Saturday, March 4

Real Life Diagnostics: Does This Historical Fiction Opening Work?

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

I’m using my opening scene as a typical moment in Aemilia’s life. I would like it to feel natural, while at the same time establishing Aemilia’s impulsive and idealistic personality, her strained relationship with her brother (who has been away for ten years), while at the same time playfully alluding to a confusing political situation.

I feel like I might be trying to do too much -- does this feel forced? Does it show enough context to make sense? Does this scene shed light on the type of person Aemilia starts out as? Does it hint at problems or issues to come? Is the mention of the political situation distracting or confusing?


Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: In 1810, the British army occupied the small Greek island of Kefalonia, a territory that for ten years had been passed back and forth between Venetian, French, Russian and Turkish forces. While most of the islanders have learned to juggle the political turmoil, Aemilia, a young, idealistic noblewoman, becomes convinced that the British are going to ruin her island. She plunges headfirst into a campaign to stop them. Opposing her is Philip, a British officer who has been sent by the King to sort out the mess. But Philip quickly finds himself torn between his duties as governor and his sympathy with the island’s independence movement, a conflict that comes to a head when he discovers a secret that could once-and-for-all rally the islanders’ cause.

“What do you mean, they won’t bury the body?”

The two men looked up, not the least surprised to see a small, dusty and very angry young woman climbing out of the veneered Latz armoire in the corner.

“That’s barbaric!”

Her father turned back to the papers on his desk. “It’s common practice, Aemilia. Not until the man pays the price of six candles.”

"Which costs, what, ten shillings?”

“Which the man does not have,” the Count explained patiently.

“And why not? The currant yield was good this year...”

“The yield was very good this year, but the market was not. We have lost the Venetian market and the French. The Tsar had no interest in trading for currants, and the Turks have their own supplies. Mr. Piccolomini cannot export his crop. With such a good yield, local merchants have been choosy and driven the price down. I doubt Picco is getting more than three shillings a barrel.”

“That hardly seems fair!”

“Fair has little to do with fair market economy, my dear.” Her father shrugged. “With the English coming in now, there will be a new market for our exports. Picco will recoup his losses by this time next year.”

“And in the interim? Surely the church will not wait until next year to bury his father? Or should Picco look to the English to sort that out, as well?”

Count Svorono sighed. Heavily. It was the sigh of a man long-resigned to having two grown children invade his study. A sigh that expressed his sympathy with the travails of young adulthood, his support for their growing struggles with independence, his understanding that two such intelligent, informed, concerned young people would have conflicts with the world.

It also expressed the desire for some peace and quiet. “In the interim, your brother has paid the fee. Picco will bury his father on Tuesday.”

Aemilia narrowed her eyes and glanced toward the window, where Martin stood, tall and inscrutable, watching their exchange impassively. Not for the first time she realized she did not know her brother at all.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“What do you mean, they won’t bury the body?”

The two men looked up, not the least surprised to see a small, dusty and [very angry young woman climbing out of the veneered Latz armoire in the corner.] You had me with this. Made me laugh it was so unexpected

[“That’s barbaric!”] perhaps tag this so it’s clear Aemilia is the one who speaks. Even a simple “she said” would clear it up

Her father turned back to the papers on his desk. “It’s common practice, Aemilia. Not until the man pays the price of six candles.” I love that he doesn’t even bat an eye at her popping out of the closet. Like this is just her and he’s used to it

"Which costs, what, ten shillings?”

“Which the man does not have,” the Count explained patiently.

“And why not? The currant yield was good this year...”

“The yield was very good this year, but the market was not. We have lost the Venetian market and the French. The Tsar had no interest in trading for currants, and the Turks have their own supplies. Mr. Piccolomini cannot export his crop. With such a good yield, local merchants have been choosy and driven the price down. I doubt Picco is getting more than three shillings a barrel.”

“That hardly seems fair!”

[“Fair has little to do with fair market economy, my dear.”] great line Her father shrugged. “With the English coming in now, there will be a new market for our exports. Picco will recoup his losses by this time next year.”

“And in the interim? Surely the church will not wait until next year to bury his father? Or should Picco look to the English to sort that out, as well?”

Count Svorono sighed. Heavily. It was the sigh of a man long-resigned to having two grown children invade his study. A sigh that expressed his sympathy with the travails of young adulthood, his support for their growing struggles with independence, his understanding that two such intelligent, informed, concerned young people would have conflicts with the world. Loving this guy

It also expressed the desire for some peace and quiet. [“In the interim, your brother has paid the fee. Picco will bury his father on Tuesday.”] It’s interesting that he waits so long to tell her. Like the lesson was for her, not the reader, and it fits

Aemilia narrowed her eyes and glanced toward the window, where Martin stood, tall and inscrutable, watching their exchange impassively. [Not for the first time she realized she did not know her brother at all.] This is interesting since he did a nice thing and she finds that surprising. There’s something between these two

The questions:

1. Does this feel forced?

No. The Count’s voice and attitude were captured nicely, so the infodump was slipped in naturally as if he was trying yet again to explain to his daughter the way the world worked and knew it was fruitless. This felt like a very normal part of their lives and one Dad is a little tired of. His reactions to her made it all seem commonplace. He really held the scene together.

