Red Pencil Thursday

I’m so happy to share that we have another volunteer for RPT! As you know, our hotseat has been filled by authors at every level of their careers, from total newbies to New York Times Bestsellers.  Today we welcome the highly successful author of Scottish books, Suzan Tisdale

Red Pencil Thursday
Click image for details on how YOU can be a Red Pencil Thursday Volunteer!

The goal of Red Pencil Thursday is to help us all think in new directions about our writing, so please leave a comment for Suzan. And if you’re a reader, we want to hear from YOU as well. After all, without you and your imagination, our work is just pixels on the screen or ink on a page.  

I don’t have a volunteer for next week’s RPT, so if you’ve ever considered taking your bath in public, I invite you to check out the details and send in your first 500 words. I’d enjoy a chance to read your work.

Rowan’s Lady

Scotland 1350

The Black Death did not discriminate.

Mia: Good first line. You’ve set a grim tone, placed us firmly in your time period and telegraphed that this is not going to be a “safe” story. Love it!

Like the fires of hell, it spread across England, Wales, Italy and France. It cared not if the lives it took were of the noble and wealthy or the lowly born and poor. It showed no preference for age or gender. It took the wicked and the innocent. It took the blasphemers and the righteous.

Mia: ‘Fires of hell’ is a bit of a cliché. I know you can do better.

The Black Death took whomever it damned well pleased.

It took Rowan Graham’s wife.

Mia: Love this spare style. You’ve set up the first anguish with only a few words and pulled me right in.

Young, vibrant, and beautiful, Kate Graham had died in a cold, dark room on the far southern corner of Castle Áit na Síochána. Rowan could not allow his sweet wife to die alone, cold, afraid, and in agony. She died with him at her side, and she went knowing he loved her.

Risking his own life, Rowan refused to leave her side. He loved and adored his wife, and there would be no way on God’s earth that he would allow her to die alone. He kept their three-month-old daughter away, at Kate’s request. She loved their babe and vehemently demanded the child be kept secluded and out of out of harm’s way. It was the last act of love that she could offer her child.

Mia: There’s a lot of unrelieved narrative here. Can you give me just a short bit of the final dialogue that passed between Kate and Rowan? You can show us her self-sacrifice in refusing to see her beloved daughter and his heroism in braving an unseen killer instead of telling us about it.

Knowing that the Black Death had finally reached Scotland, Rowan’s clan had prepared as best they could. The moment anyone began to show signs of illness, they were immediately taken to the barracks. Seclusion was their only hope at keeping the illness from spreading. Within a week, the barracks could hold no more of the sick and dying. Bodies racked with the disease tumbled out and were soon tucked into any corner available. The quarantine was all for naught.

Mia: If you decide to insert some dialogue, this background info about how people dealt with the plague can be salted in.

By the time Kate showed the first signs of the illness, the Black Death had taken more than thirty of their people. Before it was done, Clan Graham’s numbers would be dwindled down to less than seventy members.

How or why the plague chose not to take Rowan or his wee babe, he could not fathom. It did not seem fair that he should be spared while his wife, so innocent and young, would be made to suffer and die.

Mia: If he’s the least religious, you might insert something about the verse that describes “one taken and one left.”

Fires were built to burn the dead in hopes of quelling further spread of the disease. When Rowan’s first lieutenant came to remove Kate’s body to be added to the funeral pyres, Rowan became enraged.

Mia: You’re telling by saying he became enraged, then you show us in the next sentence. I’d delete the telling and go with the showing. It’s almost always stronger.

Unsheathing his sword, he pinned Frederick to the wall. “If ye so much as think of laying a finger to Kate’s body, I shall take yer life,” Rowan seethed through gritted teeth.

Later, it was Rowan who dug the grave and collected the stones that would cover her in her final resting place. He bathed her once beautiful body, now ravaged with large black boils, and washed her long, blonde locks and braided them. He wrapped her cold body in linen strips and prayed over her.

Alone in the quiet hours before dawn he carried her to the quiet spot under the tall Wych Elm tree. He stayed next to her grave for three days. It wasn’t until Frederick came to remind him that he had a living daughter that still needed him that he finally left his wife.

Mia: Heartbreaking. We already love Rowan. A man who knows how to love deeply can learn to love again. Looks like you’ve got another winner here, Suzan! However, I’d like to see you work in more dialogue. Can you give us some internal dialogue as he washes her body? Did he forget about that little mole near her elbow? Did tears blur his vision so much he could half imagine her as she had been not as she was? I’d move the bit about digging the grave and the stones to the part about him carrying her to the elm tree. Let’s hear Frederick gently calling him back to his daughter. You’ve got a great hero in only 500 words.

