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First Page: Historical Romance Set in 1905 America

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Dorothy McNair relished the freedom that came with not being known as the “Richest Girl in the World” (the way the phrase rolled from everyone’s tongues, it sounded like it was imprinted in capital letters). Her green eyes concealed behind a pair of silver spectacles and her irrepressible honey blonde curls in a neat chignon beneath a black hat trimmed with small black feathers and plain netting, Dorothy felt downright inconspicuous. She breathed deeply of the air of the bustling, busy Grand Central Station. Ah, it smelled alive and thriving, of people filled with purpose, simple people, whose only desire was to get to where they were going and no doubt do very important things. Things more important than signing dotted lines on papers passed to her by trustees, wilting beneath the electric lights of Sherry’s while moving through intricate dance steps, or nodding to acquaintances she barely knew and probably didn’t like every afternoon in Central Park. She didn’t mind her immense wealth, knowing how dire poverty could be, but she wanted something more from life than being rich. Even charity was less an instance of truly helping others–each charity ball or bazaar or kettledrum merely whipped the society pages into a frenzy and obscured the assistance she attempted to make.

Dorothy pushed through the crowd, actually delighted with the way people bumped into her and stepped on her toes with nary an acknowledgment of her person, as though she was just another insignificant body filling the station. In her left hand, she held exactly one suitcase–brown leather with brass clasps–filled with the same sober cotton shirtwaists and navy tailor-mades in which she was currently clothed, and in her right, the twenty-five dollars which would take her in any direction she wished. For the moment, she did not know what she wished, for she had been no further than fifty square miles from New York City over the course of her entire life. The pyramids of Egypt she knew, the Pyrenees she climbed, the Black Forest she hiked, but the great wide expanse of her native United States of America? It may as well be Siberia or the North Pole.The den of conductors shouting “All aboard” and the clanging of train bells and their piercing whistles urged her on, and she moved into the ticket line.

When the line lurched forward, she lurched with it, until she reached the ticket window, where the man behind the cage rapped a staccato: “Where to, miss?”

“Where do you think I should go?” she leaned forward. “I’ve heard so much of Buffalo at this time of the year.”

“Say, miss,” the ticket seller frowned. “If you don’t know where to, get out of the line until you do. You’re holding up a lot of busy people.” He hooked a thumb at the line behind her. “Where to, sir?”

Dorothy turned to look. Golly, the line was long, stretching to the foyer, criss-crossing other lines and dissecting others. The man directly behind her clamped his teeth on his cigar, bushy eyebrows lowering over a nose reddened by broken capillaries. “A one-way ticket to Columbus.”

“Is that a nice place to visit?” Dorothy asked as the man elbowed her out of the way in order to pay for his ticket.

“Ya, it’s nice. Got a house there and three mouths to feed,” he snorted and rolled his eyes. “Is Columbus nice. Ha!”

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

25 Comments

  1. Lorelie
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 04:20:06

    I love the period, and I love that it’s set in the US!

    First impression- those 1st two paragraphs are huge. White space is a reader’s friend.

    My overall impression is that she’s got very little at stake here. There’s a feeling of “whee, I’m going on an adventure!” And I’m afraid that’s not particularly compelling.

    Beyond that, a few little things:
    If her hair is irrepressible, it won’t be neatly contained
    Her bag might be filled with the same *sort* of clothes, but not the same exact ones.
    If she’s been to Europe, she’s most certainly been more than 50 miles from NYC, though maybe she’s not seen the States.

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  2. Ros
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 05:10:41

    I like the setting, too, and I think I might like the character, though I’d need to see a bit more of her to be sure. I’m not that keen on the writing, though. It feels a bit like you’re trying too hard. If Grand Central station is bustling, you don’t need to tell us it’s busy as well.

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  3. jmc
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 06:50:44

    Like the setting, but the wide eyed ingenue needs more of a hook. Runaway heiress? Eh. Need more than that for her to be sympathetic or interesting.

    How has the heroine seen the Black Forest or the Great Pyramids if she has never been more than 50 miles outside of New York City?

