First Page Friday #19: Historical Fiction

Check out the first page below, then record your vote in the poll before reading my critique in the second half of the post. Feel free to leave comments for the author. Thanks!

Historical Fiction First 500 – Jim Padian

He could not stay away. Tonight, as on prior visits, Dr. Warren crossed Griffin’s Wharf to where dockworkers had moored Dartmouth, the first tea ship to arrive in Boston. Twice each day, in the morning and twelve hours later in the evening, she slid imperceptibly fourteen feet down the wharf side on the ebbing tide and rose six hours later on the flood. He briefly scanned the ship’s deck before he nodded to the twenty or so armed volunteer guards posted about the ship and the wharf to deter unloading of the tea. Through the darkness, he glimpsed Eleanor, the second tea ship, swinging at anchor, some thirty yards off the wharf. Although not in view, he knew Beaver, the third tea ship, lay at anchor in the outer harbor. She could not come up to Griffin’s until her smallpox quarantine ended on the fifteenth. Earlier today, a rider brought him word concerning William, the overdue fourth tea ship. She was aground on Cape Cod near Provincetown. Warren sent back a message, ‘William’s tea must not come to Boston.’

Satisfied all was well, Warren withdrew into the dark shadow cast by the warehouse overhang at the end of the wharf. He recalled the night in November his involvement with the tea began with a summons from Samuel Adams, his political mentor.

Sam was his usual blunt self. “A dilemma faces each tea ship captain once they reach Boston. On one hand, they’ll face incessant demands by the citizens to return the tea to London immediately. On the other, Governor Hutchinson will apply provincial law to prevent the ships from leaving until someone pays the duty. The impasse continues until the day after the twentieth day from Dartmouth’s arrival at which time the customs officials seize the cargo, offload it to their customs warehouse, and wait for the consignees, two of which are the governor’s sons, to pay the duty and take possession of the tea.

“To prevent the landing, we must publically support the citizens demands while we apply consistent pressure on the governor and the captains. Our true objective, however, remains the same: destroy the tea on or before the twentieth day. Joseph, fashion me a plan for the tea’s destruction without harm to the ships or their crews. Do it quickly. Time flies before us.”

Warren threw himself into what at first seemed to be an overwhelming task. He had never before conceived of anything so complex. Friendly mariners and dockworkers taught him techniques for moving cargo about a ship. At a tea merchant, he viewed the actual weights and dimensions of the expected full, half, and quarter lead-lined tea chests. Full chests were brutes with weights of almost five hundred pounds. Hoisting them out of the cargo holds would require strength and time.

After weeks, he sketched out a plan. Men would drag heavy chests onto cargo nets secured to block-and-tackles. Others on deck would hoist the chests and swing them over to the rail.

Reader Participation – What Do You Think?

Before reading my take on this novel opening, please take a moment to record your thoughts in the poll below.

Your thoughtful critiques and suggestions for the writer are also welcome in the comments section. Explaining your vote gives the author even more insight into where they’re hitting the mark and where they can improve.

The Writeditor’s Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Historical Fiction First 500 – Jim Padian

He could not stay away. Tonight, as on prior visits, Dr. Warren crossed Griffin’s Wharf to where dockworkers had moored Dartmouth, the first tea ship to arrive in Boston. Twice each day, in the morning and twelve hours later in the evening, she slid imperceptibly fourteen feet down the wharf side on the ebbing tide and rose six hours later on the flood. He briefly scanned the ship’s deck before he nodded to the twenty or so armed volunteer guards posted about the ship and the wharf to deter unloading of the tea. Through the darkness, he glimpsed Eleanor, the second tea ship, swinging at anchor, some thirty yards off the wharf. < The bits marked in orange are the only sections of the entire opening that are happening in the moment.  Focusing on the past, what the character already knows, has already done, etc. does not draw readers into the story, which is primarily where this opening is suffering. Although not in view, he knew Beaver, the third tea ship, lay at anchor in the outer harbor. She could not come up to Griffin’s until her smallpox quarantine ended on the fifteenth. Earlier today, a rider brought him word concerning William, the overdue fourth tea ship. She was aground on Cape Cod near Provincetown. Warren sent back a message, ‘William’s tea must not come to Boston.’

Satisfied all was well, Warren withdrew into the dark shadow cast by the warehouse overhang at the end of the wharf. He recalled < You never want to have a character remembering (flashing back) to something within the first few pages. It gives the impression you’re not starting the book at the right point. You’re also asking the reader to hold tight while you pause the book’s action for an info dump before you’ve even established any action or any reason for the reader to care. the night in November his involvement with the tea began with a summons from Samuel Adams, his political mentor.

Sam was his usual blunt self. “A dilemma faces each tea ship captain once they reach Boston. On one hand, they’ll face incessant demands by the citizens to return the tea to London immediately. On the other, Governor Hutchinson will apply provincial law to prevent the ships from leaving until someone pays the duty. The impasse continues until the day after the twentieth day from Dartmouth’s arrival at which time the customs officials seize the cargo, offload it to their customs warehouse, and wait for the consignees, two of which are the governor’s sons, to pay the duty and take possession of the tea.

