Week 1 Mini-Critique

TITLE: Culloden Spirit
AUTHOR: Anita D.
CATEGORY: Historical Romance, Scotland 1900

London, May 1st, 1900

Carrie Gordon’s fantasies of her arrival in London consisted of her appearance on the foredeck of the SS Minnesota as it sailed up the River Thames with an escort of barges and small craft; to glide beneath Tower Bridge, where she would disembark to an accompaniment of hooters and whistles before an admiring crowd.

Tilbury docks, therefore, came as a crushing disappointment.

Picking her way down the steep wooden gangplank, Carrie winced at the discordant clamour of mechanical noise, and the harsh shouts of porters unloading luggage and cargo onto a rain-slicked dock.

Men in identical boiler suits milled around warehouses that spilled perishable goods onto greasy cobbles. The odours of rotting fruit, fish, and stagnant water permeated the air.

Outside the customs building, a line of drab hired carriages waited to pick up city-bound passengers, with bored horses shuffled forward by indolent drivers. Nice line – the bored horses, especially.

At last their turn came, and Carrie climbed inside an airless box whose shabby upholstery smelled of dust and ancient leather. Great line, here – love the “airless box.”

“Where’s Tilda?” her sister, Beth asked, referring to their maid, who had made the crossing with them. A hand clamped on her hat to prevent it being whisked away. Whose hand? Whose hat?

“She’s already left with the rest of the luggage,” Mother explained. “She’ll be at the hotel when we arrive.” She tweaked Beth’s hair and rubbed a smut from her nose before ushering her inside the waiting hackney cab.

“Which hotel?” Beth landed awkwardly on the horsehair seat, earning a scowl from Carrie, whose reticule she had crushed. Were women still carrying reticules in 1900?

“We’re booked into Claridges Hotel in Brook Street.” Father gave incoherent instructions to the driver before he slammed the carriage door on the noisy chaos.

Carrie stared out of her window at the flat, dirty brown river beneath an indifferent sky, her nose wrinkled in distaste at the litter-strewn dockside. New York would be wakening to a warm, colourful spring right now, while here, winter had still to release its hold.

“It’s no more unappealing than any wharf area, Carrie.” Father’s hard stare dared her to voice the criticism which must have shown on her face, while Mother’s lips pursed in mutual disapproval. “London’s a beautiful city, you’ll see.” He sniffed.

Carrie squirmed and stared at her lap. “I’m sure it is.”

“According to Uncle Iain’s letter,” Father went on, “the hotel fell into disrepair some years ago.”

“Wonderful.” Heavy with irony, the word leapt from her lips before Carrie could stop herself.

“Let me finish.” He narrowed his eyes. “It was completely rebuilt in ninety eight. It’s now reputed to be the most luxurious in London. Uncle Iain thought we might like to relax for a few days and see the sights.”

“Huh!” Beth snorted. “Carrie spent half the sea crossing sleeping. She doesn’t need more rest.”

“I was seasick!” Carrie spoke through gritted teeth in a fragile smile. “I thought I was going to die in that hurricane.”

“It was a force three gale.” Beth turned away with a huff, misting the window glass. “Hardly enough wind to lose your hat in.”

“Do tell us about Uncle Iain, Father,” Carrie asked, making an effort to be more agreeable.

“Well, we’ve never actually met. He’s my late mother’s youngest brother, and he runs the family estate near Inverness.”

“What there’s left of it,” Mother murmured. Her apologetic moue at father’s hurt expression revealed she spoke without thinking.

“It’s still quite substantial.” Father’s voice took on a defensive edge. “With several hundred acres of tenant farms as well as the castle itself.”

“A somewhat dilapidated one.” A flash of scorn appeared in Mother’s sapphire eyes, fading to a bland smile. “Your Papa’s dearest wish, girls, is to restore the old place to its former glory.”

“Uncle Iain will accept my offer, you’ll see.” Father stared out of the window as if something caught his interest, however as the cab moved through rows of dreary, tightly-packed houses, more likely this was an attempt to avoid the issue. There’s a lot of author explanation of how each line is said – you might want to trust your reader more, and just show what’s happening, leaving the conclusions and judgments to be drawn by the reader.

“Has Uncle Iain not yet agreed to this plan of yours, Father?” Beth’s angry scowl displayed indignation at the frailty of grown-ups.

The I-told-you-this-was-a-bad-idea look that passed between her parents came as a shock to Carrie. They had never openly quarrelled before; at least, not in her presence.

“We’ve discussed it, but the final arrangements are still under consideration,” Father said, distracted.

“Then why are we going all the way to Scotland?” Carrie had no affinity with the Scottish Highlands, even if Father talked endlessly about his roots being there.

“My sentiments exactly.” Mother took up the reins of a seemingly long-standing argument. “Cair Innis is Iain McRae’s family home Andrew. You ought not to run roughshod over his feelings.”

“It’s only his pride, Martha.” Father eased his tie away from his upright collar. “He doesn’t want it crumbling into the loch any more than I do. He’ll thank me when it’s done.”

“What about his great-nephew?” Mother was evidently unwilling to let the subject go.

Father frowned. “I don’t follow.”

“There’s a nephew?” Carrie looked from one to the other, but no one paid her any attention.