    Also, if the curls are irrepressible, they probably aren’t neatly caught under a hat. Perhaps better to say that the normally irrepressible curls had been ruthlessly secured in a chignon?

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  4. Callan
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 06:52:00

    Ditto on the setting, it was a breath of fresh air. I like the period details and the fact she’s starting a journey into the unknown. It would certainly draw me on.

    The first two paragraphs are a bit of a descriptive dump, though. I would delete them, start with her in line, and work in minimally necessary description and backstory as she moves forward.

    I agree with Lorelie that she needs to have something at stake with this journey–I’d identify with her more if she were trying to accomplish something other than an escape from boredom.

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  5. joanne
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 07:56:42

    I’m afraid I can’t be as generous as Ros is in her comment above because in a random search for a new book I would have never gotten passed the first paragraph.

    I don’t like the main protagonist. She’s TSTL if she’s an heiress but setting out on her ‘great adventure’ with only $25 and a very silly woman to complain about having too much money. That she didn’t take the time to look at a map makes me roll my eyes.

    Kudos for the setting and the minor characters are very well written. Thanks so much for putting your work up and much good luck!

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  6. Diana Peterfreund
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 08:43:53

    I’m with the others. Fantastic setting and time period — I really want to read more books set in the Gilded Age. However, you need to focus not only on how cute a turn of phrase is, but also on what the words you are using actually mean. Aside from the aforementioned mistakes of “irrepressible curls” being contained, and a girl who has been to Egypt having never been 50 miles from NYC, you have her not realizing how long the line is that she’s been apparently standing in?

    It’s important for us to feel some sympathy with the character. You say she wishes to do charity work, but she seems to have just fallen out of her home for the first time ever. Even rich Manhattan socialites have been to Grand Central Station or stood among crowds on the street or seen poor or middle class people before–especially if they’ve traveled through Europe and Africa! Does she have a maid she’s friendly with? Give her some agency. All that talk about balls or the boredom of walking around Central Park — is there any reason she’s running away NOW that you can hint at?

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  7. Jennie
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 08:50:45

    Ditto the comments above about the inconsistencies and one more (although it’s one made by many authors): spectacles aren’t sunglasses and would do nothing to conceal the color of her eyes.

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  8. theo
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 09:48:08

    Agree with most of the comments dealing with inconsistencies, etc.

    If her spectacles are sunglasses, they weren’t invented by Foster until 1929. I got the impression that you’re going for an earlier time, closer to 1900.

    In this snippet, you have 11 “ly” words, only 2 of which I didn’t wince over. I’m going to get reamed for this, but “ly” words can be the sign of a lazy writer. One who doesn’t use their words to their best advantage.

    I pushed through the first two paragraphs because I wanted to see where you were going with this. If I picked this up at a bookstore, I’d have put it back because I don’t want you to tell me the story, I want the characters to show me the story. I don’t read books that are boring.

    Right now, I don’t like your heroine very much either. She’s not very smart if she only takes $25 with her. And should she go to a bank when she gets to her destination and do a funds transfer, her parents/people/what have you, would know immediately where she is. Rather contradicts the whole incognito thing.

    I love early 1900′s settings and I think this could be interesting with the right twist to the runaway heiress plot, but it needs to be reworked.

    This is all MHO and you’ll find a hundred different ones based on who’s reading your book.

    Kudos for putting it out there and good luck to you.

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  9. Polly
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 12:20:55

    I like the setting and the feel of the selection, but I think you should trim and compress. As others have said, it’s too description-heavy. Cull some of the adjectives. I’ve got nothing against adjectives, but there are too many of them. The irrepressible curls in a neat chignon jumped out at me too. Maybe “unruly curls for once in a neat chignon.” If they’re irrepressible, they won’t be neat.

    More importantly, however, is that the whole description is a bit trite–it’s such a shorthand in romance fiction for the heroine’s curls to show she’s adventurous/independent/stubborn (why the hair and chin are such signifiers of character I don’t know–you get the chin you were born with). If that’s what you’re trying to show, I’d do it some other way. If it’s just description, work it in later. If it’s to show that she’s trying to hide her identity, make it more obvious.