(Here’s more on contrived and too-coincidental plots)

2. Does it show enough context to make sense?

In a general sense, yes (readers chime in here). I can see there’s trouble with the family business, Aemilia is passionate about helping Picco, and the Count feels the same way about the world as he does his children—they all need to grow up and get out of his house. I don’t yet know the bigger picture, but there’s enough her to make me want to see what happens next.

(Here’s more on context)

3. Does this scene shed light on the type of person Aemilia starts out as?

Yes. Her hiding in the armoire and popping out all indignant was a surprise and captured her personality rather quickly. She made me laugh, and seems like someone who stands up for the little guy, and has strong ideals about how things work. And she’s unconventional in how she approaches things.

(Here’s more on introducing characters)

4. Does it hint at problems or issues to come?

Yes. There’s plenty of inherent conflict in the world itself (the business, hints of politics), and there’s something going on with her and her brother for sure. There’s a general sense of things about to change in the entire scene that helps keep tensions tight and interests piqued.

(Here’s more on foreshadowing)

5. Is the mention of the political situation distracting or confusing?

I didn’t think so (readers chime in here). It’s a small slip that gets the idea across, but it’s not so much that I felt I was being lectured to. It fit with what the Count was saying and gave enough information to show problems, but not so much that I felt the entire situation was spelled out for me. Just the right amount to make me curious.

(Here’s more on backgrounding your world)

Overall, I enjoyed this and would read on. I think it works as an opening. Things are definitely in the works, there’s conflict on multiple levels, a great voice, a dash of humor, and characters I already like. I’m loving the Count and would read on just to see how he handles his children.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

9 comments:

  1. This was absolutely delightful! Engaging, funny, excellent characterization. Truly wonderful!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really enjoyed it, and I would continue reading, but something in your POV keeps me confused. Whose POV this is? What kind of POV?

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  3. It really was a delight.

    (And I hope that "background" paragraph isn't in the actual scene. The rest is so juicy it would be worth a hard look at how that setup block could be trimmed and re-framed so it's as little a barrier as possible. Or, if this scene is an example of how good you are at explaining as you go, I'd lay odds you don't need the paragraph at all. Any opening line with "the body" deserves to be the top thing on the page!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. I agree that the POV threw me off. i.e.
    The two men looked up, not the least surprised
    then we have the paragraph in the father's POV
    then we have
    Not for the first time she realized she did not know her brother at all.

    Also, although I enjoyed this snippet, I wondered if there was another vessel for the girl besides the one used in prior books from other authors.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Denise McInerneyMar 4, 2017, 12:17:00 PM

    This is creative and fresh! Although I prefer one POV per scene, I would keep on reading.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I guess I'm the dissenting opinion here.

    I didn't like this. What on earth is she doing hanging around in a closet? How can anyone take her seriously when she's acting like Dennis the Menace?

    I also had a hard time visualizing the scene. She pops out of a closet, then two men look at her. Oh wait Dad is sitting at his desk. Oh wait, Marcus is by a window. Aemelia also feels like a talking head in this scene, but Janice's suggestion to tag her should help.

    What POV is this in? It reads like we're in the Count's POV to begin with, then "she realized" jumps us over to her.

    Finally, the ending line for me felt like a big HEY LOOK THIS IS IMPORTANT HEY HEY PAY ATTENTION TO ME HEY LISTEN. Its such an overblown reaction for something simple. If you had told me Marcus killed the guy and is now paying for the funeral, that would reaction would feel appropriate. But as is, that line plus popping out of the closet makes Aemilia feel melodramatic to me.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I am thankful for the background paragraph, which grounded me in the story setting and did not intrude disproportionately. Without it, I would have been as confused as 'Anonymous.' I vote to leave it in.
    The paragraph beginning "The yield was very ..." confused me some. The first sentence was enough for me at this point in the story.
    The double negative in the last sentence forced me to read it twice to make sure I understood it.
    You weaved all your stated goals naturally and believably. I understand the family relationship and the political situation, and I am intrigued by the hints of future problems.
    Great opening.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was a bit surprised to run into omniscient POV (nothing else explains what's known here). It's less common these days, so that explains the startled comments above. I'm not a big fan of the POV, but am familiar with it. My other criticism are the places where who's speaking becomes confused. Either tags are called for, which would fit well with this POV, or attached the confusing lines to that person's actions.

    Aside from those two points I have nothing put praise. The characters—especially Aemilia—are wonderful. The political background is skillfully inserted, and done in such a way as to aid the tension. Aemilia jumps off the page from the start (and her entrance) and carries the scene away without looking back. This is a springboard-like opening and works well. Excellent.

    ReplyDelete
  9. TO me, I didn't like the first line because I wasn't grounded in the scene at all. I had no idea what was happening. (I didn't read the background because I want the story to show it to me.) I also thought there was an information overload--like you were trying real hard to get all this info in right away. So yes, I'd say it feels forced and I need more context-setting up. Hope that's helpful. It's so hard to do!!

    ReplyDelete