“Surely this young man might have something to say about this?” She There are three women in the scene. Who is “She” here? threw Father a swift, sideways glare he pretended not to see. His closed eyes and tiny sigh told Carrie otherwise.

“I haven’t asked him.”

“Perhaps you should. And, Yes, Carrie dear, there is indeed a nephew. His name is Duncan McRae.” Mother drummed the vanity case on her lap with her fingernails, the sound loud in the confined space. “I would be interested to see if your father can bully him in the same way as an elderly great uncle.”

Carrie exhaled theatrically to make her misgivings felt. The last thing she wanted was for anything to cloud the coming summer, not when her own bruised confidence needed a change of scene. If ‘the nephew’ objected to whatever plans Father had in mind, they might find themselves packed off back to New York on the next steamer.

LEIGH SAYS:

Anita, you write very well, and I love the visuals here – it’s easy to picture the docks, the porters, the spills, the carriages. I also really like the way you’ve used the senses – particularly the sounds of the dock and the smells of the cargo and of the inside of the carriage. In a few words you’ve done a great job of evoking the atmosphere of the landing, and made me believe that I really am in Tilbury Docks in 1900.

You also do a good job of creating character through the spoken word. I love how Mother refers to Tilda in connection with “the rest of the luggage” — as if the maid is baggage herself. (Also how Beth and Carrie carry out the sibling rivalry without going over the top or becoming unlikeable, and how you’ve clearly portrayed the differences in opinion between Mother and Father without them actually voicing disagreement.)

But I wondered … if the story is set in Scotland and revolves around Father’s bid to take over the family estate, why does page one start with their disembarking in London, rather than with the family arriving in Scotland, or meeting up with Uncle Iain, or perhaps as Carrie meets Duncan McRae (if he’s going to be the love interest)? When we start the book with characters in transition, the scene tends to be full of backstory – a way to explain to the reader how the character happened to get to this point in her life. It’s usually better to start the story as the action starts, rather than by moving the characters around in preparation for action.

I also found it hard to believe that this family has been planning this once-in-a-lifetime trip, packing for a summer-long stay, then traveling for a week or so on a steamship – but they only now are getting around to asking questions like “Why are we doing this?” and “Who are we going to be visiting?” and “Which hotel are we staying in?” and so on. As a result, despite the great word pictures, I found it hard to forget that these people are only characters in a book.

The two problems are linked together, I think. If you start with action at the point where the plot takes off, then simply show what the characters say and do — rather than have them tell the reader through their conversation — you’ll be better able to draw the reader into the story.

Please take a moment to give us feedback on the contest.

9 responses

13 01 2010
Rachelle Chase

Like Leigh, I think you did a terrific job of describing the setting, Anita. I could picture the docks perfectly and felt I was right there with Carrie. And your characterization was great — all the characters were distinct and entertaining. They seemed to be a loving family, which endeared them to me.

However, the main thing that kept this from being a page-turner for me was the fact that the whole scene, beginning at “According to Uncle Iain’s letter…” felt like backstory which was included for the readers benefit. The characters would have already known and discussed all that. The dialogue, though well-written, doesn’t seem to convey anything that I need to know right now.

I’d be willing to let the fact that the story starts in London go and assume that there’s a reason for that, if the story started in the middle of action and/or in the middle of dialogue that moved the story forward. Once you do that, I’d definitely keep reading!

13 01 2010
Foxhawke

Anita,
Great job!!! And these crits are really helpful.

13 01 2010
Melissa Blue

What lovely style you have. I’ll be watching for your name in the future 🙂

Melissa

13 01 2010
Jody

Anita;
I love historical romances; they’re so grand and visual. The openning is what I loved! How Carrie had been having fanasies about her arrival, but then her arrival is a crushing disappointment. A sense of humour is always a plus. Great stuff!
Jody

14 01 2010
Tamara

Well Done Anita.
I write Historical as well, and now I’m intrigued to know, if reticules were around in 1900.
Great story, congrats.
Tam

14 01 2010
Candi Wall

Anita,

Very nice!

You have such strong descriptions, and I love how you used all the senses. I love setting and you did a great job of taking me back so I could imagine myself there with them.

Keep up the good work!

14 01 2010
Anita Davison

Thanks everyone for reading the excerpt and for all your lovely comments, I shall go back to the manuscript and do some tweaking – then see if my agent can find a home for it!

The reason I started this is London was because the maiden voyage of the SS Minnesota between New York and London in May 1900, carried a small number of First Class passengers and landed at Tilbury, not Liverpool.

17 01 2010
Leigh Michaels

Thanks for commenting, everyone. I’m glad to know that the mini-critiques are helpful — often it’s easier to see a point in someone else’s work than it is in our own, but then we can apply the knowledge.

So how do YOU decide where to begin page 1 of your story? Have you struggled with this question, and how did you settle on one moment over another?

6 02 2010
Tessa

I would swear I addressed this opening, but I guess not.

Anyway, I really liked this with all the details. It definitely drew me in. In fact, I will even go as far as to say that your description, especially the very beginning was awesome.

It’s so true, too. We all have our fantasies as to how something will be and then find out that reality wasn’t as we thought it would be.

I liked the way Carrie had hopes for certain things to happen in the summer and that her father could change things and ruin it. Good possibilities for interesting conflict. Keep this story going. It’s worth the time to read it.

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