    I’d stay away from a parenthesis in the first sentence. They signify “you can skip this” to the reader, and you don’t want the reader skipping anything in the first line.

    Also, if she knows how dire poverty can be, why in the world does she think $25 is going to be enough?

    Are you going for a It Happened One Night-vibe? That’s what heiress on an adventure says to me. That heroine, though, had no clue about money or anything, so it was ok that she had huge lapses in common sense.

    I agree with the posters who said the hook needed to be a bit stronger. I don’t need more plot, but I do need a bit more direction. If she wants to go anywhere, why does she want to go anywhere but there? Vague reasoning and vague direction is one too many.

    That said, this could definitely be a book I’d be interested in. Good luck!

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  10. pendragonfly
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 12:25:14

    A few more nitpicks. Depending on when your story takes place, it’s either Grand Central Depot or Grand Central Terminal. It was only “station” for about 1 year, during a remodeling phase between 1899 and 1900. The current GCT didn’t open until 1913. It was a very grand Beaux Arts structure with marble staircases, not exactly designed for the hoi polloi or “simple” people. Swanky hotels and skyscrapers rose up around it. Probably would not have been foreign territory for a socialite.

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  11. pendragonfly
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 12:32:08

    Oops. Just saw the “1905″ on the top of the page. You really need to check GCT history. There was a huge disastrous fire in 1902 and steam locomotives were becoming obsolete, so they started tearing the terminal down around then. Not sure if anything remained open during that time.

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  12. Jaili
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 12:52:20

    Wouldn’t $25 in 1905 be roughly $300-$400 today?

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  13. DM
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 13:34:20

    “The den of conductors shouting “All aboard” and the clanging of train bells and their piercing whistles urged her on, and she moved into the ticket line.”

    I think you mean “din” of conductors, unless of course there is a small den somewhere off the main terminal where they like to practice their shouting…but probably not.

    “Ah, it smelled alive and thriving, of people filled with purpose, simple people, whose only desire was to get to where they were going and no doubt do very important things.”

    I’m not sure what “alive” or “thriving” smell like. Cabbage? Ditto on what “people filled with purpose” smell like, and since they are also the object of the verb smelled, might I suggest “unwashed?”

    “She didn't mind her immense wealth…”

    What a surprise! Really, take this out. Just do.

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  14. kate
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 13:36:35

    I agree with most of the comments above: I love the setting, but I have a lot of the same niggles. (And I was about to comment that the current Grand Central Terminal didn’t open until 1913, but I see someone beat me to it. Grand Central was a depot prior to that, mostly a collection of train tracks. Actually, a lot of people traveling in and out of the city would have taken the ferry to New Jersey and taken a train from there. [Hi, I'm Kate, I'm a history nerd.])

    The first paragraph is kind of explain-y, especially the first sentence. I’d cut some of it and thrust us right into the action, and give us clues about the heroine’s background as we move through the narrative instead.

    But I’d love to see a Guilded Age/Edwardian-era romance novel, especially one that takes place in the US (although I was a little disappointed that the heroine is leaving New York).

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  15. Julia Sullivan
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 13:50:13

    I’m nth-ing everyone who says MORE RESEARCH NEEDED.

    And yeah, holy infodump, Batman!

    If her spectacles are sunglasses, they weren't invented by Foster until 1929.

    What? No, that’s totally false. What Foster invented was the polarized lens. Tinted and smoked spectacles for use in the sun and snow have been around in Europe and the Americas since the 17th century (and in China long before that).

    If she’s trying to hide her eyes in 1905, tinted spectacles would be the move.

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  16. theo
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 14:07:00

    @Julia Sullivan: I had something else posted here, but never mind. Not worth going into. Suffice it to say, had I seen her there at that time, wearing glasses like that inside a building, I’d have wondered what was wrong with her eyes and that’s what she was trying to avoid. Recognition of any kind.

