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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Journeys into the Past

Not too long ago, my husband learned that his great grandfather had travelled the Trans-Siberian railway at the turn of the last century (just before the Tsar was deposed by the Russian Revolution) to observe birds who made the arduous journey from Russia to Australia as they migrated each year. As a writer of historical fiction, I can only imagine what it must have been like to make this journey at such a pivotal time in Russian history. Not only do I wish I had met Tim’s great grandfather, or that someone had recorded his memories (no one did, unfortunately), but that I also somehow had the ability to go back in time and experience a journey such as this first-hand.

Anyone who’s read my books, knows that I think the early 20th century would have been a fascinating era to live through. On the cusp of what we would consider a ‘modern’ way of life, you would have been able to witness the end of the ‘Belle Epoque’ and the dawn of an era that was both transformative as well as tragic (at the time you could never have  imagined the tragedy of two world wars). When I write I try to immerse myself in first hand accounts so I can get the full sensory experience – but those (obviously) cannot compare to actually living through it.

Part of why I love writing historical books is the opportunity to vicariously experience history and I have an exceptionally long list of ‘journeys’ from history I would have loved to have witnessed/been a part of. These include traveling the Trans-Siberian railway in the early 1900s. I would also love to enjoy the luxury of a first-class ocean liner voyage from England to America in the 1910s (though not aboard the Titanic, obviously!). A train journey across India at this time would have also been fascinating.

Even if you don’t write historical fiction I’m sure most of you have dreamed of taking some voyage in the past – something that captured your imagination – something that would have been so unlike the travel we undertake today. So TKZers, if you had the chance to go back in time and make a journey, what kind of journey would that be and why?

 

 

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Three Tips For Writing Historical Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of the challenges of writing contemporary thrillers is that technology and forensics are always changing. Something you write about this year can be dated the next. I remember a thriller that came out some years ago, from a big name, utilizing the amazing technology of a cell phone that could take pictures!

How quaint. That book now reads like one of those 1940s movies where reporters rush to pay phones to get a scoop to the office.

With historical fiction, though, that’s not an issue. Everything is fixed. You can take your time with the research because you don’t have to beat the clock.

Which is why I enjoyed writing about a young female lawyer in old Los Angeles. Six books in the Kit Shannon series, originally for the leading publisher of Christian historical fiction, Bethany House.

When that series was almost done, Carol Johnson, who was in charge of fiction at Bethany House, asked me if I’d consider writing a long, historical stand-alone for them. I was up for it, for I had long wanted to try writing one of those John Jakes-type historical novels. I also wanted to cover an era I felt was under-represented, World War I and the early 1920s in Hollywood.

Which is how Glimpses of Paradise was born.

glimpses-front-1

The novel follows the fortunes of two high school kids from Nebraska. Doyle Lawrence is the scion of one of town’s wealthiest families. Zee Miller is a preacher’s kid from the poorer section. But she has a spirit and zest for living that draws Doyle to her, much to the consternation of his father.

From there the narrative tracks Doyle to the battlefields of World War I, and Zee to the glitter factory of Hollywood. And a stunning series of events that brings these two together again, both with innocence lost.

Glimpses of Paradise is the longest novel I’ve ever written, at 130,000 words. I absolutely lost myself in the research. Countless hours spent at L.A.’s central library, delving into first-hand accounts of World War I (a section of the book I’m particularly proud of, since my great uncle, a Marine, was killed at Belleau Wood in 1918) and soaking myself in the newspapers of the time. I have three big binders full of my research notes, copies of newspaper stories, maps, photos. (If you want to know what corned beef cost in 1921, I’m your man.)

The result was a novel that was a finalist for the Christy Award in Historical Fiction, and one of my personal favorites. There’s even a cameo appearance by Kit Shannon, still practicing law in Los Angeles. You can pick it up from these retailers:

AMAZON

AMAZON INTERNATIONAL STORES

If you would like a PRINT copy, I have a limited number of the original Bethany House edition. If you’d like one for $10 (free shipping in the U.S.), send an email to compendiumpress [at] yahoo [dot] com and we’ll tell you what to do.

So (doffing my cap to our resident historical fiction maven, Clare Langley-Hawthorne), I offer these three observations about writing historical fiction:

  1. It’s still about characters

The fundamentals of storytelling don’t change just because you write about a certain place and time. You still need to bond reader with characters, and put those characters into a life-altering struggle that requires strength of will to overcome.

  1. Make the setting itself a character

Don’t just render a historical setting accurately. Use that setting and the particulars of the time as a source of challenge and conflict for the characters. In Glimpses, for example, I try to capture what it was like for people struggling in the post-war depression in a city known for its glamour. I put the characters in challenging places to live, and in diners where they try to score some cheap food, etc.

  1. Weave research in seamlessly

Historical fiction writers love research. You can get lost in it. Every new discovery suggests a myriad of plot points. The great task is deciding what to leave out. And then taking what’s left and weaving it into the narrative so it doesn’t stick out like a neon sign announcing what a great researcher you are. The trick here is to start with a scene that has a clear POV character with a clear objective. Then brainstorm obstacles and helps to the character from the store of historical details. Use them in the conflict, don’t just list them for the reader.

Anything you historical fiction writers would like to add?

And if you’re a reader, what’s your take on historical fiction? There is always an ebb and flow in the market for historicals, but I contend that a well-written historical novel will always find readers to please.

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