Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil Thursday

Volunteer for Mia's online critique group!

Today my RPT volunteer is Erin Bentley–one of the aspiring writers I’ll be working with in Chicago in a couple weeks. I always go early to the Romantic Times Convention so I can give some workshops for Bobbi Smith’s Advanced Writers track and Judi McCoy’s Beginners. Sadly, Judi passed away this year, so the gathering is going to be bitter sweet. But Linnea Sinclair has stepped into the gap, so I know the newbies are in good hands.

As you know, we can’t have our online critique group unless someone steps forward to take the hot seat. So, if you have a manuscript you’re working on, let me encourage you to volunteer for Red Pencil Thursday. Check out the “how to” details.



Mia: Cute title and appropriate since her heroine’s name is Charity.


Chicago 1883

Sam Wesley consulted the scrap of paper that a helpful station attendant had given him. It held the directions to Multon Manor, the boarding house his wife had taken up residence in when she left him.

Mia: Ok, you’ve started with a conflict. We know Sam’s wife left him. Excellent. If a story has no conflict, there is no story.

Erin: I got this image of a guy looking at piece of paper while I was on campus. Someone was looking for Theatre Department, which was one building over from where I was. It made me remember a piece of advice a mentor of mine: “If in doubt how to start a story, begin with something simple and everyday. What was is more simple and everyday than trying to find a place that you are unfamiliar with.

As he read the directions, he was acutely aware of the city people staring at him. No doubt he looked odd, dressed in his Sunday suit, his stenson and boots, looking like a country bumpkin not sure of where he was. Well he was no bumpkin, but he had no idea of where he was.

Mia: I love fish out of water stories! A cowboy in the big city is great.

The hat name is Stetson and should be capitalized. When it was first introduced in 1865, the cowboy hat was only popular in the West, but by 1883, it would have been worn in eastern cities as well. In 1886, the Stetson factory in Pennsylvania was the largest hat manufacturer in the country. So you need something else to make your hero to stand out. Is he carrying a weapon? I’m sort of thinking of Quigley Down Under with his long barreled rifle. What marks him as out of place?

Erin: I realized it said ‘stenson’ after I sent it to you. Yeah, silly me and my spell check trying to help me. It has since been corrected in the MS.

“Are you lost?” a soothing voice asked.

He turned and looked down into the periwinkle eyes of a young woman who could not have been a day over twenty. She was dressed sensibly in a faded blue calico with matching wool shawl to keep the chill of the wind away. The wind caught stray piece of her flaxen hair and made them dance.

Mia: Deft description. ;-) I can definitely see her, however, you’re in your hero’s POV, so your prose needs to be masculine. Men do not generally think of blue as periwinkle. What would a guy notice and how would he think about it? That’s all you can share here.

In the last sentence, piece is singular, them is plural. We need to make your words agree. Change them to it and you’re good to go.

Erin: I can see that. Purplish-blue rather than periwinkle. Got it. Do not think like a girl. I have been planning to go back and fix some things when I finished the chapter. I will add this to my list of things to fix.

“Uh…yes,” he answered, finding his voice and sounding like an idiot. “I’m trying to find Multon Manor. It’s a boarding house.” He showed her the piece of paper.

Mia: Even in 1883, men hated asking for directions! He may think he’s an idiot, but lest we think so too can you add something about how he found his way from some distant outpost all the way to Chicago without a problem? It’ll show us he is capable, resourceful and also lets us know where he’s been.

Erin: Okay, make Sam more manly. Easily fixable.

She frowned a little, not in annoyance but in an expression of mixed feelings. “Why are you looking for Multon Manor?”

Mia: We’re still in Sam’s head. He can’t know why the girl is frowning. He can only see her frown. He can guess what’s behind another’s facial expression, but he can’t be sure. There are some limitations when you use tight POV, but the pay off is that your reader can identify more closely with your character.

Erin: This is a very bad habit of mine. Switching POV mid-paragraph. It is something that I know I have to keep working on and try to keep in mind when I write, but sometimes when I get in the zone, I forget. This is why I love critique groups!

“My wife is staying there.”

“Are you Mr. Wesley?”

“Last time I checked. My wife’s name is Marie.”