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  17. A
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 14:25:22

    I love historical romances and I love 1905 (the clothes and underpinnings are SO gorgeous, one of my favorite periods to reenact.)

    This writing’s not bad, but the technicalities already cited by several responses (i.e. inconsistent descriptors, adverb excesses, info-dump beginning) could use some polish and tightening up.

    Tell us less, show us more. You don’t have to reveal everything on page one, you just have to reveal 1) what is relevant and 2) what is interesting (so we keep reading.)

    So far, I’m not interested in Dorothy McNair at all. I’m a smidgeon away from disliking her. On your first page she reads as feather-headed and condescending.

    Wasn’t there a lot of anti-Irish discrimination in New York in the nineteenth century? It’s hard for me to believe a family of Irish descent is now (1905) THE richest, most socially affluent family in New York/the world.

    It seems unlikely to me that Dorothy would actively relish being “the richest girl in the world” unless she’s noveaux riche, in which case all the money in the world won’t admit her to “Blue Book” society (although some of the “Blue Bloods” fallen on hard times might see her as a meal ticket.) People born to wealth and privilege usually don’t think about their wealth and privilege or crow over it because it’s normal to them. It’s people LACKING wealth and privilege who view them as exceptional.

    Assuming Dorothy is an educated woman (with all that money she ought to be educated)she should have SOME ideas as to what lays beyond New York, even though she may not have done much traveling in her own country. This is an era where geography was an important subject in school. Books and magazines on travel were very popular reading. Maybe Dorothy read a book about wild Texas outlaws and determined to visit Texas herself. Maybe a letter from a friend describes to her how beautiful springtime is in Savannah, and Dorothy decides to witness it herself.

    Unless Dorothy is stupid (she reads that way right now) or a lazy student (not an admirable trait in a heroine)she ought to have some kind of destination, interest in seeing a particular area of the country, etc. Having her show up at Grand Central Station and solicit staff and strangers for traveling advice crosses the line to TSTL. May I suggest Dorothy have this discussion with her own servants/staff or other more credible sources? Example: maybe in her travels through Europe she met a nice family from Vermont and their descriptions of their home excited Dorothy’s curiosity.

    Or maybe she chats with her maid or her housekeeper: “Mrs. Howard, if you could go anywhere in the country, where would YOU like to go?”

    Social custom at the time just doesn’t make Dorothy’s current behaviors and attitudes very credible.

    I apologize if my criticism sounds overly harsh. I think you’re a good writer and you can do better than this. Historicals are my pet genre, and they are not as easy to write well as detractors of the genre think. I heartily wish you well on this project. It has real potential if you invest effort in it.

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  18. Diana Peterfreund
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 14:32:04

    Oh, btw, for folks looking for Gilded Age romance, I recommend the LUXE series by Anna Godbersen. They are shelved in YA but are not “young” at all — they are about socialites in NYC at the turn of the century.

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  19. A
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 14:42:27

    @Diana Peterfreund:

    Diana, thanks for the rec. I adore Gilded Age romance. Am investigating right now.

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  20. Jaili
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 15:14:47

    @theo:
    I must admit that when I read the mention, I immediately assumed she was blind. Ack.

    It was the norm for most blind people of that period to wear tinted glasses. One famous example: Laura Bridgman, an American deaf-blind woman.

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  21. Elyssa Papa
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 15:41:16

    Like many others, I love the setting. New York. Gilded Age. Fabulous! (On a side note: I’d love to see more NY-set Victorian era romances.)

    You obviously know the period well, and seem to have a love for it. But, there are a few small things in which I think you can improve upon . . . to make us, the reader, truly invested in the world you create, and your heroine. I feel as if I should care more about her, and right now, there’s not enough for me to want to root for her.

    I think it’s too much info in the beginning. We’re getting too much thrown at us, and it’s too much, too soon. I’d rather have details parsed in through the first chapter. Show us instead of telling us things about her. I get the picture she’s careless when she doesn’t know what Columbus is like and she reminds me a little bit of a oh, let’s have a grand adventure heroine. I think I need to have some motivation as to why she’s like this. Her having money, or being a socialite, is not just enough imo.

