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First Page: Unnamed Historical

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London, 1760

She was going to die!

Searing her fingers on the door, she tested it and found it locked. Heat emanated through the solid wood. Thick billows of smoke filled the room with noxious fumes. It tasted bitter on her tongue, and she closed her lips tightly to keep it out. Shrieks and cries pierced the night. Glancing at the window, she gritted her teeth at the sight of the nails which held it closed. If not for her defiance, and if not for her nightly excursions, it would not be nailed shut. She cursed herself for the night that she had been caught sneaking in. But that still didn’t tell her why the door was locked.
She surveyed her small room. The room that her uncle had given her when she had become his ward several months before.

She shuffled around the bed, a large monstrous thing that took up most of the minimal space. In the mirror, a small pale blonde stared frightened from its depths, her face drawn with panic. Smudges of soot from the smoke that now billowed under the edge of her door covered her dress at the base of her skirt, and a large streak of it was smeared across her face.

This was without a doubt the worst spot that twenty year old Charity Delaney had ever found herself in. Though definitely not the first.

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. DS
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 06:07:18

    Is this all or is the cut not working?

  2. Danielle
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 06:36:16

    As a reader so far you hooked me!

  3. Ros
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 06:52:15

    I quite like this but a few small things struck me.

    First, I’d get rid of the exclamation mark in the first line. She’s not actually shouting that out and, I think, the exclamation mark has been so devalued in the days of text/netspeak that it gives a wrong impression here. And if the italics indicate her internal thoughts, they probably should be in the first person.

    Second, describing her looks in the mirror is cliched and particularly odd in this context. She’s being trapped in her room because of a fire and thinks this is a good moment to reflect on her hair colour?

    Third, I don’t think that final sentence makes sense. Not the first what?

    But I do like the set up and I would certainly keep reading.

  4. Barbara Sheridan
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 07:52:21

    For me everything after the paragraph ending why the door was locked. is too much info.

    If I was trapped in a building on fire I’m not thinking about the size of the bed or becoming a ward of an uncle. My attention would be consumed with getting out.

    As was mentioned, the mirror description business takes away from what could be a very tense fast-moving scene.

    I hope this doesn’t follow with hero coming in the window and the girl taking precious time to notice how gorgeous he is. I read a scene like that in a book opening once and never made it past the third page because of it.

  5. theo
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 08:31:32

    Please remember, these are just my thoughts, but:

    If I seared my fingers on the door and was cognizant enough to realize I’d done it, it wouldn’t be just a passing thought.

    She’s caught in a room with a locked door, window nailed shut and smoke billowing in. Where is the desperation to get out? Even those who are clear headed enough to think about their situation for a moment are, with that amount of smoke, coughing, gagging, searching frantically for something to use to get out of the room even if it means flinging themselves at door or glass. It feels like I’m reading two different stories here.

    Don’t mention the bed unless it impedes her exit in some way or she tries to use a piece of it to batter the door or break the window with. Same with the mirror unless it explodes from the heat behind the wall. I don’t care about those things. I just want to know how she intends to get out of there. And what she tries to do it.

    I don’t care what she looks like unless her hair is on fire and you mention the length. Or that there’s soot on the bottom of her dress (which means the room would be so full of smoke by that time that she’d only be able to crawl to the window) or that she’s got some smeared on her face.

    You have a premise that would drag me into the book in a moment if you made me feel like I was in that room with her. Right now, I feel as detached about it all as she does.

    Strong editing is needed here, but once done, I’d definitely read on.

    Kudos for putting this out and good luck.

  6. Polly
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 09:13:53

    I agree with the other posters–stuck in a room on fire, she should not be thinking about or noticing her petite blonde appearance, the big bed, etc. And how did the soot get streaked on her face?

    I’d expect more pain (burned fingers HURT), prayer (it is 1760 and most people are still pretty religious), desperation, breaking of windows, etc. Not reflection on how this came to pass, although that’s ok as long as the rest is there too.

    Also, if it’s night time and she’s in her bedroom, why is she in a dress? Wouldn’t she be in a nightgown?

    Good luck.

  7. Stephanie
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 09:48:47

    The urgency is missing here. After the opening line, I was expecting to see a character in full-out survival mode, racing around trying to find a way out of a locked room in a burning building. Not someone surveying her room, shuffling around the bed, and looking at her reflection. She might look panicked, but she’s not acting as though as she is. I’d also suggest getting her out of the fire before introducing her backstory.

  8. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 09:49:36

    Right in “my” period!

    Most doors in those days, especially the ones in older buildings, had latches rather than locks. So this is either a new house, in which case the room is too small, or it’s an old one, in which case it should have latches. And the latch would rattle. The door would be secured by a padlock on hasps, rather than a lock in the door, or a large, old-fashioned lock, not usual in houses.

    Then – the ward of her uncle. That’s okay as long as the uncle doesn’t stand to benefit in any way from her death, or he isn’t one of her trustees, or she wasn’t an heiress. Because the law said that legal guardians could not benefit in any way from the death of the person they were in charge of. If this is an informal arrangement, fine, but it needs to be set up properly. By the eighteenth century, there were some serious legal forces in place against “wicked uncles,” including the 1753 Marriage Act, which was specifically set up to avoid the common practice of kidnapping an heiress and forcing her into marriage. Also the strictures against guardians.

