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Query: His Wife, the Enemy

Welcome to Query Saturday. Individual authors anonymously send a query to be read and critiqued by the Dear Author community of authors, readers and industry others. Anyone is welcome to comment. Published authors may do so under their own name or anonymously.

Readers, though, the way that I look at it is this: Would the hook itself interest you in reading the book. If yes, what interests you and if not, what would you change to make it more appealing?


Dear Agent,

His Wife, the Enemy is a 90K word historical romance, where a beautiful Boer spy is caught in her own lie when the man she claimed as her husband returns from the dead.

Seeking shelter across the dusty veld after a skirmish during scouting, Robert, Earl of Tollemache is charmed by the lovely, vivacious young widow who rescues and nurses him back to health. Entranced and beguiled, the intimacy of their arrangements and an unexpected night of passion lead Robert to contemplate marriage for the first time in his life. But when he returns to his camp with promises to return for her, he discovers her treachery in the most brutal and fatal way.

Countess Sophie von Wettin was indoctrinated in the art of deception. Abandoned at birth with neither name nor home, she was adopted by a mysterious Austrian Count whose velvet glove hid an iron fist he used to alternately torment and soothe her as he trained her to play his manipulative games in the capitals of Europe. After betraying the startlingly handsome and endearing British spy who dared to touch her heart, she takes the opportunity to escape her sordid life by burying herself in English society as his bereaved widow.

Neither expects to see the other again in their lives, and when Robert suddenly appears, rendering the report of his death in battle erroneous, his return shatters the fragile ruse Sophie had constructed. For him, their reunion is a bitter tonic, he having lost many friends due to her deceit. To her dismay, instead of revealing her lie and turning her out, Robert plays along with the story, intending to keep his enemy (her) close to circumvent any new plots she intends to unleash upon his family and acquaintances. Their farcical truce is upset when her foster brother and fellow spy infiltrates British society to coerce her into another plot of the Count’s under the threat of exposure–or elimination.

Beneath the layers of lies and deception a passion nonetheless burns between them, and Sophie can almost believe the warm, generous and absentminded affection she garners from Robert’s family can belong to her. Robert doesn’t want to trust her, but his conflicted heart is tested when the dangerous machinations and deadly vengeance of her profession lead them both into a place where their union, and their very lives, are threatened.


Interested in participating as an author or an aspiring author? Send your query to jane at All queries are kept confidential.

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. Erastes
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 04:30:59

    This sounds like a good historical romp, and I’m sure that it would be eagerly read by lovers of the genre. However I’m a little confused by this, but I’m sure it can be easily remedied:

    You say that Robert was charmed by the widow, and say that he contemplates marriage for the first time, but it seems he was married to her before? Or am I reading it wrong? It’s all a bit muddly, and not clear to me at all.

    Again, as I’ve mentioned in other critiques, this is not really a query – this is the sort of thing you see on the back of books (blurb) to entice the reader. The Agent/publisher isn’t really interested in being told over and over how beautiful/handsome/alluring/seductive/entrancing/beguiling any of the characters are – they want to know the PLOT and you aren’t telling them the plot at all, you are wrapping it up in mysterious “blurb speak” and it doesn’t give the agent/publisher any idea of whether you can write an exciting book-which, bottom line, is what they are going to want to know. If you are pitching this to someone who specialises in this genre, after all, the first rule is “how can I make my book stand out? What is different in my book that the world-weary, sore-eyed agent/publisher hasn’t seen kabillion times before?”

    That being said, it’s not a bad idea – and if you made it clearer you could be in with a chance.

    I have to question the historical accuracy of adoption, though. I haven’t researched Austrian adoption but I see so many English historicals which rely on this device and they make me want to throw the book across the room, as it didn’t exist as a legal entity until the 20th century and without checking I don’t think they could inherit the title.

  2. Ann Somerville
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 04:33:53

    Too long, too complicated. This is where my interest in reading further stopped: “she takes the opportunity to escape her sordid life by burying herself in English society as his bereaved widow.” The rest was blah blah blah, get on with it.

