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First Page: Unnamed Russian Historical?

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1941 – The Russian Front
The coldest winter in a hundred years-

It was madness. The noise all around, screams and garbled orders that no one understood anymore. The never-ending thunder of gunfire and shelling. Dodging, and ducking, slipping in the slush of mud and snow and blood. Friend or enemy, all looked alike in the swirling white of the cold.

And it was cold.

A soldier dodged behind the burnt-out carcass of a tank, and looked around. He was lost, disorientated by the foulness of the bloody Russian weather. There were bodies, some still moving, piled around the snow. Bodies of his countrymen and bodies of the enemy, turning blue beneath the weight of the winter. And what a winter! Never in his life had he seen such cold, such biting winds.
He gripped his gun harder, and glanced around again. Gott im Himmel, if he could only see something through the snow. It was just a swirling mass, with shadows moving behind it. His friends, or the enemy? How much longer could they keep on fighting in this weather? It was killing them.

There was a faint noise from the other side of the tank, and he stiffened, curling his numb fingers around the barrel of the gun.   "Kamerad?" Something was stumbling towards him. "Kamerad?"

Another shell. He crouched down, trying not to hear beyond the ringing in his ears. If you listened hard, you could hear men dying. He should move- the advance would pass him by. Cautiously, he sidled around to the northern side of the tank, scanning the snow for movement. Nothing.

Mein Gott, ich bin-

A figure fell out of the storm towards him. The soldier raised his gun, ready to shoot. "Kamerad?" His finger curled around the trigger. Better alive than dead. Better alive. A sudden flare lit up the world in a flash of red, and the figure turned to look at him, claw-like hands outstretched.

"Neit- Neit-" An old voice. An old man, white beard and hooked nose. No weapon, no uniform, just a ragged coat and a stick.
The soldier squeezed at the trigger. An enemy was an enemy.

"Nein- bitte!"

Bitte. Please. He could see the old man’s eyes now. And they weren’t afraid, just tired. Tired old eyes. The soldier knew he should shoot, rid the fatherland of another Russkie enemy. But – well, the tramp was going to die anyway in this cold. He reached out and pushed the man away from him.

"Go- you go." For emphasis, he spat into the cold air. "Not worth the bullets."

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

26 Comments

  1. The Profane Angel
    May 23, 2009 @ 04:29:00

    A subject dear to my heart – WW2 – though my specialty is the Italian campaign, specfically Anzio. I’ve lived in a military environment for 25 years (Air Force) and have a soldier son, another is a Naval aviator. I speak German, and I know how soldiers speak – God in Heaven is far less likely than a well-placed “scheiss!” As for the old tramp, he may not be worth a bullet, but he’d be more likely labeled “schweinhund” before that consideration. Given the activity of the Russian partisans, I suspect he’d have gone down with that considered bullet. But I digress.

    I like the writing. I like reading different takes on the war. I can infer that this gefreiter is afraid, but I don’t feel it, probably my only real critical remark. I would keep reading, at least for a few more pages, but my sense is that this a woman writing about war, and not someone who’s lived through battle.

  2. DS
    May 23, 2009 @ 04:58:21

    Don’t know anything about battle, and I was force fed so much information about WWII when I was a kid that any reference to it makes my eyes glaze over. I think the last novel I read with WWII as a background was The Keep (horror) by F. Paul Wilson.

    However, I don’t see anything here, other than the era itself, that would put me off reading more.

  3. Lynne Connolly
    May 23, 2009 @ 05:35:31

    I’m not too keen on a romance with a Nazi soldier as hero, but it is certainly challenging.
    Well written, but it needs a bit of an emotional charge to it. Don’t forget the “Why should I care?” directive which is especially important at the start of a book.
    Not something I’d read because, like DS, I was force fed The War and my DH is keen on it now, and watches all those damn programs on the history network so I’ve had a snootful of it. I didn’t even read “The Bronze Horseman.” Besides, the Seige of Leningrad is so unutterably tragic I didn’t see it as a good background for a romance.

  4. Ashwinder
    May 23, 2009 @ 05:42:09

    You mention a gun a couple of times. What kind of gun is it? I’d replace one of those with the type. What action was taking place on the Russian Front in 1941 that would have occurred during a snowstorm? Not asking for an info-dump, but maybe some more hints at it.

