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Saturday, February 10

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Keep Reading This Historical Mystery?

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 we 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.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Two 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through February 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Will you want to keep reading?

2. Is there enough description?

3. Am I showing rather than telling?


Market/Genre: Historical Mystery

On to the diagnosis…



Original text:

Background: While set during WW1, it is a murder mystery which moves quickly from London to Cornwall. The murder takes place on The Night Riviera, the sleeper train that runs from Paddington Station to Penzance.

London, May 1917

I hurried down Pickering Street in the murky darkness. Up ahead, to my right, lived sweet old Mrs. Crumpet. I slowed my pace to check her windows. A slice of light was visible.

“Not again,” I sighed. I stomped up the brick steps of Number 14 and rapped sharply on the door with the handle of my umbrella. I really must be firm with her this time.

“Mrs. Crumpet?” I waited. “Mrs. Crumpet, it is Alberta.”

I heard dainty shuffling footsteps and the rattle of the old brass doorknob. The door opened just a tad. I could see an eyeball, a slice of a plaid print robe and the chain that held the door fast.

“Mrs. Crumpet you have a light showing again and your hall lamp is glowing like a flair.”

“Oh Alberta dear, I’m sorry. But please come in and have a cup of tea, I desperately need your help; it’s Peachy again.”

Mrs. Crumpet stepped back and shut the door in my face. I could hear her fiddle with the door chain. “Remember your hall light,” I called. The door opened and she let me into a tiny vestibule. The scent of dusty violets and cinnamon enveloped me as stepped in and I closed the door behind me. Mrs. Crumpet, standing on tiptoe like an aged ballerina, turned the gaslight back up.

“I’m sorry dear, for the lights, but I’ve been so frantic about Peachy. He has been gone for two days, ever since the last air raid. You know how loud noises drive him crazy.”

“But Mrs. Crumpet any bit of light is a beacon, we must be extremely vigilant. I must impress upon you the seriousness of the situation.” I went into the sitting room and adjusted the faded cretonne curtain.

“Yes dear,” Mrs. Crumpet said as she padded through the sitting room to the kitchen, “would you like a biscuit with your tea?”

My Thoughts in Purple:

London, May 1917

I hurried down Pickering Street in the murky darkness. Up ahead, to my right, lived sweet old Mrs. Crumpet. I slowed my pace [to check] tellish her windows. A slice of light was visible.

“Not again[,” I sighed.] Use a period, not a comma. “Sighed” isn’t a manner of speech I stomped up the brick steps of Number 14 and rapped sharply on the door with the handle of my umbrella. I really must be firm with her this time.

“Mrs. Crumpet?” I waited. “Mrs. Crumpet, it is Alberta.”

[I heard] tellish dainty shuffling footsteps and the rattle of the old brass doorknob. The door opened just a tad. [I could see] tellish an eyeball, a slice of a plaid print robe and the chain that held the door fast.

“Mrs. Crumpet you have a light showing again and your hall lamp is glowing like a flair.”

“Oh Alberta dear, I’m sorry. But please come in and have a cup of tea, I desperately need your help; it’s Peachy again.”

Mrs. Crumpet stepped back and shut the door in my face. [I could hear ] tellish her fiddle with the door chain. “Remember your hall light,” I called. The door opened and she let me into a tiny vestibule. The scent of dusty violets and cinnamon enveloped me as stepped in and I closed the door behind me. Mrs. Crumpet, [standing on tiptoe like an aged ballerina,] nice image turned the gaslight back up.

“I’m sorry dear, for the lights, but I’ve been so frantic about Peachy. He has been gone for two days, ever since the last air raid. You know how loud noises drive him crazy.” I assume this is a cat or dog, but it’s never stated. Also, a pet has gone missing and Alberta never responds or offers sympathy, which makes her feel a little cold

“But [Mrs. Crumpet] the repeated use of her name is feeling a bit repetitious any bit of light is a [beacon] to what? I know by the dates it’s WWI, stating it would help set the scene and show the stakes, we must be extremely vigilant. [I must impress upon you the seriousness of the situation.] This feels off, since this is what she’s doing overall. Perhaps a specific action? Such as, We can’t make ourselves a target or the like ” I went into the sitting room and adjusted the faded cretonne curtain.

“Yes dear,” Mrs. Crumpet said as she padded through the sitting room to the kitchen, “would you like a biscuit with your tea?”

The questions:

1. Will you want to keep reading?

This is a bit of a tough call (readers chime in here). There’s nothing hooking me yet, but I’m also not a reader of historical mysteries. Like fantasy, historicals often need a little more time to get to the conflict to allow for world building. It’s possible that the hook appears in the next few paragraphs. There is a pet missing, and the threat of an air raid, but I get the sense that this is normal and isn’t part of the conflict, or what will get Alberta to the conflict (the murder part).

I think what this is missing is a stronger goal from Alberta. She’s protecting the neighborhood by making sure the lights are off, but what else is going on in her life? Could you hint at how she’s going to wind up on the train with the murder? I’m looking for a sense of a forward plot movement, or a question readers might want to see answers. What is the problem or situation that Alberta is going to find herself in before long?

If she’s going to travel, perhaps she’s thinking about that and worrying over who will watch out for Mrs. Crumpet when she’s away. Or maybe she’s excited to go on an adventure. Something to show the anticipation of her somehow being on the train.

