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Chapter 1 – Malta 1804

If I needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton thought, I would come here to find him.

William Eaton had arrived early for that evening’s rendezvous with the British agent, Burton Grey. Grey had picked a bad place for their meeting—the Sedum Tavern—in a bad part of Valletta harbor. In the daytime, the square was a fish market. At night, other things were bought and sold.

The lengthening shadows cast by a fading sun played across the centuries-old weathered stone buildings fronted by awning-covered stalls. Eaton stood, unnoticed, in a boarded-up doorway, his cloak pulled tight against the damp cold rolling in from the harbor. With the approach of twilight, merchants were shuttering their shops and their customers were fleeing the square. Eaton watched as patrons entered the tavern: sailors from the ships of twelve nations crowding Valletta’s harbor, dock workers, pick pockets, thugs, cutthroats, and whores. A bright-eyed rat looked up from his supper of fish scraps on the shop table next to Eaton. Eaton nodded a greeting: paying a visit to your two-legged cousins, I suppose? Above the doorway, rust stains like dried blood streaked downward over the stone from a crude iron hook in the wall. I wonder what has hung on that hook, Eaton thought. Fish—or men?

Eaton looked at his watch, then eased quietly from his hiding place into the tavern and stood in darkness near the door. He pulled back his cloak to free his pistol, his eyes passing carefully over those patrons he could see in the candle-lit gloom. A few moments later, his aide Eugene Leitensdorfer came through the door, spotted Eaton, and joined him by the entrance.

“Come,” said Leitensdorfer, “ I’ve arranged for a place where we won’t be disturbed.” He led Eaton through the crowded tavern to a small private room to the right of the bar. They settled in behind the deeply scarred, stained wooden table. “We can talk in confidence here, but with the doors open, watch whoever enters,” Leitensdorfer said. Eaton nodded, then left the table to go to the bar, returning with four wine glasses.

As he sat down, their English contact arrived at the tavern. Leitensdorfer went to him, spoke briefly and led him back to their table. Without waiting to be introduced, the Englishman greeted Eaton with a brief, diffident nod. “Mr. Leitensdorfer and I share an acquaintance, sir. But you would, I assume, be William Eaton?”

“Your servant, sir,” said Eaton, coolly matching the Englishman’s neutral tone. “Mr. Grey, I believe we may call you?” As Eaton rose to greet Grey, he noticed their disparity in size. He looks like a terrier, Eaton thought—or a ferret. I will need to handle him carefully.

“Grey will do quite admirably for our purposes; my real name obviously does not concern you,” said the Englishman, sitting down wearily. “Is there anything drinkable in this hovel?”

“I would be surprised if there were,” said Eaton. “So I took the precaution of bringing a bottle with me: a 1783 Leacock and Spence Madeira. I trust you will find it acceptable,” he said, knowing that it was, in fact, superb. Gesturing at the table, he continued, “We have paid for glasses. May I pour you one?” Grey picked up the bottle, inspected the label, and then nodded.

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

19 Comments

  1. Katie
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 14:30:58

    I love that you picked Malta as the setting. I was just there last summer, and it beats the pants off the UK as a romance local. I would take a look at the book for that reason alone.
    It did not grab me, but I would give it a few more pages.

  2. Danielle D
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 14:48:18

    I want more! I love the setting also.

  3. Mandi
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 15:19:03

    I like the setting but if this was the excerpt I read to decide if I was going to review it, I would probably pass. Doesn’t really engage me.

  4. Lilly
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 15:51:04

    You set the scene nicely, but I don’t know anything yet about William. He’s too generic at this point. I’d read a bit more.

  5. Cathy Burkholder
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 16:06:23

    I agree with some of the other reviewers that it didn’t really grab me. I’m not sure why, although I think it’s because the excerpt has given me some idea of what the setting is about, but I don’t really know much about the main character other than that he’s likely a spy or a criminal or something. I think I would feel more invested if the introduction of the character showed more of his personality.

    Also, I wish you would use formatting or punctuation to identify his thoughts. For example, you write the following:

    “As Eaton rose to greet Grey, he noticed their disparity in size. He looks like a terrier, Eaton thought—or a ferret. I will need to handle him carefully.”

    It’s confusing when I get to the first person pronouns and then I have to mentally back track to figure out where his thoughts probably started. It pulls me out of the story just a little bit every time.

