Week 6 Mini-Critique

AUTHOR: Erin S.
TITLE: Courtly Love
CATEGORY: Historical Romance

Bess arrived at her daughter’s estate exhausted. She had managed to keep a brave face while at Queen Elizabeth’s court, but being a witness to the axe man’s work only served to bring back memories of the precarious time she had spent in the Tower years ago. It was true that the Duke of Norfolk had been justly tried and found guilty of treason… still, it was an unpleasant reminder at how completely their very lives were in the control of the Queen. Nice way to establish your historical period almost instantly, and set the stakes – we know already that the risks in this book are going to be higher than in the average historical. It was not a comforting thought. Bess had detoured on her trip home in order to cheer herself up by spoiling her grandchildren. If she were lucky, she may even have arrived in time to be there for Frances’ next delivery.

The servants at the Holme Pierrepont manor house lined up to greet the arriving Countess of Shrewsbury. I’m not certain right now if this is the same person as Bess. Don’t assume that the reader will know what her title is, or what the name of her daughter’s home is. A footman stepped forward to escort her down from the carriage and to the head of the household. Bess could tell immediately that something was not right.

A matronly looking woman began to bustle towards Bess, desperately trying to be respectful though obviously in a panic. “Oh, my lady, ‘tis a blessing you have come when you did. The Mistress has not been herself for nigh on three weeks ever since the birth of the twins, God Rest poor Maria’s soul.” I don’t know who Maria is. Does Bess know, at this moment? Since she was hoping to arrive before the delivery, it would appear she can’t know who’s who – so why doesn’t she ask something like, “Is that what she named the baby?” The pink faced woman crossed herself before continuing, “She Maria?—pronouns usually refer to the last-named person has locked herself in her room… She isn’t answering no matter how we bang on her door…”

Bess did not waste a moment for further explanation, and marched into the manor, the housekeeper in tow. Bess cursed inwardly as she hurried up the stairs to her daughter’s rooms. Frances had lost another baby… Bess could easily nurse her daughter to health, but she could not mend a broken heart. Well… it’s a nice sentiment, and a good distinction. But the mostly likely scenario for a woman being ill post-partum would be infection after the birth, something that Bess could hardly nurse “easily” in an era with no antibiotics. At this moment, Bess can’t absolutely know that there’s nothing physically wrong with her daughter, only that Frances has locked herself in her room.

*

Frances opened her eyes as Bess sat down on the edge of the bed. With a resigned sigh, she rolled away and closed her eyes again.

“That is not the greeting I imagined, Sweeting.” Bess did her best to keep her voice soft.

“I am not well. Go away.” Frances murmured into her pillow. What was her mother doing here? Okay, scene change and now we’re in Frances’ POV.

The brief moment of relief the Countess of Shrewsbury had felt at discovering that her eldest daughter was still breathing was quickly replaced by anger. But suddenly we’re back in Bess’s POV. “I will not let you kill yourself.”

Kill herself? Why would her mother think that? And back in Frances’. Didn’t she know she had duties to attend? She couldn’t die, her children needed her. She would see to them again when she was well. “I was not planning on killing myself, Mother.”

“Then what, pray tell, were you doing?”

“Sleeping.” Frances answered bluntly. “I was sleeping.” And she would be again, as soon as her mother left.

“Sleeping? Sleeping is well and good when you are ill or you are tired…”

“I am ill – I just gave birth to twins. Apparently, I am so inadequate that I could not carry them another month. Did you hear that one did not survive? I would say I am very ill. And I am so tired, I feel like I could sleep forever… like nothing is as important as sleep right now. I will feel much better once I’ve gotten some rest.”

“Frances, you have been sleeping for over a week. Your baby needs you….”

“No she doesn’t.” Frances sat up with a grimace of pain. “Did you not know? I cannot nurse her. No milk. Something is very wrong with me, and I just need to sleep. Please understand.”

