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First Page: The Reluctant Baron, 1733

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How much rum did soldiers receive in their rations the night before a battle? Enough to stiffen their resolve; not so much they couldn’t see straight. A man’s aim mattered naught with a volley of musket fire at stake.
Revenge required precision. Tom needed to fell his foe in a single shot.

A good thing he’d schooled himself to two bottles of wine last night. His brother had known how to buy Madeira. It was fine, indeed. Left him with barely a headache this too-early morning.

He raised his face from the table where he’d fallen asleep. An hour or two of nightmarish terrors, the Old Hag pressing the breath out of him, river monsters come to get him. Drink was a Devil, alone.

He ought to have followed his brother’s example. Ahh, he laughed wryly at that irony. He might have spent the evening in besotted revelry, with the company of brawling tavern mates and a sweet miss at his side, if not in his bed. More his wont, his father would say; if they were speaking.

Tom yawned, arched his neck, caught sight of the waxing moon through the window. The grey mist of dawn would soon settle on the narrow streets below.

He needed a chaser. Three fingers of West Country whiskey would do the trick. He splashed his glass full and sniffed deeply, admiring the heady fumes of Scottish malt before gulping it down.

A moan escaped him. The pleasure of liquor, or the pain borne of grief? Tom dropped his head onto the table again, with another groan – this: yes, pain – as his skull knocked upon the wood. He’d squeezed his eyes shut but now opened them with determination. He could focus just enough to follow the baroque whorls of russet and gold in the battered chestnut table where his head lay. A fine piece once, that. Wood felled from the Baron’s own estates in Fife. Many a dinner aet upon it, many a glass spilt.

Nae, he wouldna hae ano’er sip. His mind was slurred enough already. He let linger the taste of the last tantalizing drops.

What does one wear, when one may die before the sun is fully risen?

No! Tom would have confidence. His practice would bring victory, when the time came.

He stumbled to his feet and lit a taper, amazed his noxious breath didn’t set the room ablaze. He huffed in the cold air, tripped on the hearthstones, stabbed and thrust at the embers with the fire iron as if he were preparing for a swordfight instead of – this.

“Robin!” he called out gruffly to the servant. The boy was surely awake. Servants, like soldiers on campaign, and swindlers, and god-forsaken swine as he knew himself to be, all regularly rose before dawn. Ruffians, the lot of them.

The lad appeared in the doorway, head bowed. “Yes, Sir! Shall I stir thy fire, Sir?”

“No, no – too late for that,” Tom hmmphed. Then, trying for a measure of kindness, he softened his voice at the edges. “Warm me some water, and have Mrs. Caulfield send up coffee and bread.”

He sprawled against the mantel and massaged his temples. Would he did have a molly to give him a quick rub. Invigorating. Enervating.

The pot of bitter black coffee would have to do. He poured himself a mug and leaned upon the window casement. The room faced east; the light was gathering there.

He’d kept vigil with his brother’s spent, bloodied body in a room much like this. Two floors up, with bullet-glass panes making shadow patterns on the floorboards.

Why the devil had Alex challenged a damn’d Earl, instead of celebrating how he’d wooed that Scots lass and won her family’s regard? But they’d seldom confided in one another.

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

17 Comments

  1. Marianne McA
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 06:06:20

    I find myself nitpicking – wondering how you see the setting moon and the beginnings of sunrise through the same window – which means I’m not lost in the story.
    It’s not that I need the protagonist to be attractive, but he’s not caught my interest so far. Part of the problem is, I think, that I can’t get a handle on how drunk he is – he’s stumbling, barely able to focus, but his thoughts are coherent – he’s thinking about ‘baroque whorls’ which sets up a mismatch in my head.

    Also, fwiw, I didn’t understand ‘Invigorating. Enervating.’ I don’t know if he’s having an internal argument with himself over which it would be, or whether he’s thinking it would be both, one after the other. Normally I like it when an author doesn’t spell everything out, but I could use a hint as to what he’s thinking there.

    Sorry to be so nit-picky. On the bright side, I want to know what happens next, which is really the important thing.