(Here’s more on hooking readers in three easy steps)

2. Is there enough description?

There was for me. Historicals often use more description to set the scene, so you could do more if you wanted to. The one thing I’m not getting is a sense of life during the war. London was bombed a lot, even by airships, which is a really cool detail to add. You might consider flavoring the scene with more of the war. For example:

A slice of light was visible. [You could add a sense of the trees or plants or what the house is built from to show old stone and English ivy. Or the results of bombings or fighting. What was this part of London like this close to the end of the war?]

…she let me into a tiny vestibule [An opportunity to show some furnishings or some hints of WWI life. What would folks living under the threat of air raids have right by the door?]

“would you like a biscuit with your tea?” [I’m not sure if there was rationing and whatnot in London in WWI, but a lack of common supplies could be another detail to slip in. This is toward the end of the war, so what were they out of then?]

A few words here and there is all you’d need. They’d be more background details, but they could add a nice flavor of the time period.

(Here’s more on adding descriptive details)

3. Am I showing rather than telling?

Mostly, yes. For the very picky, there are some filter words that you could edit out if you wanted to be tighter in her head.

to check her windows. [”to check” implies the intent to stop and look, it doesn’t show the action. “And checked” shows the action]

I heard dainty shuffling footsteps and the rattle of the old brass doorknob. [This explains what was heard. If you cut the filter word, you could show it like: Dainty footsteps shuffled closer, then the old brass doorknob rattled.

I could see an eyeball, a slice of a plaid print robe and the chain that held the door fast. [Same here. She’s stating what she could see, but here’s no sense of anything more than the basic detail. But it’s an opportunity to show personality, such as: Mrs. Crumpet’s good eye peered through the crack, as formidable as the chair holding the door fast.

I could hear her fiddle with the door chain. [Metal scrapped. Chain rattled. There are all sorts of specific words that show sounds with more flavor.]

I must impress upon you the seriousness of the situation. [This feels very 1917, but it’s also a summary of what she’s trying to do in the scene, so it feels a little redundant. It’s another opportunity to show how Alberta feels and why she’s trying so hard to get Mrs. Crumpet to take this seriously.]

None of these are terrible tells, and many people would have no problem with them. But they’re also just stating what’s there, not using the details to evoke mood or show character.

(Here’s more on filter words and the can hurt a scene)

Overall, I think this could work with just a little tweaking to add in the sense of things about to happen. The setting itself is rife with danger, and Alberta has opportunities to show her likability and why readers should read about her. It’s a scene that could work to endear Alberta to readers, so when she heads off for the train and the murder, they’re on board and eager to see the mystery solved. Give them just a few clues that something in brewing, and they’ll be happy to take the journey with Alberta.

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.

About the Critiquer

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook. Her Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series offer step-by-step guide to revising a novel. Her Skill Builders series includes Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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11 comments:

  1. To paraphrase Janice, I think this has a lot of atmosphere and conflict, and it mostly wants to organize the different conflicts that are going on.

    How immediate is the tension about air raids, compared to the missing pet (and Alberta does need to show some sympathy there; "kick the dog" is an expression for how coldness to animals instantly makes someone unlikable), and whatever hints are leading toward the murder? And how Alberta's own perspective aligns those: we don't know if she's a young woman who's Very Serious about her air warden duties and afraid she can't command respect from dotty old ladies, or if she's an older community leader who's used to this, or what other issues she has that make her a particular person we care about.

    I agree it would help to slip the word "airships" in; they're just cool, and it would further distinguish these WWI raids from the WWII Blitz that's so much more remembered.

    When Alberta keeps repeating Mrs. Crumpet's name, and says "impress upon you the seriousness," it has a great feel of someone struggling to make her listen and not sure how. You might build more on the sense of that, of alternating Alberta's inner frustration and struggle for the right words with Mrs. Crumpet's sweet but unaffected ways. (And you might replace more of the "Mrs. Crumpet"s in the narration if you have this reason to speak her name so much.)

    One other thing: you tend to let characters use names without commas around them: "But Mrs. Crumpet any bit of light..." If you say that aloud, you'll hear the pause that usually comes after the name, and often before it too. Those look more natural with commas there.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks so much, incredibly helpful suggestions.
      I will put them to good use.

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  2. I agree with everything said, I just wanted to hear her heels clicking or some sound at the beginning when she was hurrying to let me know if it was a female or male right off the bat. I hate reading and not knowing for paragraphs.

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  3. Seems like the start of a cozy. I often tell writers to read portions aloud; some find it helpful, others not sommuch.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  5. Small quibble: it's 'flare,' not 'flair.'

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  6. I love to read historicals and mysteries and would read more of this one. Yes! I hope the writer incorporates all the good suggestions and keeps going for it!
    Elva Cobb Martin www.elvamartin.com
    V-P ACFW-SC Chapter

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  7. Although I wanted to know what had happened to Peachy, I didn't feel hooked as I expect from a historical mystery. (I read mysteries and historicals but like to be hooked). However, the combination of the setting and the hinted mystery might make me continue reading a bit further.

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  8. I agree with some of the other comments. We need to know more about Alberta sooner.

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  9. Agreed with many comments above, but I was drawn in by the description and hint of things to come. Why was Alberta walking down Pickering Street so late? Was she a spy? A detective? Or just a helpful neighbor. I’d definitely keep reading!

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  10. I think Mrs. C. would not respond with tea and biscuits, but repeat her own concern for whatever Peachy is. Which could be used to show the MC that she's not being all that sympathetic... unless she is uncaring??
    But I read the except.

    ReplyDelete