of Grant County. Fully three inches taller than his father, he stood next to the old man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I understand that, Father,” he said. “Truly, I do.”

“That is not possible. You have not seen the elephant.” He flipped the latch and raised the glass lid. Reverently, he reached down and touched the old sword that rested on the red velvet. “If it is glory and adventure you desire, Cuba is the last place you shall find it.”

Comments

I think this is a great first page. The conversation between Charles and his father has a nice balance of tension, affection, and drama when it comes to why Charles wants to go serve in Cuba. I found this first page compelling and I would certainly continue reading. Even after just one page I have a good sense of the relationship between father and son, their expectations, and the conflict between them. I can already visualize both characters and have an understanding of who they are and what motivates them. Without having a whole lot of historical information, there’s just enough provided to set the scene and the dialogue and descriptions provided feel authentic for the time period.

If I was to be nitpicky I might say there were just a tad too many adjectives and description for Charles but that really didn’t bother me (although I was wondering if the writer meant ‘somber’ nod as opposed to ‘sober’ nod). I wasn’t totally sure about the reference to the elephant (seemed a strange nickname for a sword) but again, that didn’t bother me. Overall, I think this first page is tightly written and compelling. Bravo, to our brave submitter!

So TKZers, what comments or advice would you provide?

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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?

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What Genre Intimidates You?

Some writers have told me they find the prospect of writing historical fiction intimidating and this got me thinking about what, if any, genre, I would be reluctant to tackle. As a historical fiction writer, I understand that writing a novel set in a different time period to our own can be a formidable prospect. However, for me, the historical context for a novel helps provide a solid footing as well as a necessary framework for my story to develop. In many ways, writing about history is far less daunting than the present:)

Almost all of my story ideas spring initially from a historical incident or person (or, as with my latest WIPs, a ‘what if’ alternative history scenario). There’s literally no aspect of historical research that I don’t enjoy – from delving into primary sources to get a sense of life during the period, to reading secondary sources about the events of the period, to looking up (endless) historical details relating to things like fashion, architecture, furniture, food and even language (I use an online historical thesaurus which is so much fun!). I do recognize, however, that anyone contemplating writing historical fiction has to add a much greater research burden to their process. For me, this research is a critical part of finding the voice for any novel – with the specifics of time and place adding an additional dimension to everything I write. I totally understand, however, that tackling a historical novel is not for the faint of heart – but then that could be said for writing any novel! For me, the prospect of writing a contemporary novel is far more daunting than any historical novel (even one set in a period I know nothing about!). The most ‘contemporary’ period I’ve contemplated writing about is the 1980s:)

So what genres do I find more intimidating than writing a contemporary novel? Well, I feel pretty comfortable about facing the challenge of writing a romance, sci-fi or fantasy novel…but horror or erotica? Hmmm…not so much. I doubt that I’d be able to pull off a horror novel or even a really disturbing thriller…unless it was historical. Then, for some reason, I think I’d be able to go dark (though how dark my dark would be is debatable!). As for erotica, well anytime I’ve tried to write a graphic sex scenes I’ve made myself laugh… I find it hard to get inspiration to write these novels, many people have recommended watching a fullhdxxx video but I’m yet to watch any! If I’m honest I doubt I’ll ever make a successful erotica novelist!

In general, I feel pretty open to writing whatever I feel passionate about – even if the prospect intimidates me – but I think deep down I recognize that there’s something about history – something about grounding myself in a different time and place that informs my creative process. What about you, TKZers? Are there any genres that intimidate you?

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First Page Critique: Historical Thriller

Today we have a historical legal thriller to examine as part of our regular first page critiques. Sometimes historical fiction can be intimidating – especially when (as is the case in this first page) we are unfamiliar with the period or location in question. My goal as a historical fiction writer is to provide a story which helps overcome that initial uncertainty through: 1) a well established sense of place and time; 2) an authentic, period appropriate voice; and 3) a sensory evocation of the period that helps immerse a reader in that place and time. In addition to these three goals, I also hope to provide a rich layer of drama and intrigue, characterization and plot (…pretty much what we hope for in most novels!). Luckily, I think today’s first page manages to establish a pretty good foundation to achieve all these goals. Kudos to our brave submitter and read on. My specific comments follow.

