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Saturday, August 14, 2021

WIP Diagnostic: Is This Working? A Closer Look at a Historical Fiction First Page

Critique by Maria D'Marco

WIP 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 WIP Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines. 

Submissions currently in the queue: Six

Please Note: As of today, critique slots are booked through September 25.

This week’s question:

Does this opening scene work?

Market/Genre: Historical Fiction

On to the diagnosis…
 
Original Text:

NEW YORK CITY, SUMMER 1904

His only son newly dead, Will Sherman had grieved from Wyoming to New York, unaware that his destiny this trip was to return with a wild boy locked up in a place called The Tombs.

That early August afternoon found Sherman shouldering his way out of a steamy subway tunnel on Twenty-Third Street where he stopped on the hot sidewalk to gaze at the rash of trolleys, trucks and horse cabs trundling up Broadway. He mopped his face with a black bandanna, pinched the crown of his flat-brimmed Stetson, clapped it to his head and squared it. He ambled off toward his sister’s apartment along tree-lined Irving Place Boulevard, ignorant of what was lying in wait

Accustomed to making even short journeys on horseback, Will began sweating heavily about twenty minutes into his walk. The heavy, damp air made breathing a chore. His head throbbed and the hand-tooled saddle boots he bought on the recent stopover in Cheyenne had raised blisters like white grapes on his heels and ankles. He hobbled over to an iron bench in a secluded, shady corner of Gramercy Park and eased himself down. He slung off his stiff boots, letting air get at his stinging, swollen feet and sighed heavily.

He couldn’t recall a time when his head had hurt so. It started on him in the oppressive heat of that damn subway and only got worse with the endless clatter of hansom cabs and the chug of motorcars flitting about. He was beginning to wonder if this trip was—

“Gimmie yer money. Quick.”

Will, bent over, resting his chin in his hands, heard the voice at the moment he saw the tips of the shabby brogans. The sole of one shoe flopped loose, the other’s laces were untied. He sat back and looked up into the face of a boy whose rumpled, outsized clothes at first made him look smaller than he was. A fresh-faced kid, muscular. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. His hair, the texture of new rope, was dark russet. It frizzed out wildly from beneath the visor of the tattered wool cap overhanging his forehead and half hid the eyes. The outlandish look of the unruly hair and cap touched Will. He started to smile. Then he saw the glint of the knife blade in the kid’s right hand.

My Thoughts in Blue:

NEW YORK CITY, SUMMER 1904

His only son newly dead, Will Sherman had grieved from Wyoming to New York, unaware that his destiny this trip [is this trip special?] was to return with a wild boy locked up in a place called The Tombs. [this is fun]

That early August afternoon found [this feels like material is missing] Sherman shouldering his way out of a steamy subway tunnel on Twenty-Third Street where he stopped on the hot sidewalk to gaze at the rash of trolleys, trucks and horse cabs trundling up Broadway. He mopped his face with a black bandanna, pinched the crown of his flat-brimmed Stetson, clapped it to his head and squared it. He ambled off toward his sister’s apartment along tree-lined Irving Place Boulevard, ignorant of what was lying in wait. [he’s been unaware and is now ignorant – surprise has been shot and mounted on the wall]

Accustomed to making even short journeys on horseback, Will began sweating heavily about twenty minutes into his walk. The heavy, damp air made breathing a chore. His head throbbed and the hand-tooled saddle boots he bought on the recent stopover in Cheyenne had raised blisters like white grapes [this makes me think he’s already seen them, but boots aren’t off yet] on his heels and ankles. He hobbled over to an iron bench in a secluded, shady corner of Gramercy Park and eased himself down. He slung [this makes me think of throwing, perhaps wrenched or eased?] off his stiff boots, letting air get at his stinging, swollen feet and sighed heavily.

He couldn’t recall a time when his head had hurt so. It started on him in the oppressive heat of that damn subway and only got worse with the endless clatter of hansom cabs and the chug of motorcars flitting about. He was beginning to wonder if this trip was— [well done]

“Gimmie yer money. Quick.”