Lips tight with quiet frustration, the Countess of Shrewsbury nodded. “Yes. I do understand.” She turned to leave the room, and then paused. Moving over to the window, she pulled open the heavy drapery, sending the settled dust into a cloud of floating points of light. With a purposeful stride, she crossed the room to the opposite window. Summer sunlight blared through the leaded panes, illuminating the stagnant room. “Go back to sleep if you must, but you must understand that I am not leaving. You need me.”

“I am not your baby any longer.”

“Perhaps not – but you need me now more than ever. You need someone to love and care for you for a change. That said, you may rest for now, but I will come up again with a tray and you will eat what I bring you.” Bess did not wait for a response before exiting the room.

Frances collapsed back into her pillows and took a deep breath to steady her nerves. How long had she been in bed? Her linens definitely needed changing and her nightgown felt sticky with sweat. She should get up… but she really didn’t want to. Getting up would mean that she had to resume her duties and she was just too tired. Surely she’d done met her obligations well enough over the past ten years in order to deserve some time to just rest.

Closing her eyes against unwelcome thoughts, Frances slipped back to sleep.

*

Bess took a few minutes to review that the household was in order before setting off to find her grandchildren. Mistress Cooper Who is Mistress Cooper? The housekeeper? Children’s nurse? Frances’ maid? had taken the reins admirably well during Frances’ convalescence. Shaking her head to herself she, again, tried to stifle the irritation at Frances’ melancholy. She knew better than anyone that losing a child was something that a mother could never get over. Frances did very well the first time, but this time it was just too much. Infant death was so common it was hard for people to understand why a woman would care so much… unless they had been through it themselves. Bess understood very well, but she had never been the kind of woman to allow something as fickle as emotions rule her life. Bess had coped and now Frances needed to do the same. She was the lady of the manor, the mother of the Pierrepont heir… she had to pull herself together for the sake of her family.

LEIGH SAYS:

Tudor England is an unusual and dramatic setting, wide-open for exploitation in historical romances – and the feeling you’ve portrayed here between mother and daughter, as well as Frances’s reaction to losing one of her twins and being unable to nurse the other, make both characters sympathetic. Though Bess is assertive and determined, she’s neither high-handed nor abrasive. Though Frances is a bit of a dishmop at first, she shows signs of rousing by the end. She also has good reason for her depression, and so we’re willing to let her wallow for a bit as she mourns her lost child. They’re both interesting and likeable, and we’re intrigued by who’s going to win the battle of wills – you’ve made us care about both of them.

There are two reasons I chose this opening to comment on. The first is the point of view, which shifts back and forth between Bess and Frances, not only scene by scene but within the scene. The changing POV left me confused as to who the main character actually is supposed to be. Since you started out with Bess, I assumed she was the protagonist; then we switched to Frances who is perhaps a more sympathetic character and a more likely candidate as a heroine, and I concluded that it was going to be Frances’s story. Then after a few paragraphs, we’re back in Bess’s POV. As a reader, I felt all at sea – not knowing who I’m supposed to be identifying with. As the author, YOU know who the central figure in the story is – but the reader only knows what you tell her. In this case, there’s a fair bit of important information (like identifying who’s who) that didn’t make it from your vision onto the page.

The second reason I chose this opening is that it doesn’t feel like a romance. I have to assume, given the ages of the two women, that Frances will be the heroine – yet her situation (married, settled, the mother of multiple surviving children) seems unlikely to fit into the usual pattern of romance novels. Who’s the hero?

By choosing well-known real people as your protagonists, you have limited your ability to twist the truth for story purposes. The Countess of Shrewsbury (a/k/a Bess of Hardwick) is legendary; her daughter is a bit less so – but the history of these people is easily available with a Google search, so everything you say about them will need to be borne out by the record, or you’ll risk losing readers who are familiar with Tudor history. If what you’re writing is actually historical fiction (a fictionalized account of a real person’s life, sticking to the known facts but using imagination and interpretation to add the characters’ thoughts, feelings, motivation, etc.), then Bess and Frances make excellent subjects. But you’ve said you’re writing historical romance, which implies a hero, a heroine, a once-in-a-lifetime love, and a happy ending.

