Week 8 Mini-Critique

AUTHOR: Sandra S.
TITLE: A Simple Game of Chicken
GENRE: Historical

 Chapter One

Juggling Potato Soup

Indianapolis, Spring, 1904

 “I’m certain President Theodore Roosevelt doesn’t have to deal with distractions of this magnitude.” Lily Henderson slammed the thick, dusty volume in front of her closed with a sharp bang.

High-pitched, nervous laughter shattered the carefully cultivated atmosphere of calm in the Henderson library. The snort of irritation Lily uttered was definitely not a sound of gentile feminine deportment. Why her mother decided to hold a dinner party on the one night she needed to finish her research on the perils of child labor, Lily couldn’t fathom. Why shouldn’t her mother hold a dinner party whenever she chooses? Lily sounds childish and petty and selfish here, demanding that her mother tiptoe around Lily’s work. She only knew she couldn’t concentrate with the noise just down the hall, building into what would be a undoubtedly be a crashing crescendo.

When the library door opened, muffled masculine gaiety added depth and richness to the buzz of conversation that floated inside her sanctuary. “Mother, my answer hasn’t changed since you asked me thirty minutes ago. I’ve got too much work to do. I don’t wish to waste my time with meaningless conversations, when the only point is to impress a male.”

Mrs. Henderson’s thin lips turned down into a frown. “Just make an appearance. Your father means to send you to Chicago to stay with your Great Aunt Cynthia if you continue with this behavior.”

“What behavior is that?”

“This.” The elder Henderson gestured to the library.

“Desiring to use my brain for more than simpering for the masculine gender?” Whew; that’s a bit of a tongue-twister. Lily gritted her teeth in annoyance. “In case it’s escaped your notice, it’s 1904 and there is more to a woman’s world than the need to attract a husband. There’s so much potential now!”

“Oh tosh. At the very least, a husband would help you do whatever it is you think you need to accomplish.”

Lily regarded her mother with the cool detachment she normally reserved for scientific experiments. Thin and willowy, her carriage and bearing were impeccable. The daughter of a prominent banking family in Indianapolis, Mrs. Henderson became the darling of the society pages when she married the catch of a lifetime, Lily’s father. Just shy of her fiftieth birthday, Mrs. Henderson was a striking woman. Blond hair, tinged with silver and swept into a fashionable up do, her shoulders back but not rigid, she gave life to the gown of muted moss green silk.

Lily sighed. She wished she took after her mother in appearance, but Lily was much too curvy and short to be fashionable, and with her caramel curls and rounded cheeks, she resembled her Great Aunt Cynthia instead. She knew she could never be the daughter her mother wished for. “Olivia flirts enough to satisfy your thirst for social advancement.” She half-suspected the annoying shriek of laughter belonged to her younger sister. “She’s got countless men who would give their pinky finger at the chance to offer for her.”

“At this rate, Olivia will be married long before you.” Mrs. Henderson sniffed. “She doesn’t plot to send her poor mother to an early grave with bedevilment.”

Lily calmly stacked the leather-bound journals on the desktop then whisked a sheaf of loose paper into the top drawer. “Then let Olivia give you grandchildren and the dashing, successful son-in-law you desire. I have other, more fulfilling pursuits.”

“I’ve never belittled your academic mania. I just want you to make an appearance at supper. Surely, that’s not too much to ask? Besides, you have to eat, and Sonya’s made your favorite soup.”

Bored by her mother’s veiled bribery, she sighed. “Fine. I’ll join the party but only because Sonya’s potato soup is the best in the city. Potato soup for a grand dinner party? Sounds unlikely at best – at least that it would be called potato soup. After that, I’m coming back here to finish my article.”

“Wonderful! Your father will be pleased.”

Lily stared after her mother’s retreating form with a frown. At times, she envied her mother’s stately elegance and attention to detail with her appearance. As much as Lily loved the academic lifestyle, she found it difficult to be taken seriously as a scholar wearing pretty clothes or loose-flowing locks. Censure didn’t stop her from dressing as she pleased, but it did set tongues wagging in hallowed circles.

With a sigh, Lily strode to the door, and hesitated before leaving her haven. She’d join them for the soup course, nothing more.

***

Farnsworth Estate, somewhere in southern Indiana

Zelma Farnsworth cackled with glee as she folded the thick ivory vellum letter she had just finished reading. “As that famous detective once said, ‘the game is afoot’!” She thumped the silver handle of her cane against the headboard of her massive four-poster bed. “Chrissy!” She waited on a cloud of impatience as her maid scampered into the room. “I need you to transcribe a letter for me. We must word it carefully so the players in my game will not be the wiser.”

A petite young woman in a serviceable grey dress and white apron quickly sat behind the delicate desk. “You may begin, ma’am. I’m ready.” She drew a sheet of jasmine scented stationery toward her and took up a pen.

“Let me gather my thoughts.” Zelma drummed her wrinkled fingers on the quilt. “Dear Cynthia. While I was alarmed to hear about your recent flare of bursitis, I know you will not let it overcome your dedication to the pursuit of your doctorate. However, the most recent escapade of your great niece concerns me. I’ve heard enough stories of police treatment of suffragettes to know it couldn’t be a pleasant experience to be arrested—or almost, as in your great-niece’s case.” Zelma tapped a fingernail against the metal cap of the cane.

“I think the best thing for her would be a change of scenery. I’ll issue her family an invitation to my estate here in the country. In order to keep her company, I’ll also invite my nephew and a few of his military friends out here. Please be sure to convince your dear Michael to finagle an invitation for dinner for my boy.”

