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First Page – The Apprentice – Historical

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Six leagues from Bologna to Modena, an easy day’s ride unless you are leading three nuns, their chaplain, four nervous merchants with reluctant servants and a pack of fifteen mules. Not to mention two mutinous adolescents and the stout young monk with the wiry red hair and spectacles. It was mid-morning already, four mules had been unloaded and repacked, there were sure to be further delays on the road. The nuns would moan and whinge at every bump in the road, they’d agree to keep their lunch short but they’d certainly order the most complicated dishes in the inn. Instant indigestion; the cavalcade would have to stop for the ladies and it would be dark with three hours to go before reaching Modena’s outskirts.

It was not quite ten when the ill-assorted gaggle trailed out of the Montanari stables and onto the road. Lolo was flanked by Brother Theo, the Scottish monk and her brother Giovanni. Fourteen and furious. Furious with her father, with her aunt, with her pain-in-the-neck brother and most of all with Theo and his bright ideas. There was no sign of lightning in the clear blue sky, no possibility that the hand of God would strike Giovanni down for whining or Brother Theo for his plotting and planning. No chance that plague or boils would afflict her inflexible, tight-fisted father or her loathsome, snake-eyed aunt. She’d evaded it for five years, but now, thanks to Brother Theo, she was finally convent-bound. The only reason she kept her horse close by Giovanni and Theo was because the alternative was to ride alongside the nuns. Standing with the women as the mules were packed and repacked had been quite enough.

For now, there was bright sunshine, a change after weeks of dismal rain, the trees were coming into leaf and it was hard to fester. Between them, Theo and Giovanni were keeping up a spanking pace. What Theo’s game was, she couldn’t work out, but a game he certainly had. He’d come to Bologna a year before. One morning, she and Giovanni had stumbled onto a scene of controlled chaos at the Montanari Palazzo, supervised by a, squat monk with a strange accent. 

“No, over there, and careful with that box, it has scientific equipment. For the love of Mary and all the saints, don’t drop that box, it’s got the marmot in it.” He caught sight of the two bewildered children in the doorway. “You, yes, you, come and give me a hand with this. Are you the cousins?”
He had heard of them. He lifted piles of books out of yet another box and said, “Take these up to the schoolroom, Fra Benedetto asked for them and it seemed quicker to bring them than send them by carrier. And when you’ve delivered them, come back, there’s more to take up, I’ve got a globe and an astrolabe. Hurry now.”

The stocky little Dominican friar was from the edge of the known world, exiled for clinging to his faith when all around him were flocking to heresy. He’d been educated not in his homeland but in France and Germany. He bustled and busied himself with reorganising the schoolroom, a task which the stalwart but elderly Fra Benedetto observed with gentle scepticism. What thrilled Brother Theo most was the discovery that Lolo was working for Ulisse Aldrovandi, Bologna’s greatest man of science. Theo intended the marmot as his passport to an audience with the old man. Lolo drew it huddled over its breakfast, presented the sketch that afternoon to Aldrovandi.

Faster than Theo had dared hope, he was invited to Aldrovandi’s extraordinary house crammed with exotica and curiosities. That was the first of several favours Lolo had managed for the monk. All apparently forgotten; her thanks was an escort to a life in a cloister. A cloister full of scheming, dissatisfied, frustrated creatures like Aunt Lucrezia, seething, erupting, interfering. 

If the anger dissipated, she would start weeping. So, despite the beauty of the day, Lolo tended her fury, fanned it and refreshed it with resentment and bitter reviews of all the injuries the world had ever done her. She did not really notice how far Theo, Giovanni and she had advanced ahead of the rest of the party. Not until the horsemen were heading towards them.

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

28 Comments

  1. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 05:54:12

    POV for the first paragraph is weird. Who is leading this group? Not Lolo, I don’t think? So who’s POV is it?

    Also some sentence structure issues – Fragments are pretty common in well-edited work, but comma splices aren’t, so you probably want to catch the comma splices. (I don’t really know why this dichotomy exists – don’t know whether splices jar me because I haven’t become accustomed to them, or because they actually are more objectionable somehow).