    Now the writerly part. Yes, definitely, you’re cramming far too much in here. The guardian bit, the mirror bit, the use of her full name, and her age. Who is “speaking” here, because in a fire, the last thing anyone will be thinking is their full name!

    The mirror. Sigh. It’s been done to death. You can flirt with it, but using a mirror to show what she looks like – no, please.

    So why can’t she smash the window? If it’s a modern house, it’ll be a sash window with big panes. Not so bad to break. If old, then a leaded casement is a bit of a problem. IMO historicals benefit by attention to detail.

    A few phrases stopped me. “Solid wood.” They didn’t veneer doors in those days. Most of them were painted white. “Searing her fingers.” An ouch or two wouldn’t come amiss. It hurts, really hurts.

    Nightly excursions? Oh no, please, no. You can do it, but not that way. If she’s in London or another city, then the nights were far, far too dangerous for that. No police force (the Bow Street Runners were definitely not that, and in any case, there were only 12 at this time. And “Constable” meant something else entirely).
    In my newest, (out next month, squee!) my heroine does much the same, but she does it with the contrivance of a relative and with a big, bad footman to make sure she came to no harm. Nightwatchmen were known for being old and doddery, mohocks and other gangs roamed the streets and if she were caught, that’s the end of respectability. Hallboys and footmen stayed awake all night, so it’s highly unlikely she could sneak out, even out of a window. Besides, only a complete idiot or someone who wants to prostitute herself would think of doing it. So my sympathy is with her uncle.

    I take it her uncle is setting fire to the house so she dies and he gets her fortune? In that case, count me very much out. Historical inaccuracy plus the hackneyed nature of the plot would have me bailing out on the first page.

    Ways this could be improved – not the uncle. Maybe a guardian who is being paid by her uncle. Cut the mirror bit, her age and if she sneaks out at night, make it believable. So what kind of door is it? Is the paint blistering under the heat? Does she dip her fingers in water to soothe them after she’s burned them? There’ll be water in the washstand, does she think about soaking a towel or something to protect her face? What’s the window like and does she smash it? Is she wearing panniers, as all respectable women did in 1760 or is she in her night clothes? Is smoke coming up through the floorboards? And where is she, an old house or a new one? City or country?

    As you can tell I prefer a bit of reality with my historicals, so I’m commenting on it in that way. If this is a wallpaper historical (not my thing, but lots of people like them) then disregard the above.

  9. camille
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 10:11:21

    The last line is so much stronger than the first. I would lead with it, even if I had to edit a little to make the tone less positive. (Actually, depending on where you go next, you could split it -lead with it being the worst spot, and end with it not being the first.)

  10. Debra
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 11:07:34

    I want this book!!!!

  11. job
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 12:29:12

    I like where the story starts. This is a natural hook. I like what you’re showing us about the MC with her action.

    I agree with earlier posters that you need to speed up the action and show the overwhelming sensory impact of the coming fire.

    For a sense of the urgency she must be feeling and the amount of smoke that is pouring in around the seams of the door, maybe look at:


    and similar videos on youtube.

    My advice would be to remove complex sentences, like those with leading participial phrases. Add short declarative sentences and sentence fragments that show fear and mental confusion. Keep the visuals focussed on the elements vital for escape that are directly under her hand and in front of her face.

  12. Terri
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 13:34:00

    I agree with the others. You start with great immediacy and then lose it. I would not mind if she saw herself in the mirror and did not recognize the soot-covered woman whose features were twisted in panic, but I do mind her noticing she’s a small, pale blonde. I think you have too many instances of “it.”
    I disagree that your last line is your strongest. “Though definitely not the first” strikes me as vague. Not the first spot? That can mean anything. Perhaps if it referred back to “predicament” or something, but “spot” can mean position, I think. I agree that you can shorten up sentences to preserve a more urgent pace:
    She rattled the door. Locked. She stuck her seared fingers in her mouth and wondered what to do.
    That said, I love the idea that she’s a defiant, rebellious ward sneaking out at night. To do what? I’d love to know. (Excursions might not be the best word choice, though.)
    I think it’s a good start and just needs tweaking.

  13. DS
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 18:01:13

    Where’s the smoke coming from? Nothing in the room seems to be on fire. Remember 18th century houses and furnishings were organic and there was not a lot of fabric items that smolder and produce smoke in modern fires would not be present.

    Because she obviously had been able to get in and out of the windows safely in the past I would think her first impulse would be to find something to break the window. I would grab the fireplace poker.

  14. Silvia
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 20:30:26

    Some good descriptions here. I do think that’s a plus in the first page of a romance novel, because there are so many bland ones out there. It’s a good idea to demonstrate that you can and do intend to establish a sense of place and a tone.

    Remove the exclamation point, though.

    Maybe find a different wording than “noxious fumes” — that phrasing is too commonly used.

