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First Page: We Can Do It!

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August heat blanketed our town. By dawn it reached 90 degrees, by noon it went much higher. Out in back of the high school, farmers’ wives and some of the women who lived in town ran the community cannery while their barefoot children played on the lawn. The children were told to stay out of the cannery, to stay away from the sharp knives and boiling pots.

One of the ladies working inside the cannery threw a tablecloth over the big thermometer mounted on the wall saying “You ladies don’t want to know how hot it is in here!”

I looked out the window, longing to go play with my friends outside, but proud to be called a lady. Pride kept me working there. At 14, I was the youngest lady in the all-women cannery crew.

As the Andrew sisters belted out the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B over the radio, we washed and chopped the vegetables we would can that day. Some of those cans would go home with us. Others were destined to go to our soldiers oversees.

We were very patriotic in 1943. President Roosevelt had explained in a radio address that the government provided the funds to build the canneries in rural communities to preserve food grown in our Victory Gardens and on family farms. Canning became necessary because so much food was going overseas. I thought the government must have provided more than just funds for our cannery. That would explain why our biggest kettle was labeled “U.S. Navy.”

The Middleton Community Cannery had opened its doors in June At first, the cannery superintendent Mr. Otis McFarland decided that each family would reserve a day to use the cannery by themselves to process and can food for their own family. A pitiful number of canned good left the building each day.

The women of the community changed Mr. McFarland’s mind about how he ran the cannery. By midsummer, each of us had bushels and bushels of produce destined for canning. Some of it was rotting before the family’s next reserved cannery day. We needed to get the fruits and vegetables canned at their peak so we began working in groups. Gradually Mr. McFarland lost his control over the cannery. Many days, he went fishing and didn’t darken the cannery door. As a result, he stopped keeping accurate records.

The cannery ladies started that hot August day off with snippets of gossip. That morning, a nasty rumor started to spread. Many of the hundreds of cases of canned goods we made for the soldiers had been stolen. Mr. McFarland told the Sheriff they never reached the train depot. We had a thief among us.

It was Superintendent McFarland’s job to count the number of cases as they were loaded on the truck leaving the cannery. When he got back the waybill from the train depot and compared the numbers, he discovered a discrepancy. Almost half of the cases had, as he said, fallen off the truck. They disappeared somewhere between the Middleton Cannery and the depot in Lexington, Kentucky. He didn’t seem overly concerned.

On our lunch break that hot, hot day, the ladies talked about catching the thief. We didn’t like it, but we had to consider that it might be Superintendent Otis McFarland himself. He was a much-respected high school agriculture teacher. I had a hard time imagining that he could, or would, steal.

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

18 Comments

  1. Jayne
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 04:13:45

    Lots of backstory here but there’s not much about the narrator beyond the fact that she’s 14 years old. I’m also confused about her social status. She calls herself a “lady” but does that signify her social status or her age?

    I like what you’ve written but I don’t think this is where the story needs to start.

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  2. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 06:37:53

    Somebody’s been reading Steinbeck and Harper Lee. Not that it’s entirely a bad thing.
    Nothing happens. You need to start with the inciting event. It5′s an interesting attempt at the literary style popular at the time.
    and I know this passage is about the cannery, because the word is repeated ad nauseam, as are variations on it.
    Although I see what you’re trying to do, this reads more like a literary novel, but it’s very static even for that. I’m assuming you want this to be a romance, since you are on a blog for romance readers, and for the romance reader, it’s all wrong. You need to hook the reader in. We have no real character here to identify with, and the only event happens towards the end of the page.

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  3. Kate Sherwood
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 06:46:05

    I’m with Jayne – too much backstory, too much telling.

    You have some great little details, like the table cloth over the thermometer, that really help give the piece a sense of authenticity, but they aren’t enough to keep my interest without giving me a more vibrant character and a bit more action.

    I’m assuming this is YA, given the narrator’s age, and if it is I think it’s even more important that you capture your readers’ attention as soon as possible. Right now, this might feel too much like one of those fake stories in a history textbook, something that pretends to be fiction but is really a way to get a lot of information across to the students.