  6. Melissa
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 16:06:41

    Like the previous commenters, I thought that opening your story in Malta was pretty cool. I would read on just to see how you utilize this setting. From this excerpt, I expect that your characters are spies. I’m getting tired of espionage in regency-set historicals, but I would continue reading just in case you’re the next Joanna Bourne. And at least your hero comes across as a bit gritty–not some nobleman charming the ton by day while stealing secret documents from evil Frenchies by night…

    There were a few spots where I had an issue with the language. When you write, “Grey had picked a bad place for their meeting—the Sedum Tavern—in a bad part of Valletta harbor ” the first time “bad” is used, I’m not sure whether you mean that the rendezvous is in a tactically inferior location or just a seedy one.

    In the sentence where Grey mentions that he and Leitensdorfer share an acquaintance, I briefly thought he must be talking about another person they both know. Maybe the person who will be using the fourth glass? Then I realized he was just saying that he and Leitensdorfer know each other. The construction seemed awkward.

    Does Eaton really have to *say* that he paid for glasses for the Madeira? I mean, if the Madeira is expensive, would Grey be likely to think that the glasses had been smuggled into the disreputable tavern or that Eaton would stiff him for the price of the glasses? It just felt like you were showing off your research or something. And if these guys are involved in espionage, I would think that bringing your own fancy alcohol to the tavern that caters to sailors, dock workers, thugs and whores would be a good way to attract the wrong kind of attention–even if the fancy alcohol is being consumed in a back room.

    This first page sounds no worse than many historicals I have purchased and read. It does not suck me in like the openings to Joanna Bourne’s spy novels (yes, I heart her novels), but so few first pages do! I wonder, could there be a way for you to ratchet up the stakes for your hero? Maybe after Eaton sizes up Grey and thinks that Grey will have to be handled carefully, you could hint at something dark–a reason why this meeting MUST go well. I don’t mean a whole lot of exposition, just something like, “Eaton could not afford another mistake.” Ok, clearly I’m not an author. ;) As a reader, I would like something more to pull me in.

    Good luck!

  7. Madelaine
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 16:11:51

    “Grey had picked a bad place for their meeting—the Sedum Tavern—in a bad part of Valletta harbor.”

    I’m guessing that this area of town is really bad, instead of just plain bad.

    “With the approach of twilight, merchants were shuttering their shops and their customers were fleeing the square.”

    What exactly are the customers fleeing from? Twilight? Is that twilight a bad, bad twilight or just a bad twilight?

    Sarcasm aside, couldn’t even make it through the first page.

  8. R. Sleuth
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 17:55:06

    I liked it. It’s an interesting scene, and it’s definitely going somewhere. I want to know what happens next.

    HOWEVER: the writing does not drag me in. I find myself skimming, then having to go back and re-read. My personal opinion is that you’re being wordy. If you’ve got four sentences of description and one moving the story along, it’s easy to miss that fifth sentence – because by the time the reader gets to it, they’re skimming.

    For example: “The lengthening shadows cast by a fading sun…” You indicated twice in the same sentence that it’s dusk – once by saying the shadows are lengthening, and a second time with the “fading sun” bit. You only need one of those, especially since they give the same mental image. And, again, a sentence later, you wrote “With the approach of twilight…” You don’t need to explain that dusk is the reason the merchants and buyers are leaving. The reader knows, and by now you’ve mentioned time of day three times, and the reader has lost focus.

    Another example: “the deeply scarred, stained wooden table”. You are using four adjectives to describe one table.

    (The more adjectives you use, the less they mean. Delete, delete, delete.)

    “Deeply scarred” does not evoke stronger imagery than “scarred”. It just has one more word in it. Also, the reader does not need to be told the table is made of wood, much like a reader does not need to be told a character has an arm made of flesh. Which is to say, sometimes arms aren’t made of flesh, but unless told otherwise the reader will assume so.

    As for the table being stained: the important thing here is that the reader know it’s a beaten-up old table. If you tell them it’s a “scarred table”, or a “stained table”, that objective is accomplished. It’s not particularly important that the table be both stained and scarred, much less deeply scarred and stained and wooden, especially because the table itself is not particularly important.

    In short: you have lots of well-written description. I can tell you’ve worked hard on it; it flows beautifully. But there is simply too much.

  9. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 17:55:54

    While it;s interesting, it reads more like a straight historical than a romance. Even if your hero and heroine don’t meet on the first page, there needs to be a connection with the hero.
    Cut some of the details and add in his inner feelings. We have to connect with him to care about him. While this would be a competent opener to something like a Sharpe book, if you’re aiming for the romance market, it needs more.
    I do like the lack of backstory and the attention to detail. Malta was a bit of a hotbed for a short time in the Napoleonic wars, so the story could be interesting.
    The first sentence jars because it’s first person, then it goes into third. I’d change it to deep third, so it’s consistent with the rest of the piece.
    The reader needs a hook, a reason to read on. Detail isn’t enough.

