Week 2 Finalist – 1st Place Winner

TITLE: Overlander
AUTHOR: Gail Zerrade — check out the interview with Gail.
CATEGORY: Historical Romance

Independence, Missouri

Early March, 1847

Twenty tons of lard, twenty tons of beans, eight tons of coffee. Now where am I going to find eighty tons of flour in this little town? As he entered the marketplace, John Baker calculated the supplies needed to outfit 200 wagons for the trek to Oregon. Thank God the heavy rain kept the city folk inside. Better to deal with the muck than the crowds.

An angry stream of water rushed beside his boots, threatening to cut off access to the farthest merchants. With a long stride, he crossed it, determined to find the source of a tantalizing aroma of roasted coffee beans.

Rounding a corner, he bumped into a line of a dozen young men enduring the downpour. Odd line, it was more of a semi-circle, with each man a few steps to the left of the one before him, and all of them staring at the center point. Whatever could they be waiting for?

Trust the locals. This must be the best supplier or they wouldn’t be standing in the freezing rain. He joined the line. In the booth ahead, a small figure with a royal blue shawl covering her head served up the usual offering of dry goods. John scowled at a bald fellow watching from the safety of a waterproof awning a few feet away. What kind of man lets a child catch her death out in the cold while he sits dry and warm?

A gust of wind lifted the girl’s shawl, revealing a soaked bodice clinging to a womanly figure. Shaking his head, John wiped the rain from his eyes and took a second look. He caught a glimpse of her angelic face as she snatched back her shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. The cold weather suited her, painting her lips and cheeks with a rosy glow usually reserved for portraits of rich men’s daughters.

“Taking bets on the Virgin Mary,” a dark man shouted, as he paced up and down the line, waving a black ledger.

The Virgin Mary? Please tell me I’m not wasting time waiting to see some shadowy image on the side of a potato. He cast a questioning glance at the other men in line. Farmers, laborers, and rough riders, they didn’t seem like the type of men who prayed to relics. After another glance at the vendor’s booth, he understood. With her shawl draped over her head and her beatific face, the clerk looked like she had crawled out of a painting of the Madonna.

“You in?” The bookie stopped in front of him and tapped a pencil on the leather cover of his ledger.

“What’s the bet?” John’s gruff tone warned the man not to swindle him.

“You must be one of those Overlanders, ain’t ya? Just passing time here until you can head back out on the trail to Oregon?”

John grunted his agreement.

“Thought so. That’s the only way you ain’t heard of the Virgin Mary.” A wide grin spread across the little man’s face, as he jabbed his thumb back toward the clerk. “We’re betting how long she’ll last in her new job. She started at eight this morning. Odds are she’ll be fired by noon. You say different?”

“Nah,” John waved the bookie away and focused on the pretty girl before him. What could be wrong with her that she couldn’t keep such a simple job? True, she kept her eyes downcast as she worked, but that lovely face drew customers like vultures to carrion. Any merchant should be glad to have her.

“A gallon of molasses at thirty-three cents, plus two pounds of lard at ten cents a pound, plus eight pounds of sugar at 6 cents a pound, and a pound of cheese at nine cents. That’s a dollar and ten cents,” she explained, without pausing to breathe or figure the sums. “Out of two dollars. Ninety cents is your change. Thank you, sir.” She rewarded the customer with a smile, brief but sincere.

Confused, John took a step closer. He’d never met a woman so quick with numbers. When the next customer stepped up, John did the math, racing her. She beat him by the width of a butterfly’s wing. She had the advantage knowing the prices, but she was also counting out change as she spoke. Again and again, he tried, but he could never do better than a tie. This girl was smart and beautiful. So why was she struggling to keep a miserable job in a filthy marketplace?

“Can I help you, sir?” A long silence interrupted his thoughts. “Sir?”

Too late, he realized she was talking to him. As he took a step closer, his mind went blank, and his voice caught in his throat. Unnerved by the delicate, smooth perfection of her skin, he looked away and struggled to remember why he was there. His eyes landed on a nearby sack, overflowing with dried pinto beans. He opened his mouth and blurted out the only word that came to mind. “Beans.”