    The sentences should be snappier. This para (starting “Neither expects to see the other again”) is too convoluted and so is the plot, from the way it’s described.

    I’d lose at least half the adjectives and qualifiers, eg:
    “Robert doesn't want to trust her, but his conflicted heart is tested when the dangerous machinations and deadly vengeance of her profession lead them both into a place where their union, and their very lives, are threatened.” –>
    “Robert doesn't want to trust her, but his love is tested when her dangerous profession lead them both into a place where their union, and their lives, are threatened.”

    It sounds like there’s a good and interesting story there, but the query sounds like it might be turgidly written. Prove that it’s not, by making this sharper.

  3. Tracey
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 07:53:01

    It didn’t hook me, I’m afraid.

    You lost me when I read about Sophie the Orphan not only being legally adopted by an Austrian Count, but also inheriting his title. First, adopted children can’t inherit titles NOW. Second, I can find no Austrian laws online that govern child adoption in the nineteenth century, which makes me think that adoption as we know it didn’t exist back then. Third, a woman bearing a title of nobility in her own right, i.e., being the daughter of a titled parent and inheriting the title, was VERY rare. And then, too, Austria was under the Salic Law, which prevented women from inheriting positions of power or real property. Furthermore, the House of Wettin is an illustrious house of the German state of Saxony, and is related to the House of Saxe-Coburg, which later became the Royal House of Windsor. It’s not an Austrian family at all.

    So right away, I knew that this was not a historical romance, but a romance that had bits of history sprinkled in to give it flavor. And that’s not my thing.

    That said–how to sell it to an agent? You need to do two things:

    1) Lose most of the adjectives. They’re just clutter. You don’t need to tell the agent that your hero is handsome or that your heroine is lovely or vivacious.

    And you certainly don’t need to tell the agent that your hero is endearing; in fact, saying so could be counterproductive. I know that I don’t like it when writers state overtly in their stories that Eglantine is charming or that Fulbert had an appeal that none could resist. It gets my back up. I feel that I’m being ordered to like the character–and that makes me not want to like them. I cannot shake the feeling that if Eglantine or Fulbert is charming or appealing, I’ll notice without being told.

    2) Specify. I want to hear more details about the plot, and I think that the agent would too. What does Sophie do to betray Robert? What did Sophie’s adoptive father do to torment and soothe her? (It sounds vaguely sexual.) Why was Sophie living in South Africa alone in the first place, especially during a war? What new plots does she have in mind? And how is Sophie’s fellow Austrian and foster brother managing to infiltrate upper-class British society?

    You don’t need to worry about blurbing the story yet. Give me an outline. Tell me, in detail, what the story is about.

  4. Jill Sorenson
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 10:02:46

    I like the idea, the husband vs. wife conflict, and the title. With a little work, this query could be great. Right now there are too many adjectives, like Ann said, and the effect is sluggish. I’m also a fan of brevity in queries, so I think the details about the foster brother and other family members are unnecessary.

    Good job and good luck!

  5. Leah
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 10:10:26

    I liked it better the second and third time I read it, but from what I can tell from their blogs, agents don’t give you that much time. The first time through, I had a hard time connecting the Boer war to the Austrian nobleman–and I still do, ’cause weren’t the Boers Dutch? I think I might need a little more info on what Sophie’s “father” is trying to accomplish for this to make sense. Also, I put “father’ in quotes because I have to agree with the poster who said that his tormenting and soothing sounded sexual. Is that part of her background? If not, change those words, because they really give the reader a disturbing picture.

    I think I would need a bit more detail about how Sophie sees her role. How is she a spy by profession (I didn’t think that was possible for women, and maybe not even for men in that era)? Does she agree with her father’s aims? If he did treat her badly, why not just leave–as she seems very independent. Is there a reason why, as Austrians, they need to become a part of British society–why not just make this an Austrian story? I assume that WW 1 will enter into this in some way…how?