    Not sure “adolescence” was a concept during the time frame – looks like the word didn’t really take off until the early 20th century… https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=adolescence&year_start=1700&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cadolescence%3B%2Cc0

    Overall – I like the concept, but this felt too muddled. Toward the end I started to get into it, but the start was a hard slog. Part of it is that I can’t figure out who’s POV we’re in, part of it is that so MANY sentence fragments make things hard to follow. A sentence fragment is an incomplete idea, and I was looking for some completion. For example, in “Lolo was flanked by Brother Theo, the Scottish monk and her brother Giovanni. Fourteen and furious” it’s not clear to whom the sentence fragment applies. I initially thought it was Giovanni who was fourteen and furious, then I wasn’t sure, then eventually I figured it was Lolo. But I don’t want to have to fight that hard.

    Reading back over it the words fall more smoothly, and I can see the appeal of the style. But I shouldn’t have to read something twice in order to get the appeal. If other comments ran into the same snag, I’d recommend spending some time simplifying and clarifying.

    The setting is cool, though. I’m not sure of timeframe yet, so I can’t say whether Lolo’s level of freedom (before the start of the book) is possible, but I hope it is. I like the idea of a freespirited academic resisting efforts to tame her!

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  2. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 05:59:13

    @Kate Sherwood: For the record, I HATE not being able to edit. There’s that “who’s” in the very first paragraph, just staring at me, taunting me…

    WHOSE! WHOSE! WHOSE! (I’m trying to find an incantation to allow edits… will force of will be enough?)

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  3. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 08:18:36

    Hast been reading Dunnett recently?
    but it doesn’t have her verve or brilliance (then again, what does?)
    however, it is a bit odd. As others have said, the pov is off. Apart from the second paragraph you don’t seem to have one, despite the attempts at breaking the fourth wall.
    I really don’t understand why your heroine is averse to attending a convent. Medieval convents were the finishing schools of medieval Europe. They were one of the few ways a woman had of achieving independence and power. If she doesn’t want to become an obedient wife, then she should be cheering.
    The rest is scene-setting and backstory. when I write a book I do write all that in, but I also delete it when I come to edit. The backstory and scene-setting are placemarks for me, not for the reader, and when I edit, I get rid of as much as I can and try to incorporate it into the story instead.

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  4. cleo
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 08:49:19

    I’m intrigued, but like Kate Sherwood, I struggled to understand the set up and pov shifts, etc. I’m interested in finding out what happens, but you need to tighten the writing. You have something interesting here – but it needs polishing.

    I like the smart, scientific heroine. I’m not so fond of her bashing all the other female characters, but I’m willing to forgive it under the circumstances, if it’s not a habit.

    Most of the scene is set up or flashback. It seems passive. And what does Lolo want? I’m clear that she doesn’t want to go into the convent, but less clear on what she wants instead.

    @Kate Sherwood – I finally decided that Lolo’s brother Giovanni was 14 and furious, not Lolo. Which underscores your point – it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out.

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  5. Michele Mills
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 09:21:36

    I had to reread the first paragraph because it was so dense with information and logistics it was hurting my head. I kept going, but by the start of the second paragraph I was being bombarded with more names and places-without understanding which character’s pov I was in-sorry, I gave up.

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  6. jamie beck
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 10:42:04

    I agree with the others about this opening being crammed with too many details, names, and unnecessary backstory, while at the same time not really grounding us in salient details (time period, why exactly this crew embarked on this journey, etc.). You ended with a good story question (who are the threatening horsemen headed their way, and what will happen next), but I would go back and see if you can focus more clearly on Lolo (is she much older than her brothers or only slightly, does she want to go to Modena or not (and why), etc.). I think that will make us care more about her and her journey.

    Thanks for submitting! Best of luck to you.

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  7. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 11:02:19

    Hi Author and thanks for sharing:

    Pretty much take Kate’s comments and put them here, along with everyone else’s. I was confused with POv, who was fourteen and furious, and a bit muddled overall. And if Kate says you have issues with comma splices, pay heed.