Will, bent over, resting his chin in his hands, [sounds like Will bent over, then rested his chin in his hands…] heard the voice at the moment he saw the tips of the shabby brogans. The sole of one shoe flopped loose, the other’s laces were untied. He sat back and looked up into the face of a boy whose rumpled, outsized clothes at first [don’t think this qualifier adds anything] made him look smaller than he was. A fresh-faced kid, muscular. Seventeen, maybe eighteen. His hair, the texture of new rope, [love this phrase but it’s tough to imagine] was dark russet. It frizzed out wildly from beneath the visor of [this is too much] the tattered wool cap overhanging over his forehead and half hiding the his eyes.

The outlandish look of the unruly hair and cap touched Will. He started to smile. Then he saw the glint of the knife blade in the kid’s right hand.

The Question:

1. Does the opening scene work?


I will say: yes, overall. (readers chime in please) However, it also puts me in mind of a stew that needs a bit more stirring and cooking. It’s fresh and appealing, but everything isn’t quite blending yet.

The opening sentence reads as a set-up to me, more in the manner of a logline or back cover blurb, yet it did invite me in. However, I also wondered if there was a ‘destiny’ attached to every trip Will had made – or would make – or if it was just this particular trip. Way too much room to speculate over the structure of the sentence and to divest focus. Assumption is that the death of the son and Will grieving the entire trip is the big deal, but instead, focus is shunted over to the trip itself.

The next paragraph opens without the benefit of a preceding or current paragraph transition taking readers from the train (assumed) into the city (also assumed as New York), so it’s a bit jarring.

(Here’s more with Moving Forward: Writing Smooth Transitions)  

Then, the use of the character’s last name made me do a stop-n-check, as I had tucked away Will, but not Sherman. Being a father who had just lost his son, my first feelings for this character were softer, more sympathetic. Instinctively, I expected his first name to be used in the narrative because I had established emotional ties to him.

The use of the last name of a character, sans any previous descriptions or info, might frame the character in a more distant way, possibly even aging them. The use of the first name in this case might frame the character in a more intimate way, possibly making them more youthful and/or emotional. I mention this only because the presentation of a character can surf on each reader’s personal impressions, which can then color how they interpret the scene and, ultimately, the story you’re trying to pull them into.

This paragraph quickly establishes New York city as the location (23rd and Broadway) and the description of the various modes of travel shows the burgeoning and fluctuating state of transportation in that era. The environment is well defined as bustling, hot and humid. I might suggest breaking up that longer sentence about emerging from the subway just to keep things cleaner. I love the kerchief and hat lines but would suggest starting with: Mopping his face with a black bandanna, he pinched…, which would allow the several steps necessary for ‘righting’ his Stetson to emphasize that there is purpose to every step. Every hat wearer has their own hat ritual. I appreciated this touch.

The last sentence made me sigh – due to the ending. Yes, okay. He’s unaware and now ignorant because --- dun dun duhhhhhhhhhhh --- something is going to happen! By the time it happens, I won’t care. This probably sounds harsh, but readers aren’t new to storytelling, and they love to be surprised. It’s okay not to warn them – repeatedly. *grin*

(Here’s more with Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?)

The other issue with warnings is that the author is setting up reader expectations, demanding they be on the alert, which means they better fork over something stunning to meet those expectations.

The next paragraph establishes that things are heavy. Kidding. We now have narration using Will, which feels better, but also prompts the need for consistency.

We follow Will, who is used to riding a horse for even short distances, which made me wonder how far it is to his sister’s apartment. He’s miserable within 20 minutes of walking since he hasn’t broken in his new boots, obtained in Cheyenne. This created a conundrum for me, as if he took the train from WY to NY, Cheyenne would be an odd stop off. Omaha would be more likely, as it was a big rail hub, and the end of the westbound leg of the Transcontinental Railway. (was also a large retail location, probably full of boot sellers) Sound like a silly observation? Nope. Historical fiction buffs love historical details that are practical or logical.

I love the white grapes description but needed it as a description of what was observed, not assumed. I also wondered if he was wearing socks… This micro-bit might be more effective if he sat, got the boots off, then observed the blisters. He could also then lament his headache and lower his head into his hands. At which point, the rope-haired robber arrives.