    You also have a couple of “there were” sort of passive sentences, that IMO you should try to rephrase and make more active.

    Overall, I’m intrigued. It’s not every day you come across a scenario like this and I’d definitely keep reading.

  5. Fae
    May 23, 2009 @ 06:17:07

    It’s a romance? If so, that might be the most unusual way to open a romance I’ve ever seen. The writing is competent, the subject matter, however, would throw me right off and I wouldn’t read further. Wars don’t interest me, past, present or make-believe.

  6. joanne
    May 23, 2009 @ 06:29:08

    Was it cold? There is a thesaurus with some help for that.

    As a reader I’m thinking okay, it’s cold and he’s in a battle, but what is it that makes this man a main character? I know it’s cold but who is he? What does he feel aside from the cold? I almost had a glimpse of who he is when he thought about being left behind but then the paragraph moved to the other character.

    I have to say I hate not knowing what genre or category I’m reading but that has nothing to do with the writing which moved along quite nicely.

    Thank you for your entry!

  7. Stephanie
    May 23, 2009 @ 07:05:45

    Interesting choice of setting–I’m going to guess this might be a straight historical or military adventure story, rather than a romance. You do sort of belabor the point that it is cold: first, there’s the heading that it’s “the coldest winter in a hundred years,” then a few sentences later, you write “And it was cold.” It would be more effective to show rather than tell the reader how cold it is. You do some of that when you mention “numb fingers” and “bodies turning blue.” But how about breath coming out in a cloud or being unable to feel your nose or chin, or having your eyes water in the “biting winds”?

    I might read on at least for a few more pages, just to see whether the genre would be for me.

  8. theo
    May 23, 2009 @ 07:06:58

    Up to the point where your soldier hears a noise, there are eight sentences telling me the same thing. It was bloody cold. *For me* that is just too much repetition.

    And I kept waiting for something to happen and when it did, it was a disappointment. No real conflict, nothing exciting. Just an old man.

    There is a question mark after Russian Historical. Are you, the writer, not sure of the genre? I would think I’d find that by reading the back blurb, (which I wish we had, sometimes the 250 just aren’t quite enough) but in this case, I can’t tell. Nevertheless, I would hope the author would know.

    I love WWII history, and enjoy reading stories set during that period, but in this case, I’d pass before I read halfway through the page. It’s not so much the craft, it’s not the subject matter. It’s just not doing anything for *me*.

    Sorry.

  9. Marianne McA
    May 23, 2009 @ 07:45:21

    @ Lynne:Could be a German soldier, but not a Nazi.

    In a way, that’d be the selling point for me, that I’ve read and seen a lot of books & films where the Germans are just the bad guys, and that’s the hook for me, that the German is (presumably) the hero.

    Don’t know a lot about the Russian Front, but I have read Beevor’s Stalingrad, and that would put me off. It makes imagine that this character is going to have an unimaginably horrific time in his near future, and – if this is romance, for me, that doesn’t work. It’s a personal thing, but if the characters experience terrible things on their way to the HEA, I avoid the book. I get too upset about the terrible things to be able to enjoy the HEA.

    If it’s historical fiction, that’s different.

  10. FoolsErrant
    May 23, 2009 @ 09:05:12

    Actually — and I know this is weird and probably not even close to right — I got a bit of a paranormal vibe from this. Is that vagabond going to turn out to be Nosferatu and this is just a prologue to the real story, set much more currently? Normally I’d think this was what the title of the entry was (in this case, Russian Historical) but since there’s a question mark I’m not sure.

    If it is a paranormal, I’d definitely read more — at least until I figured out the “hook”. If it’s historical fiction, I’d probably read at least a little further, though in that case it wouldn’t exactly be my cuppa. Ditto for romance, though I second the concerns about the amount of potential tragedy outweighing enjoyment of the HEA.

    In any case, this is very well written. I definitely got the images you meant and I think, with a little cleaning up that others have pointed out, you’ve got a great writing style.

    Good luck with this!

  11. likari (LindaR)
    May 23, 2009 @ 09:46:51

    I echo the disorientation re genre — the only thing that makes my brain try to put this in a romance frame is the fact that it’s on DA.

