Today I welcome Marie Savage to The Book Binder’s Daughter who is writing about her new book Oracles of Delphi and her process of beginning an historical fiction novel. I invite you to read her interesting guest post, enter to win your own copy of her book and visit the other stops on the tour.
Great beginnings: Setting the historical scene to keep the reader turning the pages
As a writer, editor, publisher, and avid reader, I think a lot about how to draw a reader into a story and keep them turning the pages. All good stories must have a powerful beginning that not only hooks the reader immediately, but also sets the mood and gives tantalizing clues about what is to come. In historical fiction, the beginning has to do even more work—it has to transport the reader to a time and place that may be completely unfamiliar.
There are many ways to grab a reader from the very first line and first paragraphs, and in writing ORACLES OF DELPHI, set in 340 BCE, I think I tried them all before I got it “right.” I probably rewrote the first chapter fifty times, and that’s no exaggeration. Ultimately, I believe, a successful beginning boils down to a deft use of tension and in ORACLES, the first paragraph plunges the reader directly into the story, gives a sense of the time period, and sets up the tension between two characters:
Nikos’s heart pounded against his rib cage like a siege engine. He pressed his back into the stone wall, closed his eyes, and tried to calm his breathing. He couldn’t believe he’d been such a fool. “Next time I’ll surrender the prize,” Charis had always promised. Next time he would claim it, he always hoped. But instead….
He pulled himself to the top of the wall and lay flat. The moment of escape calmed him. The gates of the Sacred Precinct were locked, and he’d had to climb out the same way he’d climbed in. On the way out, though, he wasn’t carrying a body.
He glanced to his side, toward the theater, and then down to the Temple of Apollon where he’d left Charis’s body for the priests to find. Stars winked in and out as clouds drifted across the black dome blanketing the night sky. He crouched, reached for a nearby branch, and swung down to land on the ground with a soft thud.
Does it work? With references to the siege engine, the Sacred Precinct, and the Temple of Apollon, does it put you in the scene and in the time period? Will it keep you reading? I hope so. Here’s one of my favorite beginnings, this one by Deborah Lincoln whose book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, I edited and published.
Agnes Canon saw a woman hanged on the way to the Pittsburgh docks. The rope snapped taut, and a hiss rose from the watching crowd like steam from a train engine. The woman dangled, ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze. A sharp pang of sorrow shot through Agnes though she knew little of the woman’s story.
I love this first paragraph because it puts you right into the story. In the first line, we read “Agnes Canon saw a woman hanged on the way to the Pittsburgh docks” but we don’t know why she was going to the docks—does she work there? Is she meeting someone there? Or is she going on a journey, leaving from the docks to parts unknown? Second, we know immediately that the story is set in a time during which hangings were done in public and steam engines were common. Third, the description of the woman’s body dangling with “ankles lashed together, hooded head canted at an impossible angle, skirt flapping lazily in the breeze” grabs the reader and immediately begs the question: what was this woman’s crime? Last, we discover that although Agnes knows little of the woman’s story, she knows enough to feel sorry for her, and that sympathy tells the reader something of Agnes’s character.
A good beginning should not be loaded down with adjectives and adverbs, but careful use of descriptive language can be effective in setting the mood, anchoring a story in time and place, and evoking a particular atmosphere. Below is the first paragraph from SLANT OF LIGHT, an award-winning Civil War-era novel from Steve Wiegenstein.
The keelboat moved so slowly against the current that Turner sometimes wondered if they were moving at all. Keeping a steady rhythm, Pettibone and his son worked the poles on the quarter-sized boat they had built to ply the smaller rivers that fed the Mississippi. Whenever the current picked up, Turner took the spare pole and tried to help, but although he was tall and muscular, with a wide body that didn’t narrow from shoulders to hips, poling a boat wasn’t as simple as it looked. He pushed too soon, too late, missed the bottom, stuck the pole in the mud, all to the amusement of Pettibone’s son, Charley. And with every stroke, Turner asked himself: What in all creation am I doing here?
In this paragraph, we know immediately that the story is set in the past as keelboats are not common modes or transport these days. And we know that Turner, who is tall and muscular, is unused to working the poles—something even a young boy can do. Turner is clearly a guest on the keelboat or has hired Pettibone and Charley to transport him. But transport him where? We know the boat is plying a tributary of the Mississippi, but what is Turner doing there and where is he going? The last line sets up the rest of the novel, hinting that discovering why Turner is on that keelboat in the first place is at the heart of the story.
What are your favorite first paragraphs and what elements draw you in and keep you turning the pages?
About The Author:
Marie Savage is the pen name of Kristina Marie Blank Makansi who always wanted to be a Savage (her grandmother’s maiden name) rather than a Blank. She is co-founder and publisher of Blank Slate Press, an award-winning small press in St. Louis, and founder of Treehouse Author Services. Books she has published and/or edited have been recognized by the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY), the Beverly Hills Book Awards, the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction, the British Kitchie awards, and others. She serves on the board of the Missouri Center for the Book and the Missouri Writers Guild. Along with her two daughters, she has authored The Sowing and The Reaping (Oct. 2014), the first two books of a young adult, science fiction trilogy. Oracles of Delphi, is her first solo novel.
Marie is giving away one copy of her book (US/CAN). Just leave me a comment below and let me know you want to win. It’s that easy! One winner will be chosen on Jan.9th and notified via email. The winner will have 48 hours to respond.
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