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First Page: In the Company of Stones — Historical Fantasy

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 Centila opened and closed her fingers, staring at the wagon cover arching overhead. There, black eagles winged through a painted sky sprinkled with golden crosses. Centila pretended her hands were a great bird, twisting them this way and that, sailing up into the clouds. She wanted to fly far away, to soar up into that blue, blue sky.

“Gisella?” Queen Hildegard called out from the next wagon. “Gisella – I need to get up.”

Centila’s wagon rocked as Gisella, her nurse, rose to answer Hildegard’s call. “A shame to drag that poor girl – all of fifteen and big with child — up the mountains in a wagon,” Gisella muttered. She quickly tied back her hair, and covered it with her veil.

Centila made a face. She did not care how her new mother fared, this dark haired, long nosed Hildegard. She did not know why, but Hildegard would not let her see her father.

Centila had been born in 768, the year Papa was crowned. “They made me King of the Franks because of you,” her Papa would say as he lifted her up.  “You’re my luck.”  But Centila’s real mother had gone away, and Hildegard came, and now she couldn’t see Papa any more.

“Gisella, where are you?” Hildegard’s call came louder now, more querulous.

The bird made of fingers swooped down to peck Hildegard’s head.

“Coming,” Gisella called. She tucked a circlet atop her veil to hold it in place, and turned to Centila. “Stay with your little brother and sister. I won’t be long.”

“I don’t want to,” Centila said.

“Do it anyway.” A shaft of light lanced into the wagon as Gisella lifted the entry-flap. The wagon rocked again as she descended.

Her little brother’s breath caught, then slipped deeper into grunts and snores. She watched the misshapen arch of his ribs rise and fall with each breath, every bone visible under his thin skin. Pepin lay as loose-limbed as a puppy.  Centila rolled her eyes and flopped back onto her pallet.  She did not understand why, after Pepin was born, her mother had to go to the convent. But she hated him for it.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and 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


  1. Cara Ellison
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 05:05:46

    I think this is interesting, but I got hung up on the name Centila. It sounds like “scintilla” which is a strange association to make with a name.

    I like the imagery – it is very striking – but there is something about the rhythm that seems a little off to me. I’m not sure what it is, but maybe it is that every line reads the same length?

    I love the last line. I’d keep reading.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 06:58:05

    I enjoyed some of the description – especially the sense of movement of the wagons, rocking around as they must have. And I feel like I’m getting a good feeling for the characters, which is impressive considering that you’ve introduced quite a few in a short space.

    And I think the back story is blended in fairly well, but there’s still a LOT of back story. And it comes at the expense of any action. Our MC hasn’t done anything but daydream, and while the secondary characters have been introduced, they haven’t done much either.

    For me, it’s solid writing, but not gripping enough to make me want to read on. Is there something more dramatic that could be the opening scene?

  3. Anon
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 07:14:04

    Charlemagne´s daughter, right? I got that slowly and and it interested me at once BUT the 768 date felt a bit too like data dump. For me at least.

  4. Milena
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 07:34:15

    The setting is lovely (I love Charlemagne!), but there is a bit too much data dumping. Would anyone really say “A shame to drag that poor girl — all of fifteen and big with child — up the mountains in a wagon,”? It would read more naturally, to me, if you just had something like “A shame to drag a pregnant girl up the mountains.” We don’t really need to know she’s fifteen at this point.

    The same with the date: whose POV is it? If it’s Centila’s, would she really think about her year of birth? I have the same problem, often trying to cram too much info in the first three pages… and it’s easier to see it in someone else’s writing.

    Apart from that, I love the idea of a Charlemagne fantasy, and would definitely read on, at least for a while.

  5. Mary Anne Graham
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 08:32:14

    I thought the writing was quite good but I’m not sure it’s the best first scene. If it’s Centila’s story then I really want it to kick off with a strong dose of what she’s doing or what she’s feeling. I want to identify with her from the get go.

    Right now I have the feeling that Centila whines too much. I bet that’s not true, but it’s how this scene made me feel.

    This appears to be a book that could go places. I also think the author has a gift for inviting readers into her world. I just think she might pick a different opening so that readers want to make the journey.

  6. Maili
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 10:35:28

    Nice but I find it a bit confusing read, I’m afraid.

    I think it’s this bit that threw me off: “She did not care how her new mother fared, this dark haired, long nosed Hildegard.” I think it could work better if it has ‘that’ instead of ‘this’. I think it could be rephrased, actually. Something like “She did not care how that long-nosed Hildegard fared, even if she was supposed to accept her as her new mother.” (I can’t obviously write, but you get the idea.)

    Why does Centila’s nurse have to see Hildegard’s needs? Doesn’t Hildegard have her own staff? Particularly when she carries a king’s child?

    Also, Centila could see the details of a painted scene above, but when Gisella exists, there is a shaft of light which suggested it’s dark inside. Not a biggie, though.

  7. Kathryn
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 11:00:26

    My field is the later medieval period not the early middle ages, but mentioning the year also felt off to me–I’m fairly sure that the average person in the early middle ages probably wouldn’t think in years from Christ’s birth, but more likely in years since the start of someone’s reign or years since a specific local event. And Centilla is fairly young here so even less likely that she would be so specific in her thoughts. I think that you can just say that Centilla was born the year her father was crowned the king of the Franks. The eternal evidence reveals that “Papa” is Charlemagne and therefore the date of his coronation is 768.

    And I also agree Centilla seems a bit off for a name for one of Charlemagne’s daughters. Too latinate–most of his family had germanic names. Why not just pick one from his family tree, say his mother’s name, Bertrada?

