First Page Friday #26: Cozy Mystery

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About First Page Friday

First Page Friday is a blog series where I provide a free edit and critique of the first 500 words of an unpublished novel. Read the excerpt without my notes first and leave your vote in the poll. Afterward, feel free to leave a comment for the author. Feedback is always helpful!

Cozy Mystery First 500 – HL Carpenter

It wasn’t the food.

Exactly one week after Jo Fernley’s death, Emma Twiggs pushed aside the artistically-plated roast beef and mashed potatoes the chef at Happy Haven Retirement Community prepared every Sunday evening. No, the food had nothing to do with her sense that something was off kilter.

It wasn’t the chatter in the dining room, either, nor the sidelong glances of other Happy Haven residents. Happy Haven was a hotbed—literally—of gossip and rumors. Emma hated being the topic du jour, but that was nothing new.

It certainly wasn’t her dinner companion, Arnie Bracken. Arnie was always charming, kind, and intelligent. She looked at him and shook her head. No, her foreboding had nothing to do with Arnie, despite the fact that her best friend, Olli, had begun avoiding him. Olli had even refused to join them for dinner this evening.

Arnie said, “I know what you’re thinking, Em.”

“Do you?” Emma picked up a glass of lemon-spritzed water and waited for him to explain why they were dining alone.

“Sure.” Arnie glanced at the closest tables, leaned forward, and lowered his voice. “You’re wondering how someone as fit as Jo accidentally drowned in the swimming pool.”

Emma froze, her gaze locked with his. Her fingers tightened on the glass. The chatter in the room faded into muted background noise. She had deliberately not been thinking about Jo—slim and athletic Jo, with whom she’d shared the part-time volunteer job of water aerobics instructor at the pool where Jo had been found, her swimsuit-clad body resting on the concrete bottom like a deflated life raft.

No, she was not going to think about Jo.

Arnie said, “I’ll tell you how it happened, Em. There was no accident about it. Jo was murdered, and Cahan did it.”

“I don’t—murdered? By Todd?”

“Murdered,” Arnie repeated. “By Cahan. And we need to prove it.”

“Arnie.” Emma set the glass on the table and uncurled her fingers from it. “You know the paramedics called Jo’s death an accidental drowning. Harmony’s police department and the district medical examiner agreed.”

“Yeah, I know all the euphemisms they used.”

Emma did, too. The headline in Harmony Notes, the local daily, had read TRAGIC ACCIDENT AT HAPPY HAVEN. Unfortunate was the word murmured most frequently at the funeral service where Arnie had stood in place of the family Jo lacked, followed closely by regrettable.

Arnie said, “They’re wrong, Em.”

A trickle of condensation wept down the side of the glass and puddled into a teardrop on the table. All the words used to describe Jo’s death were wrong. Wrong and inadequate. Words were inadequate now, too. If Jo had been murdered, she deserved more than a quiet closing of the book of her life. She deserved a balancing of that book.

And there was one person who ought to square the tally: Emma Twiggs, the semi-retired septuagenarian accountant who’d done nothing to prevent her death.

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.

My Feedback

 Critique Key

Original Text is in italics.

Red is text I recommend removing.

Green is text I recommend adding.

Blue are my comments.

Cozy Mystery First 500 – HL Carpenter

It wasn’t the food.

Exactly one week after Jo Fernley’s death, Emma Twiggs pushed aside the artistically-plated roast beef and mashed potatoes the chef at Happy Haven Retirement Community prepared every Sunday evening. < I feel that this sentence is doing too many things at once because so much information is packed into it. No, the food had nothing to do with her sense that something was off kilter.

It wasn’t the chatter in the dining room, either, nor the sidelong glances of other Happy Haven residents. Happy Haven was a hotbed—literally—of gossip and rumors. < I’m not sure what the “literally” is referring to. Emma hated being the topic du jour, but that was nothing new.

It certainly wasn’t her dinner companion, Arnie Bracken. Arnie was always charming, kind, and intelligent. She looked at him and shook her head. < I think her shaking her head in response to her own thoughts would look strange to Arnie. No, her foreboding had nothing to do with Arnie, despite the fact that her best friend, Olli, had begun avoiding him. Olli had even refused to join them for dinner this evening.

