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First Page: Could It Be Magic

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August 1558

"Let the candle be. I've more on my plate than I can say a prayer over. Time to rest when I'm in my grave."

Betty shook her head. "Just a bit of rest, Yer Grace. Ye've worked far too long already." She pulled a sheaf of parchment from her bodice and stuffed it under the thin mat that passed for a bed in this grim place. "I oughten not leave this. Ye'll only stay awake, scribbling and fretting all the night through."

Joan, Duchess of Whytecliff, waved the maid's concerns away with a weak smile. "I'll do what I must, as I always do." She glanced toward the door where one of the Bishop's men stood, an inattentive guard who should have checked Betty for just such contraband.

The maid's lips lifted in a tight smile and she spoke in a soft tone. "He's not a bad sort. I like a man who will stay bribed."

"I shan't even ask what you had to do to be allowed this visit." Joan grasped the woman's hand briefly. "You're a good woman, Betty. I only wish I could . . ."

"Ah, don't start, Yer Grace. Ye've done more than well by me." Her voice broke as she continued. "Ye've been nothing but a fair and kind mistress to all of us."

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

19 Comments

  1. Ros
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 05:15:28

    I really don’t like ‘Yer Grace’. It’s ‘Your Grace’ and if the girl has an accent, tell us. Also ‘Joan, Duchess of Whytecliff’ is awkwardly shoved in. And I don’t understand about half of what’s going on here. It’s very confusing as an opening page and I’m afraid I wouldn’t read on.

  2. joanne
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 05:48:18

    I kind of like it. I love the opening line because it’s different.

    You may want to be careful about making a martyr our of the Duchess if she’s your heroine, that can be a reader turnoff.

    I wish it were longer for a better idea of style and rhythm but I like it enough to read a bit more.
    Thanks for putting your work here and good luck!

  3. Jane O
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 06:05:45

    This sounds intriguing. I only wish it were a bit longer so I could get more of a sense of it.
    One thing I would suggest is that you get rid of the “Yer” and “ye”. I tend to find phonetic dialect more distracting than helpful. After all, you’re not going to be providing phonetic spelling for everyone’s 16th century speech. It’s enough that we know Betty is a servant.
    (Incidentally, is Betty a 16th century name? It sounds later to me, but I really don’t know.)

  4. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 06:35:35

    There’s really not enough here. I don’t know where the story’s going, what genre it’s aimed at. The title indicates paranormal or urban fantasy, but it starts as straight historical…

    I like my historicals to start with a time and place. It immediately seats the reader, without any of that faffing about and “As you know, Bob” contrivances. So good on that.

    If I read another “ye,” or for that matter, a “mayhap,” or a “twas” it will be one too many. Some of us Brits, trained at school to read the King James bible out loud, always read “ye” with a long “e”. So “yeeee.” It doesn’t work. I guess you mean the short e but I’ve been indoctrinated into the long one.

    I agree that the “Joan, Duchess of…” is forced. Recently on some crit lists and writer sites, critiquers tend to insist that the character should always be introduced by their full name. To my mind, that’s wrong. If you’re writing in deep pov, then the character isn’t going to think of herself in those terms. “Joan” is fine. The constant repetition of the honorific tells us her rank.

    Please do proper Tudor politics, not the simplified stuff. Please?

    Not sure about Betty either. It’s short for Elizabeth, but I don’t know when people started using that one. I’d have put Bess. And it reminds me of this. Or maybe that’s just me. That she’ll suddenly say “Ooh, Betty” and disaster will ensue.

    If this is a personal maid, she wouldn’t be uneducated. Look at Kat Ashley, Queen Elizabeth’s governess, who corresponded with some of the finest minds in Europe. Doubt she’d have an accent, either.

    She’s got a thin bed, but access to expensive parchment, pen, inks, sand, pen knives, all the paraphernalia that goes with it? I find that a little hard to believe. If she’s in the Tower, she’d have a comfortable bed, proper furniture and servants. Titled prisoners weren’t kept short of anything except their liberty.
    Since this is set a few months before Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, I’m guessing that our duchess will be freed, having supported Elizabeth through thick and thin. Unlikely she’d be in the Tower in that instance, because Mary had more or less given up by then and Elizabeth’s supporters allowed to join her.
    Anyway. Definitely intrigued to see more, and to know where this is going. Straight historical or paranormal? Or even steampunk (Tudorpunk? It can’t be far away!)

