The Conductor

Context: This is chapter 1 (or at least the beginning of chapter 1, of a YA novel I want to write. River, who just turned 16, and her family are touring Westminster Abbey when she faints due to a special power that manifests at age 16 that she doesn’t know about. Her parents, who were wandering the abbey separately, have disappeared. At the end here, Thomas tries to tell River something extremely important that will be revealed in the next chapter.

Here is the text so far:
The Conductor
Ch. 1
I awoke to find Shakespeare staring down at me with great disapproval. Elbow on a stack of books, chin resting on his hand, cape flapping behind him in marble waves, he mocked me: Who dares faint in this great edifice? O thou, great clutz. I stared right back as the scene around him rippled and contorted, and I heard the faint cry of my little brother as he shook my shoulder.

“River, are you ok? Can you get up?” His words were long, like a movie in slow motion, yet tinged with desperation. Shakespeare swirled and electric pain shot through my skull as other voices hammered my brain.

“Let’s get her up.”

“Careful now, love. There’s a good girl.”

“Medics are on the way.”

Why is water always a thing for a damsel in distress? Going into labor? Give her water. Recently broken up and bawling her eyes out? She must need water. Smacked her head on the floor of Westminster Abbey in front of a small country’s worth of people? Water’s the ticket.

It was coming back now. We were in London touring Westminster Abbey—Termite and me and our parents. I was sitting up now and someone threw a blanket around me. The black-and-white tiled floor, a giant chess board, seemed familiar; we’d been here many times. Our parents were archeologists; Mom’s focus was Stonehenge and similar sites, while Dad studied ancient Egypt. Because of their profession, we traveled constantly and took many side trips to famous places like the pyramids at Giza, Royal Mile in Edinburgh, the Parthenon, and of course, Westminster Abbey. I loved the Abbey, but castles were my thing. I was awestruck by their longevity, by their stark solid power as military fortresses, by their romance and mystery as palatial homes. At sixteen, I’d proudly tell anyone, I’d been to 59 castles in seven countries, including Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, the model for the Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland.

Suddenly I was enveloped in warmth with a cold brass badge pressed to my cheek.
“River! Good heavens, dear! Are you alright?” Gerry, a guard with whom my family was friends, hugged me with his mountainous frame. He was a jolly Scotsman with thick wavy hair so white it nearly glowed. Dad and Gerry played golf together whenever they could, although Gerry always told Dad it was pointless to try to beat a man at golf who was from the country where golf was invented. Gerry’s wife Molly, who was English, made the best roast beef pasties in all of London. In all of England, probably. Gerry and Molly were childless, so they doted on Termite and me a little too liberally whenever we visited, showering us with toys and games. Gerry had taught Termite to bowl and claimed that bowling, too, was invented in Scotland, but Dad had found primitive bowling balls and pins in digs in Egypt.


“Right here, Rivs.” His freckled face was suddenly an inch from mine, his haphazard brown locks nearly poking my pupils. “Hey listen, I need to tell you…Wait. Do you have a concussion? There’s a bit of blood on the tile. I hope you don’t exsanguinate.”

Okay, what eight-year old says “concussion” for “head injury” and “exsanguinate” for “bleed out”? Termite, that’s who. I continue to marvel at his vocabulary, this eight-year-old child who routinely foregoes the likes of Captain Underpants in favor of random selections from the Encyclopedia Britannica set in Dad’s study. His given name is Thomas, but we call him Termite because, like the insects that devour wood, he devours books. Mom sometimes calls him Isaac Newton, Jr., to which he replies, “That’s Sir Isaac Newton, Jr., to you,” and indeed, Sir Isaac Newton’s tomb is his favorite spot in the Abbey.

“No, I’m…I don’t know. Could I have a…where’s…” And then someone—or two or three someones—scooped me up and placed me on a stretcher. I lay back, the scenery still swimming. In my mind I waved goodbye to Uncle Will, who still stared at me disdainfully, as if I’d thwarted the crowd’s admiration of him that day.

“Take care, dear,” I heard Gerry call as the fanned ceiling flew by above me. I closed my eyes to stave off nausea. “I’ll try to find your parents.”