    //Smudges of soot from the smoke that now billowed under the edge of her door covered her dress at the base of her skirt, and a large streak of it was smeared across her face.//
    You’ve got a whole list of “her”s here. Maybe make it “the base of the skirt”.

    //If not for her defiance, and if not for her nightly excursions, it would not be nailed shut.//
    Maybe switch the order of “defiance” and “nightly excursions” (generalized to specific), or just pick one. When I first read it, it was a stumbling point for me because I thought, ‘wait, that’s redundant.’ Then I realized that she could be defying through other behavior besides the “excursions”. But the reader shouldn’t have to re-think a sentence in the first paragraphs of your story — even if you *weren’t* actually repeating yourself.

  15. Verona
    Mar 13, 2010 @ 20:34:16

    @job: Those fire videos are amazing. And terrifying.

  16. sao
    Mar 14, 2010 @ 02:15:26

    I lost all interest when the momentum got lost. She thinks she’s going to die and then she shuffles around gazing in the mirror?

    You need to weave the info-dumps into an urgent scene:
    She surveyed her small room, looking frantically for something to help her escape. She screamed for her guardian, Uncle X until her throat was hoarse.

    She scrambled over the monstrous bed that nearly filled the small room to reach the window. A lock of pale blond hair fell from her chignon and pasted itself to her sweaty cheek. The room was getting hotter by the minute and smoke that now billowed under the edge of her door. ETC

    I’m sure you can write it better, but you get the idea. Deliver your info and keep the urgency.

    I hated this: “This was without a doubt the worst spot that twenty year old Charity Delaney had ever found herself in. Though definitely not the first.”

    We all know being locked in a room with a fire at the door is really bad news. This is another way of taking down the urgency.

    You didn’t explain enough about the nightly excursions for me to understand. It was another detour from urgency and not important at present. If you get us caught up in the urgency of the scene, the explanations can come later.

    Lastly, I wondered how long she could survive in the room with smoke, noxious fumes and a burning hot wooden door.

  17. ardeatine
    Mar 14, 2010 @ 11:54:51

    Kudos for having the courage to post. I was wondering if you could make more of the door being nailed shut? As is, it reads as if the heroine knows it’s nailed shut and the reason why. As an aside, I was wondering how they feed her if the door is nailed closed? Why not have her discover during the fire that the door is nailed shut as this would add to the dramatic tension? Also I wonder why she was testing the door and finding it locked when she knew it had been nailed shut due to her nightly excursions? If it can’t be opened, then her thinking about it being locked is redundant.

  18. Marianne McA
    Mar 14, 2010 @ 15:22:59

    I didn’t like the exclamation mark either. It’s a strong enough opening without it.

    And, just to agree with everyone else, it’s hard to imagine that she’d be thinking about her nightly excursions, or looking at herself in the mirror at this point. If she had climbed out of her window before, you’d imagine she’d try to break the glass. We live in a (much later) georgian house, and while many of the windows are unopenable (decades of paint + broken sash cords) I think if trapped by a fire I would still try to get out that way – the glazing bars look breakable, and if you could break those, you could climb out of half a sash window.
    And, in a way, if I’m wondering about why she isn’t at least trying to break through the window, I’m not listening to the story. Perhaps her uncle could have put bars on the window?

  19. illukar
    Mar 14, 2010 @ 19:06:30

    I found this opening interesting and was definitely left curious as to why she is locked (and nailed) in, why she sneaks out, and why the place is on fire.

    The prose does not quite flow. Although some people advise using short sentences for action scenes to up the intensity, the use of so many short sentences to convey a description of the burning room in the opening paragraphs makes the scene feel disjointed rather than exciting. Try running some of your sentences together and explaining a little more:

    “Charity Delaney wrenched at the door, then flinched back from searing hot metal. Catching up a fold of her skirt, she tried again, but though the handle turned, the door did not move. Locked. Heat radiated through the solid wood and thick billows of smoke seeped beneath it to fill the room with noxious fumes. She closed her lips tightly, but could not keep the bitter fug from searing her throat.”

    If the room is so smoke-filled, then stinging eyes and a burning throat are probably giving Charity issues as well. Not to mention seeing.

    The device of your character catching a glimpse of themselves in the mirror is a serviceable one, but I agree with other commenters that it doesn’t seem appropriate here. Unless the smoke is so thick that she mistakes her reflection for someone in the room.

    [Heat doesn’t emanate through, btw, it emanates from.]

    Anyway, good luck with your writing!

  20. anonymous author
    Mar 16, 2010 @ 13:16:05

    Hello all. Thanks so much for all the feedback. You gave some really good suggestions, and I appreciate them all.
    Just to address a few things. She does make a mask from a chemise to block the smoke, and then breaks the window. The mirror does shatter. And no, the “evil uncle” isn’t trying to kill her, but that is exactly what I want the reader to think at this point, so that’s great.
    You all gave me some wonderful ideas and thoughts and I have made some changes to the first page, as well as the rest of the first chapter based on the wonderful advice. Thank you all so much, and I’m glad that most of you appreciated it.

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