    The choppy set-up made me think I was reading the action component of a screenplay. I didn’t like it; but I’m not a fan of using chains of sentence fragments to set the tone, so that might just be my personal prejudice there.

    My only German consists of 4 years of high school classes many years ago, but this inner dialog didn’t ring true to me, especially when I came to “Russkies” which stopped me cold. Why would a German be thinking in American slang terms?

    And shouldn’t “neit, neit” be “niet, niet”?

    And why would a Russian say “bitte”?

    And why would a German clarify “bitte” to mean “please” in his own mind?

    I don’t have enough confidence that you know what you’re doing. I wouldn’t read any further.

  12. Lynne Connolly
    May 23, 2009 @ 10:11:46

    @ Lynne:Could be a German soldier, but not a Nazi.

    He would be wearing the Nazi insignia on his uniform and fighting for the Nazis, so whether he was a party member or not is pretty moot, especially in 1941. It just made me feel a mite uncomfortable.
    If he was the “seasoned solder” type, it would be nice to have some indication, otherwise me, and a few others, would just put the book down. “Cross Of Iron,” the Peckinpah film about a German soldier was brilliant, but that came with a big swathe of cynicism which might not work in this voice.

    I’m with likari on the conversation.

  13. JoB
    May 23, 2009 @ 10:12:02

    I’m not qualified in most ways, to judge the opening, because I would not read a Romance with a German soldier hero. That place and time, that sort of character, are altogether too grim for my ‘escapist’ reading.
    And I carry my own baggage about WWII German soldiers. My shortcoming.

    The writing is, of course, just excellent. Tight, controlled, gritty, lyric.

    Specific comments:

    – You open with Omniscient Narrator. This may be ‘distancing’ at a time when your rather unappealing character must establish rapport with the audience. It’s going to be an uphill fight. Are you handicapping yourself with a cool and impersonal POV and a protagonist without a name?

    – I am dismayed by the cruelty that would casually consider disposing of a harmless civilian. To my mind, the man who has to ponder whether he’s going to kill an old man is not a hero.

    If you’re writing Straight Historical — this is cool. Go Realism!!

    But if you’re writing Historical Romance, and the hero acts heinous and cold-blooded on the first page, you may lose readers before you have a chance to reveal his good side.

    Good writing though. Real good.

  14. GrowlyCub
    May 23, 2009 @ 12:00:00

    I can’t know for sure what German soldiers in WWII would have said, but I know they wouldn’t have said either of the two things that TPA wrote. It’s ‘Scheisse’ and ‘Schweinehund’, while we are being nitpicky. Apart from that I’d think it highly unlikely that ‘Schweinehund’ would have been at the forefront of the guy’s mind. It’s not appropriate to the situation.

    ‘Scheisse’ is not something I’ve heard my grandfather or my grandmother EVER use or other Germans of that age and yes, some of them were soldiers. I’m pretty sure that common use of this word is of much more recent vintage. ‘Verdammt’ would be much more likely.

    I will agree that ‘Gott im Himmel’ is definitely off. While grammatically correct, it’s not idiomatic, although it’s possible that it would be appropriate to the time period (I was born 26 years after the war ended, so some usage I may not be aware of). I does sound like a literal translation to me, though.

  15. Kristi
    May 23, 2009 @ 12:59:30

    “Mein Gott,” is a more natural and commonly used phrase that would have been used at the time. I’ve heard Gott in Himmel, but I don’t think you need it.

    I’m not convinced this is the hero. This is striking me as a prologue. I think it works as a prologue, where this guy is not a main character. I’ll buy the omniscient voice in that situation.

    I’m all for WWII stories. I like that this is dark and gritty. I did feel like this was impersonal, and did question some of the POV choices, like thinking about the word “Bitte,” or even actually having German show up at all. Technically if we are in someone’s head, they’re just thinking, not thinking their observations in one language then translating their thoughts in another. I don’t think you need to use the language to establish he’s German. If you did want to throw those things in, do it when he is listening to others speak, not when he is thinking. He shouldn’t think in one language then start thinking in another unless he really does speak two languages and is actually thinking in two languages.

    If you’re shooting for a romance market, and this isn’t a prologue, we do need a character with more emotional resonance.

