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First Page: untitled – historical romance

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(Heroine introduced on page 3. Would you keep reading?)

From the third floor window above the wide intersection of Broadway and Ann Street, the holiday shoppers looked like a flock of disgruntled blackbirds fighting the bracing wind. The swiftest of them huddled in coats that wouldn’t last another winter, whilst the better wrapped made their way at a more considered speed. Those cocooned in their carriages moved at the most enviable pace of all.

Divisions of class, Darrow mused, were never more distinct than in foul weather.

Not that he’d given the matter of class much consideration, other than coming to the regrettable conclusion he’d been born into the wrong one. It wasn’t a circumstance that troubled him as often, these days. Being born into the right class didn’t grant a fellow perfect contentment—judging by the ongoing row between poor old Emlyn and the latest in a line of irascible Herald editors.

“Mr. Mowbray, please understand.” If he was still hampered by upper crust restraint after six years among the lower, Emlyn hadn’t lost the ability to enhance it with knife-edged disapproval. “You may print your trash about me. I don’t care. But it’s beyond the pale to bring my family into it. They’ve nothing to do with my decision to make a go on my own. That I paid for an advertisement doesn’t give you leave to turn it into an opportunity—”

“I’m a newspaper editor, Mr. Strickland. Opportunity is my bread and butter.” Walter Mowbray settled back in his leather chair, folding ink-stained fingers over a substantial gut. “You’re not much of a story, neither you nor Mr. Gardiner,” he added with a glance in Darrow’s direction. “But throw in Josiah Strickland of Strickland Steamship and the sad tale of a wayward son—”

“Wayward?” The word slid as cleanly as a blade through Mowbray’s jugular, but the man didn’t flinch.

Not altogether sure of his ability to contain a grin, Darrow turned back to the window and debated the usefulness of adding his voice to an argument that could not be won. No plea for sympathy or threat of suit would produce the desired retraction. Still, Emlyn—as unreservedly as he loathed his family’s company—would not leave them to suffer the slings of the popular press; and his stubborn streak might push a busy editor into seeking police assistance. A night in the Tombs meant their lucky last-minute booking at the Fourteenth Street Theater would be lost, along with the first week’s rent.

An ounce or two of prevention seemed called for.

The leather sofa situated invitingly in a patch of pale sunshine—that would suit. Darrow dropped onto it, and tucking a fringed pillow behind his head, propped his feet on the armrest opposite. As soon as he had Mowbray’s bemused attention, he smiled ingratiatingly. “Do you mind? The last time we went to the papers for an apology, we were in with the editor till well after supper.”

Mowbray’s brows briefly rose before swooping downward, along with the corners of his mouth. “I’ll have you both removed—”

“You might want to take into account one or two things, beforehand.”

“Such as?”

“Well…” Darrow folded his hands behind his head and contemplated the cloudy sky beyond the glass. “It should be apparent there’s still some family loyalty among the Stricklands. You wouldn’t want the Times or the Sun to beat you out on the juiciest society news for the next couple of years?”

“That’s how you’re playing it. All right.” Mowbray let out an arch laugh. “I’ll say I can’t quite picture old Josiah Strickland running to the Times to spill the latest gossip, but…” He pushed up out of his chair, standing. “If it’s only an apology you want—”

“A published apology.” Emlyn rose, turning just long enough to throw Darrow a warning glance.

Darrow fished out his pocket watch, to find the hour well past four. It would be decidedly better to bear up under Emlyn’s wrath rather than the stage manager’s. “We’ll take any apology you’ve got.”

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

15 Comments

  1. SAO
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 02:25:55

    When I cut and pasted this, I got 3 pages.

    Your language is good, but you spend too much time hinting at plot and not enough time developing it. I was confused me. At the end of the page/3pages, I still didn’t really know who was who and what was going on. I could go back, reread carefully and figure it out, but in a bookstore picking a book or if I owned the book, I wouldn’t bother to, so I didn’t now.

    The musings on class set a tone, which was philosophical, but it made the narrator sound like he didn’t really care much about anything. Regrettably, he’s the wrong class. Ah, well, stuff happens.