    I would be interested in reading further, if the writing were a little clearer. I haven’t read much Italian historical fiction and I was interested in finding out who Aldrovandi was. I’ve been watching a BBC series about The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, so learning Aldrovandi is credited with starting Bologna’s Botanical Garden was a happy coincidence. I like to read about lesser known historical figures, providing the context is accurate.

    I echo the historical accuracy concern of some of your word choices as well. “Spanking” comes across as very British (I did do a cursory etymological search on it and it didn’t seem Italian.) That’s usually something that will take me out of a story pretty quickly and send me off on a search for accuracy. And then I tend to not believe the rest of the historical details.

    The only other comment is your first page introduces over a dozen characters, some by name, and some by reference. That’s a whole lot of people to keep track of. Even if you know you’re not going to mention the merchants or their servants again, we don’t. We have no idea from your first paragraph who is going to be important and who isn’t, so we try to remember all those names and connections. It gets wearying after a bit.

    I’m also in agreement with the convent comment by Lynne. There are times and places where girls went unwillingly but I don’t think it was always like that. Especially if she was supposed to go at nine. That makes me think she should be going to convent school, not to become a nun. But I could be confused over that as well. You do mention she’s going to a cloister. But then I’m confused as to why the nuns traveling with them are out of the cloister. That whole bit is muddled for me.

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  8. hapax
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 11:05:55

    As others have said, I’m predisposed to love this setup — assuming that I’m understanding what’s going on!

    Lolo is Italian (Bolognese?), right? So why “Brother” Theo and Fra” Benedetto? The words mean exactly the same thing. Similarly, I’m guessing from the reference to Aldrovandi, heretics and astrolabes that we’re in the sixteenth century — an odd time (but possible, I suppose) for a Roman Catholic to be getting an education in Germany (or even to be thinking of “Germany” as an entity, rather than, say, “Nuremberg” or “Cologne”).

    Also an odd time for nuns to be ordering dishes off a menu, rather than simply eating whatever the inn was serving that day (or, more likely, packing a midday meal and eating on the road)!

    Sorry, but these are the sorts of things that bug me in historicals…

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  9. SAO
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 12:43:28

    I really disliked the nuns portrayed as a bunch of whiners, causing delay. Lolo is slang in some latinate European language for breasts. The skip between them on the road and the backstory of packing was confusing as was the omniscient POV of sullen teens and Lolo’s POV.

    Tidy this up and you might have something promising.

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  10. theo
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 15:50:10

    I quit reading the first time at “whinge.” I don’t know if it’s the British equivalent of ‘whine’ but it threw me. The second try, I quit reading at ‘Brother Theo, the Scottish monk.” Why, you ask? Look at my name. Theo derives from the root name Theos which is about as Greek as you can get and which in fact, means ‘god.’ It is absolutely NOT Scottish, which my Scots gran reminded my mother of on a regular basis. So, two strikes to start with for me. The third was, who is narrating this backstory and scene description? I’m not sure I know.

    I’m sorry, this needs a lot of editing – For Me, though after reading the other comments, I find I am not alone.

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  11. hapax
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 17:21:41

    @theo: In all fairness, although “Theo” is certainly Greek in origin, it was not all that unusual for a monk to take a new name upon taking his vows, and there were all sorts of saints — various Theodores, Theodosiuses, Theophiluses (Theophili?) — that pious parents could have named a son after.

    I assumed that “Theo” was just a nickname. Honestly, the fact that he wasn’t named something stereotypical like “Fergus” or “Malcolm” is one of the things that rang very true to me!

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  12. theo
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 19:21:29

    @hapax: While I agree that often, they may take a different name, the monks in Great Britain were/are? primarily Benedictine in order. Because that has been a traditionally Roman Catholic order, I would find it more believable to read a name more in keeping with that. Unless this is taking place in the early 12th century in which case, maybe this monk is Theophilus Presbytr (Presbyter? Can’t remember the spelling for sure) and that, I’d read regardless!