  5. Karenna Colcroft
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 06:55:01

    Others have given much more helpful feedback than I could, because I don’t typically read historicals (whether paranormal or not).

    I just had one question about the opening line. “I’ve more on my plate.” Is that a phrase that would have been used in that time period? We say it all the time now, so it seems anachronistic, but I honestly don’t know, so I’m asking.

    I also agree about the name “Betty”. I think I’ve seen “Bet” or “Bess” short for Elizabeth in that era. “Betty” sounds too modern. (And unfortunately makes me think of Betty and Veronica in the Archie comics, but that may be my slightly warped brain responding to lack of caffeine.)

    I am intrigued by this beginning. I’d like a little more scene-setting, because I’m not sure where “this grim place” is. I might read on if only to find out what the maid did as a bribe.

  6. sao
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 08:05:07

    I was confused. It sounded like Joan was dying, so the pen and paper might be for a will or a last letter — surely a good thing to bring. But Betty acted like Joan wasn’t dying.

    I didn’t know why she was where she was, with a guard at the door.

    And of course, an old dying woman is not a romance heroine. So, I felt that I had not met either hero nor heroine or been given a hint about the plot. I’m not clear on setting, either. She’s seems to be in prison, or is she under house arrest?

    In short, I know nothing.

    If Joan’s the heroine, let us know she’s not on death’s door and her goal. Make her an actor, not the weak recipient of Betty’s gifts and advice.

    You can change her from weak, pitiful prisoner to powerful actor by having her sit up in bed and internally think, ‘I may be weak, but my pen is strong’, grab the paper and start to write. Even if she’s too weak to sit up without help, she’s become a strong character.

  7. Taryn Kincaid
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 09:13:03

    I love historicals. I’m intrigued but also confused. I think a word here or there would clarify this and hook us more quickly into the story. At least for me!

    My bad, probably, but I immediately thought “Yer Grace” was a man. So (if Joan is your heroine) I would have preferred to see something more by way of introduction or description or some bit of action tag added to the first line of dialogue.

    So perhaps something along the lines of: “Let the candle be, Betty.” The Duchess of Whytecliff rubbed her burning eyes, too tired to see. “Time to rest when I’m in my grave.”
    And then…Her maid (or again, something a tad more descriptive — her only remaining friend, companion, the woman who’d always been like a mother to her, the stubborn chit who insisted on risking her own neck to serve her) rather than just “Betty.”
    Something like that would set up Joan’s POV, let us know she’s a woman (and heroine?)and plant us in the situation. (If the heroine is Betty, of course, then my bad again, and never mind.)
    Along those same lines, “this grim place” could easily be refined to something to tell us where Joan is: the thin mat that served as her bed in grim Tower cell. Or wherever she is. I think using “her” instead of “the” would also help us to focus in on Joan.
    The phrase about having too much on one’s plate seems very modern to me, too. But I could be wrong about that. Just didn’t fall right to my ear.
    I just need a tiny bit more to get me more fully into this! Best of luck!

  8. Polly
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 10:20:25

    I’m terrified Joan is going to turn out to be a Marian martyr, which would kind of kill the romance.

    I generally can’t read books set in the 16th or 17th centuries–I’m a Tudor/Stuart historian, and I just know the period too well for most fiction. But from that perspective, here are a few notes that might be helpful:

    Bess is more common than Betty. Good job on Elizabeth and Joan, though, which are both very period appropriate. Throw in a Kat/Kate, an Alice and a Mary, and you’ll have them all :)

    A highborn person’s close servants are going to be people of status too–with Mary Stuart, for example, the Queen’s four Marys. Or, whoever’s been assigned to guard and imprison a person of status would be reasonably high status (a bishop definitely counts, but I still don’t understand why she’s so isolated). Or, wherever a high status person is being kept, their people will come to them. Unless she’s been thrown off by her family or done murder, treason or heresy–and maybe not even then–I can’t imagine why Joan is alone in a crappy room with one chambermaid. And if she has done murder or treason, I expect much more attentive guarding.