    But why wouldn’t she know the outlay of NY if she traveled to all these other places? Is she just returning to NY, after a long absence?

    I think you have a story; I just think you’re starting in the wrong place. All this right now is backstory. Get to where things start to actually change for your heroine and go from there.

    Also, a small grammar thing. You have this:

    “Where do you think I should go?” she leaned forward. “I've heard so much of Buffalo at this time of the year.”

    “Say, miss,” the ticket seller frowned. “If you don't know where to, get out of the line until you do. You're holding up a lot of busy people.” He hooked a thumb at the line behind her. “Where to, sir?”

    And instead it could be:

    “Where do you think I should go?” She leaned forward. “I've heard so much of Buffalo at this time of the year.”

    “Say, miss”–the ticket seller frowned–”if you don't know where to, get out of the line until you do. You're holding up a lot of busy people.” He hooked a thumb at the line behind her. “Where to, sir?”

    Best of luck to you!

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  22. Julia Sullivan
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 15:57:44

    Suffice it to say, had I seen her there at that time, wearing glasses like that inside a building, I'd have wondered what was wrong with her eyes

    Oh, agreed. But I wonder that when I see people wearing modern sunglasses indoors as well!

    The “inside” didn’t occur to me because Grand Central wasn’t a building but a trainyard in 1905, as others have pointed out.

    It's hard for me to believe a family of Irish descent is now (1905) THE richest, most socially affluent family in New York/the world.

    “McNair” is a Scots name, not an Irish name. Andrew Carnegie, one of the world’s richest men at that time, was a Scottish immigrant.

    But I think your question points out that, if Dorothy’s heritage is meant to be Scottish, she should have a more clearly Scots surname.

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  23. Marianne McA
    Jan 02, 2010 @ 16:24:17

    I could live with the eyes ‘concealed’ behind the spectacles: I didn’t think the author meant we literally couldn’t see the eyes, more that a striking feature was somewhat camoflaged – and similarly the repressed irrepressible curls wouldn’t bother me.
    ‘Imprinted’ in the first sentence sounded off to my ear. And personally, I could do without the second half of the first paragraph – the combination of ‘simple people’… ‘no doubt do very important things’ paints a nice picture of how she thinks in my mind – I don’t need more detail at that point. I’d rather stay in here-and-now at the station with her.

    However, if it is included, ‘nodding to acquaintances she barely knew and probably didn't like’ sounds (again)odd to my ear – if you barely know someone, how do you know it’s probable that you don’t like them? Would work if the character was written as miserable and Scrooge-like, but she seems a bit too sunshiny to hate people in general.

    The $25 wouldn’t bother me – whether it’s an adequate amount of money or not – if Dorothy’s got that wrong, I’d read it as an indication that she isn’t as well-prepared for her adventure as she thinks she is, rather than as a mistake on the author’s part.

    I’d read on: I like it.

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  24. Fae Sutherland
    Jan 03, 2010 @ 10:43:56

    Despite some of the same issues addressed above (the lengthy paragraphs, the ‘irrepressible’ hair, the infodumping) I love this.

    I don’t think the heroine is TSTL, I think she’s adorable. I chuckled out loud at her “Where do you think I should go?” bit because while it’s clear she needs a keeper (here’s hoping the hero shows up soon to fill that role), it’s not in an obnoxious “I think I know what I’m doing even though I really don’t” way. She’s clearly excited about her adventure and seems a sweet person. I’m also curious about the why of her adventure, which makes me want to read on.

    I like her a whole lot. I’d definitely clean up those first two paragraphs though, because I regret to say I might not make it past them in a bookstore and would hate to miss a story it sounds like I’d really like because of it.

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  25. M e 2
    Jan 03, 2010 @ 14:29:53

    Maybe she *only* took $25 because perhaps a larger amount withdrawn from her bank account would tip her family off to what she is/was up to?

    ReplyReply

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