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  13. Sunita
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 19:50:26

    @theo: It’s pretty clear this is set a few years after the Scottish Reformation, so in the late 16thC, and since Theo is escaping the Reformation, he’s almost undoubtedly Catholic. So it could be any number of Theos, including Theodore of Canterbury.

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  14. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 19:58:12

    @Sunita: I was dating it about then, too, but I was thrown off by Scotland being “the edge of the known world”.

    By the late 16th century, the world was known pretty much all around…

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  15. Sunita
    Aug 24, 2014 @ 20:02:00

    @Kate Sherwood: Me too, but if you think south-to-north, it kind of works.

    Sometimes I think we just have to trust the author. There are issues, e.g., friar v. monk, the grammatical and style issues you all have pointed out, but there’s something really fun and interesting going on here. I’d definitely read on.

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  16. Jorrie Spencer
    Aug 25, 2014 @ 11:04:32

    I like it. There’s an energy here that really caught my attention. Many questions raised, but since it’s too soon for them to be answered that’s not a problem for this opening.

    (I could work with the way the nuns were described since this is dipping into the point of view of a furious girl who does not want to identify with them. Though we don’t entirely know why yet.)

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  17. Zeba Clarke
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 05:55:47

    Can I just say a big thank you – I think I really understand now what isn’t working with this baby, and I’m going back to the drawing board with page 1… I know that voice and POV get better but this page is not working, and thanks to you guys I have a much better understanding of why and how and what I need to do.

    A couple of research points:
    1) This scene is set in 1599, when convents in the Papal States were in a state of mass protest against various clerics who were trying to insist on complete closure of the main convent orders, particularly in Bologna, where this is set. There are a couple of excellent books about the period and the music in particular, feuds between nuns, cardinals, bishops that even led to the nuns at one convent in Bologna taking the bricks that were being used to build a wall to keep them all in and hurling them at the wall-builders. My girl definitely does not want to be in a convent as thanks to the Reformation, fewer women were joining, those who were joining were under stricter ‘clausura’ measures than previously and all forms of creativity were being stifled, even the production of marzipan sweetmeats, one of the nuns’ chief sources of income. Additionally, nuns were feuding within the particular convent where she is destined, and she doesn’t want to be under the supervision of her evil aunt who is the choir mistress. Additionally, Lolo isn’t entering as a wealthy young aristo with a healthy dowry, she’s entering as the daughter of a reasonably wealthy artisan, but her father is stingy and won’t pay a decent dowry, so she’s essentially entering as a member of the servant class, and under the supervision of her aunt.

    This was all in backstory stuff that I cut and have scattered elsewhere. The nuns in the passage are on their way to a sister convent in Modena because of a plague scare – again, that’s clarified in pages 2-3.

    2) Theo is indeed an exile from Scotland. He was one of the Blackfriars (Dominicans) of Edinburgh, he’s had to travel around to scrape by which suits him fine as he doesn’t particularly enjoy monastic life. Theodore was not his initial given name, which was Sandy (Alexander). And there are Theos in Scotland, I was at university with them in Aberdeen, two male, one female. But in this case, it’s the name he adopted at ordination. I think at this stage, Scotland would still have been perceived as pretty remote and uncivilised.

    3) Lolo is modern slang for breasts in French – apparently. But both DH and I are fluent French speakers, with French friends, and I have taught a shed-load of French school boys over the past ten years, we read French newspapers and bandes dessinees, watch French movies and TV, including the terrific programme Pigalle about strip clubs in Paris, and ‘lolo’ as breasts was a new one to both of us. It may have been in the 1990s thanks to Lolo Ferrari and her enormous rack, featured on Eurotrash, but I have checked with French friends and they didn’t seem familiar with this usage either. Since heroine’s actual name is Apollonia after the patron saint of dentists, I am working on a nickname for her. I didn’t like Loni/Lonia as that sounds too much like loins and not like the kind of thing her little brother would have called her because he couldn’t pronounce her name. Lolo/Lola seems to be the most probable.

