Red Pencil Thursday
Please welcome Genevieve Moultrie and her medieval tale “A Soldier’s Vow.” I haven’t written anything shorter than a novella, about 30,000 words, (Letters to the editor of my local newspaper don’t count!) so Genevieve may have to take my suggestions with that in mind. I’m hoping to pull in comments from short story writers and readers to help Genevieve.
My comments are in red, my guest’s in blue. Please add yours at the end of the post!
A Soldier’s Vow
A short story by Genevieve Moultrie
Thank you for your critique, Mia. I’ve never done your Red Pencil bit before, so please bear with me if I screw up! If you want to critique my response, please do. Same goes for everyone who reads this.
I’ll add my revision after the original text and comments. For starters, allow me to note that “A Soldier’s Vow”—just a working title, of course—was inspired (I hope!) by my longtime love for and study of folk tales. I think I’ve already mentioned on your blog that I’m really into myths and legends. Though you can’t tell from this opening excerpt, the story has much to do with fairies and magic.
In creating this story, I thought it might be an interesting experiment if I cast at least part of the narration in folk-tale mode. That includes an omniscient POV once in a while. But now that you’ve brought up the matter, maybe I should drop it, or at least use it as sparingly as possible. Most of my potential readers wouldn’t get it—that is, they wouldn’t know enough about folk tales to make the association. They would think I use this device because I don’t know any better. That, or can’t do any better.
Also, another relevant matter in the creation of this story: I wanted to write a historical romance in which the hero and heroine are both social nobodies. When was the last time you read a romance written by a modern writer, and set in the Middle Ages, in which the hero is a peasant? For me, the answer is: never! But I’m sure those at the base of the social pyramid needed love too, and can provide a modern writer with lots of possibilities for characters, themes, and plots.
To paraphrase a line from a musical you’re familiar with: “What did the common folk do?”
I believe that’s actually What do the simple folk do? It’s from Camelot! Yes, I have played Guenevere before (It broke my heart to betray Arthur). And I’ve written heroes and heroines who are not members of the aristocracy. In A CHRISTMAS BALL, my hero was the head groomsman and the heroine was a scullery maid.
Long ago in the Cotswold Hills of the West Country, in a hamlet called Springthorpe that has since vanished, there lived a young peasant named Miles. His strength, skill, and daring won him the post of man-at-arms to his lord at Springthorpe Castle, Sir Jeffrey of the Motte. His looks, charm, and kindness won him the heart of the shepherdess Audrey, the village beauty.
I like the voice here. You’re an authoritative storyteller. However, the remote omniscient POV doesn’t really pull us in right away. How about starting inside Miles’s head? Let us see his world through his eyes. I don’t think it’s necessary to tell us that the hamlet is gone. You’re building the world for us with one hand. Don’t tear it down with the other.
Will do! That is, won’t do. Whatever.
But to their misfortune, the two fell in love just before Miles was to accompany his lord to the Holy Land on a Crusade.
On the day before departure, Miles met Audrey at hillside grove, where the thick foliage of the trees and bushes afforded them privacy. As she approached, he beheld her graceful form, clad in red-brown homespun which she had woven from the wool of her sheep and dyed with walnut shells. The spring sunlight shone on her thick, long tresses, the color of ripe wheat, which escaped from the kerchief on her head. As she neared, he could make out her merry cornflower-blue eyes and chiseled face.
Using the word “beheld” gives the tale a slightly biblical flavor. I don’t think that’s what you want. You’ve obviously done some serious research into the period, but we’re in Miles’s head now. Would a guy think about how she dyed the wool of her tunic with walnut shells? Bear in mind when you choose a POV character, you need to only note the details he or she would find remarkable. “Chiseled” is not a word used for a woman’s face often. It makes her seem a little hard.
He committed to memory every feature of hers. Miles would have that to console him in the trying times ahead.
Audrey gasped in glee when she saw him, then ran into his arms. They kissed fervently.
If she knows he’s going to leave, I doubt she’d be gleeful. This moment would be more bittersweet. Besides, we’re still in Miles’s POV. Neither he nor we know what she’s thinking unless her actions or words show us.
She said, “Oh Miles, how I will miss you! Your embrace, your smile, your voice—everything about you. How can I bear to do without?”
You don’t need She said. We know it’s Audrey speaking since she says “Oh, Miles.”
“And how can I do without you?”
“Must you leave? Sir Jeffrey has a hundred others in his troop.”
“Dearest Audrey, I must. It is my duty, as a servant to both my lord Jeffrey and our Lord Jesus.”
“But so am I. I can go with you!”
Miles shook his head. “Your duty is here in Springthorpe. Some must leave, and some must stay to tend the fields and flocks. You’re more useful here.”