  2. Lynne Connolly
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 07:14:26

    It’s a good start, I think, but you need some more about Tom and less about his surroundings. I appreciate that you’re trying to set up a scene, but maybe you’ve gone a tiny bit overboard with the descriptions.
    I want to know about Tom and I want to care about him. So far, I don’t. This is a “reaction” scene, not one of action, so its probably too contemplative for an opening page. But I think you could get away with it, if you beef it up with more of Tom. To be honest, since I don’t know how this story develops, I don’t know how to do it, and that’s partly because I’m not getting a strong sense of his character.

    And now for the historical nitpicks: btw, big ups on trying to get a real sense of history into the story.

    Soldiers didn’t receive rum – sailors did.
    Madeira is a sweet, fortified wine, so much stronger than ordinary wine and usually a dessert wine. It will for sure provide a horrendous hangover (I speak from experience!)
    Whisky (not whiskey, that’s something different) wasn’t commercially available until the 1840’s, and it certainly never came from the West Country (that’s Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall) . Whisky is only available from Scotland and the stuff that was available before the early 1800’s was clear and very nasty, a bit like moonshine. In this context, it might well be what you want, but you could add that it burns its way down. The West Country’s native drink is scrumpy (a lethal form of cider, and definitely not an aristocratic drink).
    The term “baroque” didn’t come into use until the second half of the eighteenth century.
    In this period, a molly was a man dressed as a woman, particularly for sexual purposes. Is that what you meant? In Shakespearean times it meant a prostitute, and later, it got back to that meaning, but not in the Georgian era.

  3. DM
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 07:43:57

    This is a scene of a character waking up in the morning. Pass.

  4. Patricia
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 07:48:22

    My two biggest problems with this: first, the ‘naughts’ and ‘naes’ and ‘wouldnas’ sound artificial. Nobody speaks like that these days, and I don’t believe anyone spoke quite like this in 1733, either. Keep the language simple and straight-forward and the focus will be on what your character is thinking instead of how he phrases it.

    Second problem: nothing happens here. Your character is drunk and feeling sorry for himself, but that’s about it. Also, his thoughts are hard to follow–I thought his brother was upstairs sleeping with a wench until he talked about his brother’s dead body. The disorganized thoughts may be appropriate for someone so drunk, but they make it hard to get into the character’s head and relate to him.

    I recommend you cut way back on internal rambling, get rid of the old-timey words, and move on to the real conflict more quickly. He’s about to fight in a duel, right? Focus on that. That’s what is really interesting about this piece.

  5. DS
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 08:39:07

    It took more energy to figure out what was going on than I have this morning. I did wondered though why someone would wake up after a night’s drinking and wouldn’t need to stagger near a chamber pot or something. I’m not particularly fascinated by excretory functions but there are just some occasions where the lack of reference is glaring.

    Also was coffee served in mugs then? I did a quick search and it seems the first reference to a mug of coffee (actually tea and cocoa too) was late 19th century in reference to a Chancery action as to whether or not a business was a coffee house as defined. The business name by the way was Tee-to-Tum which seems to have an interesting history of its own as a working man’s club with some reference to the temperance movement. Before then coffee usually appears as a cup of coffee.

    Sorry to go so OT, I usually don’t know where to stop.

  6. Nicci August
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 09:09:08

    I agree with the previous comments, and I also believe that you’ve probably started this in the wrong place entirely. The actual duel might be the best place to start. However, if you do decide to open with this scene, I believe you should delete (or move) that first paragraph and open with this: Revenge required precision. Tom needed to fell his foe in a single shot. A good thing he’d schooled himself to two bottles of wine last night. His brother had known how to buy Madeira. It was fine, indeed. Left him with barely a headache this too-early morning.

  7. LisaCharlotte
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 09:24:09

    @Lynn- completely off topic but my husband had Scrumpy Jack on a business trip to Lincoln (England) and has been looking for it in the states ever since. No luck finding it so far.