LEIGH SAYS:
 
 
Sandra, you’re a good writer, with excellent technical command, and you obviously have researched your historical era. (It’s an interesting time period for a romance, too – only recently have romance publishers moved beyond 1900, so you’re taking advantage of this rich but almost untouched period.)

You’ve created a character who has a clear goal and a strong devotion to that goal. Lily’s choice to concentrate on child labor makes her especially sympathetic to a modern reader who doesn’t have to be convinced why child labor is bad. And we always sympathize with a character who’s being pushed to assume a role which she doesn’t want to play – in this case, to be the shallow and charming female rather than the woman who’s out doing real things in the real world.

Dialogue in historicals is always a bit of a balancing act. We need to keep the conversation moving along for the modern reader, while evoking the flavor of how people of the period would really speak – without letting them sound pompous. One of the pitfalls – and it’s one I think you’ve tumbled into here – is relying too much on dialogue to explain the story to the reader. I very much doubt that Lily would say, “President Theodore Roosevelt.” She’d say “Roosevelt” or “Teddy Roosevelt” or “President Roosevelt”, but since Lily has no idea there will be another President Roosevelt and someday people will have to distinguish between the two of them, she wouldn’t use the entire phrase in this sort of casual reference. She knows who she’s talking about, so she doesn’t need to explain it. She also wouldn’t say to her mother, “It’s 1904” – her mother knows that perfectly well. Your dialogue doesn’t feel like a daughter/mother conversation; it feels like speeches on stage, telling the audience what they need to know in order to follow the storyline. Show us, rather than letting the characters tell us, and we’ll be much more drawn into Lily’s world.

The other thing which stood out to me when I read this is the deep involvement of the secondary character, Zelma, in making the story happen. We’ve barely gotten to know Lily, and we’ve only scratched the surface at finding out what makes her tick and who she’s going to meet over the potato soup, the man who’s going to change her life. (At least I hope that’s what’s going to happen — because if the dinner party doesn’t lead to meeting her hero, why do we have this opening scene?) But now we find out that maybe the dinner party didn’t matter at all, because Zelma’s got plans for Lily, and whether Lily likes it or not she’s going to be swept off to Zelma’s country estate where she’ll meet Zelma’s nephew. Putting so much power in the hands of a secondary character, and putting her right up front as she wields that power, makes the hero and heroine seem weak. I’m not saying you need to eliminate Zelma, but keeping her manipulation in the background, and leaving the focus on Lily and her hero, would make this a much stronger story.

4 responses

5 03 2009
Rachelle Chase

Sandra, I second what Leigh said regarding your writing. You truly are a really good writer!

And, like Leigh, I was thrown by the introduction of Zelma. Additionally, I didn’t see what she added. I was already interested in Lily – and found her occupation to be intriguing and a nice way to make the historical-heroine-who-doesn’t-want-to-get-married plot a unique twist. I was already intrigued by who she was going to meet at dinner. So, when I meet Zelma and hear that Lilly’s about to be invited to her home to meet her nephew, that was anticlimatic for me because it felt less interesting than the opening scene. Is it necessary that Lily go to Zelma’s? If so, do we have to find this out now, so soon in the story? And, if we must, then can you make it sound more intriguing than her current situation?

Other than the “tongue-twister”, Lily’s phrases didn’t really detract from my enjoyment. However, like Leigh, I did feel like the conversation between Lily and her mother felt stilted. In fact, Lily seemed almost to dislike her mother, which seemed a bit harsh to me, since her mother hasn’t done anything (yet) that would warrant more than annoyance. Perhaps you can show some of Lily’s softer feelings for her mother, so she doesn’t come across as unfair and self-centered.

At any rate, I think you’ve got an intriguing heroine and an interesting story line. After a few minor tweaks, you’ll have a beginning that consistently grabs the reader!

5 03 2009
sandrasookoo

Thanks ladies 🙂 I appreciate your time to evaluate my work. As it’s only a third of the opening chapter, you don’t see what else transpired at the dinner party. Lily does meet the hero and sparks do fly in a bit of a dust-up and a wager is made–thus the title 🙂

Thanks again and I’m so very grateful for your compliments 🙂

Sandra

5 03 2009
Rebecca

Sandra,
I think it is quite good. Personally, I found Lily to be funny in the same way that Amanda Quick and others can start out with their heroines really off-putting but it turns out they’re just kind of lost.
Also, while I see the above points about not using Teddy Roosevelt because she wouldn’t know FDR was coming, I think you do need it somewhere to establish time period.
Hmmm…
Could you say “The President doesn’t have to put up these distractions?”
And her mother says “Teddy Roosevelt, pish-posh, I hope he has more important things to do in his day” or something like that.
Just my suggestion.
You are so talented. Super writer.
Rebecca

5 03 2009
julietrevelyan

Sandra,

I really liked this! The time period is indeed a wonderful one to mine, and I enjoyed the anticipation of how Lily’s ideas about men and women are probably going to be somewhat turned upside down at some point, lol!

Agreed, there is some “telling” in the first bit, but that’s easily overcome by inserting the time period details more gently, as suggested. I wonder if Lily’s mother is truly stifling to Lily, and in more areas than just about marriage; that is, is there a deeper reason that Lily gets so huffy with her mother? If so, maybe little hints of that could be injected as well.

This was very enjoyable. I would definitely read on! Nice work.




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