    And if Centilla is Pepin’s full-sister and older than he than her mother was Himiltrude (whose two known children are Pepin and Amaudru-who probably married the Count of Paris). Himiltrude probably was in a concubinage relationship or common-law marriage with Charlmagne. Charlemagne sent her away and married Desiderata, daughter of the king of Lombards in 770. That marriage was annulled after a year and Charlemagne then married Hildegard. So technically Himiltrude was set aside for Desiderata not Hildegard. Don’t know how important this all is because I don’t know how much you plan to “fantisize” the history.

  8. Emily
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 13:22:47

    I assume that Centilla as a name is supposed to be just similiar enough and reminiscent of Cinderella. After all she has a step mama, and step? half siblings. Her step mama is pregnant. Also as they drive into the countryside, I can Centilla being mistaken for someone accompanying the queen and treated as a servant. Or they’ll end up somewhere so isolated Centilla will have to a lot of work.
    Just because its slightly predictable doesn’t make it bad. People love alt versions of Cinderella. I say keep going.
    I do agree there are problems with POV and her whininess. Also this could be the beginning of chapter 2.
    I am surprised no one has mentioned the Cinderella thing so far. I missed Charlemagne though, the year meant nothing to me. Keep in mind this is historical fantasy. Historical fantasy can be tricky because if the fantasy is subtle; you’re left with dueling levels of reality. If you put a real year in people are more likely to pick for inaccuracies. I noticed with another historical fantasy (and Cinderella story) Eloisa James’s A Kiss at Midnight where she used a real year and then historical inaccuracies ensued, which all she had to do to avoid them was not mention the year.

    Good Luck! I think your story has potential.

  9. DS
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 15:01:59

    If the plot is going to diverge too far from the actual history of Charlemagne and his family the author might want to just rename everyone and base the setting on the 8th century events. I remember one review on AAR (?) where the reviewer had a fit about the bad research when it was really an alternative history novel. Henry VII’s son Arthur had lived to take the throne.

    My first thought was that I didn’t remember a daughter of Charlemagne named Centila and the name felt wrong. I also thought the character sounded whiny but she would have been about 5 years old at that time and that may be just part of her maturation process.

    I remember reading at least one historical fantasy by Judith Tarr set in Charlemagne’s court and (although I can’t find it right now so I may have imagined it) I think she wrote one featuring Rolande. There’s a lot of characters and intrigue to work with.

  10. Marc
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 00:45:08

    I found it intriguing (I love historical fiction and I think your time period is well chosen) but also fairly confusing.

    Granted I’m a little jet lagged but I kept having to re-read it to figure out what was up. Things like “new mother” instead of “step mother” but also bigger things like so many characters in such a short space. You might want to down play the nurse for instance so that she is more in the background and not speaking just yet. Could still establish her character by how she acts, gestures, meets Centila’s eyes, touches her etc.

    I agree with many of the other comments like avoiding the date dump or her specific age. If you establish she is pregnant and young, it’s close enough for the first few pages. Saying 15 doesn’t add that much more.

    For the date, it is tricky since it would be an anachronism to call Charlemagne “charlemagne”; not sure if Carolus Magnus was in use by this date, probably not. But you could establish the timeframe closely enough by mentioning Roland (who I think would be five years dead at this point. Maybe she’s thinking of a song she heard about him or someone outside the wagon is singing the song.)

    Good luck! Interesting premise.

  11. Wahoo Suze
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 01:28:41

    Yes, Judith Tarr, His Majesty’s Elephant!

    “[Tarr’s] latest phantasmagory takes readers back to the Middle Ages and the court of Charlemagne as it never was (but probably should have been). Charlemagne’s daughter, Rowan, teams up with Kerrec, a Breton boy with magical powers, and an equally magical elephant named Abul Abbas, a gift to the emperor from his friend, the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid. Together, this unlikely trio struggles to thwart a supernatural plot against the ruler’s life.” Lifted from Amazon’s page.

  12. Karen
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 12:59:40

    Thanks to all who took the time to comment. You nailed things that I’d had hovering in the back of my mind but couldn’t quite see. Great crit!

  13. Karen
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 13:06:01

    @Kathryn: I did find one obscure reference to Centila as a possible daughter of Charlemagne. The ref was: Bertha/Centila? – possibly a nickname or a deceased twin. Who knows? However, the sound of the name seems to be a stumbling block, so I will probably just choose another name. Thanks.

  14. SAO
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 00:46:15

    Centilla was passive and not in control of her fate. If she’s a small girl, that might be realistic, but it is hard for me to get all that interested in a char who is acted upon instead of acting. She wasn’t even interacting with any of the characters in the scene. She also wasn’t nice, she actively disliked two of the other chars and was indifferent to the third. To me, this is a bad impression to give on page one.

    I found a lot of the details unrealistic. In my experience, wagon is a term used for carrying stuff, not people. Between the creaking and the horses’ hooves could conversation between two carriages be heard at less than a loud shout? How wide were these wagons and how wide was the road? If the wagons were wide, their were heavy and needed at least 4 horses, making the road very wide indeed. Medieval city streets were very narrow and why would a street in the mountains be wider than a city street?

    If they were not wide, then Centilla, the nurse, and brother were pretty cramped. Limitations on how much weight a horse can pull make even the most luxurious of horse drawn conveyances not immense.

    Horses need to rest, so why would a child be on a bed in a wagon? Sitting is more comfortable and I doubt they are going to sleep in a wagon. Royalty is always offered beds in houses along the way, always the best house in the neighborhood. Even dukes would expect to sleep in the hayloft and give up a bed to an empress, if the duke had only one bed and bedroom.

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