Title: In the Matter of Lucy

Genre: Historical Legal Thriller (1840s)

Chapter One

Narrative of Orlando B. Ficklin, Esq.

A law office is a dull, dry place.

Leastways, that’s what “Mr. H” told me on my first day as an apprentice.

God, but I could use some dull and dry right now. You wouldn’t believe what the people of a backwoods Illinois county can get up to in the way of shenanigans in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven. Lying, cheating, stealing, screwing, welching, divorcing – there seems no end to the vices of this hamlet. And the half of the them – and not always the better half – find their way to me.

This week has been a busy one for laying bare offenses, large and small. The circuit court is in town for the spring session. It’s a regular curia regis: Judge Hopkins and an itinerant band of attorneys traveling through the “realm,” arguing and dispensing justice, when they aren’t eating, smoking, drinking, whoring, and swearing. Our courthouse, such as it is, is a backroom of Deskin’s Tavern. It’s no unusual occurrence to find judge, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, and jurors at the same dining table.

Yesterday, I defended the Meisenhalter brothers.  David Adkins had sued them for slander. Once, for Levi calling Adkins a “damned pig thief,” and again for Robert calling him a “damned infamous pig thief.” Fortunately, the truth was our best defense: Adkins had, in fact, stolen five hogs a few years back in another county. The jury found for my clients and I got my own hog – rightfully earned – as compensation.

Today, I’m watching – and learning – from the master: Mr. Lincoln.  He’s representing Eliza Cabot in a slander case, one more titillating than my own with the Meisenhalter boys. Eliza is suing Frances Regnier for saying that Elijah Taylor was “after skin” and had got it with Eliza, that Taylor “rogered” Eliza, and that Elijah “has got some skin there as much as he wanted.”

Lincoln has just asked Taylor if he knows the difference between adultery and fornication. After some thought, Taylor answered: “Well, I’ve tried both…there’s no difference.”

The galley roars with laughter.

Despite the performance, I’m distracted.  My mind wanders to this morning’s “mail”: a rock, thrown through my office window, with the following note:

“Take on that damned ni – – er’s case, and I’ll see you in Hell.”

Specific Comments

My comments focus on the goals I identified above:

1) A well established sense of place and time

What I enjoyed about this first page is that I felt we immediately had a well established time (1847) and place (some small backwoods town in Illinois) without the need for any unnecessary data-dumps or overly long descriptions. I could easily envisage the setting without being given much in the way of description as the key elements were all there (the back room of Deskin’s Tavern for example and the two law cases that were highlighted with humorous specificity). This first page demonstrates that historical novels don’t need a huge amount of period description at the start – just enough to evoke the time and place and allow the reader to step into the scene quickly and easily.

2) An authentic, period appropriate voice

Overall I think the voice in this first page is strong and authentic. I had some minor quibbles with word choices (like ‘leastways’) but those were just personal preferences. The first person narrative is strong and humorous and the voice of Orlando Ficklin Esq. seems to be one that has enough interest to sustain the story. Given it is his narrative, I did wonder whether we needed the quotation marks around the words realm and mail – they seem to distract as other quotation marks are around other character’s actual speech/dialogue. I also wondered why the ‘n-word’ in the final line of the page was censored, as I assume the threatening note on the rock thrown through the window would not have been. I was also briefly taken out of the narrative by the term ‘rogering’ as I associate that more with British slang – I have no idea if this was used in the USA in the 1840s – but would just advise the author to double check all the words used to make sure they would have been in common usage at that time/place.

3) A sensory evocation of the period

Most often we associate ‘sensory evocation’ with descriptions involving sights, sounds and smells to evoke a historical scene. In this first page we don’t really get any description of what people are wearing or sensory based period details but I think we get enough in terms of scene setting with the snippets of conversations provided and the first person narrator’s view on the circuit court proceedings. I expect as the novel progresses more period details will be provided that will fill out the historical scene for the reader.