“To prevent the landing, we must publically support the citizens demands while we apply consistent pressure on the governor and the captains. Our true objective, however, remains the same: destroy the tea on or before the twentieth day. Joseph, fashion me a plan for the tea’s destruction without harm to the ships or their crews. Do it quickly. Time flies before us.” < This dialogue feels like an info dump – a way to sneak in a bunch of information without doing the heavy lifting of showing instead of telling. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the reader anything interesting to latch onto.

Warren threw himself into what at first seemed to be an overwhelming task. He had never before conceived of anything so complex. Friendly mariners and dockworkers taught him techniques for moving cargo about a ship. At a tea merchant, he viewed the actual weights and dimensions of the expected full, half, and quarter lead-lined tea chests. Full chests were brutes with weights of almost five hundred pounds. Hoisting them out of the cargo holds would require strength and time.

After weeks, he sketched out a plan. Men would drag heavy chests onto cargo nets secured to block-and-tackles. Others on deck would hoist the chests and swing them over to the rail. < You’re still not focusing on the moment. Paint a picture of what’s happening right now and let your character live the moment. Focus on what he’s seeing, hearing, feeling, etc. Make it vivid and interesting.

My Overall Thoughts

Unfortunately, with so much emphasis on conveying information (telling) rather than keeping the reader engaged in the scene (showing), I didn’t feel like I had anything to latch onto or anything to be interested in. Always remember that you have to give the reader a reason to care about your character, which requires that we know what the character wants and a little bit about who he is. Establish that first before you expect readers to hang tight for into dumps.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Who is Warren? Why should I care about him? What does he want? What is his goal? What’s standing in the way of his goal? Answer these questions and you will pull readers into the story a lot faster.
  • Don’t focus on the past and what’s already happened or what Warren usually does. Focus on the “now.” Let Warren live in this moment as if it’s the only thing that exists. Only include brief information about the past at times when it’s impossible to show what you need to convey.
  • If possible, put a conflict at the forefront of the opening pages so that readers have something to hope for or root for. Alternatively, you could use a mystery to draw the reader in – they will keep reading to find out the answer to an intriguing question (Why is he doing that? What is he afraid of? Who’s after him? etc.). Unfortunately, as currently written, I don’t feel that readers have any reason to want to continue reading.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 1.5

Historical fiction is tricky because it focuses on historical events or time periods (which can take a lot of time and effort to research and get right), but despite that, it still must rely on characters, their motivations, and their conflicts to draw readers into the story. Assume readers will not be drawn in by the historical events, which are simply a backdrop for your story. Find something interesting, exciting, intriguing, or dangerous to open the novel with so that you hook the reader.

A note on the grading scale: The rating of the first chapter does not indicate the rating of the novel as a whole nor does it indicate the writer’s overall ability.

Submit to First Page Friday – (currently booking last week of March and beyond)

If you’d like to submit your novel for First Page Friday, please send the following to ellenbrock@keytopservices.com:

  • The name you want me to use in the blog post (real name, alias, or anonymous).
  • The genre of your novel.
  • The first 500 words (give or take, don’t stop in the middle of a sentence) pasted into the body of the email.
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Please do not submit if you are not okay with your first page being posted, critiqued, and edited on my website.

About the Editor

Ellen Brock (AKA The Writeditor) is a freelance novel editor who works with self-publishing and traditionally publishing authors as well as e-publishers and small presses. She owns the editing company Keytop Services and the writing and editing blog The Writeditor. When not editing, she enjoys reading, writing, and geocaching. Check out her freelance novel editing services and mentoring.

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2 thoughts on “First Page Friday #19: Historical Fiction

  1. writeamy says:

    I usually enjoy reading historical fiction, but think there needs to be action right up front. Perhaps you can start with an active scene where people are in the process of trying to destroy the tea cargo and something doesn’t go according to plan. Then there is a problem. Not knowing the rest of your story, I don’t know if this scenario would fit. Perhaps reading a few intros in popular historical fiction will give you some ideas. Good Luck!

  2. Lawson says:

    The writer obviously knows a great deal about the period, but this does bog down in details that the narrator is made to observe/think/remember. Passive activities. The conflict is all off-stage, primarily between people other than Warren, and the stakes seem limited to the bureaucratic inconvenience of taxes and property seizure. The armed guards are the only hint of threat, but even that contains no immediacy with regard to Warren. What does he have to lose, right now? What does he have to do, right now? As is, the answer to both is nothing, so there’s no conflict in this scene. Talk your way onto the ship for recon? Bribe one of the volunteer guards, or try to? If Warren has nothing to _do_, then he can’t be opposed. No opposition, no conflict. No conflict, no story. Get him acting, or at least reacting: “You, there! State your business.” Most of the details are _setting_. Some are part of the set-up. All need to be metered out only when absolutely necessary for us to understand how a character will/won’t achieve his goal(s). Don’t tell me about armed guards; show me how the moonlight glints off the bayonet when the guard lowers to it our hero’s chest. “Far enough, Dr. Warren…” Bayonets may not be historically correct, but you, knowledgable writer, know the equivalent that will simultaneously educate me and bring me right into that moment when I’m worried for Dr. Warren. (But don’t ever have moonlight glint.)

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