    Parchment is very expensive. For most writing, people will use paper, which is also expensive, but not quite so, and comes in different grades, so some of it was quite a bit cheaper. Parchment tends to be used for official documents, but paper was used for a lot of the other stuff. Doesn’t mean she can’t use parchment, but paper was probably more likely.

    Also, you can’t fit a sheaf of parchment in your bodice. A few sheets, perhaps, but not a sheaf.

    Story-wise, I thought the first line was really clunky because I have no idea what it’s referencing, and then it’s not even hinted at. Everything’s too veiled in mystery. I don’t feel grounded in this story yet.

    Best of luck!

  9. Mai
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 10:58:31

    Betty as a given name might be in use at the time, but Betty is culturally and heavily associated with WWII/1930s-1940s, which is probably why it seems modern to some. I prefer Bess/Bessie as it seems more natural in that time period, due to Elizabeth I (“Good Queen Bess”).

    Considering Joan’s title, it’s unlikely she would reside in a “grim room”. Prisoners of her ilk didn’t stay in “grim rooms” under someone like a bishop. It implies that the bishop is deeply ignorant or making a huge F.U. gesture at the nobility and a mentality of Joan’s time. As a duchess in a bishop’s care, she would have a quarter of her own (a reception room, a bedroom for herself, and possibly a room for her maid). It was practically a “god-given expectation”.

    But if it’s indeed a grim room, then a mention of the candle is an oddity because prisoners of lower ranks didn’t have candles in their rooms as candles were expensive at the time. With this in mind, I wonder how she could afford to ‘scribbling and fretting all the night through’?

    Besides, wouldn’t guards notice that – if she wasn’t supposed to have these writing materials – she had been writing at night? A candle burning through the night would have their attention, surely?

    Yes, I think my biggest problem with this first page is the inconsistency of her title, quality of her prison life, a bishop’s role (e.g. she’s in his custody/care), and the mentality of that time. It’s a patchwork of inconsistencies if you like.

    I think you could get away with it if you had Betty complaining bitterly about the Bishop’s appalling ignorance and treatment of a duchess by putting Joan in a grim room and that God would be appalled at the Bishop (a title was seen as a blessing from God).

    It might be worth reading Bishop Rowland Lea’s diary of his time spent with Lady Jane Grey during her imprisonment at the tower. He wrote about conversing and dining with her at the Gentleman Gaoler’s Quarters where she was imprisoned.

    Good luck, though! There are many readers who would love to read stories set in 16th century, paranormal or not, so please do keep trying. :D

    Edited: @Polly‘s response says it all for me. And much more concise, too. Gah.

  10. Julia Sullivan
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 11:12:36

    As others have said, there are several anachronisms or unexplained oddities in this first page. Historicals are hard! If you can find a beta reader who really knows the period, it could help you a lot. Otherwise, more research.

    The disjunct between the title and the time period and context of the narrative is jarring. First of all, “Could it Be Magic” is a Barry Manilow song from the 1970s, so that’s going to be the first thing many people over 40 will think of—which doesn’t set you up for a 16th century historical.

    Second, “magic” wasn’t used as a metaphorical term in the 16th century. If this lady is being imprisoned by a bishop on suspicion of practicing magic, she’s in danger of losing her life. A title that makes light of that doesn’t seem likely to set the right mood.

  11. Mai
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 12:02:29

    [Someone's just questioned me about Bishop Rowland Lea's diary as he died a few years before Lady Jane did. After clearing up confusion, she suggests I should put in a link about the info on the authorship of the diary for the sake of clarification: Preface. My apologies for causing confusion. Edited: and for adding 'Bishop' to his name. I thought it was him, but obviously it wasn't. Oops.]

  12. DS
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 13:20:26

    @Mai: Agree with Betty was a diminutive for Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, Lizzie, Betsy and Bess all went together to find a bird’s nest” popped into my head.

