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First Page: Historical Romance, Titled Haunted

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Essex, England 1789

Elsie picked another flower. Her fist was full of them already, but she didn’t want to return home. She squinted up at the sky. Already it was darkening, and that meant her brother would be home soon.

Mother had the illness again. It would be loud there, with Mother moaning and wailing and Father shouting at her to stop. Only William could set her right.

So she jammed the stem in with the others and walked along the cracked stone walls of the Abbey. She would give William the flowers. Elsie-girl, he would smile, beautiful flowers from a beautiful girl. And he would twirl her about.

Except her shadow lengthened on the grass, and she worried. She might get in trouble. Worse, she might encounter the ghost. They said the Saint of Osyth was a witch in life and a ghost in death, walking the Abbey once a year. William said she wasn’t real, but Elsie didn’t want to chance it, so she turned toward home.

Rain touched her face and she sped up. She would definitely be in trouble now.

Elsie saw it as she passed the gatehouse, a flash of black through a missing stone in the wall. The ghost! She dashed away from the Abbey, even though it would take her the wrong way. Away from home and into the woods.

Footsteps thudded behind her and the wet wind slapped her face, but she ran and ran. Her shoe slipped on mud and she fell, sliding down into a wet ditch. A rock banged her head and her leg twisted.

She looked up at the dark figure above her, looming wet and large. Her head hurt very much, and the dark of the night closed in on her. But her last thought, as the figure tripped its way down the bank, was surprise that the ghost was not a woman after all, but a man.

#

The Honorable Viscount Sheldon was in a foul mood. He should have been at a rout, courting a young miss or two and stealing kisses in the courtyard. Instead he traveled in a smelly, bumpy coach on a stormy night.

After a mere six months of freedom, William was coming home. He’d been summoned, no doubt because his mother was speaking in tongues or screaming obscenities.

He had tried to be the good son, forsaking both play and his studies to remain by her side. He rushed home every break between terms and suffered her pleas when it was time to leave. No, he’d tell her, Father does not have a secret plot to kill you. Elsie does not wish you dead. The servants do not slip poison into your food.

It was only in the past few years since he’d graduated, when he’d chafed at the damp jail of a house did the most unkind thought occur to him, that maybe he was the one who wished her gone. So he’d implored his father to let him join his ex-schoolmates in London, to experience bachelor life before he settled down to marry.

She is inconsolable. You must return.

That’s what the note had said, so here he was.

A drawn out lurch ended his trip. He peered out at the familiar manse. Its three stories were cavernous considering the family of three, now four, who lived here. The only building nearby that could rival it for size was the Abbey, but that was a falling down pile of rubble. As well as haunted, if one believed the stories, which he didn’t.

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

21 Comments

  1. Donna
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 07:15:41

    The repetition of “already” in the first paragraph made me wary. Then she behaves like a ninny. Or a 1950s B-movie heroine. First she is frightened by a flash of black (?), then she runs away from safety, and tumbles into a ditch. This is not a heroine I can get behind.

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  2. Katie
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 07:18:00

    The writing was fluid but it did not grab me at all. Too much telling, show me how she felt and skip the info dump.

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  3. E
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 07:45:23

    I agree that there is too much telling, too little showing. I can’t gauge the girl’s age. That being said, I’m intrigued by a story depicting mental illness in the 18th century and would read more.

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  4. Lil
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 07:59:06

    I do love a ghost story, and there are some intriguing elements here. However, I find myself questioning all sorts of wrong things.

    Is Elsie a child? She sounds about six years old. But her brother seems to be in his 20s. Is this right? Why is she wandering around by herself?

    The Saint of Osyth was a witch and is a ghost? How can a witch be a saint? And if the ghost only walks once a year, doesn’t Elsie know when that is?

    If her brother is a viscount, her father must be at least an earl, in which case she is Lady Elsie, no? Is her name really Elsie or is this short for Elizabeth? I confess the name Elsie always makes me think of the cow.

    Also, I think there is something wrong with the way the brother is introduced. I think the Honorable would only turn up on the envelope in formal correspondence, but I may be wrong.

    “Graduated” sounds wrong for the brother. Left school, perhaps. Or took his degree.

    It seems odd for a viscount in 1789 to be considering his house too big. Complaining about the damp is one thing, but not many aristocrats considered their homes to large or imposing.

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  5. Melissa
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 08:19:56

    Is Elsie a small child here? If she is 10 years old or younger at this point of the story, then her behavior seems fine. If she’s an adult heroine, I’m with Donna. Save me from TSTL heroines! I do think it’s a problem that there is no clear indication of Elsie’s age.

    I agree there is too much telling. A whole book with this much telling would be a DNF for me.

    I found the mother’s situation interesting. I would read a little further to see if Elsie is a child and if the author does more showing.

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  6. SAO
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 08:35:49

    Elsie is either a child, a ninny or both and I don’t want to read about a ninny. Plus, she seems to be the sister of the hero. If you are going to introduce a man and a woman, you should be clear that they are brother and sister, since the convention holds that they are hero and heroine and will be romantically in love by the end.