So far, at least for me, we have a solid basis for a story that I would be more than happy to continue reading. The last line also provides a great set up for the drama and intrigue that is to come. What do you think, TKZers?

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Empowering History?

In a recent lecture, Hilary Mantel, the bestselling author of the historical novel, Wolf Hall, berated her fellow female writers for what she considered ‘falsely empowering’ their female characters in their work. This lecture, detailed in an article by The Telegraph newspaper (see link here), raises an interesting issue for any historical fiction writer, or indeed any writer incorporating the social, political or economic landscape of a particular time or place. Characters, after all, must be viewed within a frame or context – even when that appears to weaken rather than empower them.

Mantel’s major concern is with some (unnamed) female writers who retrospectively make their female characters look stronger or more independent than they would have been during a particular historical period. “A good novelist,” she argues, “will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.” Fair enough – even though implicit within her statement is a criticism of predominantly female authors she obviously believe falsely attribute ’empowering’ characteristics upon their historical characters (even though I’m sure authors of both genders have been guilty of the same!). I also think Mantel’s criticism fails to address the expectations in the current book/publishing market and the demands for a more nuanced approached to historical fiction.

Many writers want to uncover forgotten voices in history – to give  a voice to people whose stories may not have been sufficiently examined in traditional historical textbooks or fiction. They also want to give readers a connection to these people – making them relatable as well as consistent with their time period. This can often be no easy task – as Mantel herself points out, many modern readers would find the beliefs and opinions of many historical figures unpalatable. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers shouldn’t be allowed to explore the commonalities that bind people together. No one, after all, would really want to immerse themselves in a world in which the characters have little or no redeeming features. Likewise, I think many women today would want to read historical fiction that relegate female characters to being weak, uninteresting or dull. In many ways it was the desire of readers to connect with female characters of the past that has created fiction that aims to have ’empowered’ female characters.

So how should a writer approach the delicate balancing act of appealing to modern readers, presenting an intriguing and relatable character, and yet remaining true to a historical period/place or social milieu? This is where Mantel could perhaps have been less strident and more forgiving of the challenges facing historical (as well as other fiction)  writers. With my own work, I know I want to portray strong characters even though I remain mindful of the social, political and economic constraints they would face during the time period I’ve chosen. To be honest, I’m not sure many editors would be interested in a completely ‘unempowered’ female character…it would certainly be a difficult book proposal to sell!

For me, history is not something that needs to be ‘revised’ in my fiction, but equally well, I want to explore the depths of my female characters that make them relatable to modern readers. I worry that Mantel’s view implies that somehow writers simply aren’t doing their homework even though the balancing act is a far more delicate one (in my opinion).

So TKZers, do you agree with Mantel that some writers have been guilty of falsely empowering their female historical characters? How do you approach the task of developing your characters against the context/landscape of their time period? If you are a reader of historical fiction, which do you value more, complete historical accuracy or characters who, despite the era, are still relatable?

 

 

 

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First Page Critique: Strangled by a Cloud

Welcome to this week’s first page critique – today we have the first page of a historical mystery/thriller entitled ‘Strangled by a Cloud’. As always, my comments follow.

Strangled by a Cloud

My part in the Tenant’s Harbor affair began on the last day of January in 1878. That morning I was at my usual station: peddling hand-penned calling cards in the lobby of one of Boston’s many hotels; this time it was Young’s, in the financial district. A dozen cards for a Harvard toff had already bought me a hearty breakfast; a dozen more – perhaps with some flourish – for a Court Street banker would carry me through the rest of the day.

As the clock and the thermometer waned and the clouds began to spit sleet, my mood soured:  I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah. To lighten my mood, I left the outer crust of the lobby and strode towards the warmth of the core – the front desk – where I was greeted with the welcome smile of my friend, Adam.

“Cold is it, Mr. Merryweather?” he asked

“As colde as eny froste,” I replied, in an ersatz Middle English tongue.

“Ah, Chaucer – very good, very good,” he said (Adam was also the hotel’s unofficial man of letters and always appreciated a well-placed quote from the Tales).

