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First Page: US Civil War romance

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Sharra crouched, peering out from beneath the underbrush, her breath coming in uneven gasps. She moved her slender fingers, rhythmically, through the dirt at her feet. If she were found, her life would be worth naught. How would she ever explain her actions, especially to her father?

Time passed, slowly, to the steady pounding of her heart, a dense fog blanketing the forest. Her body protested the hours of forced inactivity as she worked her way out of the thicket and into the clearing, joints popping much too loudly for caution. A sardonic laugh sounded from behind her as she felt the rear of her trousers rip on an unyielding branch. Sharra spun on her heel, pistol drawn, to confront her adversary. They had found her. Heart beating wildly, her mind raced through the possibilities. There would be no saving herself now. There was no hope.

Chandler Ashton sat on the embankment behind her recent hiding place, coolly regarding her as she swung around, frantically brandishing her weapon. He glared down at her, his mouth twitching with wry amusement. “Someone really ought to teach you how to use that thing,” he said. “It would be a shame if you shot yourself or, for that matter, if you shot me. I really hate being shot.”

Sharra straightened her shoulders, defiantly locking her eyes to his. “For your information, Sir, I do know how to use this thing, as you call it. I would be more than happy to demonstrate my aptitude if you would be so kind as to stand in the place of a target, since I don’t seem to have another one available.”

“You could have fooled me. You rip your trousers, and then go totally wild on the poor fool who found it amusing enough to laugh at you. That’s hardly charitable, now is it? You wouldn’t be afraid that I had caught you at something would you, Sharra?”

“I do apologize, Sir, but I have no idea what you are referring to. Would you care to enlighten me or would that be too taxing for a gentleman of your stature?”

“No, no, of course not, my dear, but I would be happy to explain,” he responded. “Your defensive manner would be a good place to start, wouldn’t it? It doesn’t seem normal for you to be so jumpy. Do you always point weapons at unsuspecting strangers or do you reserve that privilege for your father’s friends and enemies?”

“Truly, I am sorry for that,” she said. “I was run off the road by some of the local slavers. They might have been bounty hunters. I really don’t know for sure, but I knew they were trouble. I thought you were one of them. Generally, I wouldn’t draw on you. At least, not unless you deserved it.”

“Running from slavers and bounty hunters, eh? What an event filled life you live, Miss Montgomery. Tell me, though, if you can, just what were you doing out here in the first place?” he asked as he slid down from his perch.

“I was simply out for an evening ride when those brigands ran me off the road. They must have mistaken me for someone else. Probably, someone like you.” She smiled winningly and batted her eyelashes. “Would you not say so, Sir?”

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. SAO
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 06:32:35

    I like witty dialogue, so this is a promising start. However, I don’t know why she’s squatting in the forest. Sure, hiding from her father, but what are the stakes? She goes from heart pounding to trading barbs with Chandler very quickly. I don’t really know why. Is it because she can trust Chandler not to betray her? Because she’s trying to fool him into going away? Or because the stakes were never that high?

    In short, I didn’t figure out the mood of this piece, the goals or motivations of the characters. Nor the basic characterization of Sharra. Is she running for her life or is she ante-bellum Scarlett O’Hara, flirting with guys while waiting until her father’s bad mood to pass and she can go back to being the spoiled favorite daughter? I did wonder for a second or two if she was a runway slave. A little internal thought would go a long way to make the transition between panic and barb-trading clearer. Plus letting us know the stakes.

    That being said, I wasn’t clear on where she was. There was a thicket, a forest and a road and an embankment. Embankment implies river and thickets generally don’t grow in forests, because they are shaded by trees. So, I couldn’t picture the place at all.

    What is the difference between bounty hunters and slavers? What is a slaver? Unless she and Chan are slaves or African-Americans (in which case Chan’s banter makes no sense), why would she run from either? Why would either care about her? A bounty hunter could not touch a white person aiding and abetting escaping slaves, they didn’t have standing to sue. A slave owner could, but they’d need proof, which would mean if Sharra were in the underground railroad, she’d have failed some of her charges. If so, it’s hard to see Chan not having a stand one way or the other on the issue of helping slaves to freedom/stealing another’s property.

    I think you write well, your dialogue shows a lot of promise, but you need to work on this first page. Start with Sharra’s goal and motivation.

  2. cbackson
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 10:03:21

    I think there’s some promise here. You write fluidly, and the anatomy of the scene makes sense. That said, I’m not getting the sense, from this scene, that you’ve done a ton of research: Sharra isn’t a name that makes sene for a Civil War era American woman. My Civil War era female ancestors were named things like “Alice” and “Charlotte”. Sharra abounds like the name of a PNR heroine.

    The hero’s name isn’t quite as improbable, but it verges on it. And some of the dialogue seems weird as well – “naught” rings a bit funny, as do a few other lines.