This scene works, you have all you need in this paragraph to set up the encounter, it just needs to be shuffled a bit to build to the position you need Will to be in, prior to the encounter. Once you establish that Will is bent over, chin (head?) in hands, the next paragraph perfectly sets up the dialogue interruption.

I’ll say that by this point, I will not pause to consider turning the page. I’m already involved and wanting to read on – and the robbery attempt hasn’t even happened yet…

From the paragraph prior to the line of dialogue to the end of this snippet, I gallop-read. The flavor created reading comfort. The actions made sense and the final sentence (which I suggest be standalone on the next line) is perfect. I can feel and sense this initial confrontation and the potential encounter to come – in the next few seconds.

So, like I said earlier, this is like a stew – all the ingredients are there, the flavors are beginning to blend and enhance the whole. You just need to work in some transitions, a few shifts of information, and the consistency of uses.

Keep in mind as well that this opening hasn’t fully established Will Sherman (age, etc.) yet, so add that to your adjustments. This doesn’t have to be the police line-up recounting, just small things (again) that influence how readers imagine this character. Gnarled hands. Streak of white in a mustache. Lean, tall, wiry, loose gaited, big feet, long stride, fitted leather vest, duster, etc, etc.

(Here’s more with Have You Met Ted? Introducing Characters)

And always: have fun with reworking this – you’ve got a great start and as a historical fiction fan, I’d love to see where this story goes!

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

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

6 comments:

  1. I like the general feel of the opening and where it is taking us. I give writers a lot of credit that work in the historical genre as there is so much to keep straight. I was pulled out of the scene when he walked up from the subway. Much to my surprise (and embarrassment since I'm a born New Yorker) the subway was around in 1904 - but not until October -At 2:35 on the afternoon of October 27, 1904, New York City Mayor George McClellan takes the controls on the inaugural run of the city’s innovative new rapid transit system: the subway.

    This will need to be addressed by moving the month or the means of transportation. Quite frankly, for me, the subway took me out of the moment because everything seemed so old and so true. I would consider only leaving it in there if it is relevant to the story- perhaps that is the tombs?

    Small point but I would decide whether to call him Will or Sherman - rather than flip flopping between the two.

    Thinking about the kid - 17 or 18 was no longer "a kid" in 1904. They really were men at that time- so I'm wondering if that is the right age for this "kid" - I like his description, although I am not sure "fresh-faced" goes with the rest of the description. Going back to his age - if a 17/18 year old has a knife - it's a totally different thing than an 11/12 year old. One is downright dangerous - the other is a wayward child.

    I also want to see the awe of coming from Wyoming to NYC - can you imagine the difference - the tall buildings, the crowds of people, the smells. Here is where they New York Historical Society can be of help as they have wonderful newspapers and articles of this time that can really help you pain the picture of 1904 NYC and let your reader feel the experience of the time. I would also suggest reading TIME AND AGAIN - a simply wonderful historical novel with lots of great descriptions.

    Lastly, I want a test of what Will wants. Does he want his son back? Does he see this kid replacing his son? But what is the obstacle that is going to keep Will from getting what he wants? -

    Lots to work with and definitely good bones. Good luck!

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  2. Thanks for submitting this piece. Historical fiction is my favorite. I had a couple strong first impressions: 1) as a reader, I felt the author took away the element of surprise by telegraphing too much (unaware that his destiny this trip was to...) and "ignorant of what was lying in wait". I don't want to be told that, I want to watch it unfold before my eyes. 2) While it doesn't happen each time I read a 1st page critique, here I had a very strong impression that the start should be the "Gimmie yer money. Quick". From there, you can introduce this Wyoming man with his new boots off, s stark contrast to his NY surroundings, and let the story develop from there.

    And I felt like I had a little insider information (dancing in my chair) because I've read Victoria Thompson's Gaslight Mysteries and I knew what The Tombs were. 8-) Whether the reader knows what they are or not, they do serve to make you sit up and pay attention.

    But I really did get the sense that starting the story later with the imminent threat would flow better, and let Will's Wyoming come out as he deals with that threat and the story unfolds, would be cool.

    I loved the visual given by the character feeling blisters like white grapes.

    This sounds like a story I'd love to read.