She bit her lower lip. “We’ve been expecting you at the Manor.” She swallowed. “I’m so sorry, sir.”

Mia: Think for a minute about the distances involved at this time and the state of communications. Did someone send Sam a message? Why are they expecting him?

Erin: I had not really worked all that out yet. This began as a free write. No planning, just writing. Something else to add to my list of stuff to figure out.

“What for?”

“Ms. Marie passed away last night.”

That would be Miss Marie not Ms. That title didn’t come into being till the 1970’s.

Really? Okay it’s Miss Maire then.

He stared blankly at her. Marie was dead. He waited for the feelings of guilt and sorrow to wash over him. But oddly the only feeling he had was the sense of relief that flooded him. He was free of a bad marriage. Then despair filled him. He could lose his land. That Goddamned land agent could take it away because he was no longer married. Yes, his wife was dead, but they had been separated for more than a year. Todd Beedle was already trying to use that to repossess the land and sell it to his mining cronies. But since Sam was legally still married, Beedle was fighting an up hill battle. With Marie dead, he was in trouble.

Mia: Right now, I’m not liking Sam much. Even if his marriage was terrible, he’s only thinking about himself. He’s not walking the hero’s path here at all. The woman is dead. Can’t he have one charitable thought about her?

I wonder if you could get the info about how he needs to be married in order to save his land a little later. Let him process this death by itself. As long as we know in the first 5 pages, it’ll be soon enough. Right now, it’s more important to give us a sense of Sam. Let us know he has a heart.

Erin: You’re right. Sam is not being a good guy, but that can be fixed. We find out later that Sam and Maire had a shotgun wedding and there is no love lost between them, but you’re right he could be a little more compassionate about her passing.

I have to do a little bit more research into land grants and such in the 19th century, which is no easy task. As far as I know, anyone could be a land agent and make up the rules about the land as they saw fit. The government was only concerned that the land was signed for and that it was proved up within five years. Again, I need to do some more research to know for sure, but that is my understanding.

Mia: A word on names… I really like Beedle for the bad guy’s name. It has a slightly insectoid sound to it.

Erin: It is a great name, isn’t it? The phone book is my friend when it comes to finding last names.

“Sir? Mr. Wesley?”

One problem at a time. “Sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

She gave him a comforting smile. “I asked if you would like me to show you to the Manor? It’s nearly lunchtime and you surely want to pay your respects.”

“Yeah. Right.” He readjusted his grip on his bag. “And who are you, ma’am?”

“Charity Bullard. I live at the Manor. I was with your wife when she passed.”

He nodded. “Did she suffer?”

“I would like to think she didn’t, but I think we both know what cholera can do to a body. But I rather think that this talk is better done indoors.”

Oops! Cholera was no longer a problem in Chicago by the early 1880’s due to improvements to public sanitation. See . It’s easy to miss this sort of historical detail, but that’s why we research because I promise there will be a reader out there who knows about it. Romance readers are very knowledgeable and it doesn’t take very many slips to pull them right out of the story.

Plus if Charity was with Marie when she died of cholera, she is probably infected! Time to look for another disease for Sam’s wife to succumb to. Now, if she died in childbirth and Sam hasn’t seen her in a year, we know why he isn’t too saddened by her demise.

Good start, Erin! Looking forward to meeting you in Chicago.

Erin: I picked cholera as a stand in disease. It was the first disease that came to mind when I was writing, so I ran with it, intending to replace it later.

Ohhh! Childbirth. I like it. Poor Sam. First his estranged wife dies without a chance to let bygones be bygones, now he has a child that is not his own to decided what to do about. Bad Mia, giving me ideas. Time to re-write. That changes the whole dynamic of the story.

Thanks, Mia. See you in Chicago. Less than two weeks to go. WooHoo!

Erin BentleyBio: Erin is from the great state of Alaska and has been writing since she was twelve-years-old. When she is not writing, she is looking for a place to read or she is out participating in a Renaissance Faire. If it’s rainy outside, you won’t find her inside, she is will be out splashing in the rain.




Now it’s your turn to weigh in. What helpful suggestion do you have for Erin?