“Useful, but unhappy.” Audrey glanced aside. “Oh Miles, we won’t be together again for years, if ever. Many leave on this holy quest, but not all return.”
She says “Oh Miles” twice in close succession. Think about your own conversations. How often do you use the other person’s name?
“I know. That’s why I shall not hold you to the vow you made to me.”
Her blue eyes flashed; “But I shall! I’ll stay true to you, and wait for you no matter how long it takes.”
Miles sighed, his heart brimming with love. “Then I vow the same. I shall stay true to you. Someday I shall return to marry you, though Hell should block my path.”
# # #
Many were the hardships Miles had to endure, the dangers he had to brave, the obstacles he had to overcome. But such was to be expected for a Crusader. What could not be expected was what happened to Audrey.
This paragraph is classic author intrusion. It’s like an aside directly from you to the reader. It pulls us right out of the narrative. I’d cut the whole thing. However, since it appears we aren’t going to follow Miles and the real action is what happens to Audrey, you might want to consider starting your story with her. Just be sure to give her someone besides the sheep to talk to about Miles.
I’ve planned the story so that every scene unfolds from the point of view of either Miles or Audrey. I’m a great believer in restricting the POV as much as is practical. That way I can avoid head-hopping and giving away what’s going inside the minds of characters who are keeping a secret.
I think it would be best if I use Miles’s POV in the opening scene because this is the only time he appears during the first few thousand words. He won’t return to the narrative until he returns from the war. On the other hand, the reader will get plenty of Audrey during the first few thousand words.
As always, this critique is just one person’s opinion. The point is to help you think in new directions, but the decisions about how to tell your story must always be yours.
Though you can’t tell this by the first 500 words, Audrey does have someone to talk to about Miles other than her sheep. They don’t exactly make for scintillating dialog! Right after the cutoff point of this sample, she’s confronted by Bartle the Smith, an unscrupulous young man who tries to seduce her. That’s when something really bad happens. But I’m getting ahead of the narrative covered by this critique.
Now that I’ve thought about the matter somewhat, I think I can reword this passage so that there’s no author intrusion, but I can still express the basic irony in the focal characters’ situations. It’s this: Miles goes off to war and is subjected to countless dangers and hardships, but comes out of the experience safe and sound. Audrey stays home in the safety and security of her village, but something terrible happens to her. I can foreshadow it through her thoughts, which you can read at the end of my revisions; and Miles can make note of it once he returns, which of course is after the first 500 words.
It’s not unusual for me to write several pages before I find the real beginning of my story. It’s not a wasted exercise. I’m learning who my characters are. What you’re looking for is a pivotal point where something changes in your character’s lives, where an imbalance is created that will propel them for 400 pages. Think about how you can introduce your heroine in an original and memorable way.
Well, I don’t know that a scene of two lovers saying farewell when one of them goes off to war is very original. But I’m trying to make it memorable!
The problem is we don’t know them well enough to care at this point.
I’ve tried to think of some other point at which I can begin the story. For example, I can open with Miles getting his marching orders and Audrey’s reaction. Shucks, I could go back to when Miles and Audrey fell in love—but probably not when they first met. If they’re roughly the same age, and they’ve lived all their lives in the same tightly-knit village, they probably can’t even remember that!
Those are all possibilities, but at least for now I think it’s best if I stick with opening the story with their farewell. It’s an emotional scene, or should be once I get through revising it. It’s a pivotal point in their relationship.
True, Miles and Audrey’s back stories are relevant to the narrative. But the elements therein, such as the fact that he’s a dutiful soldier, should be obvious in the main story. Or better be once I get through with it.
Also, one of my overall goals as a fiction writer is to provide readers with stories that move at a fast pace. One of my pet peeves as a reader is draggy fiction. Therefore, I think it would be best if I open this story at the last possible moment, instead of spending a thousand words or so on events that led up to Miles leaving Audrey. I think I can provide the reader with sufficient background info as is. Of course, if anyone disagrees, please feel free to say so.
BTW, if anybody doesn’t like the title, you’re welcome to suggest a better one.
Actually we’d love to hear your thoughts about anything in this opener. And if you’re a writer who’d like to take part in Red Pencil Thursday, please check out how to become an RPT Volunteer.
Bio: Mary Anne Landers (pen name: Genevieve Moultrie) lives in a small town in Arkansas with three cats. She has a B.A. and an M.A in English; she loves mythology, history, science, current events, reading, and of course writing. She spends too much time on Facebook; you’re welcome to friend her there.
Mia’s Touch of a Thief was released just this week. The fabulous reviews keep coming. Alpha Heroes calls her love scenes “uninhibited, lush and gorgeous!”
Look for Touch of a Thief at your local booksellers and at all etailers now.