  10. Lil
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 18:05:06

    Like the other commenters, I am intrigued by the setting, but the story does not yet grab me. Much as I love an atmospheric opening, I think perhaps there is too much here. Perhaps you don’t need both the rat and the rust that looks like blood? I think one of these might be enough. I think the expensive wine might be okay if it’s the kind of place where they are accustomed to people bringing their own.

    Perhaps I just need to know more about Eaton. Is he tired of seedy bars? Nervous? Worried? Distrustful of someone who would choose a place like this for a meeting? I’m uncertain about his feelings here.

    I am curious about the fourth glass, however. I’d really like to know who else is coming.

  11. JK Mahal
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 19:37:08

    I liked it, but I think it needs editing to shine. Mostly you have too much description and too much directing. Let the audience fill in some things.

    Since I edit better than I explain, I took a whack at it. Hope you find this helpful. Remember, edits (unless grammatical) are suggestions, not gospel.

    Chapter 1 – Malta 1804

    If I needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton thought, I would come here to find him.

    William Eaton had arrived early for that evening’s rendezvous with Burton Grey. The British agent picked a bad place for their meeting—the Sedum Tavern—in a rotten part of Valletta harbor. By day, the square was a fish market. At night, other things were bought and sold.

    Lengthening shadows played across centuries-old weathered stone buildings fronted by awning-covered stalls. Eaton stood, unnoticed, in a boarded-up doorway, his cloak pulled tight against the damp cold rolling in. With the approach of twilight, merchants were shuttering their shops, their customers fleeing the square. Eaton watched the patrons entering the tavern: sailors from the ships of twelve nations crowding Valletta’s harbor, dock workers, pick pockets, thugs, cutthroats, and whores. A bright-eyed rat looked up from his supper of fish scraps on the shop table next to Eaton. Eaton nodded a greeting: paying a visit to your two-legged cousins, I suppose? Reddish stains streaked from a crude iron hook in the wall above the door.What has hung on that hook, Eaton thought. Fish—or men?

    Eaton looked at his watch, then eased quietly from his hiding place into the tavern, Standing in darkness near the door, he pulled back his cloak to free his pistol, his eyes passing carefully over those patrons he could see in the candle-lit gloom. A few moments later, his aide joined him.

    “Come,” said Eugene Leitensdorfer, “ I’ve arranged for a place where we won’t be disturbed.” Leading Eaton to a small private room to the right of the bar, they settled in behind the deeply scarred, stained wooden table set with four wine glasses. “We can talk in confidence here, but with the doors open, watch whoever enters.”

    It took only moments for their English contact to arrive. Leitensdorfer went to greet him, leading him back to their table. The Englishman greeted Eaton with a brief, diffident nod. “Mr. Leitensdorfer and I share an acquaintance, sir. But you would, I assume, be William Eaton?”

    “Your servant, sir,” said Eaton, coolly matching the Englishman’s tone. “Mr. Grey, I believe we may call you?”

    Eaton rose to greet Grey, noting their disparity in size. He looks like a terrier, Eaton thought—or a ferret. I will need to handle him carefully.

    “Grey will do quite admirably for our purposes; my real name obviously does not concern you,” said the Englishman, sitting down wearily. “Is there anything drinkable in this hovel?”

    “I would be surprised if there were,” said Eaton. “I took the precaution of bringing a bottle with me: a 1783 Leacock and Spence Madeira. I trust you will find it acceptable. We have paid for glasses. May I pour you one?”

    Grey picked up the bottle of superior drink, inspected the label, and then nodded.

  12. DM
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 22:54:13

    Lots of confusion on this page, starting with the first person/third person issue. The convention, when relating character thoughts in the third person, is to remain in the third person.

    So this:

    If I needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton thought, I would come here to find him.

    Should be this:

    If he needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton would come here to find him.

    He thought, he realized, he recognized, are all distancing. Using “I” doesn’t make Eaton’s thoughts more immediate, it adds a layer of artifice (and a lot of extraneous verbiage). I’d also argue that you don’t need “to find him.” Let the reader do the math.

    If he needed someone to slit a throat or steal a purse, Eaton would come here.

    Nothing happens on this page–two people meet in a bar–but forget that for now and take a careful look at your description. It’s not the wordiness or receptiveness that sinks this–though it is wordy and repetitive–it’s the way you use your “camera.” Readers are watching the book in their head. Constructing a mental movie. Think about how scenes in films are constructed. Generally, they begin either wide or tight. A scene that starts tight on a telephone, tells us the telephone is important. It probably rings. Then we pull out to see who answers it, maybe discover who else is in the room. Or a scene might start with a sweeping landscape and a city in the distance, then move in to the city’s gate, then to a traveler outside the walls. Ah, there he is, the hero, we know this man must be important. Now the action starts!