    I don’t typically care about historical accuracy if I like the story, but the Civil War was an incredibly fraught and terrible period in US history that has repercussions to this day. You’ve got to handle it very, very carefully. It seems funny to out all of this weight on your heroine’s name, but as a reader, it makes me very nervous about the rest of the story.

  3. job
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 11:25:24

    I’m having trouble visualizing the scene. Could you add more detail?

    To take an example of what I mean . . .

    Our heroine, says she has fallen from her horse, so she’s wearing a riding habit and boots. The habit looks something like this: or this
    The short jacket is stiffly boned like this slightly later example:

    The corset is also stiffly boned. It would be something like this much later example.

    She’s wearing a hat, possibly with a veil or feathers. And riding gloves.

    But I don’t get a sense of the heavy, complicated, restricting clothing and long trailing skirt as she pulls her way through a thicket so closely knit her joints pop.

    She has a gun suddenly, in her hand. But we never get the sense of how she must have worked her way into some pocket under her skirt to pull it out.

    Even if it’s only a few words here and a few words there, I’d like to see this sort of detail added to the early paragraph of the story. Her clothing. Her race. The time of day. Something solid about the woods she’s standing in.

  4. Lorelie
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 12:23:46

    “She moved her slender fingers, rhythmically, through the dirt at her feet.” This is over written. First, who thinks of their *own* fingers as slender? Second, what action does this actually connote?

    Also, in speaking 5 times, she calls him Sir in four of them and apologizes repeatedly. But at the same time she doesn’t seem intentionally simpering. To me, this hints at padded dialogue.

    There’s also very little sense of setting. She’s peering out, but we’re never told at what. He’s on an embankment, but what kind? For that matter, what does he look like? Even if you’re avoiding those feature-by-feature facial descriptions, we could really do with a sense of who he is. Is he wearing a frock coat or homespun trousers held up with rope? Tiny things provide huge information.

  5. Eileen
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 13:17:33

    I also love witty banter so that always gives me a hook. However, there are details missing that would help me make sense of the scene. In the beginning she’s clearly hiding and at great fear, but I don’t know for what. You don’t need to tell us, but giving us a better sense that she feels relief when she realizes it is Chandler.

    Also- is she wearing trousers? I would think she would be appalled to be found in such a state by anyone. (I’m picturing here how appalled Scarlett was that Rhett saw her act unladylike in the opening of Gone with the Wind) For me there wasn’t the sense that she is trying to figure out how to keep Chandler from telling her dad that she’s wearing pants and crouching outdoors in the woods. She also talks about how she was out for an evening ride, but she doesn’t seem to have a horse with her.

    There is great potential in this scene because we have a character doing something that she shouldn’t and now she’s been caught. She needs to keep him from knowing what she was really up to. He knows she’s up to something, but he clearly likes to tease her and string things along. Now we simply need to know more what is at stake and get glimpses at what is between the two of them.

    Is this the person she would least like to find her like this or the best person since he’s a cad and she thinks she can pull one over on him. What exactly is her ranking in society? Is she a belle and if so why is she out riding alone, in pants with a gun? If she is free slave then we should know that. If she’s low class then her speech doesn’t match.

  6. Kate
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 13:59:07

    I thought this was an interesting start, and it peaked my interest enough to make me want more. I do agree with the above commenters though, that a little more specificity and detail would help. The other thing I noticed in the first half, pre-dialogue, is that a lot of your sentence structure goes like this: X, Y, Z. Part of a sentence, a comma pause, the rest of the sentence. Does that make sense? Examples- “Sharra crouched, peering out from beneath the underbrush, her breath coming in uneven gasps. ” “Sharra spun on her heel, pistol drawn, to confront her adversary.” Perhaps consider changing up the sentence structure?

  7. Lilly
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 14:06:32

    You have the makings of an interesting story. Some grammar and story logic problems. For example —
    **Time passed, slowly, to the steady pounding of her heart, a dense fog blanketing the forest.**
    Watch overabundant commas. The last phrase had no relation to the first part of the sentence, nor to those following. How could she see anything in a dense fog?
    ** A sardonic laugh sounded from behind her as she felt the rear of her trousers rip on an unyielding branch.**
    Wouldn’t she first feel her trousers rip, then hear the sardonic laugh? If she’s creeping, how did she spin on her heel to confront the man, and from where did she get the gun?
    I didn’t see her in a riding habit, but wearing boy’s trousers, carrying out some secret assignment. Thinking maybe Chandler is on a similar assignment. It would be nice to have an idea what he looks like. I’d like to know more.

  8. job
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 15:09:24

    ooops. Sorry. I missed that she was wearing trousers. Apologies for not paying better attention.