Arnie said, “I know what you’re thinking, Em.”

“Do you?” Emma picked up a glass of lemon-spritzed water and waited for him to explain why they were dining alone. < I think this is clear enough and not needed.

“Sure.” Arnie glanced at the closest tables, leaned forward, and lowered his voice. “You’re wondering how someone as fit as Jo accidentally drowned in the swimming pool.”

Emma froze, her gaze locked with his. Her fingers tightened on the glass. The chatter in the room faded into muted background noise. She had deliberately not been thinking about Jo—slim and athletic Jo, with whom she’d shared the part-time volunteer job of water aerobics instructor at the pool where Jo had been found, her swimsuit-clad body resting on the concrete bottom like a deflated life raft. < This is another sentence that’s working too hard. When sentences make several points at once, they all get buried. 

No, she was not going to think about Jo.

Arnie said, “I’ll tell you how it happened, Em. There was no accident about it. Jo was murdered, and Cahan did it.”

“I don’t—murdered? By Todd?”

“Murdered,” Arnie repeated. “By Cahan. And we need to prove it.”

“Arnie.” Emma set the glass on the table and uncurled her fingers from it. “You know the paramedics called Jo’s death an accidental drowning. Harmony’s police department and the district medical examiner agreed.”

“Yeah, I know all the euphemisms they used.”

Emma did, too. The headline in Harmony Notes, the local daily, had read TRAGIC ACCIDENT AT HAPPY HAVEN. Unfortunate was the word murmured most frequently at the funeral service where Arnie had stood in place of the family Jo lacked, This read a bit awkwardly to me because I expected it to relate to Arnie being at the funeral. > followed closely by regrettable.

Arnie said, “They’re wrong, Em.”

A trickle of condensation wept down the side of the glass and puddled into a teardrop on the table. All the words used to describe Jo’s death were wrong. Wrong and inadequate. Words were inadequate now, too. If Jo had been murdered, she deserved more than a quiet closing of the book of her life. She deserved a balancing of that book. < The repetition of “book” here reads a little clunky.

And there was one person who ought to square the tally: Emma Twiggs, the semi-retired septuagenarian accountant who’d done nothing to prevent her death.  < It seems to me that Emma swings a bit too quickly from not believing it was murder to not only believing it, but wanting to bring the killer to justice. I think that transition should  take longer.

My Overall Thoughts

I have no real complaints about the content, but I think there are some line editing issues that need to be addressed as well as some areas where clarity could be improved.

Key Places to Improve:

  • Did Emma feel something was off because of the murder? It wasn’t clear how her off-kilter feeling related (or didn’t relate) to her conversation with Arnie.
  • Opening with all the things that weren’t making Emma feel off-kilter gave this a slightly odd, almost middle grade omniscient narrator feel to me. I think your intention is third limited, so you may want to alter the opening. I think it’s coming across a bit sillier than you intend.
  • I’d like to get a little bit more about who Emma is. What kind of person is she? What is her typical life like? Is she usually nosy and the type to get involved or is she usually quiet? I’d like a better sense of Arnie’s personality as well. You may want to give the opening a bit more space to give the readers a sense of who they are.

The Writeditor’s Grade (out of 5): 3

There weren’t any major problems with this opening, but definitely some places that could be improved. I like the idea of a mystery in a retirement community.

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.

Connect with the Authors

HL Carpenter is a mother-daughter writing team. You can learn more about them on their website.

Submit to First Page Friday – (currently CLOSED to submissions)

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About the Editor

Ellen Brock 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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13 thoughts on “First Page Friday #26: Cozy Mystery

  1. Kate Sparkes says:

    I agree with the notes. It feels like we’re being told a LOT– even the dialogue seems to be all backstory, sort of “as you know…” dialogue, which sounds unrealistic to me. I think this could be an interesting story, but I’d like to know a bit more about the characters and get a feel for them before we jump into the makings of the mystery. If this were a short story I’d understand the rush, but it would be great to see this information spread out a bit more if it’s a novel. As a reader looking at a sample, I would assume that it’s all this rushed and put it down.