  8. SAO
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 09:38:23

    These lines, “A man’s aim mattered naught with a volley of musket fire at stake.
    Revenge required precision. Tom needed to fell his foe in a single shot,” made me think, ‘ooh, good, this is going to be my kind of book’, but,

    1) Tom needs precision, unlike the musketeers, but Tom got drunk instead. This is the first thing you tell me about Tom and it doesn’t make me respect him.

    2) He thinks about what his brother would have done. Even Tom doesn’t think much of Tom and you helpfully tell us his father doesn’t either.

    3) Tom has even more alcohol, when he needs precision and might die before the sun is up, which I presume means any minute now. Although you next say, “His practice would bring victory when the time came,” as if the time were well off, but frankly, if he’s hung over and drinking whiskey, he’s stupid to think practice will carry him through.

    4) Nothing in his meandering, drunken thoughts about the quality of the table and his brother’s fondness for mollies, suggests the drive to achieve a result. So, while he says he wants revenge, you’re not showing us the thought process of someone driven to actually achieve revenge.

    In short, Tom looks a lot like a loser to me. Which is a pity, because there’s a lot about this opening that I could like. I think you need to start somewhere else. If you start with cold hard resolve to mete out revenge for an injustice and Tom achieves it, then he can lapse into drunken tributes to furniture and I’ll stay with him.

  9. evie
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 11:09:33

    Just wanted to say that although I agree with the above comments regarding historical detail and the fuzziness of Tom’s thoughts and motivations, I do like Tom, and I don’t think this scene is necessarily a bad place to start. I would have read on. I’m always excited to see a Georgian setting.

    The scene just needs to be cleaned up and focused and shortened. The more quickly you can move from his waking introspection to real action, the better. In terms of focus, it seems to me that his waking thoughts might be more practical. If I woke up knowing I had to kill someone that morning, my adrenaline would start pumping as soon as I gained full consciousness, and I’d be immediately concerned about the practical–the weather, the state of my weapons, the state of my hands–and the skills of my opponent.

    It doesn’t seem like a bad idea for Tom to think about the man he plans to kill in this first page–not that you should engage in a listing of his crimes. Tom knows his crimes and likely wouldn’t review them to himself, but revenge is a sort of obsession, and Tom would likely be obsessed with Gentleman X. Where did X spend the night, and how? What are his thoughts that morning? If this is a duel, what kind of a shot is he? If he’d planning to kill him some other way, does he have a plan? Are the pieces of the plan in place?

    I’m not saying this is the only way to go, it’s just one possible way to focus Tom’s thoughts and prime the reader for what’s to come.

    Best of luck!

  10. Loreen
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 11:35:50

    The writing itself looks promising, but I agree with others that you are starting in the wrong place. Waking up drunk just isn’t enough of a “hook.”. Either you need to back up to when the challenge was offered or speed up to the duel. what is this duel about, anyways? Is the Scottish lass the heroine? Perhaps introduce a little more about his feelings about her…does he think she is at fault in the brother’s death?

  11. Kelly
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 14:54:52

    I completely agree with Nicci that “Revenge required precision” would be a brilliant opening line – and then everything that follows needs to SHOW (not tell) THAT story.

    As I was reading, I found myself thinking, “wow, the author is trying to cram a lot of information into this opening.” We don’t need to know about the weather or the patterns on the floorboards or the Old Hag or river monsters or even his disappointed father. Save the descriptions of nightmares and tavern tables for later.

    Describing Tom’s *actions* instead of his thoughts will give us a much better picture of who he is and what he’ll be facing in the rest of the book. For example, these two bits of action and characterization (both near the end of the excerpt) brought me into the story:

    He stumbled to his feet and lit a taper, amazed his noxious breath didn’t set the room ablaze. He huffed in the cold air, tripped on the hearthstones, stabbed and thrust at the embers with the fire iron as if he were preparing for a swordfight instead of – this….

    In just two sentences, we learn a LOT about Tom’s physical condition, state of mind and current situation. It’s dark and cold. He’s staggering around with bad breath. He’s in a crisis about something. It’s also a fabulous teaser, because I really want to know what “this….” is. Give us more like this!