Well, we have a bit of a different RPT today. Instead of responding to my suggestions, Suzan has done a complete rewrite. She says, “I have gone over the word count a bit. But I was finding it difficult to get in all the elements that you recommended and still keep it at 500 words! It was quite a challenge, but that is what makes it so much fun!” Here’s her new version:

Rowan’s Lady

Scotland 1350

The Black Death did not discriminate.

Like the Templar Knights invading the holy land, it spread across England, Wales, Italy and France. Untethered, unstoppable.

It cared not if the lives it took were of the noble and wealthy or the lowly born and poor. It showed no preference for age or gender. It took the wicked and the innocent. It took the blasphemers and the righteous.

The Black Death took whomever it damned well pleased.

It took Rowan Graham’s wife.

Rowan would not allow his sweet wife to die alone, cold, afraid, and in agony, no matter how much she begged otherwise. He would not allow anyone else to administer the herbs, to apply the poultices, or to even wipe her brow. He was her husband and she, his entire life.

Knowing that the Black Death had finally reached Scotland, Rowan’s clan had prepared as best they could. The moment anyone began to show signs of illness, they were immediately taken to the barracks. Seclusion was their only hope at keeping the illness from spreading.

Within a week, the barracks could hold no more of the sick and dying. The quarantine was all for naught.

By the time Kate showed the first signs of the illness, the Black Death had taken more than thirty of their people. Before it over, Clan Graham’s numbers dwindled to less than seventy members.

At Kate’s insistence, their three-month-old daughter was kept in seclusion. It was the last act of motherly love that she could show her child. In the hours just before her death, Kate begged for Rowan’s promise on two matters.

“Ye shall never be afraid to speak of me to our daughter. It is important that she knew how much I loved her, and how much we loved her together.” ’Twas an easy promise for Rowan to make, for how could he ever forget Kate?

’Twas the second promise she asked that threatened to tear him apart.

“And ye must promise ye’ll let another woman into yer heart. Do not save it long fer me, husband. Yer too good a man to keep yerself to a dead woman.”

He swore to her that yes, someday he would allow his heart to love another. Silently however, he told himself that day would be in the very distant future, mayhap thirty or forty years. For there could never be a woman who could take Kate’s place in his life or his heart.

“I love ye, Kate, more than me next breath,”Rowan whispered into her ear just before her chest rose and fell for the last time.

Fires were built to burn the dead. When Rowan’s first lieutenant came to remove Kate’s body to add it to the funeral pyres, he refused to allow Frederick anywhere near her. Rowan’s face turned purple with rage, his chest heaved from the weight of anguish. He unsheathed his sword and pinned Frederick to the wall.

“If ye so much as think of laying a finger to Kate, I shall take yer life,” Rowan seethed through gritted teeth.

Later, with his vision blurred from tears he could not suppress, Rowan bathed his wife’s once beautiful body now ravaged with large black boils. He washed her long, strawberry blonde locks and combed them until they shined once again. When he was done, he placed a bit of Graham plaid into the palm of her hand before wrapping her cold body in long linen strips.

Alone in the quiet hours before dawn he carried her to final resting place under the tall Wych Elm tree. He stayed next to her grave for three full days.

Frederick finally came to see him late in the afternoon of the third day.

“I ken yer grievin’, fer Kate was a fine woman.” Frederick said.

Rowan was resting against the elm tree, with his head resting on his knees. In his heart he knew Frederick was right, but that did nothing the help fill the dark void that Kate’s death left in his heart.

“Ye’ve a wee bairn that needs ye, Rowan. She needs ye now, more than Kate does.”

For a brief moment, Rowan could have sworn he heard his wife’s voice agreeing with Frederick. Deciding it best not to argue the point with either of them, Rowan took a deep breath and pulled himself to his feet.

For now, he would focus on the first promise he had made to Kate.

“Ye be right, Frederick,” Rowan said as he slapped one hand on his friend’s back while wiping away tears with the other. “I need to go tell me daughter all about her beautiful mum.”

_____________________

There are myriad ways to tell a tale. If a scene needs tweaking, a change of POV or adding dialogue, internal or otherwise, is  a good way of exploring ways to deepen the characters and advance the story. 

Now it’s YOUR turn. What suggestions, comments or encouragement do you have for Suzan? 

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FYI, I’m also over at The Whine Sisters  blogging about the perils of backstory! Of course, there’s a chance to win one of my books. Hope to see you there!