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  4. wikkidsexycool
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 07:53:00

    I think you could have the makings of a good story here, if the voice of the main character is made stronger (right now she reads as if she’s reciting events instead of living them). But I can see this as a great coming of age story. The cannery is a great place to mine characters who could be colorful and also shape her perspective on life. Some descriptive elements about the cannery itself would also help. What’s it like on the inside, especially from a 14 year olds perspective?

    You could introduce some characters with dialogue in response to the woman who mentions “You ladies don’t want to know how hot it is in here!” Surely someone objects? Don’t others have an opinion, even your 14 year old lead?

    This is something I’d pick up, if you insert the backstory so that it doesn’t hinder the character telling her tale. This could be lovely. I wish you the best with this.

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  5. Des Livres
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 08:00:39

    What everyone else said – I might add that from paragraph 5 the narrator becomes Omniscient historian, which might work better if we know the narrator better, and she’s reminiscing in her old age (hence also the “women of the community”). Which may or may not be what you intended.

    I like what you’ve written too – but there isn’t really a character there yet for me to be interested in.

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  6. Jane Lovering
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 08:09:41

    I’m another one who read this as YA, I think it’s the repetition and the simplistic use of language that made me think this.

    I second the opinion that it needs more dialogue – there’s a lot of ‘telling’ us stuff which could be more easily ‘shown’ if it’s done through the medium of people talking. It also means that characters have input and development, we can see who they are and how they react though what they say, even if they’re talking about the heat in the cannery and whose goods are being canned, for example, rather than have the lead character ‘tell’ us she’s the youngest in the cannery, have someone else call her ‘the baby’ of the bunch or make a joke about her ‘you’re only fourteen, you weren’t here in the summer of ’39, when it was so hot that the carrots melted’ (only an example, I hasten to stress).

    If it is YA, dialogue will help to break up the page too, rather than blocks of text, which some reluctant readers can find daunting.

    I apologise if this isn’t intended as YA, but that’s how it read to me. If it’s an adult book then I don’t think I’d read on – as someone else said, it needs to start somewhere else, at the point where everything changes, and drip feed the background of the cannery in gradually rather than start with it.

    Best of luck with your work!

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  7. Alyson
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 08:26:45

    Lots of recitation of backstory here, without any action. I get wanting to set up the scenario, but it’s just wandering all over the place with so much backstory. I’d lose everything above the second-to-last paragraph and start with “It was Superintendent McFarland’s job….” That at least places us in the beginning of the action and starting the actual story. Then, maybe on their lunch break the women could be listening to the Andrews Sisters and sitting far away from that U.S. Navy-branded pot to get away from the heat. That way, you’re setting up the place and period without this massive infodump.

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  8. Ute Carbone
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 10:03:50

    I agree with most of what was said here. You have some really good strong description and the writing is solid, but there isn’t enough of a hook. I think it starts in the wrong place. If this were mine, I’d start with the incident, ie the thing that happens and then makes everything else happen. On reading this, I get the feeling (I could be wrong) that the thief is that thing. So I would begin with “We had a thief among us” and work from there, folding in some of the details as you go along.

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  9. AG Starling
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 11:31:10

    Somebody here mentioned Steinbeck. That’s it. It reads like Steinbeck. I like the ending of the first paragraph in particular, the children being told to stay away from the cannery, to be wary of sharp knives and boiling pots. As a reader, I would expect that to have some deep significance, (though not literal significance involving these children, knives and pots). I am assuming this is part of a literary piece, it is all wrong for a romance. In any case, the writing (though good) becomes static as there is a lot of information being conveyed, but not a lot of momentum to grip the reader as to why they should care.

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  10. SAO
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 12:43:14

    I think the theft could be a great inciting incident. The problem is this is history. You need to plunge us into action immediately.

    Don’t tell us the rumor spread. Show us. Make it a scene, not a intro piece before you get to any scene.

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  11. Arwen
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 13:03:05

    Just didn’t grab me at all. Agreed on too much telling.

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  12. Pharmer
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 13:54:41

    I enjoyed this, and would read on. I want to know how the ladies catch the thief! I like the beginning: the cannery, the ladies taking over from Mr McFarland. But, by the end of the page, I had forgotten about the 14 year old and her place in the story.