    I have no idea what is important in the scene you describe. You bounce all over the place. There is no rhyme or reason to the order in which the details are presented, so they are all received as equally important, which means none of them are important.

  13. Gwynnyd
    Jan 21, 2012 @ 23:12:35

    Nods at Mahal – yeah… see what happened there? It’s not so busy with the details. i.e The needed glasses are just there; no one has to scurry about getting them. After all, if the room was arranged before Eaton got there, why not the glasses, too?

    I’m still trying to figure out why Eaton was hanging around the doorway talking to rats if he knows there’s his aide and a room waiting for him inside. Also, if the *British agent* wanted the rendezvous at the Sedum Tavern, why wasn’t it his business to arrange for the room? Why is *Eaton’s* aide doing it at all? Why would the British agent pick a place where he didn’t know if he could drink the wine? And then this clandestine meeting calls attention to itself by getting a semi-private room with a view of the doorway! And leaves the doors open so everyone in the bar area can see in. Why not station the convenient aide outside the bar to bring Grey to the room and then he can stay just outside the door to watch for trouble? Sounds like very sloppy agenting, even if it’s only a commercial deal and not political or military. Are you *trying* to suggest that level of incompetence for the two of them? I think you want me to think of Eaton and Grey and cool and dangerous agents for their respective governments, because you tell me that they are cool and dangerous. I’m sorry. It’s not working because they are behaving very stupidly.

  14. eggs
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 01:18:03

    I agree with DM’s excellent advice, but would add that I really liked the piece! I think the nuts and bolts aspect of your writing is very good, but as DM advises, you need to tighten up your scene so that the reader knows who and what to focus on. If Eaton and the table are given equal description, how do we know which one to focus on in the scene? I’m not sure I trust that table …

  15. eggs
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 01:22:16

    Also, on a humorous note, can I just point out that Melissa @ #5 cracked me up with the MelJean-esque double namecheck of Joanna Bourne’s name. I’m seeing those everywhere now! Woke up, googled self …

  16. SAO
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 01:40:41

    I haven’t been to Valletta in over 15 years, but you easily evoked a picture of what it looked like. I like Malta and the idea of a book set there.

    I have also lived in a 3rd world country without adequate electricity. The stalls will be lit by cheap (smelly, smoky) oil lamps/lanterns, probably not candles. The can be brightly lit (and that tavern will have bright lights on its stone walls), but the lights are low down, on the table, casting light up, giving a completely different look than we are used to. We use candles for romantic lighting, not to create visibility. There might be plenty of shadows.

    However, your description didn’t fit the rest. Sneaking in unobserved and standing in the darkness near the door in a tavern that is also described as being crowded and having a stream of patron flowing in, doesn’t sound likely. If the other stuff you said was true, Ethan’s being bumped by drunk sailors and being approached by ladies of the evening.

    You have a number of references to a tense situation (fish hook, cut-throats for hire) but because you don’t show Ethan’s emotions, they don’t add tension. Ethan comments on the fish hook, but we don’t feel any danger, so it doesn’t seem sinister. Equally, the line about where to hire a cut-throat is a throw-away, too. We don’t learn if Ethan is nervous of a place he doesn’t know, on hyper-alert, or a savvy agent filing away useful knowledge for the future. When you show him in the tavern, you don’t show any patrons that could be cut-throats. In short, we are told it’s a scary place, we aren’t shown it. He’s chatting to mice, not sizing up threats.

    If Ethan is really an agent, the first thing he does is size him up. Instead, we don’t see the man at all, then Ethan says he looks like a ferret. You’d do so much more with a few lines like, well-built and handsome, with eyes that slithered in three directions at once (okay, this is bad, but show us what Ethan sees and why he thinks the man’s a ferret).

    To sum up, you’ve got a lot of good detail, but you need to make it all further the emotion of your scene and your lead.

    Since we only have a first page, I like to have more of a sense of the book, a conflict, but I think if you have a tense meeting set up and get the mood right, not diving into conflict would be okay as long as it comes up in the next few pages.

  17. Missy Lyons
    Jan 22, 2012 @ 07:55:18

    This is a story I could have lost myself in reading. I like the history and I like the setting. There are a ton of details and information to absorb and put simply, I liked it enough to continue reading.

  18. BlueRose
    Jan 23, 2012 @ 02:29:10

    After the first paragraph all I could see was EATON EATON EATON and none of the words inbetween.

  19. readinrobin
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 16:19:17

    I’m definitely intrigued. What a great first line!

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