Oh right. Parents. I had them. Where were they? I grabbed Termite’s hand as he trotted alongside my stretcher.

“’Mite, where are Mom and Dad?” But nausea knotted my belly just then and I lost my lunch over the side of the stretcher. That was it; that took it out of me. I fainted once more.

When I awoke this time, a ginger-haired doctor with thick black-rimmed glasses was staring down at me.

“I’m Dr. Chambers. What’s your name, dear?”

“Um…dear.” That wasn’t it. “R-River.”

“River, do you know what happened to you?”

“I fainted. Twice in one day. And I threw up in between.”

“Okay. Let’s get a shot of your head, and then we’ll talk some more.”

“What? You’re going to shoot my head?”

“An x-ray, dear. The orderly will take you now.” Termite jumped up onto the gurney and lay next to me as the man wheeled us down the hall.

“River, listen. I need to tell you something. Right before you passed out the first time, you—”

“Thomas! River! Oh thank Heaven,” Gerry, huffing and puffing, lumbered over to us as quickly as his thick body could carry him. “Dears, listen. I asked everyone I could find. I asked the other guards. I asked the tourists and the gift shop girl and the cafeteria cashier and the tour guide. I asked—”

“Gerry, what’s going on? What did you ask them?” Termite had a way of being the calm in the storm.

“I asked them where your parents were. I told them what they looked like and I asked them where they were and had they seen them. Oh, no. It’s awful. I’m so sorry,” he stammered, shaken. “It seems, dears, that your parents are…missing.”

4 thoughts on “The Conductor

  1. Nikki says:

    I like the tone and style of your writing. I already feel connected to each of the characters and feel like I know them and understand their background. You’ve accomplished a lot with a small amount of words.

    I did feel like some portions came across as though you were trying too hard in the beginning. What does marble waves mean? Your descriptions were very visual, but some places you threw in a couple more descriptive words than necessary.

    I am still confused about Shakespeare looking down at River. At first I wondered if she was in a play and had passed out with a guy dressed as Shakespeare annoyed she’d ruined his performance. Now I’m wondering if it was a statue?? Maybe that’s what the marble waves meant?

    I was a little lost as to the time period, but was pretty certain it was current, given the use of the word clutz. This was confirmed when you mentioned Disneyland.

    I loved the end of the chapter and all of the confusion. I also loved the way you described her view of the world rippling around her.

    You could create even more of a cliffhanger I’d you waited to add the line about her parents missing to the beginning of the next chapter. Honestly, I was really drawn in until it mentioned they were missing, which didn’t seem like a big deal yet. By removing that last paragraph, you draw the readers into your next chapter’s

    Love this so far.

    • Lisa Smith says:

      Hi, Nikki,
      Thanks so much. You’re right: “marble waves” might be a bit much. I was trying to show that Shakespeare was indeed a statue.

      I see what you mean about her missing parents not being a big deal yet. I did feel like that timing of that was off–something more needs to go on to show that her missing parents is really shocking. I will absolutely consider putting that at the beginning of the next chapter. Thanks again!

  2. jmpayer says:

    Looks like a good start. My only thought was that maybe this should be Chapter 2. You could have a first chapter that explained a little bit about where they were, the family dynamic, etc. That saves watering down this section with backstory and when the parents go missing it has more impact. For all we know she doesn’t like her parents.

    Okay, I lied, two more thoughts. Whenever I see a female character named River I flash to Firefly. Maybe that’s just me. And I thought Termite might be a family nickname, or her term for her brother, but if she’s named after a river then maybe that’s his real name? If so, it’s an… interesting choice their parents made.

  3. Lisa Smith says:

    Hi, JMPayer,
    Good point about River potentially not liking her parents…I do think I need to establish the relationship better, because her missing parents is really a catastrophe that helps drive everything else, and it’s a source of great fear for River because of how her power can manifest and affect the situation.

    What’s Firefly? I named her River because I dig the name (my kids had a good friend growing up named River, and we called her Rivs), but also because her parents met and fell in love on the Thames River, so they named their daughter River and their son Thomas (because naming him Thames would garner him teasing for life). That might be silly…but that’s how it worked out in my brain.

    Thanks for these comments, for making me think about and address these issues. I appreciate it!

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