It’s important to clearly understand the difference so you don’t write a story which falls in between. Either genre can be a good choice – but a book which straddles the line and isn’t clearly one or the other is unlikely to be successful.

In order to have the freedom to develop a love story for your hero and heroine, culminating in the all-important happy ending of a romance novel, you might consider fictionalizing the characters. Then you could use Bess and Frances as reference models, but you’d be free to depart from the sometimes-inconvenient facts of their real lives in order to create the relationship and happy ending which are so necessary in a successful romance.

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

10 responses

18 02 2010
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[…] Week 6 Mini-Critique […]

18 02 2010
Erin Spock

Wow! I am so excited to be chosen for a critique. Thank you.
Immediately after I sent the first thousand words, I reread them and lost hope — it’s not clear who the heroine is and the story doesn’t really start right away. If you can get to page 6, the story starts and it all makes sense — but then again, as the agent interviewed on this site point out, what agent will read that far if they are not immediately engaged? Sigh.
I am a little embarrassed about my pronoun confusion. You’d think after editing so many times I’d catch something like that. But no. *blush* Consider that fixed.
Frances is the protagonist. Her great love story is that she and her husband develop a true and passionate love for each other after 10 years of ‘duty.’ Bess is merely a magic maker.
Historically speaking, Frances was the lesser known daughter of Bess of Hardwick. There’s not a lot out there about her. In fact, when I visited Hardwick Hall in 2004, the docents hadn’t heard of her. I was able to find out the approximate dates of her birth/death and those of her children from online sources, but that was it. I contacted Holme Pierrepont who referred me to the University Library at Nottingham – which I could only access if I was affiliated with a university. So, I built the story around the few facts I had and filled in the fiction.
Historical Fiction vs. Historical Romance – Courtly Love is too upbeat to be historical fiction, really. Frances has her Cinderella story and finds happiness within herself. Frances and Henry get their happily-ever-after and a lot of sex, the good guys prevail, and the bad guys are punished. The whole story is the within the scope of mid-reign Elizabethan court and historically accurate (with some poetic license in order to keep up the pace), but without the gritty, dark overtones that would make it in keeping with historical fiction. I agree that the line between the two is blurry – but then again, why can’t we have both accurate history and still escape into a love story? Given that I have given Frances her happy ending, would it still be in my best interests to change their names?
I really appreciate you taking the time to look over my work and give such helpful feedback. I’ve learned a lot from looking at the winners and other critiques. This has been a great resource.
Thanks again.

18 02 2010
Julie T.

I’m fascinated even more by the detail you provide in your email comment, Erin, than by the opening itself! It sounds like an exciting story…and if it does indeed “begin” on page 6, I want to read that instead. 🙂

I agree with Leigh’s comments about POV, which you saw too. Also, I always have a more difficult time wading through expository writing (such as the very first and very last paragraphs). Dialogue can certainly be snappier and lend both voice and information to the story more quickly.

While I don’t read a ton of historicals and therefore am not the best judge, I myself love the melding of accurate history with a love story, as you say. Yes, paying attention to historical accuracy is important…and I also say that no one alive today *really* knows exactly what happened before their lifetime. Some liberties can be taken, especially with human personality and emotion. I know I’ve read some fiction based on real people that does just that! (Can’t remember the titles, sorry.) Anyway, thanks for sharing, and congrats on getting a mini-critique.

19 02 2010
Erin Spock

Dear Julie,
If there is one thing I have learned through reading the finalists and critiques in this competition, it is that the most effective openings all seem to start with fast paced dialogue. I played around with that today, experimenting with the opening of my current project. We’ll see how that goes.
I have wondered how the real life Frances would react to my rendition of her. But, she’s been dead for about 400 years, so it would take some effort on her part to let me know. Hey, that almost sounds like a plot in itself. 🙂
Thanks for the feedback.

18 02 2010
Leigh Michaels

That helps, Erin, and I like the idea of having her find true love with her husband after years of duty. It sounds as if you’ve been careful to stay within the few known facts (birth dates of children, the fact that they did stay together). If you had her run off to America with her lover, it would be a different thing.