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  3. This is a good path for an opening to go in, from a character to details to an incident with a knife. What I'm wondering here is how much detail you want on the way, and how to use it.

    And the details here are mostly the point. You give us the heat of the air, several steps about Sherman putting his hat on, the crowd, the blisters... we're near the end of the section before "anything happens." That's the kind of slow introduction that should only happen because you've studied your genre and how it's written today (not just the last generation's classics) and confirm that that pace works.

    If it does... the details could still do more for us. What you show about Sherman is mostly that he's a Western man unsuited to city air and walks. What do we *really* need to know about him from the start? Is he a crusty misanthrope with a hint of a heart of gold, or down on his luck and desperate for his big break? Those are just a couple of examples, but anything like this could completely change how we see the scenes ahead, and that's what an introduction should do.

    You give us the opening line about losing his son and the "wild boy" ahead... but then you back away from telling us much except about his painful walk. That's a risky, understated way to use your first pages, and it would work only if the mugging promptly gives us a real eye-opener about who Sherman is and what's ahead. (Movies do this a lot, but that's because they *don't have* as many ways to show character, so they fall back on "Watch the cowboy ride in... okay, now we'll answer those questions you built up.")

    Or if you don't want Sherman to be a cipher for most of this section, you can look for ways to show some basics about him first. What simple thought does he have about why he's here (we still don't know why) and what spin does he put on that? Does he make any choices as he walks, besides stopping for his feet, that can stand in for a sense of who he is? What does he notice in the busy city?

    A walk down the street can be more about the person walking than the street. Or it can be just about the street, if you're sure that's enough.

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  4. I had a problem with the first sentence, which I had to read several times before it made sense to me. Then I realized it was just a matter of verb tense.

    The story starts with past tense when talking of Will's journey, but when it switches to the boy, we're suddenly in present tense with "a wild boy locked up in a place called The Tombs."

    Assuming it's the same boy with a knife, I believe it should read "who had been" locked up. Or possibly, if the boy goes to prison for accosting Will, the future tense might work. If I'm misinterpreting, and it's another boy, I think "who was locked up" would get the idea across that the kid is in the same past time as the MC.

    Once I sorted that out and read on, I was drawn into the character of Will as well as into the story. I would definitely continue reading to see how things come together.

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  6. I have to say I also found the first sentence confusing. I've read it five times and I'm still not sure what it means! As well as the tense issue Giff McShane pointed out, it's also in a different viewpoint to most of the rest of the text. But mainly I don't understand how someone can return with someone else while that person is locked up in what sounds like a separate location. (It also kills the novel's tension because we know Will isn't in any danger - for example, he must survive this guy-with-knife encounter in order to return home, so why worry about him?) You might be better off starting further down the page.

    I really liked your writing here. There was some great imagery: blisters like grapes! I felt the hustle and bustle and the heat, and got a great sense of Will as a country man in the big city.

    One improvement you can make that will fix a lot of the issues Maria pointed out will be choosing a viewpoint and sticking with it. At the moment you're wavering between omniscient (telling us things Will can't know, like what's about to happen to him and what his blisters look like before he sees them), distant third person (staying with Will but using qualifiers to distance the reader from Will: he heard, he saw, he was touched), and close third (we directly experience Will's thoughts, e.g. when he describes the "boy"). These viewpoints all have different advantages and disadvantages. But if you want us to feel tightly grounded in Will's reality, you'd be better off with close third. This means (gulp!) cutting out the ominous foreshadowing, and giving us his impressions first hand rather than telling us what they are. So instead of saying "The outlandish look of the unruly hair and cap touched Will. He started to smile. Then he saw the glint of the knife blade in the kid’s right hand." you'd narrate it as Will sees it: "The kid was outlandish: unruly hair, cap on skew-whiff. Will got the urge to straighten the kid's clothes, like he would have for his son. He smiled. Then there was a knife glinting in the kid's hand." (I've taken liberties guessing what it was about the kid that touched Will!) You can use this close perspective to better show off Will's character and how he sees the world - and make the surprises surprising. But if you prefer omniscient perspective because it's essential to the story for the reader to know things Will doesn't, that's another legit choice.

    Hope that's helpful. I really enjoyed reading this, and would have read on if there had been more. All the best with it!

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