    Viscounts aren’t called The Honorable Viscount. The title is just plain the Viscount. Next, since his father is alive, and the heir gets a lower title as a courtesy, his father has to be an earl, duke, or marquess. In that day and age, those titles came with significant expectations of entertaining and huge servant staffs. Even if they are not entertaining because of mad Mom, they need to keep up appearances.

    Since those titles came with huge estates, there weren’t families of any similar rank nearby. Hence, it was obviously the biggest house around. If you’ve ever trooped around the houses of the Dukes and Earls, they are generally a lot closer to huge housing complexes than big houses. You can probably take an on-line tour of some of them. I’d advise it.

    And, of course, Elsie’s apartments or the nursery would probably be far enough away that Mad Mom’s raving would not be noisy. Elsie probably has a nanny who has been a lot more like a mother than Mad Mom, so her upset at the ravings is less than someone who had a maternal mother and no surrogate.

    However, the point is, you have made the family sound like modern day middle class Americans, rather than a relatively high-ranking peers of the late 1700s.

    If you want to write a historical, get the details right.

    On the plus side, I like the conflict of dealing with a schizophrenic Mom, as long as you get the madness right, too.

    I’d nix Elsie and start with Will.

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  7. RBrose
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 09:18:22

    Ha! First impression was that I wondered if Essex girls were as infamous in the 18th century as now (they have a truly awful reputation today!).

    My issue is with how many times “Elsie” is used.

    I do despise seeing American spelling in books set in England, but then I suppose most HR readers are American and don’t know any better.

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  8. Author
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 09:19:22

    Thanks all. Yes, I think I need to cut the Elsie bit. She was a child and not the heroine. I was resistant to pulling it for certain reasons but oh well, it’s got to go. Thanks again.

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  9. Liz Talley
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 09:35:31

    I don’t think you have to lose the “Elsie” bit – I sort of like the introduction to a “ghost” story set up in this manner, but it’s so short that you need to expand it to include what many of the above readers recommended – a showing of the girl’s fear. Once she sees the flash of black and thinks “ghost” then you need to give better reactions and details of her fleeing into the woods. It’s the perfect place to climb into her shoes and feel the fear. This would give you a nice set up for establishing the “ghost,” and I think the juxtapostion of presumed evil with presumed innocence is a nice touch.

    As for the historical accuracy, there were some good calls by readers but easily fixed with a few tweaks.

    I thought it was Gothically intriguing, and I would have kept reading.

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  10. Twila Price
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 10:01:00

    I thought it was more like a mystery opening, so Elsie was actually killed at the end of it. In that case, it doesn’t really matter that she was TSTL, ’cause she’s not around any more.

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  11. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 10:10:28

    So the Elsie part has gone. I won’t comment on that. The second part is all backstory. You have to put yourself in the reader’s place and ask, “Why should I care?” The answer is to this piece, no reason.
    Start with a hook, something actually happening. Starting a book with a character heading to a destination, whether it’s car, train, carriage or whatever, thinking about why they’re going there, is not only a cliche, it’s boring.
    Having said that, I admit I’ve started a few stories that way myself, but usually, that’s because something happens (in one Richard and Rose story, they’re held up, and an important piece of jewellery gets stolen, for instance). Start where the story starts, not before.
    And if the hero really thinks of himself by his title, he’s a pompous ass. If you’re in his pov, start with “Sheldon” (anybody else with The Big Bang Theory here, or is it just me?)
    Have I seen this before somewhere? It just seems vaguely familiar. Perhaps it’s the Elsie. Not a name often seen before the Victorian era, so unusual in this setting.

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  12. Annette
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 10:53:42

    I thought Elsie’s voice made it perfectly clear that she was a little girl. No problem there for me. And it was also clear that William was her brother – it was stated in the beginning.

    I find it difficult to judge whether or not to take the Elsie part out – clearly the author knows why that scene is there, and it has to do with the ghost who presumably is a significant part of this story. I think it’s extremely difficult, after reading only a first page, to tell an author that the story is not starting in the correct place. Sometimes the problem might be execution rather than the choice of the scene. As it is, I would read on to find out more about the ghost and the mother, so IMO two intriguing aspects of the story have already been introduced. And William has been introduced as a good guy who has been thrust into a difficult and painful responsibility, which I also find interesting. As far as accuracy, I don’t know enough about the historical setting to comment on any of that. I’m not saying this excerpt can’t use a bit of polish (and I agree with showing more rather than telling here), but I did enjoy this excerpt as written. I wish the author good luck with this.

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  13. Carolyn
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 16:37:43

    I too thought it obvious Elsie is a child and it was stated in black and white that William was her brother. I had no problem with her leading off the first page, except as others have said, you need to get into her feelings more when she panics and runs.

    I had no huge problem with this piece. No grieveous mistake snagged my eye and took me out of the story. It read very smoothly for me.

    Good luck with it, author.

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  14. Kelly L.
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 17:53:04

    I liked the Elsie thing, figured she was a child, but figured she was the heroine and that this was a prologue and she’d be a grown woman when the real story started. But when she turned out to be the hero’s little sister, I think it may have been too much focus on a character who won’t be one of the leads.