It’s indeed a fine line, in dealing with real people as characters, between what’s legitimate (interpreting, filling in the blanks, adding motivation, taking some poetic license) and what’s not. As long as you stay within the parameters of what really happened, you can add an author’s note which gives the details of how you fictionalized the situation. In this case you’d say much what you did here — that Frances is the lesser-known daughter of Bess of Hardwick and little is known about her, then give your sources and admit to what you changed or made up.

If you change a LOT of important historical details, then you’re into a field known as alternative historical fiction, which is also a lot of fun. What if Elizabeth I had been a boy? –Anne Boleyn would probably not have been beheaded; there would have been no Edward VI or Bloody Mary or Lady Jane Grey. What if Princess Charlotte hadn’t died in childbirth in 1817, setting off the Great Procreation Race that ended in Queen Victoria? What if… Again it’s wise to add the author’s note about what’s real and what’s not.

And again, it’s important to know what target you’re aiming at. Books that fall in between genres are a hard sell — so having a clear vision is crucial.

19 02 2010
Erin Spock

And boy am I having a hard time selling it.
Right after it was finished, I sent it (unrepresented) to Avon. The editor was interested, gave great commentary on my partial, and requested the ms. She had it for awhile, but in the end declined it on the basis that it was too much historical fiction and chic-lit to be the commercial romance they were looking for. I revised it, applying all her feedback, but I haven’t been able to get an agent to even look at it since. I assumed that my queries were bad but hadn’t considered that the story itself might still be of a questionable genre.
I’m working on books two and three (the stories of Frances’ two ladies in waiting) and those characters are purely fictitious. But I do have a plot outline for a fourth book in this era about Elizabeth, Frances’ younger sister. That would probably end up with the same historical fiction vs. romance problem, especially since that character is more well known.
By the way, I love the alternative histories you suggested. What fun. I can see having many great “what if” discussions over a bottle of wine.
Again, thank you for the feedback. This competition has been very helpful.

20 02 2010
Tessa

Erin,

Good for you to submit your piece. I haven’t jumped into the pool, yet, but good for you to get in there. I agree with Leigh’s and Julie’s comments. I will definitely learn from your piece and no doubt it gets better. I thought your attitude about the whole thing was wonderful. Keep working on your writing.

I do agree that you left too much for the reader to guess. When a reader doesn’t know who is speaking or who is who, it makes the reader have to work at it and eventually get tired of reading and move onto something else. Leigh’s comment about infection after birth is right on. In those days, things weren’t sterilized and women were concerned with giving birth, even though they wanted to have children.

I wouldn’t want to change your story, but it might have been nice if the hero was lurking around or some mention of him. If he is not supposed to be known so soon, then we might have known something that she would have liked in a hero. Or something. You know, you give your reader something to anticipate or guess at.

22 02 2010
Christine

I want to get on board and say that I really like the idea of her finding love with er husband after ten years. That sounds like a great and interesting story! I think, if not for the over zealous head hopping, it flowed very nicely. Based on your email along with the 1000 words, I would read it for sure!

22 02 2010
Leigh Michaels

How about having the husband be the one who’s banging on the door, instead of Frances’s mom? Then you’d get the hero into the story early, and keep the focus on the h/h rather than on Mom. It’s even feasible — given the era — that he’d have been nowhere around when she actually gave birth (especially since the twins arrived early) so we’d be immediately plunged into tension. The Lord of the Manor’s home, and boy is he going to be pissed — or at least, the Lady of the Manor is going to expect him to be…

As for changing the names — I think it would free you from the sense that you have to stick to reality, and that might make your story flow more freely. Perhaps not so much with Frances since little is known about her, but you could make Bess as shrewish as you like (or whatever other characteristic you want to give her) without having to check what her real life was like. And I don’t think you’d lose anything at all by changing the names, since you’re trying to sell it as a romance rather than as historical fiction.

26 02 2010
Erin Spock

Thank you to everyone for your comments. This has been such a great experience. All the feedback has been very helpful and I’m looking forward to reviewing Courtly Love with a fresh perspective.
Wish me luck. 🙂

Yours,
Erin S.




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