She kept her eyes lowered as she scooped a pound of beans onto the scale. “How’s that?”

Still fighting to regain his senses, he shook his head. “More.”

She added another scoop and stared up at him with emerald eyes, like a frightened kitten. A single glistening raindrop on her long dark eyelashes mesmerized him. After another brief pause, her voice was a timid whisper, “Like that?”

Did he look that terrifying? Sure, he was a little rough. He’d been on the trail a few months and needed a haircut and shave. Still, he didn’t think he was capable of frightening young ladies. Like a slap in the face, her fearful tone brought him back to the task at hand. “No. I need tons. Big sacks. I have a wagon waiting. I’ll take all you have now. If you can get more, I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Eyes back on the ground, she nodded. “Wait. I’ll ask.”


I like the way the author wove the details of the marketplace, as well as John’s purpose for being there, seamlessly into the opening without bogging down the pace of the story.  And, as John wondered about the “odd circle” and “What kind of man lets a child catch her death out in the cold while he sits dry and warm?” I found myself wondering right along with him.

My curiosity was piqued — and then it grew with the “Virgin Mary” dialogue, followed by the heroine’s skill with numbers and timid behavior.  Though the scene didn’t end on a cliffhanger note, the author left me intrigued and wanting to read more.

Great job, Gail. Not only did I like the unexpected twists in this scene, as well as the depiction of the marketplace, I liked the authenticity of John’s POV — his impatience, momentarily speechlessness, and jolt back to reality were masculine and very believable.


26 responses

21 01 2009
Chase the Dream Writers Contest

[…] Week 2 Finalist […]

21 01 2009
Leigh Michaels

Gail, what a great opening scene. The details you’ve chosen and the way you’ve evoked the senses are wonderful; I could smell the coffee beans and feel the rain pouring down. The very active language you’ve chosen — “An angry stream of water rushed beside his boots” — left me wanting more. And the hints about Mary made me want to read on to find out why this young woman is the subject of bets! Wonderful job.

21 01 2009
Tamara Hughes

Very good opening, Gail. This really captured my attention. You really do a good job of describing the scene without interfering with the progress of the story. Nicely done.

22 01 2009
Gail Zerrade

Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging comments. I really appreciate all the work everyone is doing to put this contest together. What a great idea!

22 01 2009
Belle Scarlett

Lovely writing – very interesting intro from the hero’s POV. Congrats, Gail!

23 01 2009

Excellent opening, Gail! This has a great period feel.

24 01 2009

Very intriguing! The world feels rich.
Best of luck!

24 01 2009

You left me wanting MORE! I’m sure this is a winner. Barb Longley

29 01 2009
Darlene Torday

Good opening. I can feel the rain and I want to wrap myself in a shawl to keep warm too. I’d like to read more.

4 03 2009
Theresa Stevens

I think this is a very strong piece of writing. Vivid, evocative, dynamic, and loaded with tension. Excellent job!

My only question is about the rain. How can she be wet and the groceries stay dry? Are the beans and scale under the awning? It’s a logistical detail, not a big deal and certainly easy to resolve.

Good luck!

5 03 2009

For Theresa Stevens,

Thanks so much for the encouraging comments. I’ll make sure I fix the rain problem.

6 03 2009
Laura Bradford

Well, my attention was certainly caught with your opening words, “Twenty tons of lard”, lol. You have a very descriptive style, but I found that in some places your language was a little too florid, e.g. “She beat him by the width of a butterfly’s wing”, which felt a wee bit cumbersome to me. At other times, descriptions of the heroine…having an angelic face or seeming like a frightened kitten, just didn’t feel fresh enough. What I loved was the element of the bet, which seemed a nice twist I hadn’t expected. It begged a lot of questions for me and that is just the kind of thing that makes me want to keep reading. She is a mystery, which is compelling and he has potential. It is hard to get a bead on him as a character in the sample so I think his reactions could be a tad more revealing re: his personaiity but all in all I think this is a nice sample. Good job!

7 03 2009

For Laura Bradford,

Thank you so very much for taking the time to read this. Your suggestions were helpful and easy to implement.