    Re ‘spanking’ pace – it’s a 1666 term for brisk/fast.

    The big points are that POV needs to be sorted out and the whole needs to be clearer and tighter. Many thanks.

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  18. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 07:15:40

    Groan. I knew that one day it would happen. Zeba, you are a great scholar, but that isn’t showing on the page. I got a big Chaucer vibe from this, in which case nunneries were flourishing and very popular. But the later date throws all that into confusion. Maybe because there’s no mention of the religious revolutions?
    A good way around this might just be to put the date in italics at the start of the story. Then expectations are different and people can sink into the story.
    what you have here is a “static” scene, where everybody is standing about and nothing much is happening. It’s an introduction. You might be better starting by plunging right in to the first thing to happen, the inciting incident that starts everything rolling. Trust your reader – if she’s hooked, she’ll happily follow along.
    Though I’m afraid your pov does need a lot of straightening out.

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  19. Sunita
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 09:02:41

    @Zeba Clarke: Thanks for commenting, it’s great to get more author input on these first pages. I’m glad to hear I got the timing more or less correct. It sounds like a really interesting project, and I hope you’ll keep us posted.

    @Lynne Connolly: I agree on the POV issues. I disagree completely that the setting is ambiguous. The author has given us *several* clues as to the timing: (1) describing Aldovandi as an “old man”; (2) telling us Brother Theo is Scottish; and (3) mentioning his exile during a time of “heresy.” I’m not a scholar of the period and even I figured out that (3) meant the Scottish Reformation. A google search of Aldovandi, one click to the Wiki entry, and I had a time period within 25 years. That’s pretty much a road map.

    As a regular reader of historical fiction, I enjoy puzzling out the context of a story. Sometimes an exact year, right at the beginning, is *too* specific.

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  20. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 11:52:40

    @Sunita: Scotland had a history of heresy. The Scottish Reformation started about forty years before 1599. But with the train of people, it had a strong Chaucer vibe for me. But if you enjoy puzzling it out, then go for it, but I don’t really like being pulled out of a book in order to consult a reference book. Generally I read in ebook format, so I’ll make a note and look it up later, if I’m interested. And the Dunnett echoes (the Niccolo books rather than the Lymond ones) also sends me back too far. It might be wrong, and they are both literary references, but I would have read along and been put right later, then had to revise everything I was thinking. But you do bring up an interesting point. Do people prefer to guess the date, or have it provided for them?

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  21. theo
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 12:43:52

    @Zeba Clarke: While I agree that there are Theo’s in Scotland, there are also Angus’s here in the US. My point was, the era I was guessing this was coming from was not so much an era that I would expect to see the name Theo in. However, I was off on my guess in which case, I have to agree with Lynne. I don’t want to have to guess. If I then get two or three or twelve chapters in and find that I’ve been picturing everything in one era and am wrong, I may just stop reading. I don’t like those kinds of surprises in a book and I think they’re unnecessary. Don’t every assume all readers will be as familiar with an era as you might be.

    I’m also not one to stop and look something up. It pulls me out of a story that I think I should be immersed in so again, I have to agree with those who would rather know better up front than have to stop, look things up then continue reading. That’s like sticking a commercial in a movie I paid $12 to see at the show. For ME! Not everyone agrees and that’s expected. I’m just sayin’…

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  22. Carol McKenzie
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 12:54:44

    @Lynne Connolly: I’d prefer the date up front. Otherwise I would go looking up something on the page to find out where I am in history. And then I’m taken out of the story for that instant (and because I tend to wander on searches, I’d end up being away from the actual story so long I might lose interest. Looking up Aldovandi the other day took me to botanic gardens in Italy, then to Kew, then to King George, and then to porphyria, manic depression, and vampires.)

    I’d rather know than, as Theo says, have to rethink everything I’d read once the time was made clear.

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  23. Mara Allen
    Aug 26, 2014 @ 17:01:40

    Zeba, I think your first page is interesting. I liked Lolo and your setting makes me want to read more. I hope you won’t dumb anything down to suit certain readers. Let them think. Thinking is good for them. And reading between the lines is a lot more fun than having every little fact spelled out.