    Also, “I've more on my plate than I can say a prayer over” sounds like it is supposed to be a popular saying but the meaning isn’t clear.

    The author might want to back up and reconsider what is archaic versus what just sounds archaic. I am used to people who speak a dialect where some archaic features are retained and while it may sound “uneducated” it follows its own rules.

    This, for instance: “I oughten not leave this” should either have been “I ought not leave this” or “I oughtn’t leave this”.

  13. Ros
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 14:16:34

    @Julia Sullivan: I’m glad it’s not just me who hears that song whenever I read this title! And you’re right, it sets completely the wrong tone for this sort of story.

  14. Kristi
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 14:30:05

    As one who has frequently worn Elizabethan bodices, I’m not sure how someone can just pull something out of them. I don’t have a whole lot up stairs, so I’ve got a better chance at it than most, but I’m still pretty sure I couldn’t yank a pile of papers out. At the very least, I’d have to unlace it. If I had anything going for me in the feminine curves dept, I really don’t think I could do it.

  15. Runere McLain
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 17:47:29

    In a mere four paragraphs you’ve managed to intrigue me. You’ve presented things in a way that aptly hints this is not a typical situation.

    It’s refreshing to find an author who doesn’t fall into the trap of turning the first page into an eye-crossing, technically overloaded, nit-picking information dump; instead you’ve concentrated on presenting your characters first–in a way that makes me want to continue reading to learn what is going on.

    (And a sheaf of papers is not a ream–it’s representative of anything from a few sheets to a full document. And servants didn’t dress in the way of their employers. Their clothing was suitable for physical work in a labor intensive society.)

    The same way we don’t know everything about someone the instant we meet them (in fact, we run like hell from someone who initially exposes too much!), we can’t learn the depth of a character in 200 words. But like someone we first meet, we know if we’re interested enough to learn them further. Your characters? I’d definitely invest my time to see where they’re going!

  16. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 18:34:18

    @Runere McLain: Body servants of high-ranking people didn’t do physical work. They wore clothing similar to their employers, down to the stiff stays that restricted movement and confined the body.
    A sheaf of parchment, ie more than two or three sheets, is going to be thick, too thick to shove down a bodice. And the duchess would have adequate housing, as Mai said so well. Whoever her captor was, especially at this time of political turmoil would be careful not to upset a possibly powerful person when the wheel of fortune turned.
    By August, 1558, it was obvious that Mary was dying and Elizabeth would be the next Queen. Since the alternative was Mary, Queen of Scots, then married to a French king, nobody was eager to get rid of Elizabeth, who was living in comfort in nominal captivity at the time. The Catholic dissent came later in her reign. Her captor was careful not to upset her, while obeying the orders of the current monarch.
    Yup, another Tudor historian here, although ‘my’ period is a little earlier.

  17. Runere McLain
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 18:53:58

    Didn’t mean to demean or offend! I was simply working off the language that particular servant used–no formality at all. Seemed a safe enough assumption she wasn’t an educated personal servant. More a strong possibly she’s a house servant who had grown affectionate toward a long-term captive.

    I would still read on to see where this is going, to learn the circumstances that led to this incarceration. Like I said earlier; you already know it isn’t typical.

  18. okbut
    Aug 08, 2010 @ 07:17:29

    I love historicals, but this 1st page has me confused and irritated. I agree with most of the previous posts.

    The title does not match your 1st page’s information… seems a familiar cliche to have an imprisoned tired worn out person of importance with a servant catering to her, except the details are wrong.

    Thank you for submitting.

    I do wish new writers would spend more time working on their 1st pages before asking us to review and critique.

    It’s today’s rampant attitude of ‘please do the work for me’.

  19. job
    Aug 08, 2010 @ 20:09:30

    I am intrigued by a Tudor Romance with magical elements.
    Tudorpunk? Bring it on.

    I imagine there’ll be some later explanation as to why a duchess is locked away in a bare cell. But here, on page one, I’m puzzled by what seems like historical improbability. This distracts me from the story.

    And I’d suggest a recasting of that first metaphor. Why would one be unable to say a prayer over a full plate?

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