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  15. Syd
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 19:28:30

    Having the flowers in her fist made it clear right away that Elsie was a child to me.
    It’s personal taste but I’m not wild about through a child’s eyes starts. I rarely read past them. There are some hinky commas as well.
    If you gave me more of William’s voice / thoughts rather than reports of them, I might engage more with him. I want to like him and to understand his dilemma, but he’s almost rote in his feelings.

    Manse makes me think of a cleric’s house, not a landowner / aristocrat’s — mansion might work better. That may be a English versus American thing though, but manse in England was the house provided to a minister.

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  16. eggs
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 20:06:48

    You’ve got some good advice already. I just wanted to reinforce the opinion that I too am intrigued by a book in which the matriarch of the hero’s family has a mental illness. It already sounds much more interesting than the regular catching a husband/avoiding marriage historical romance. Excellent idea!

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  17. SAO
    Dec 17, 2011 @ 22:24:06

    I’m pretty sure in accounts from the time, what we would call a mansion is referred to as an ‘ancestral pile’ or just a pile.

    A manse is the residence of a minister (I looked it up in the dictionary, but you should have done so) and therefore, nowhere near as big as the houses of peers in England.

    I looked up two Viscounts, I forget the titles, but in 1880 (the year for which I had data) one owned 33,000 acres and had an income of 100,000L (this definitely makes him a multimillionaire in today’s money, possibly a billionaire, depending on where his acres were.) and the other 13,000 acres with an income of 25,000L. Note, your viscount, having a live father, is likely to be the son of someone with a higher rank (and perhaps bigger estate) than a viscount.

    This comes from an appendix from The Isles by Davies, so you can go to your library and look up these guys. I think Debretts is still around and still publishing.

    You can get away in America with getting all these details wrong, but a bigger publisher won’t want the Brits to laugh at you. Since they live next to these properties, can visit a huge number of them (when we lived in England, we probably trooped around some mansion once a month) and those viscounts still have substantial property and money, they’ll know you got it all wrong and on page one.

    I think you can get away with getting a lot wrong in historicals, but I’m worried about so much I can find on your page one. I’m not an expert, by any means. I just lived in England for a few years.

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  18. Karen
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 01:06:27

    If Elise is a little girl, and not the heroine then I think her part should be taken out as people tend to identify with her more than the heroine who will no doubt show up later and cause a conflict of interest amongst the readers.

    When I read Elise’s bit first and saw her brother the “Viscount” ( for only the aristocrats can be hero’s despite there being only a couple of hundreds of noble ranks in total… kind of like a whole genre of books written where the hero’s could only be members of Congress), I thought there might be some incest involved as he was given all the overblown traits a rake with secret STD’s.

    Am I right in guessing that the “ghost” or whatever actually turns of to be our virginal heroine?

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  19. Janice
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 01:08:50

    If Elise is a little girl, and not the heroine then I think her part should be taken out as people tend to identify with her more than the heroine who will no doubt show up later and cause a conflict of interest amongst the readers.

    When I read Elise’s bit first and saw her brother the “Viscount” ( for only the aristocrats can be hero’s despite there being only a couple of hundreds of noble ranks in total… kind of like a whole genre of books written where the hero’s could only be members of Congress), I thought there might be some incest involved as he was given all the overblown traits a rake with secret STD’s.

    Am I right in guessing that the “ghost” or whatever actually turns of to be our virginal heroine?

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  20. Maili
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 05:40:22

    Everyone else already said what I’d say, so I will just focus on this tiny bit I want to highlight. “Her fist was full of them already” – I find this rather jarring. Shouldn’t it be “her fist was already full of them”?

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  21. Abbie Rhoades
    Dec 18, 2011 @ 14:20:59

    Hello Writer of Haunted.

    Let me begin by saying that in my day job I’m a mental health counselor. So I’m more picky about mental illness being portrayed accurately, than the average reader.

    “…with Mother moaning and wailing and Father shouting at her to stop.” When I read this I thought the mother was in physical pain. It wasn’t until I read– “He rushed home every break between terms and suffered her pleas when it was time to leave. No, he’d tell her, Father does not have a secret plot to kill you. Elsie does not wish you dead. The servants do not slip poison into your food.”–that I understood you meant mom to be mentally ill.

    Most mentally ill don’t moan and wail unless they’re in pain. The paranoia is much more accurate. And regarding research; make certain you are having the family treat the mother in an historically correct way. For many years the mentally ill were thought to be possessed by the devil–Think Salem Witch Trials. At some point that shifted to keeping them hidden away from everyone, or they were tortured to get them to ‘behave correctly’, or sent to insane asylums or workhouses where they were also tortured. Mental illness was not understood back then.

    I’m not that educated about this time period and women’s equality, but it makes me wonder why both the father and son are tolerating the mom’s behavior and haven’t just locked her away or put her in an asylum. Or at the very least have the local doctor sedating her with something–if that existed back then. Again something to research.

    I do apologize for being picky about this issue. But if you portray the mom correctly, it’s a very intriguing concept.

    Good luck and keep writing.

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