    I hope also you’ll let DA know when this is published. I’d love to read it.

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  24. Kaetrin
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 00:59:50

    I’m curious to read more of the story. I agree about the POV issues.

    As to the date, wouldn’t the blurb likely clarify any questions? I feel like a lot of people are expecting the first page to serve as a summary of the story which seems unfair.

    For myself, I don’t want all the information on the first page. I’m happy to wait a little while and let things fall out. I expect that the blurb would have given me sufficient context to read on. If I get halfway into the book and I haven’t a clue what’s happening that’s another thing. But on page 1 I expect to have questions.

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  25. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 06:32:10

    I think there are some readers who read historical romances with the focus on the history, and others who read them focused on the romance.

    I’m one who focuses on the romance – I want the history to be accurate, but I want it to be a backdrop. For me, a precise date right at the start is no more necessary than it would be to put the precise town in which a contemporary is set right at the start. For me, it’s enough to just let the setting be the backdrop, not the main flavour.

    But obviously there are at least some readers who feel otherwise! I have no idea of the relative size of the different groups…

    I would say that it doesn’t seem fair to act as if the writing is imprecise because of assumptions that one reader made. I’ve honestly never heard of Dunnett, and I didn’t get a Chaucer vibe at all. I mean, if the descriptions of the characters had matched those from Chaucer, then, yeah, but I’m not seeing any significant similarities. And this is clearly a much larger party making a much shorter journey…

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  26. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 27, 2014 @ 07:15:59

    @Kate Sherwood: When you know a bit about the history, you make certain assumptions, like the discussions above about the name Theo etc. It’s not something I do deliberately, it’s an automatic settling in.
    I got the Chaucer vibe because it was a bunch of disparate people setting out on a journey in a medieval-style setting, so my mind just hit on the late fifteenth century, almost on its own. My other reference would have been Boccaccio, from the same period, and neither would have been right. The church was very, very different then. Dorothy Dunnett was one of the best writers of historical fiction I have ever read (and I’m not alone in that! – but if you don’t like a challenging read, don’t read her. I know Zeba knows who I mean).
    For the period, the story is perfectly set, but many of us made assumptions based on earlier times. I prefer the date in italics at the beginning of a piece because it’s unobtrusive – I can read it and go “oh, okay,” and other readers can go “meh,” but it doesn’t force itself on to the page too much.

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  27. Robin/Janet
    Aug 29, 2014 @ 12:16:56

    Count me in as a reader who doesn’t need (or necessarily want) a specific date early on.

    One of the dangers, IMO, of these kinds of critiques, is that they can lead authors to believe that they have to get everything *right* on the very first page of a book. If that was the actual reading standard, I think I’d have finished reading very, very few excellent books over the years.

    In fact, one of the things I’ve been lamenting in my own reading lately is what I see as a rush to get everything out there early on, and a consequent lack of suspense in the reading experience. As manuscripts have gotten shorter, and things I wish would remain ambiguous or uncertain (especially in terms of relationship development) for a while, I’ve started to re-read some of the older books just to get that fix. I don’t mind the puzzle; I don’t mind having to look something up for confirmation once or twice; I don’t mind letting the setting unfold for me as I sink into the text. Sometimes I want nothing more than that kind of leisurely reading experience.

    And when it comes to dates and historical settings — which are very important to me when I’m reading historical Romance — for me a date can be problematic, especially if an author needs to fudge something to make the story work. Or if my perception or research has created a slightly different picture than the one presented in the book — even if both are technically accurate. Not that I object to a specific date — just that I don’t need it, and in some cases may find it more intrusive in my reading experience than a setting that suggests an era, decade, period, event or other range of days, weeks, months, or years.

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  28. Evelyn Alexie
    Sep 03, 2014 @ 12:44:56

    I liked the first sentence. It was well written and caught my attention.

    I agree with the comments above re pov, but all the same I like this enough to want to turn the page.

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