    How old are Emma and Arnie? I thought at first they were older (because they’re in a retirement community), but then got that Emma is younger. Does Arnie work there, or is he a resident? It would be helpful to have descriptions.

    All of that said, I’m not a huge mystery reader, so disregard anything that’s irrelevant in my notes. 🙂

  2. Kate Sparkes says:

    Reblogged this on disregard the prologue and commented:
    Apparently it’s reblog Friday around here! First Page Fridays are a great series over at Ellen Brock’s blog, where she offers editorial critique on a first page. Here’s where you come in: FPF (can I call it that?) needs more readers and more comments to help out the writers who are putting their work out there for critique. If you’re a reader or a writer, stop by and share your insights!

    I assume normal rules of courtesy and constructive criticism apply. 🙂

  3. Kristin Russ says:

    I really like the scenario here. I agree with Ellen that the first 500 needs more space. And breaking down sentences into shorter bites helps readers slow down and pay attention. I followed the story that Emma suspected that Jo didn’t drown by accident and that Arnie was trying to get her to do something about it. Slow down their interaction. Give them more dialogue. How well do they know each other? Does she trust him? Why is she gripping her glass so tightly? It seemed a bit dramatic. I’d like to see her reaction give forth a bit more information about her personality. How better to understand our protagonist but through her interactions with the people around her. Good luck with the story. I want to know what’s going to happen with these characters.

  4. JTMoore says:

    This is fun.
    I’m impressed with the brave opening “It wasn’t the food.” It has a nice hook to it.
    I’m new to writing fiction. I enjoy Ellen’s take on the craft. I appreciate her Blog and her videos; I am learning so much.
    I understand Ellen’s assessment and Kate’s also. I recall seeing question marks in my mind about the age thing and had to reread it before moving on. But I’m kind of slow that way.
    I plugged it into my copy of MasterEdit software and see “the” 34 times. “Of” is in there 10 times. Fourteen times “and” appears and I would want to work on that too. Being a rookie I might destroy the great flow though. I have so much to learn.
    Overall, I’d be hooked and would want to keep reading.
    Thank you all for sharing this experience here.
    It is inspirational to me on several levels.

  5. Cassandra Charles says:

    It was a good opening, but the sentences were too long winded. I also thought there was too much emphasis on the glass. It gives the impression that there’s more to it than there really is.

  6. Hailey says:

    I really don’t read mystery novels, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on those aspects, but I will say that I’m not a huge fan of the name ‘Happy Haven’. It’s retirement community cliche. The name would blend better with the rest of the story if ‘Happy’ was replaced with something else. Or you could take it out entirely.

  7. cynthiagrstacey says:

    This is the first time I came across your post. I really enjoyed it and your comments were accurate. My thoughts were that it didn’t grab my attention. It needed more emotion. I am a new follower and I hope you keep the post.

  8. johnhansendk says:

    I think I can see what Ellen says about the opening with the list of the things that are not are making Emma feel “off kilter”, but I do think that it’s used well, introducing us to the setting and the characters. We get an idea about Emma’s and Arnie’s ages because we are told we are in a Retirement Community, and unless the author says otherwise, I think most readers will assume they are living there and are not part of the staff.

    We learn that Emma is often the subject of gossip and that some people, including her good friend, does not approve of Arnie – which shows that they must be more than dinner companions. We don’t know exactly what their relationships, but I think it’s okay not to mention that on a first page. Actually, the idea of a woman in a retirement community causing scandals by the choice of lover/companion is a very good hook for a cozy mystery.

    I also like that Emma’s emotions is tied up with the glass on the table. It gives some physical content to sentences that would otherwise be “simply” about feelings.

    But I do not understand why Emma changes her mind so fast. I have no clue at all. Also Arnie trying to persuade Emma seems a good place to tell something about the murder.

  9. Ed Giambalvo says:

    Agree with most everyone else – the plot thickens a little too quickly. Slow it down so we’ll care more when you get there. But I like the narration voice very much. Also find “It wasn’t the food…” very courageous. Kind of has an Angela Lansbury, Murder She Wrote, lilt to it, which you may or may not have been shooting for, but which fits the topic perfectly.

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