27 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Wow, I really loved the rewrite. Adding the dialog really stepped up the emotion for me and made it more active.

    It sounds like a great story in the making and I would definitely keep reading. Thank you for sharing it. :)

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you liked it.

      Suzan

    2. Mia says:

      In addition to showing rather than telling, the use of dialogue gives the pages of your prose much needed white space. I remember the first time I read Crime and Punishment and being daunted by the solid pages of narrative. Of course, it was worth plowing through, but if our goal is to write popular fiction, we need to make it easy for our readers to flow through the story.

      1. I learned the need of white space from you Mia! ;o)

  2. jen says:

    Lovely start. Very dramatic. Though I did wonder about the assumptions the characters made about how one contracted Black Death. Did people in the 14th Century believe it was contagious, person-to-person? Germ theory wasn’t developed until the 19th C, and before that most working theories of illness centered around the theory of “bad air.” (miasma theory? something like that.) It would be worth checking out because the hero acknowleding he was risking his life by her bedside, and her insisting the baby be kept away stopped me and made me wonder.

    good luck!

    1. Mia says:

      Henry VIII fled London every summer when sickness broke out near the miasma of the Thames. They may not have understood germ theory, but medieval people knew enough to run from the plague and isolate themselves if they could.

  3. Maurine H says:

    Call me a rebel, but I’m going to disagree with most of the comments above. Except for Mia’s in #3 about lopping off the backstory. But I hate reading backstory dumps and cut most of the backstory from my mss, almost too much and readers are thinking “Huh?” Also I read mostly romantic suspense where backstory is the kiss of death to pacing, so take my comments with a grain of salt. I do think the rewrite is better, but think it can be taken a bit further.

    Most everyone is acquainted with the Black Death epidemic and don’t need to be reminded that it wiped out a lot of people or the measures the survivors went through to try to stop its spread. We may need to be reminded of the years in which it happened, but the rest is unnecessary. Also, since Kate is dead now, I’m guessing she isn’t “Rowan’s Lady,” so why start here? If it’s just to show his love for his wife and his loyalty to her, I think you could do as well by showing the reader a scene where he tells his young daughter (closer to when he meets the heroine, whenever that might be) about her mother and how much she had loved the little girl, how much he had loved, maybe even still loves, her.

    You do a good job of evoking the emotions and I found myself being absorbed into your story and falling a bit for your hero, Rowan (love that name, by the way). For the most part, your writing is sparse and to the point, getting across what you want to say without going into too much detail. I am intrigued by what I can see of your story line here and would like to read more. Good luck with it.

    1. Mia says:

      It’s always good to have a perspective from another sub-genre. Thanks, Maurine. However, there is such a thing as setting a tone. As Grace pointed out, the repetitive, hammer strikes of some of Suzan’s prose telegraph to the reader that this is not a safe story, that the flavor of the tale is going to be much different than a contemporary suspense. It has to do with reader expectations and we writers ignore that at our peril.

      However, your point about not starting with the soon to be dead wife is well taken. For an idea about how I handled something similar, you might want to take a look a the opening to Sins of the Highlander. Mad Rob was a widower too, but he planned revenge against flesh and blood, not a plague.

      1. Maurine H says:

        You’re right about setting the tone and I did neglect that. I’ll have to be more cautious in the future, and with my own stories as well. I learn so much with these Red Pencil subs that I can take away and use in my own writing. Thank you for making this available. Some day I may get brave enough to put one of my beginnings here to have everyone take a stab at it. I really need help with my beginnings.

        1. Mia says:

          I’d love to take a look at your work, Maurine. And you know we try to make this a totally positive experience. No snark allowed. ;-)

        2. I use Red Pencil Thursday for each of my books, Maurine ;o) Thank you for you insights. ;o) Rowan’s Lady is my fourth book. It will be the first book in this series, but Rowan and Kate’s characters are born out of my first three. ;o)

          Keep writing and send your work to Mia. She has a wonderful way of helping you dig deeper and has many, many wonderful suggestions! ;o)

          Suzan

  4. Donna Lloyd says:

    By the time Kate showed the first signs of the illness, the Black Death had taken more than thirty of their people. Before it over, Clan Graham’s numbers dwindled to less than seventy members.

    “Before is over” needs to be corrected. It is not correct grammar.

    I was pulled in with the exert at the end of Wee William’s Lady before the rewrite. But I agree the rewrite is much more dramatic. Love it.

    1. Mia says:

      Good catch, Donna. I totally missed that missing word. So often I read what I think is there instead of what is.