    That strengthens the early impression that he’s an observer in this thing between Mowbray and Emlyn, but I didn’t get the impression he cared. I thought he was employed as an assistant to Emlyn and just doing his job. So, without an MC with a stake in the conflict, I don’t care much about it.

    But as an observer, Darrow isn’t all that acute. He merely records what’s going on, not showing us how Emlyn feels about his lower class and how Mowbray reacts to Emlyn’s dignified begging. So, at the end of the page (3 pages), I don’t really know any of the chars. Or what’s going on, because the substance of the issue isn’t discussed. This is what killed this for me.

    I wondered how Emlyn lost his class status, which usually remains after money is gone.

    “Wayward?” The word slid as cleanly as a knife. . . — it’s a nice analogy, but given that Mowbray didn’t flinch, I don’t see how it was like a knife. It sounded more like Emlyn was outraged and Mowbray didn’t give a damn.

    This wouldn’t take much work to be good. Ditch the philosophy, give Darrow a stake in the proceedings (make him care about the result) and an earlier active role.

  2. Jenni
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 06:27:48

    I liked this. I would have kept reading if there were more to read. I agree with the vagaries in the story that Sao pointed out, but I trust the writer to explain them fully later, so I’d stick. There are enough hints of action to keep me interested.

  3. Carol McKenzie
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 08:55:22

    Hi author and thanks for sharing!

    This is more than just a first page. And I’m not sure if I picked this up in a bookstore, without a blurb giving me who the heroine was and a hint at the conflicts might, I’d keep reading. While this is really well written, I’m not drawn into the story.

    I’ve read it twice and I’m not connecting with any of the characters. As SAO points out, Darrow is an observer and seemingly outside the conflict. As such, I get a dispassionate view of the exchange between Emlyn and Mowbray. If he seems not to care, then why should I?

    I’d like to sense the heat of the argument between the men…is it an argument? Are there raised voices, flushed faces, hands clenched?

    I’m still unsure of who’s who in this…one thing I usually dislike about historical romances are the use of the most unusual names of the period for every character. An interesting name for the hero is fine, but if every character has something unique, it doesn’t make each character unique. It makes me forget who they are, particularly when switching between first name and last name. Or maybe I was skimming and not paying attention, and that’s not a good sign.

    The writing is smooth, and I get a definite feel for London and the weather, and I’m assuming it’s Christmas. I was slightly confused (and this is probably just me) with the imagery of the relative speed of the holiday shoppers versus their class. Those in the lowest class move the fastest; middle class walkers move more slowly and my mind makes the leap that the upper class moves slowest, although that obviously isn’t what happens if they’re in a carriage. That might just be my OCD mind putting things in a logical sequence.

  4. QC
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 10:25:38

    Like Jenni, I trust the author to explain the vagaries. I would read on.

  5. Jules
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 13:07:50

    I was really excited to read this as it’s a time that I have not read many books in. But I was really confused as who was who and which character. I am intrigued on where the plot would be going but confused about what is going on at this moment and I think a lot of that stems from not knowing who is who.

  6. theo
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 13:46:02

    I’m afraid I too have to agree with SAO. My eyes started glazing over about halfway through because it was just too hard to keep track of who was who and why I should care. There was more thought put into the class distinction than the reason for Emlyn’s concern or outrage. Darrow doesn’t even seem amused by the whole thing. More bored than anything which is how I too felt when I could pick up on what was who…

    I don’t need to see both principals on the first page, but I need a damn good reason to wait for their introduction and I would never have made it with this excerpt. Once again, this is not where your story starts and you’ll lose too many readers with this opening. I need to care. I don’t.

  7. Kate Sherwood
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 14:35:32

    In defense of posters who send more than one page (250 words) – the submission page says to send 600 words.

    So I don’t think there’s a problem with the poster sending more than one page of work, but I agree that there may be a problem with a story’s first 670 words not really establishing anything.

