I’m taking a break this week from the Creative Intersections posts that I’ve been working on. It is just a break — I’m enjoying writing them, and the response to them has been positive, so I fully intend to continue the series on and off throughout the year. But there are other things I would like to do with my time here at MW, and today I introduce another one of them.
We — my fellow writers and I — often post about some aspect of writing or another, and then ask you, our readers, to share something of yours with the rest of us. We then offer a quick critique of what you’ve done that (we hope) will prove helpful as you move forward with your WIP. Well, today I would like to post the opening graphs of my current WIP along with a brief description of what I hope to accomplish with the passage. And I welcome all of you to comment on the work: to critique it, to offer suggestions, to tell me what works and what doesn’t. “Revenge,” to paraphrase Khan (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), “is a dish best served cold. It is very cold in cyberspace . . .”
The WIP is called City of Shades, and it is the third Thieftaker book (written as D.B. Jackson; book II, Thieves’ Quarry, will be released in July). This is my first draft — I have not yet revised it or shown it to an editor. In fact, I haven’t shown it to anyone before now. You all are the first to see it. So, if it’s rough, that’s why.
Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, July 12, 1769
Ethan Kaille knew that he had been followed. Even as he pursued Peter Salter, who had stolen a pair of ivory-handled dueling pistols from a wealthy attorney in the South End, he himself was pursued. Like a fox running before hounds, he could almost feel Sephira Pryce’s toughs bearing down on him, snarling like curs, determined to take what he had claimed for himself.
Salter had led him out along Boston’s Neck, the narrow strip of land that connected the city to the causeway across Roxbury Flats. British regulars, who had occupied Boston since the previous autumn, had established a guard post at the town gate, and so before reaching the end of the Neck the young thief had turned off of Orange Street to cut across the barren grasslands that fronted the flats. Ethan could see the pup ahead of him, wading through the grasses.
If not for the concealment spell Ethan had cast on himself, Salter would have needed only to glance back to see him as well. But with his conjuring in place, Ethan was invisible to all. Still, Pryce’s men followed, whether directed by Ethan’s tracks or simply by Sephira’s uncanny knowledge of all that he did, Ethan could not say.
The western horizon still glowed faintly with the dying light of another sweltering summer day, and a thin haze obscured all but the brightest stars in the darkening, moonless sky. Not a breath of wind stirred the humid air, heavy with the sour stink of tidal mud; even with the sun down, the heat remained, unabated. The city itself seemed to be in the throes of ague.
Ethan’s sweat-soaked linen shirt clung to his skin, and his waistcoat, also darkened with sweat, felt leaden. His usual limp, a memento of years spent laboring as a prisoner on a sugar plantation in Barbados, grew more pronounced with each step he took, the pain radiating up his leg into his groin. He hoped that the sound of his uneven gait wouldn’t alert Salter to his pursuit, or allow Sephira’s men to locate him too soon.
Let’s start with that first paragraph. There are a few things going on here, not the least of which is that I have plunked my reader down right in the middle of the action. I like to start each book with a scene like this, to draw my readers in, and to give them some sense of what it is a thieftaker does. These opening scenes also help me establish the pace and voice of the book. The idea of Ethan being pursued even as he himself pursues is a recurring one throughout the series. He is a thieftaker, after all, and so is constantly searching for one thief or another. But he is usually being hunted as well, and never is that more true than in this book. So this serves both to reestablish immediately the feel of the first two books, but also to foreshadow what is coming. In addition, it also introduces Ethan’s rivalry with Sephira Pryce, and it is their conflict that gives narrative continuity and shape to the Thieftaker series as a whole.
The second paragraph establishes time and place, reminding returning readers of the British occupation, which served as the historical backdrop for book II. For readers who are just coming to the series with this book (and I hope there will be some who do this — authors are always looking to broaden their readership) the paragraph begins to build the contours of the Colonial setting, which is, of course, key to the entire Thieftaker concept. In describing the Neck, in making it clear that while the Boston we are familiar with today is a booming metropolis, the Boston of the 1760s is still part hinterland, a city with grasslands and grazing pastures as well as buildings and streets, I hope to give my readers a clearer idea of what the city was like two hundred and forty years ago. Also, “pup” or “puppy” is a word that was used in the 1700s to describe a young man, usually a foolish one. Using slang from the period reinforces the historical feel.
With the third paragraph, I establish the third thematic leg of the book and series: Magic. The Thieftaker books are mysteries, in a historical setting, with a fantasy element. Paragraph one was about mystery; paragraph two was about historical setting. This paragraph tells us that Ethan is a conjurer, and he uses his magic to help him in his work as a thieftaker.
Paragraph four refines the sense of time and place, filling in the immediate setting so that my readers can picture more clearly the scene I’m laying out for them. It is dusk, summer, hot, a bit smelly. I’m trying to engage the senses. It’s one thing to tell my readers where and when this is happening. With this graph, I begin the process of transporting them to the place and time. And I also throw in another bit of foreshadowing with that last line. The prominent historical element of this book is going to be a minor smallpox outbreak that hit Boston in 1769. And so ending with “The city itself seemed to be in the throes of ague,” is more than a nice turn of phrase. It is another attempt to establish an important theme of this book.
And finally, paragraph five is intended to begin the process of immersing the reader in Ethan’s POV. I reference a bit of his personal history, I take the elements of setting (heat and the uneven terrain in this part of Boston), action (his pursuit of Salter and Sephira’s pursuit of him), and period (he’s wearing a waistcoat, he was a prisoner on a Caribbean sugar plantation) and I blend them into a set of emotions and physical sensations. Again, I want my readers to be transported, but I also want them to be invested in Ethan, my lead character. This paragraph attempts to do both.
So there is is. The first five graphs — 350 words or so — of City of Shades. Let the critiquing begin! I’d love to know what you think works and what doesn’t. And I would also like to discuss the purposes I assign to each graph. I will tell you up front that I don’t necessarily plan out each graph with the intent of doing this with the first and that with the second. But as I write, I know what things I need to tell my readers, and I have some sense of the order in which I wish to establish these things.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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