  16. The Profane Angel
    May 23, 2009 @ 14:05:35

    Sorry, Growly, I speak it but can’t write it – picked it up living there for five years. My usage came from the Luftwaffe troops and officers we knew, so yeah, it’s current vernacular, and I was instructed that schweinehund was an insult and not to use it unless being playful with friends. And the language of soldiers, whatever nationality, tends to be very profane – my eldest son slipped a few times around me when he was home on leave, we talked about the “limited” vocabulary of soldiers. Anyway, my point was the German soldier would probably have been swearing, in the dialect of his region/state – it’s my ignorance showing, didn’t know curse words and insults evolved over time from the war until now in Germany. Thanks for letting me know. All the best, TPA

  17. German Reader
    May 23, 2009 @ 16:04:16

    Gott im Himmel sounds weird to me in the context, Verdammt fits better.

    Not sure why you have the “Mein Gott, ich bin” in there. There is no follow up to it so it serves no purpose.

    As somebody mentioned above, the Russian for no is spelled wrong it should be “nyet”.
    While Russkie is the Russian word for “Russian” and it is used in todays German slang, back then the Russians were generally refered to as “der Russe” (singular)

    If you mention it being the coldest winter, throw in a temperature – nothing works better for the imagination than reading “-40 F” (-40 C) and soldiers not being equipped for this weather because Hitler expected a quick war and victory before the winter.

  18. Victoria Dahl
    May 24, 2009 @ 11:06:26

    I’m not sure abt this as a romance & I know nothing abt German, but I think the writing is gorgeous!!! For me, choppiness perfectly conveys intensity & urgency & chaos – a must for a battle scene. And even the repetition of the cold worked well form me. When it’s that cold, it’s all u can think abt & I felt that.

    POV might need work tho.

  19. Ros
    May 24, 2009 @ 13:17:10

    1941 – The Russian Front
    The coldest winter in a hundred years…

    It was madness. The noise all around, screams and garbled orders that no one understood anymore. The never-ending thunder of gunfire and shelling. Dodging, and ducking, slipping in the slush of mud and snow and blood. Friend or enemy, all looked alike in the swirling white of the cold.

    The punctuation in that first paragraph isn’t working for me. You have one short sentence followed by a lot of longer sentence fragments. And, since you have a historical setting, and even a Russian setting, I’m afraid I’m immediately expecting the perfect prose of a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky. ;)

    And it was cold.

    You can’t have And it was cold when your previous sentence has told us it was cold.

    I think this has potential but, as others have said, for a romance novel you’ve got your work cut out in winning over readers in the first page and I’m not quite sure there is enough here to do that. Make us fall for this hero in the first 500 words and then we’ll follow him anywhere. But I think you really only have a page to make that happen. Good luck!

  20. The Author
    May 24, 2009 @ 16:57:28

    re – FoolsErrant

    Actually, you’re quite right. This is a dark YA fantasy. I do apologise for the genre confusion, I must have omitted the information from my submission. This is the prologue for the book, and the rest of the action takes place both later and earlier in time.

    Thank you everyone for your comments, especially for pointing out how much I’ve been belabouring the ‘cold’ point. I hadn’t personally noticed that, but it was probably because I was too wrapped up in the idea behind the main character, who is Jack Frost. Also thank you very much for the linguistic critiques. Very much appreciated. I honestly can’t believe I wrote ‘Nyet’ ‘Neit’. That’s terrible.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. As a quick question, does the change of genre and knowing that it’s a prologue alter how you view the writing?

  21. Anon76
    May 25, 2009 @ 08:31:46

    To the author:

    Yes to both of your questions. Knowing this is a dark YA fantasy and that this is a prologue has a huge impact on my reading of the page.

    By knowing that, I’m not actually looking for a hero but perhaps an interesting character or situation that is the theme of the book.

    In the first reading, I did wonder about the old man and what the heck he was doing there in the middle of the fighting. Granted, villagers often get caught up in the atrocities of war, but he seemed so out of place in the scene you described.

    A bit of spit polish, and I think all will be well. Very interesting concept, the Jack Frost, thing.

  22. Mara
    May 25, 2009 @ 08:50:31

    I love the concept of Jack Frost.