8 03 2009
Raelene Gorlinsky

Excellent working in of background info without having to do an info-dump. And good descriptions.

Inaccuracies and inconsistencies bother me. How many thousand wagons does it take to carry 128 TONS of food? It doesn’t seem reasonable. And would a little town really have 20 tons of flour, etc, etc, for sale? Why is the hero standing in a line where clearly food products are being sold by the scoop, not the ton? And why in the world is the heroine out in the rain, anyway? Apparently the food she is selling is dry.

8 03 2009

For Raelene Gorlinsky,

Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment. I will double check my math figures. I derived them from overlander’s diaries, but you are right, it does seem like too much. I probably made a decimal error. Thanks for pointing that out.


9 03 2009
Emily Roberts

Hm…the figures seemed right to me from some reasearch I was doing. I found the historical facts to be accurate. It makes all the sense in the world to me, that a town at the beginning of the trail would have so much flour, etc.

Great opening, btw. I really liked watching the marketplace and the girl through John’s eyes. Your vivid descriptions made it come alive for me. If I had the book in my hands, I wouldn’t have been able to stop reading. 🙂

9 03 2009
Jamie Pearson

Great opening! Love the first line. I was laughing out loud.

I remember reading somewhere that every wagon carried more than 1200 pounds of food.

I love that the girl was so good with math too. That was great.

9 03 2009

What a great opening scene. Your vivid descriptions really capture the time and create your world right from the start. I felt immediatly drawn to the hero and his impatience and curiosity were natural and well done. You also had me sympathetic for the heroine and hoping she would catch a break. If I had this book in my hands I would not put it down!

9 03 2009

Great opening. I love your descriptive voice. I especially like being drawn into an historical setting as you have done here. I laughed when “his mind went blank” and he “had to struggle to remember why he was there”, especially since the chapter opened with him going over the list of supplies in his head. You also made me very curious about “Virgin Mary”. I would keep reading this book.

9 03 2009
Michelle Rooney

I loved your descriptions, and I easily get bored with too many details. I think you did a nice job of blending action with your setting. You created a vivid scene and drew me in right away. I hope to have the book in my hands some day. I’d love to read it all.

9 03 2009

I have to say reading this gave me a little bit of a thrill. The setting is one we don’t see often enough anymore, but it’s one that I LOVE to read about. I could feel the wet and the cold… your poor heroine! You have an amazing voice that you lend brilliantly to the hero in this opening scene. And your historical detail is spot on. It’s funny, it’s interesting…really, I can’t say enough, and I can’t wait until it’s in print so I can read the whole thing! Well done!

10 03 2009
Faith Black

The details in this are really nicely done without being overwhelming. It really sets the scene nicely and introduces us to the two characters in such a way that I can’t wait to find out what happens to them. I don’t see too many historical romances set in this period and place and it’s refreshing to see a historical that’s not a Regency. Great job!

12 03 2009

For Faith Black,

Thanks so much for the kind and encouraging comments.

16 03 2009
Elaine English

While I thought the scene was very descriptive, at times, I felt it was overwritten at times and unnecessarily verbose. I also didn’t get a strong sense of the characters or what was going on. As others stated, I had trouble imagining the woman being wet while all the goods were dry or why her boss would have her selling in that situation. In fact, initially I thought she was just sitting in the rain with all these guys around her gawking. Having them betting on her before I really understood what was going on further confused me. A very small point — your reference to seeing the Virgin Mary in a potato seemed a bit too contemporary for an historical story. But, I must admit you’ve set up a very interesting way for a hero and heroine to meet.

17 03 2009
Katie Gilligan

There are some very compelling elements that you have working at the beginning–and you do a very fine job of creating a sense of place that is evocative and interesting. I think some of John’s narration is a bit overwritten and prescriptive–I think there’s room to get into his character a bit more and really develop his sense of self. I was also confused by the setup of the environment–for a second I thought that the men were bidding on her? Obviously not, but best to reduce the margin of confusion so soon into the book. A great start though and it looks like it will be a witty romance too!

20 03 2009
Megan McKeever

Good start, and interesting set up for a historical romance. I would just take care not to overwrite at times or you’ll lose the story. Definitely quite promising!

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