I pulled the hotel register at his hands my way.  Now and then I made a sport of guessing at the age, nationality, personality, or occupation of guests based on their handwriting. I traced my finger down the list of guests until I reached the name “Charles Goodword.”

“Now here’s a bad character, Adam,” I began. “I’m guessing a gambler by profession, maybe something worse…he’s about forty years old, broad-shouldered, perhaps five feet ten or eleven…stout…and mean.  You’ll want to be rid of him, and soon.”

“Mr. Merryweather, it’s remarkable!” Adam said, truly surprised.  “As to age and height and build, you are quite correct, sir, quite correct. But as to his character, you are very mistaken: he’s a clergyman, you know – here to preach for several weeks – the Benevolent Society for something-or-t’other is paying his board.”

“A clergyman, is he?” I asked, adding, “Well, he’s a thief to boot.  Humor me and send for him,” I said, handing him one of my cards.

Adam obliged and sent a valet to call on Mr. Goodword.  The valet returned swiftly, confirming that he had successfully delivered the card and invitation, with my compliments.

“You think he’ll come?” I asked Adam. He nodded in assent.  “We shall see,” I said, shaking my head. “We shall see.”

Overall Comments:

Overall this first page was cleanly executed with an initial voice and style emerging that I think is pretty engaging. It appears to be emulating a Sherlock Holmes detachment and narration which I think could work well. What it initially lacks, however, is a bit of ‘oomph’ to set our story in motion and build intrigue. It also teeters, I think, in terms of credibility (see my specific comments below), but overall with some editing this first page could be an effective one.

Here are my specific comments:

Credibility

I think in this first page we need more background regarding the main character, Mr. Merryweather, as I’m initially skeptical that a man who makes his living penning calling cards in hotel lobbies would be educated enough to quote Chaucer and have even peudo-expertise in handwriting analysis. I’m also a little doubtful that a front desk clerk would be even an unofficial ‘man of letters’ without a bit more background. I’d be more willing to believe all of this if we got a sense that either Merryweather is an educated man that has fallen on hard times or that he is deliberately masquerading as someone he isn’t. Likewise I need a little more to buy into the fact that Merryweather has uncanny, Holmesian powers of deduction based on viewing Mr. Goodword’s handwriting.

Oomph

I wanted a little more intrigue from this first page when it came to the set up re: Mr. Goodword. I was expecting the valet to discover his dead body! The pay off on the initial page wasn’t really there and I was also skeptical as to why a clergyman would be interested in meeting a man who penned calling cards (or why the main character thought if he sent the valet up with his card the clergyman would respond – to be honest I’m not sure I even believe a man who makes his living hand to mouth by making calling cards would present his own card to anyone).  I feel that on this initial page, more intrigue would set the story on a stronger footing and would entice readers to keep turning the page.

Minor editorial issues

There were a few moments where I was taken out of the story. The first was when the main character said ‘I take days like this personally, as have the thousands with my surname since the days of Noah’. I didn’t feel this reference worked, mainly because the name ‘Merryweather’ doesn’t exactly sound like a surname from biblical times. Perhaps a middle ages reference would be more appropriate but at the moment it sounds awkward. Likewise the reference to the ‘outer crust’ of the lobby sounds strange – even though I understand what the writer was trying to get at and how the main character moved to the ‘core’ of the lobby – It didn’t work for me in the context of this story. In addition, the clock and thermometer ‘waned’ didn’t seem quite the right expression either – as the clock ‘waning’ would surely mean going backwards if the numbers got smaller (?).

I also found it odd that Mr Merryweather would call Adam by his first name but Adam didn’t reciprocate, but called him the more formal ‘Mr Merryweather’ in return. I’m assuming they are on the same social level and know each other well enough (as Merryweather calls him a friend) so the formality of Adam’s response doesn’t seem to ring true.

Also when Adam says: ‘ But as to his character, you are very mistaken’,  I feel that this should be either ‘very much mistaken’ or just ‘mistaken’ (‘very mistaken’ sounds weird to me).

So TKZers, what comments do you have for our brave submitter today?

 

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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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