    But as I was reading it the first time, without a back cover blurb or idea where I was going, I wasn’t interested. I’m with the other reviewers on the whole WW2 soldier as hero not so believable thing. Jack Frost, however, would’ve kept me reading. A very interesting concept and your writing is great.

  23. JoB
    May 25, 2009 @ 09:35:10

    I do not wish to add one feather-weight to the uncertainties of an author embarking upon a prologue. But can I natter for one second about atmosphere?

    If one purpose of the prologue is to start with an ordinary scene,
    (if the Russian campaign could be considered ordinary,)
    and then twist that ordinary reality, suddenly, into something bizarre and deadly . . .

    you might consider hinting.

    Hitchcock does this so well. His big shocker moments are set after a stretch of lah-dih-dah-di-ho-hum-everything’s-fine action. But there will frequently be some little subliminal warning going on.

    Maybe one word of warning?

    it was uncanny cold
    the sly shuffle of feet under cover of the wind
    eerie wind blowing with the smell of gunpowder on it

    Atmosphere stuff.

    There are arguments for starting with the atmosphere that typifies the story.
    because page one is where readers decide to buy the book.

    It could be fans of darkside need to be told right off, ‘this is darkside stuff coming’, so they will know the whole story is not ‘teh ordinary’ they find in the start of the prologue.

  24. Ros
    May 25, 2009 @ 15:43:29

    Just to point out (though I expect you already know) that Jack Frost was the MC of Neil Gaiman’s fabulous The Graveyard Book (which is possibly also classified as dark YA fantasy?) that came out last year. Not that this reads like Gaiman at all, but it might be offputting to agents/publishers.

  25. SAO
    May 26, 2009 @ 10:44:52

    I’ve read a bit on the Russian front. I was trying to place this. Siege of Leningrad? Zhukov’s missing retreating Germans in a blizzard in the Ukraine in ’44? Borodino?

    Also, my assumption was that the soldier was Russian, so the Gott in Himmel came as a shock. You need to place him. I assume this is in Russia, so the German is attacking Russia, not defending his fatherland.

    My understanding of battle was that there were firm positions. How did the old Russian get behind the German lines? From your description of shouted orders, it sounded like the German was with a bunch of his fellow soldiers. Where were they? Why didn’t they see the Russian? In a snowstorm, sound doesn’t carry far. In short, your description of the scene didn’t add up. You said the German was in the thick of things, but no one caught an enemy behind the lines. And the Russian wandered over in the middle of the battle without figuring out which side was which? Sensible people stay away from where bullets are flying. Sensible people make damn sure they are on the right side of the line.

    I didn’t get the sense of panic that the German ought to have felt when seeing an enemy, even a harmless looking one, behind the lines. The raising the gun seemed to be a well-should-I moment, not an automatic or panicked one.

    Also, by not giving them names, it was a bit of a struggle to figure out who was who. I didn’t connect with them. I didn’t have any sense of who the German was. Was he doing his duty for his country, even if it had gone mad? Was he gumg-ho for his fatherland? What did he think of the campaign to conquer the Soviet Union? Even in a prologue, I want to feel something for the character.

    With nameless characters I didn’t connect with, I’d probably skim the prologue and call it boring. If you need the prologue, make it interesting. Either give us a one paragraph factual description of the battle, if we need to know it, or give us characters with more than one dimension and names.

  26. The Author
    May 26, 2009 @ 21:00:05

    @SAO:

    Thanks for the tips. I’ll look into that on the rewrite. I don’t think the Russian being behind German lines will be too much of a problem (hopefully) as he’s essentially a paranormal being. It’s set in the 1941 invasion of Russia, as that winter was actually the worst in over 20 years.

    Thank you again for the comments. It is very handy, and gives me a lot to look at.

    Re Anon76 and Mara – Thank you. It’s a relief to know that it works better once the genre was made clear. I apologise for the mix up. Also, thanks for assuring me that Jack Frost is relatively well known. When I started the project, I was hard-pressed to find people who knew who he was – but then I do live in a country where Frost is a rarity.

    Re JoB – Thank you also for the comments. I really appreciate you taking the time to look over my work.

    Re Ros – Thanks for the heads up. I have tried to keep tabs on who is writing Jack Frost books, and I hope my take is different enough for it not to be a problem. Hopefully!!

    Thanks again to everyone!

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