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  13. Jacques
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 17:07:00

    I agree about the showing problem, and starting with the incident. The discovery of the theft is naturally intriguing. Start there, and work the backstory in through dialogue in little bits. As it stands, I wouldn’t turn the page. But I might if it were revised.

    I don’t know about it’s being inappropriate for romance. That sounds kinda narrow to me. People can fall in love in lots of ways and registers. No need to rule any of them out just because they aren’t what’s usually or most easily depicted. I don’t wanna be the love police.

    A couple of noodges:

    I thought they were the Andrews Sisters.

    My hobby horse, the pluperfect. There’s only a couple of ‘em but they sound wrong. “President Roosevelt had explained…” The passage doesn’t need to have the past parsed that precisely (there’s some alliteration for you!). It flattens it out too much, like pinning a butterfly in a case.

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  14. Cevenka
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 20:08:59

    Am I the only one who laments the passing of the pluperfect tense? When you use the simple past and chuck a whole lot of backstory at the reader, the inevitable result is confusion. I would put this back on the shelf because it’s a jumbled mess; I can’t tell what happened when.

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  15. SAO
    Aug 25, 2012 @ 23:33:57

    The pluperfect is a great tense. The problem here is not that it’s here, but that it is needed. This page has three sets of past events to keep track of:
    What’s happening today — “I looked out the window.”
    What happened before today — “The women changed Mr. F’s mind about . . .”
    and what happened before that — “Mr. Roosevelt had explained. . .”
    We aren’t yet invested in the story, so we don’t really want to keep track of all this history.

    If there was a scene, rather than a narrative describing the background, my bet is the pluperfect wouldn’t be needed. Or maybe, we’d never even need to know about Roosevelt’s policies.

    As a side note, the community cannery seems to be set up for producing food for the war, but a day was reserved for each family’s use, making it about home food production, not war production. Further, I bet every housewife canned produce for the winter before the cannery started. Or pickled or jellied it. They could still do this at home, so why would the produce rot? Usually people don’t grow more than they can eat or preserve.

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  16. We Can Do It! author Pat H.
    Aug 26, 2012 @ 09:01:08

    @SAO: Thanks for commenting on the first page of the story. I plan to fix the tense problems you pointed out and will incorporate many of the suggestions made by the “Dear Author: First Page” readers.

    About your side note…
    There is no place called Middleton, Kentucky, but my hometown, North Middletown, Kentucky, really did have a community cannery out behind the high school. It openned in 1943 and closed in 1959. I recently attended the high school reunion (since it’s such a small school, everyone who ever attended were welcomed). Two of the cannery ladies were seated next to me and they spent most of the evening sharing stories about the war years—and canning. Of course, in North Middletown no one ever stole the canned goods destined for U.S. soldiers.
    Yes, before the cannery openned, local women put up jelly, jams, soups, vegetables and some ground beef or pork in glass canning jars. At home, the maximum number of pint or quart jars that would fit into a big pot of boiling water (for jellies, jams, or tomatoes) or in the pressure cooker for soups, vegetables and meats) was six jars. The pressure cooker at the cannery could do a maximum of 80 quart jars or 106 cans at a time.
    The ladies said they were actually scared of their war-era home pressure cookers and vividly described accidents when the lids blew off spewing boiling water and broken canning jars all over their kitchens.
    During World War II many farmers did increase the amount of food crops planted and harvested to help the war effort. In fact, my husband’s family owned five farms and turned most of the pasture land on four of them into huge tomato patches. In those days, most tomatoes destined for canning all ripened over a very short span of three or four weeks. Everyone pitched it to pick them and the cannery ran non-stop for many days. All of the tomato cans and canned ketchup were packaged up and shipped by train then overseas by ship to feed U.S. soldiers. The family gave all that produce, pickers’ time and effort for free. They even bought the cans (2-cents each) and donated it all for the war effort. Pat

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  17. Ann
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 07:58:30

    As an author, I love this idea of seeing how the words you have in your own head are actually read and seen by many readers.

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  18. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 09:37:36

    Author, you have to decide what you’re writing. Is the cannery your main subject, almost a protagonist, or is your story about characters and what happens to them in the context of the cannery? Your response is all about the cannery, and while it was really interesting, it didn’t seem to address anything about plot, tension and characters. we still don’t even know if it’s a romance!

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