  5. Jaime Goodman says:

    Good thing I didn’t put mascara on this morning! Love seeing the process at work.

    1. Mia says:

      Suzan does know how to tug at our hearts, doesn’t she? That’s an incredible gift. Thanks for dropping by, Jaime.

    2. Thanks for stopping by Jaime! ;o)

  6. Barb Bettis says:

    Suzan, you did such a great rewrite based on Mia’s original suggestions. The characters came alive, so real we could identify with them. Already we love Rowan for the loving, loyal man he is. And we’re pulling for him to find that perfect lady. And the first few paragraphs are dramatic and gripping.And definitely hook-able.

    One thing–even with your great metaphor in the new version (Black Death like the Templars-love it)–the beginning still, for me, was a bit narrative. What would you think of, after the first five graphs, goinng to Rowan at her side as she’s dying? (Right after ‘It took Rowan….’)Then weave in the other information throughout the rest of the beginning.

    Either way, this is going to be a terrific story and one I can’t wait to read. Good luck with it!

    1. That is a great idea! Thank you. I will take another look at it. lol I usually take 100 looks at those first few paragraphs, but I do like your idea ;o)

      Suzan

    2. Mia says:

      Excellent suggestions, Barb.

      A good bit of my writing is re-writing, but the first three chapters usually receive the most attention from me. So many things have to be there in nascent form, all the conflicts and characters, the tone, the theme…it’s a lot of weight to carry and no part of a novel is more important than those first 500 words.

  7. Mia says:

    Grace, m’dear, how lovely of you to join us! And with such cogent points. You have explained so well why backstory is death to pacing.

    If I find myself mired in the past, instead of putting my manuscript away, I sometimes go ahead and write, knowing I will come back and lop off the first 12 or 15 or 24 pages. They were written for me. I needed to discover things about my characters.

    But I also need to resist telling everything I know. Hence the lopping.

    I have a new sticky note for my lap top. “It” is icky. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Mia, you are so right! Backstory is often too difficult to get into the first few paragraphs. i do my best to get as much in to those first few pages, without re-writing the first book(s). This is book four in my series. I like to spread the back story in throughout the new book, giving little snippets here and there.

      Thanks again Mia! You are the bomb! ;o)

      Suzan

  8. I much preferred the re-write, because it tipped the opening more in the show direction instead of the tell direction, and I think you can do more in this regard.

    The it… it…. it… paragraph has a nice, repeated hammerblow quality to it, but “it” is a weak word–a little, neuter, pronoun, that often loses connection with the more powerful antecedent. I try to avoid starting sentences with “it (to be)” or “there (to be)” constructions.

    The enemy did not discriminate. This foe… this scourge… this curse… this fiend from eastern Europe…

    Whenever I start with backstory, I benefit from putting the MS away for a while, then getting it back out and asking, “Is this truly the best place to start? Can I drizzle in the backstory a little at a time?”

    I’m hard on a backstory start because backstory answers questions before the reader has asked them, and that–right there–delivers a blow to pacing. The grim reality portrayed here ups the empathy coefficient, and that might be a worthwhile trade, but starting in the past with a tell scene is not the most compelling take off for pacing.

    Writing well is so hard! And no matter which choices you make, another writer, working on a different tale (or even the same tale), might make different choices and end up with in a different narrative.

    Best of luck, and thanks for taking your turn on the hot seat.

    1. Thank you Ms. Burrowes! ;o) I feel so honored that you stopped by an offered your thoughts. ;o)
      It is very difficult to get everything in to that first 500 words, but I do try. I love your thoughts on “it”…I will give it another go and use that advice. ;o)

      Suzan

  9. Maria says:

    This is a great re-write incorporating Mia’s suggestions. I have yet to read a romance set in this time period but this story pulled me right in. I could feel Rowan’s love for Kate threading through the entire passage, the somber tone, yet the last section shows that there is hope. Good luck, Suzan!

    1. Thank you Maria! ;o) The entire series has been a blast to write. Mia always offers great suggestions and I am glad to have her advice. Thanks for stopping by!

      Suzan

      1. Mia says:

        It’s not just me, Suzan. The real benefit from Red Pencil Thursday comes from our commenters. Everyone has a different perspective and will see different things in an opening. It’s so valuable to have all those eyes on your work.

        Thanks for your insights, Maria.

        1. Yes, you are correct Mia. ;o) I guess it is because I hold you in such high regard that I get so darned excited about being here! ;o)

          Everyone has been so helpful and that is one of the reasons I love participating in RPT. ;o)

          Thanks again!

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