  9. Bren
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 15:39:03

    I liked the first 2 paragraphs. Then, you lost me with the mention of the guy’s name. I had to re-read that 3rd paragraph a couple times because at first it almost read as if you were changing POV. In fact, none of the following paragraphs after the first 2 give the reader a clue as to the POV or any internalizations whatsoever.

    It’s clear that these 2 know each other, but what is their relationship? What is Sharra’s opinion of Chandler?

    I found glimmers of wit in their dialogue but it was buried by some stilted sentence structure, as if you were working hard to make it sound “period.” I also agree that she apologizes and calls him “sir” too many times in just a few addresses to him.

    The other thing, besides the POV, that really threw me off was the mood change. She’s hiding, on the run, a life/death struggle, fearful of being found by anyone “If she were found her life would be worth naught.” Within seconds, she is trading snarky barbs with some guy who clearly knows her. Is she nervous that she’s been discovered by him or just merely annoyed? Without her internalizations (and these can be brief without interrupting the flow of the dialogue), I cannot tell.

    The writing and story show promise. Just don’t be afraid to give the reader a little more to invest in with the hook. It can be done without become info-dumpy.

  10. Bibliotrek
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 16:20:24

    This sounds like an attempt to sound 19th-century by someone who has never read much written during that time. I found the dialogue stilted and unbelievable. I wouldn’t read on.

  11. DS
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 18:32:38

    I have heard other people’s joint crack but not that loud– had to be listening for it– and it was people over 45 or so with arthritis. I stopped reading right there the first time. I almost stopped at the word naught. Read some primary sources, there’s a lot available– even one called I can almost hear the young men’s voices as I read them.

  12. Tasha
    Mar 18, 2012 @ 05:28:11

    It’s a minor nitpick, but “sir” should be lowercased in this context.

  13. Author on Vacation
    Mar 18, 2012 @ 12:53:13

    For the record, I love Civil War era romance and I jump at the chance to read them.

    This page didn’t “place me” in the Civil War era for several reasons:

    1. The heroine’s name, Sharra, sounds more like a name for a contemporary character or a Sci-Fi/Fantasy character than a presumably antebellum/Civil War southern character. I’m not arguing that there could have been in use at that time or not; just as a first impression, I found the name jarring and a “bad fit.”

    2. There is no description or establishment of scene/setting “placing” me in the read. Your descriptions (armed girl dressed in drag, hiding in a forest) is just too generic. This could literally be anywhere, anytime, anyplace (including contemporary.)

    3. If Sharra is a Southern girl raised on a farm or a plantation, it’s very likely she would not be brandishing a gun with no clue how to use it. Many Southern females were good shots and participated in hunts and comparable outdoor sports with their male counterparts. Middle class, upper middle class, and wealthy southern females were also exceptionally well-educated. The myth of the sheltered, helpless, innocent/ignorant southern belle is exactly that, a myth.

    4. Although you’ve clearly communicated Sharra is fleeing someone, this just isn’t developed enough to sustain my interest and it doesn’t “flow” well with the dialogue. I finished reading this page feeling I didn’t know enough about anything (the characters, the setting/situation, the plot) to feel interested in it. One minute, Sharra is hiding, afraid for her life, afraid of her father. The next minute, Sharra is bantering along with Chandler. Why is Chandler in the woods? Why is Chandler spying on her? Surely Sharra should be asking those questions?

    5. Chandler himself is “off” in the sense he seems unusually calm about Sharra admitting to fleeing “slavers and bounty hunters.” Is Sharra supposed to be a slave or a criminal? Is Sharra a white woman or a woman of color? It seems inconceivable to me that a white woman would need to flee slavers and bounty hunters. A woman of color might be more vulnerable to persecution, depending upon where she lived and what offenses she committed. Since I have no clue where Sharra is or what her circumstances are, I don’t know what’s happening here and your fiction makes no sense to me.

    6. I find the dialogue peculiar, more Regency English in tempo and tone than Civil War American. Sharra doesn’t think/perceive like a Civil War woman IMHO. The formality of her speech with Chandler is weird, too. I get the impression you really have no clue about the social dynamics of the time/setting you want to write about.

    Honestly, this story needs work. You have definite talent, but you aren’t showing to your best advantage on this page. I would advise investing time/effort in researching the period and letting that knowledge shape your work. If you have opportunity, pay a visit to a Civil War museum or two, visit some battle reenactments, and visit some surviving antebellum homes. Talk to the participants, ask them questions about the culture. This is a fun way to gather all kinds of information and you can also feel good about contributing to historical preservation efforts.

    The Civil War romance genre is very much a niche market. Most fans already have plenty of knowledge of the times and you will not be able to B.S. your way through a generic storyline with these readers.

    Thanks so much for sharing this page with Dear Author. Keep writing and best luck to you.

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