13 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Marcy W says:

    After reading both ms and comments, I’m wondering if you might want to think about starting with Charity? You say she’s one of your favorite characters, but we don’t get to see that at all. What would happen if you started in her POV? She spies this out-of-place man, and guesses he might be the husband of her friend; then his response to news of his wife’s death might strain her kindness … that would set up a bit of conflict between them, and let us see more of both them. Just a thought . . .
    I like the time and place; think you can have fun with that, as it was a time between eras, not so long after the Civil War and the West was still being won, but things like photography and travel were heralding the modern era of the industrial revolution, electricity, autos … just on the cusp of big changes. Some research ahead of you, but this sounds like it has promise, IMHO, and I’ll be eager to read more. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Good thought, Marcy. By looking through Charity’s eyes, the conundrum of how much grief, the mess about the land all goes away. We have a clean girl-meets-guy moment, not under the best of circumstances, but under interesting ones.

    2. Erin Bentley says:

      I like it. I usually end up re-writing the first chapter of anything I write anyway. The first draft is how I meet my characters and figure out what kind of story they have to tell. I think I’ll have to do a free write from Charity’s POV. Thanks for the suggestion!

      1. Marcy W says:

        You’re welcome, I’m sure! Rewriting the first chapter or two must be normal for most writers, I think … they’re the hardest, aren’t they? And trying different approaches can only help you get a better knowledge of your characters and storyline. I’d sure like to see that chapter from Charity’s POV … Mia, would it be kosher for that to come back to RPT??

  2. Erin Bentley says:

    Oh my God! I am so overwhelmed. Thank you everyone for your comments, suggestions, and taking the time to read this piece.

    I’m curious Jane, what are some of the characteristics you list? We can chat about it at RT. Thanks!

    Thanks you Barbara. Truth be told Sam came all the way from Wyoming, but that’s still quite a ways in those days. Believe me, there is quite a bit more frustration in the re-write.

    Thanks, Maureen! You think there needs to be some more build up? I think that is doable.

    I quite like the character of Sam, but I agree he needs to be flushed out a bit more. I know we don’t get much of her here, but I love Charity’s character. When I think of her, I think of a brand new penny. One that’s straight from the mint, all bright and shiny. She is easily becoming one of my favorite characters to write about.

    I’m so glad you all who have commented like the beginning! Thank you again for your positive encouragement and feedback.


    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      The whole point of RPT is to give you fresh ways of thinking about your story. And it is always still YOUR story. You get to choose what happens with it. We’re just tossing out other options.

  3. I think, depending on the why she was in Chicago and he had to travel to see her…you can get away with a modicum of sorrow…but you need to build in the rational with some hints before he gets the news… I’m probably in the minority with this though… ;-)

    Congrats on the post! I really like the title!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      I don’t think Sam needs to start weeping. He doesn’t seem the type. Everyone grieves differently. And his grief is tempered by frustration over his other problems as well.

  4. Barbara Britton says:

    Hi Erin and Mia,

    Erin, I liked your beginning. There is a lot of conflict and tension.

    I do agree Sam needs to emote more over his wife’s death. At first, I thought he had come all that way from Texas to get her back and then, whammo, she’s dead. Then, I find out he doesn’t like her and is frustrated by her death. I would show his frustration with having to travel to Chicago earlier and hint at their estrangement. But to like him, really like him, he has to have some regret that she has died. IMHO.

    Great start.

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      Agreed. Even the worst of relationships have a few bright moments in the past. He should have regrets even if it was only for his part in the marriage’s failure.

  5. JM Lange says:

    Oops! Sorry Erin! I didn’t mean Eriin. To early
    To type on a phone! Lol!!

    1. Mia Marlowe says:

      My IQ seems about 20 points dimmer when I use my cellphone to post, text, or pretty much do anything besides talk on it.

  6. JM Lange says:

    Great start Eriin! I like to see a story set in America!

    Writing male POV can be challenging. One thing I do to help myself, is I make a list of character quirks for men. It has really helped me know and think like my character better.
    You have the GMC theory going very well. (goal, motivation, conflict) keep it flowing and your story will
    be a page turner !
    Thanks for sharing! Looking forward to meeting you
    In Chicago!

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