    I know that this might all seem very evident to you, as you know your book and characters. Also, there’s only so much space in a query letter, so you probably can’t answer every question we put up here, but there are probably a few important ones (like the ones everyone will repeat) that you would want to address, because an agent would have them, too. Also, I would pay attention to Tracey’s post on the royal family connections and Austrian law. Your audience is likely to know a lot about this time period, and will catch you whenever you are historically inaccurate. You probably have done a lot of research–just be sure you can tell by your writing.

    Best of luck! It’s good to see a historical (an historical???) query up here!

  6. Carrie Lofty
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 10:34:30

    I agree that the blurb speak needs to be entirely condensed. I’d keep some of the specific historic/locale language (“veld” stands out, although I thought the accepted spelling was “veldt”) because it lends flavor to your query, but ditch generic details about their looks, appeal etc.

    I’d take Tracey’s advice to heart about the issues of inheritance, but don’t go overboard with the plot details. Not here. A query is not a synopsis; it’s merely a gateway to getting the agent/ed to ask for pages. Think of a zingy elevator pitch–roughly 30 words, the most streamlined heart of your story–and go from there.

    I’m a little concerned about the title in relation to the plot. His Wife, the Enemy sounds a bit Presents. If this is a single title, you should mention that. Don’t leave anyone guessing as to your intended market, or whether the MS is complete.

    I’m a lover of historicals set in unusual places, so that alone would catch my attention. But I’m weird like that. Unusual locales need snappy hooks because publishing folk are reluctant to take them on. Good luck!

  7. Michelle
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 11:19:19

    FWIW – I totally want to read the book after reading this query.

  8. Moth
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 14:17:22

    It doesn’t hook me I’m afraid. For me the big thing is I have problems with plots where the hero has been/thinks he’s been betrayed by the heroine and then, when he could ruin her/revenge himself, etc, right away instead he develops a convoluted plot to “get even” with her by not revealing her secret. Jude Deveraux used to drive me nuts with stuff like that. What I’m getting at is I don’t feel like you’ve elaborated enough for me on why he would spare her life if she betrayed him and got his men killed. Right now it feels very much like a plot device instead of an organic, believeable reason:

    “intending to keep his enemy (her) close to circumvent any new plots she intends to unleash upon his family and acquaintances”

    Um, wouldn’t it just be easier to kill her? Maybe he’s torn by his feelings. Maybe he wants to believe she didn’t do it. I’m guessing it’s something more like that. But I’m not going to give you the benefit of the doubt if I’m thinking about reading it and I don’t think agents will either. Oh and you say at the beginning she betrays him in the most “brutal and fatal way”- like death? Wouldn’t he be dead if she’d betrayed him fatally?

    Also, this query is overwritten. In this one page letter you use: Entranced, beguiled, indoctrinated, erroneous, circumvent, farcical,and machinations. Lots of ten dollar words that that you don’t need. I just felt like it was awash in purple prose and lots of adjectives and modifiers that didn’t need to be there. A query is the time to show how tight, clear and concise you can get your prose. If I were an agent I would worry that every page of the manuscript would be as overloaded with unnecessary words as this query is.

    The plot has promise. The query needs to be cleaned up and tightened. Best of luck.

  9. Jessica Barksdale Inclan
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 15:54:50

    First off, the story sounds good and I would read it. But I’d have a heard time getting to it if I had to go through the query first.

    I think the high toned language (while appropriate for the time and place of the story) put me off. It was phrases like: bitter tonic, dusty veld, rendering the report, etc.

    While you are writing about a time, I don’t think your query should sound like it, though I bet there could be the argument that it’s good advertsing for your high diction.

    My advice–render this for the 21C, and you’ll get someone to read this book.


  10. Beth
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 16:03:05

    I am an academic, and it would not surprise me to discover the author of the query was, as well. There is a distant tone in the query that reminds me of a journal article — not a great thing, I would think, for catching an editor’s eye.

    Also, veld can be spelled either way. The British spelling tends (or tended) to be ‘veldt’, the Afrikaans spelling is ‘veld’.