    On the other hand, I’m maybe getting a Lord Peter Whimsey vibe from this guy? Bon vivant with a sharp mind and a heart of gold? I love the Peter Whimsey books, so… maybe you’re okay.

    But I would definitely want you to help me understand who people are a lot earlier. I somehow got the impression Emyln was female, so I had no idea who was talking for half of this page…

  8. Marianne McA
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 14:41:51

    I liked the writing – if the book had had good reviews, or the blurb sounded interesting, I’d probably read on. On the basis of this page alone, I wouldn’t. It felt like there were too many characters being introduced to keep track of – by the time we reached Josiah, I mentally gave up. Rereading, that’s because ‘Darrow’ is also ‘Mr Gardiner’ and ‘Emlyn’ also ‘Mr Strickland’ so even though there are only three characters here, I’m juggling five names.
    The other, more minor, point would be that Darrow characterises the argument as one that “could not be won” and then he turns round and, without any great thought or apparent effort, wins it with a vague threat.
    If that was all that needed to be said, why not just start by saying that?

    (@Carol: I didn’t place this in London – ‘Broadway’ suggested America, as did the Herald, for some reason – and the ‘Fourteenth Street Theater’ seems definitely American both because of the numbered street and the spelling of ‘Theater’)

    I’m happy to wait for chapters to meet the heroine, and I liked the writing, but I’m not hooked into the story yet so I probably wouldn’t keep reading – but it almost has me. I’ve certainly bought and read books with worse first pages.

    Good luck.

  9. Carol McKenzie
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 14:47:06

    @Marianne McA:

    Then I’m really confused. Discussions of class make me think of London in the mid-1850s, as well as the names, which do not seem American to me at all. I’m curious now to know where this is set.

  10. Carol McKenzie
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 14:48:35

    @Carol McKenzie:

    And a Google search gives me the P.T. Barnum museum on the corner of Broadway and Ann, in Manhattan. Interesting…

  11. Sunita
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 15:35:39

    @Carol McKenzie: I assumed this was set in the late 19th/very early 20thC. The Broadway and Ann intersection and the Fourteenth Street Theater references signaled New York in that era to me.

    There’s plenty of writing about class in the US during that period, especially given the Gilded Era and the waves of immigration. I figured this was channeling Edith Wharton, or early Theodore Dreiser, or something along those lines.

  12. author
    Feb 02, 2014 @ 23:37:20

    I still haven’t gotten the hang of writing a first page that hooks readers, so I’d like to thank you all very much for your help. Your comments have made me realize how confusing this opening is, and that the tone I was hoping to set isn’t coming through.

    Marianne and Sunita are correct in regard to the class issues and setting. The story’s set in New York, 1890.

    In Word, this is a single-spaced page, plus eight more lines to bring the excerpt to a natural stopping point. I’m sorry about the excess. Thanks for reading and commenting, though.

  13. Cecilia Grant
    Feb 03, 2014 @ 23:01:29

    Yes, I would read on. Like others, I had to expend some effort to work out who was Darrow and who was Emlyn and who was Mr. Strickland, etc., and as a reader, I worry: if I have to work this hard on the first page, what’s the rest of the book going to be like?

    That said, the relative novelty of the setting appeals to me (are Strickland and Gardiner a pair of vaudeville performers? I hope?), and your writing has a strength and assurance that make me willing to follow where you’re leading. I may not know quite who these people are, or what’s at stake, but I’m confident that you do, and that you’ll gradually fill me in. (Also, page 3 is plenty soon to introduce the heroine, in my opinion.)

    I did have some trouble with the “word slid as cleanly as a blade through Mowbray’s jugular” line. Why would the word be slicing through his jugular, cleanly as a blade or in any other manner? The image made me think he ought to be bleeding copiously as a result.

  14. author
    Feb 05, 2014 @ 01:32:51

    @Cecilia Grant:

    They are vaudeville performers. I didn’t think that would be apparent from the first page (especially with the rest of it so confusing.) Thank you for the reassuring comment. :)

  15. Cecilia Grant
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 21:56:43

    @author: Well, now I really want to read it.

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