    The lad appeared in the doorway, head bowed. “Yes, Sir! Shall I stir thy fire, Sir?” “No, no – too late for that,” Tom hmmphed. Then, trying for a measure of kindness, he softened his voice at the edges. “Warm me some water, and have Mrs. Caulfield send up coffee and bread.”

    This bit lets us know that Tom is aristocratic but not arrogant. Even though he’s grieving and hungover and facing death, he’s still concerned about what a servant boy thinks of him, and that gives me a bit of hope that Tom is capable of rational thought and worthy of redemption. I was really ambivalent about Tom until this.

    It might work to condense and consolidate the stream-of-consciousness bits of backstory – only the *necessary* ones about his brother and the duel – into one or two separate paragraphs and set them apart with italics. That way the reader can clearly see how his thoughts are affecting his actions, and vice-versa.

    For the historical angle, I did notice everything that Lynne pointed out, and I’m not British or a history expert, so be really, really careful about choosing period-appropriate words and phrases.

    Good luck, and keep writing – I love Georgian settings and angsty aristocrats and revenge duels!

  12. Author on Vacation
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 18:32:16

    I more or less lost interest after reading the first half or so. It was nothing but description of liquor, wine, and drunkeness. I found it completely unengaging. I needed to know more about the protagonist than his drinking choices.

  13. theo
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 19:50:37

    Having lived with an alcoholic father, I have a hard time with drunken heroes unless they have a very strong reason for drinking and aren’t just an alcoholic. Since I have no idea why he’s drinking, you mention a brother twice, but you lead me to believe he’s alive, then dead, I have no way of knowing if it’s due to the death of his brother (which I can excuse if it’s a one time thing) or simply because he lives in a bottle.

    I need more as someone else said, to make me care about him. Even the reason for his drunken stupor would give me an idea as to what is motivating him. A duel isn’t enough to convince me he would spend the night before, drinking himself silly, especially because even as blasted as he is, he remembers precision. (Great line to start with by the way.)

    That said, nothing happens here that would make me want to continue reading. What brought on the duel? Maybe that’s where you need to start. Not here.

  14. Margot
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 20:33:58

    I have to agree with many of the other people- his preoccupation with alcohol is not interesting to me, and if this were the first page of a book, I probably wouldn’t read it, no matter how much I might adore Georgian settings. The beginning of a story needs to be interesting, and drunken ramblings about alcohol just aren’t. I also thought he was a soldier at first, so maybe make it more clear that this is a duel.

    One more nitpicky historical detail- pistols of the time were not accurate. At all. So if your revenge relies on killing someone with a pistol, you’d better be pretty darn close to them. A duel with pistols is not likely to end in anyone’s death- swords would be a much better choice if you actually want to kill someone. I believe that pistol duels were sometimes held with the rules being that they’d keep shooting until someone hit their opponent, which probably says something about how inaccurate they were. (I’m not entirely sure about rules for dueling, though.)

  15. Des Livres
    Jun 25, 2012 @ 03:37:32

    If this was, say, the beginning of a book on Amazon, I would not keep reading. I did not engage with the protagonist, and disliked the mix of accent and non-accent. I was also a bit confused by the mental rambling. This sort of thing probably works better when the reader already knows and likes the character.

    Possibly a purely personal issue (as opposed to something that annoys anyone else) I am always put off when the author appears to like and care about the character more than is justified by the text.

  16. Jacques
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 21:24:57

    Nothing happens in this first page. The feelings of the protagonist do not constitute action. There is no compelling context for these feelings. You need action to create a context. Once something happens, someone does something, then you can show your reader how the hero feels about it (preferably with more action). Action is the primary foundation of any story. No amount of clever scene setting or artful diction can make up for this.

  17. The Duel: a novel of suspense « Catherine Lawrence
    Aug 20, 2012 @ 21:54:57

    […] thanks to the readers at Dear Author First Page Features (June 2012) and Miss Snark’s First Victim Secret Agent Contest (Aug. […]

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