    I do like the setting. My husband is a historian of the Boer war, so I have read way more about it than most, in my capacity as unpaid-editor-spouse-extraordinaire (I added that last bit), and I was just saying to him the other day that someone ought to write a romance based in South Africa during that time. It’s incredible that this query showed up days later!

  11. sula
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 16:10:28

    I found the concept interesting and I’m a big fan of historical romance…especially if it’s set in a different locale than the usual Regency romp. But I was confused as to whether or not it would take place in South Africa (the Boer mention made me think so) or in England or both.

  12. Meriam
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 17:19:39

    From a reader perspective, this sounds really interesting. Thumbs up.

  13. DS
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 19:42:10

    Reader prospective I’d give this one a shot. Reminds me a bit of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation although it’s more the setting and the themes than the actual plot.

  14. Maya Reynolds
    Jul 19, 2008 @ 20:49:45

    I liked the title, I liked the concept. I liked the historical setting. The story vaguely reminded me of The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of my favorite romances when I was a teen.

    Like many others, I found the query way too busy and confusing.

    I had a “huh?” moment when Robert returns to his camp and “discovers her treachery in the most brutal and fatal way.” First, it sounds like she’s been at his camp ahead of him, which is very confusing and, second, “in the most brutal and fatal way” is overwrought and overwritten.

    You’ve got a good idea. Now boil it down to its essence. You’re giving us too many details and way too many adjectives. What we need is to understand your lead characters’ internal and external goals and the basic conflict of the book. Leave out all the other characters and focus on interesting us in Sophie and Robert.

    And as an aside, go through your manuscript again. Make sure your novel isn’t cluttered with too many descriptive words. One accurate descriptive word is much better than three or four.

    Good luck. I’d like to see this in the bookstore one day.

  15. On Verbosity « Evangeline Holland
    Jul 20, 2008 @ 10:29:48

    […] Tags: feedback, queries, trouble, writing Ack. The query I sent to Dear Author for their Query Saturday is up and the results are in: I officially suck at writing queries, and writing queries for romance […]

  16. Leah
    Jul 20, 2008 @ 13:11:07

    Oh, see, no one said that. Everyone sucks at queries–that’s why there’s so much blog, book, and magazine space devoted to them. If you notice, everyone gets some very honest criticism when they submit their queries or first pages here. I sent in a first page, one which I’d written and rewritten several times and was pretty happy with. I got poor marks for verbosity (which I’d expected) and info-dumping, which was a beginner’s problem I was not really aware of. I’ve since rewritten that thing two more times, and it was amazing what I could get rid of. It’s just the nature of the business. I expect even a very successful author could post a rough draft here and get plenty of virtual red ink. I hope that you are not discouraged–your idea is a good one, and you actually received some very good and supportive comments!

  17. Gail Dayton
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 14:34:52

    Late, as usual, but this sounded like a really interesting book. I would totally read it. Yeah, tightening it up and clarifying plot elements would probably help, (Pretty much everything in the universe can be helped by that sort of thing.) BUT it’s a query. There’s at least one blogging agent who says that queries/pitches Ought to sound like back cover copy, at least a little bit. I think some of the crits are nit-picky. But this is a place for picking nits, I guess. My point–it sounds like a really good story. Interesting enough to take a look at, IMO. (For what that’s worth.)

  18. Julia Sullivan
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 16:30:37

    Fix the historical errors. Write a more streamlined query. Then you’re golden in my book–I love the characters, and I love all “marriage of convenience” plots.

  19. Evangeline
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 17:48:48

    *GGG* Thanks for the feedback everyone. What I’ve concluded from the responses is that a) snappy writing and b) there is no need to be mysterious or coy about plot elements. Regarding the historical inaccuracy thing, Sophie is not adopted in the modern sense of the word. She is an impostor passed off as the offspring of the Count’s long-dead sister and her husband.

  20. wandergurl
    Jul 23, 2008 @ 19:47:47

    I agree with the commenter who said that it had too many adjectives and I think that the dude with the hand that torments and soothes is just a little bit too strange.

    But I would so still read it.

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