Author Topic: Hazel (Historical Fiction)  (Read 46 times)

Offline rivergirl

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Hazel (Historical Fiction)
« on: February 14, 2020, 08:42:02 PM »
I've shortened this chapter quite a bit to encourage readers. Hazel is the daughter of an outspoken Virginia Burgess. When she finds her life in danger, she's married off to a revolutionary to get her out of the spotlight and protect her from rebel mobsters. She follows her husband to war as a British spy and this is the story of how Hazel changes sides. She becomes a sharpshooter for the continental army. Inspired by real women.

Chapter 1
March 1775

The shadowy images of a dream slipped from my mind as the warm smoky smells of charred roast filled my room. I coughed into my pillow as my lids lifted lazily. The—kitchen—is—outside. This thought settled stupidly before my gaze shot into the darkness. Smoke moved hot and alive across my skin. So much smoke—too much for a blocked flue. Fire! Fear jolted through me and my feet fell to the floor.
   The only light was an eerie glow that stole through the window.  “Mother! Father!” My toe painful rammed against my trousseau, while my fingers reached for the smooth papered walls. My fingers met the doorframe, and I thrust myself into the hall.
   There was a haze of smoke in the hallway, and I coughed violently into my sleeve. Through the window at the end of the hall, I could hear men hollering outside. “We’re—in—here!” I cried through a string of coughs. The Shocoe District and the edges of town were an hour away on foot, but there was no time to reason the distance. I imagined merchants and farmers uniting to hurl buckets of water onto our burning home.
   I burst into my sisters’ room horrified by the sight of lapping flames hungrily licking the windows and wall. Violet’s carefully stitched sampler fell with a hiss as the floorboards groaned. My gaze shot frantically to the two slight forms stirring under the covers. “Violet! Sarah!”
   Sarah sat up sleepily but then her eyes grew large and glassy like one of her dolls. “Fire?” she said with a small gasp. “How’d it get in here?”
       “Get outside now!”
       My gaze turned to Violet who seemed to be coughing in her sleep. “Wake, up!” I shook her shoulders. Her thick lashes fluttered before she gave another feeble cough. “Wake, Sister!” I shook her violently.
       “What about Muddy?” Sarah still standing in the doorway with a blanket clutched against her chest. She was a mouse of a child but stubborn enough to moor a ship.
      My gaze darted around, catching no sign of the gangly brown dog. “He’s outside, now haste!”
      I coughed violently, watching with horror as the fire continued to spread. In only moments a giant orange tongue lapped up the window sheers like dangling swaths of ground sugar.
      Egad! We’d both die if I didn’t drag my sister outside! My muscles felt limp as I tugged on her arm. Violet was sixteen years and nearly as tall as me.
      Father rushed in looking panicked and wild. His nightshirt was soiled and torn while his gray hair hung loose over his shoulders.  “Get outside!” he roared, swatting Sarah on her bottom.
      Sarah scurried from the room in wails.
      Father began to cough wildly. “Good heavens—you too!”
      “Did Mother get out?” I asked, leaning dizzily against the bed.
      “Your Mother’s safe. Betsy too.”
      It was a relief. Both Mother and our brown housemaid ailed from maladies of the joints.
      My father who was unshakable at the courthouse looked down at Violet with a dazed expression.
      “She—won’t—wake,” I prodded between coughs. “You must carry her.”
      This seemed to waken Father who scooped Violet into his arms.  “Hazel, get out now. The roof’s on fire.” As if in response, the ceiling gave a long low bellow and we both looked up in terror. A fissure began to crack open in the plaster!
      “Hurry, Father!” I cried, “I’ll not leave my sister behind.”
      “Why should you order me like a man?”
      It was a frequently repeated insult. I was twenty and five with no prospects of marriage. Father often accused me of making assertions that shouldn’t be made for so lowly a station.
      Father moved towards the door, staggering unsteadily. My hand moved to his back, willing him to have the strength of a younger man. 
      Gingerly Father moved into the hallway where the smoke was rolling like a rapidly boiling soup. My throat tightened and burned as I coughed. I pulled the neck of my shift over my nose, but there was no blocking the smoke. It was deep inside me and my head began to swim.
      In the wake of my father, I descended the narrow stairs with painful slowness. Father was an older man and with each step he grunted and wobbled. I dizzily looked ahead in the darkness, longing for the fresh air beyond.
      The house groaned again, and my chest tightened with fear. Any moment the ceiling could fall. Would I burn to death or would the weight of the crossbeams kill me instantly? Something crashed upstairs, and I lunged forward, reflexively bumping into Father.
      “Steady, Hazel,” Father growled, steadying himself against the wood paneling.
       Sweat rolled down my chest and my fingers reached for the banister. The wood felt strange and hot. Do not faint. Do not faint.
      One step, and then another. I wondered if I should vomit. “Papa…,” I whimpered.
      “We’re almost there,” Father rasped.
      The staircase was lit by a strange throbbing light that wrestled with the blackness below. Any moment the flames would spill from the bedrooms and descend upon us like winged demons.
      Another step.  My legs felt distant and limp, controlled not by me but by a marionette pulling the strings. Father was halfway out the front door when a thunderous crack exploded in the air. White-hot light flashed and my legs crumbled below me. I reached for the door but felt only splinters of wood and pieces of banister. My chest constricted, and I tried to cough but only a feeble spasm came out. The pain came a moment later and spread through my face like splintering white fireworks. I groaned and my fingers lifted to explore the moist raw place that had opened on my face.

Offline ryan1

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Re: Hazel (Historical Fiction)
« Reply #1 on: February 18, 2020, 07:24:35 AM »
Hmm.  Overall, you definitely have experience with writing.  Your writing style, itself, there isn't much to speak on.  You have it down well. 

But I had more issues with substance, partly with the way this story starts, etc.

First of all, other than the fact you called this chapter March 1775, I got very little sense in the text itself of the time period.  A couple minor details thrown in hint at it, but nothing definitive.  Her father in a nightshirt and gray hair hanging loose, perhaps..and the kitchen being outside?  (I'm not sure about that one...when were kitchens outside?  By 1775, they were commonly indoors.) But I had to force myself to imagine this being 1775 mostly because the language itself felt more modern, I guess.

Second, I'll also admit, I'm not sure this is the right place to start the story.  We have no idea who these people are, no idea who we are supposed to care about, which means I'm not as engaged as I should be at this point.  I mean, it is a house fire, and people could get hurt, but the worry that the reader should have is being told to us by the narrator (such as Mom suffering from joint ailment, but which amounts to nothing in this scene because she already made it outside).

Third, some of the descriptions, as a result of my second point, feel out of place in the urgency of escaping a fire and the MC worrying about her sister...for example, her noticing the "smooth papered walls" and "carefully stitched sampler", not to mention the "argument" with her father where she stops worrying about getting out, and he decides to reprimand her and she laments having no prospects of marriage.

I think it comes down to the fact that, at this point, I not only don't yet care about the characters, I'm also finding the author injecting herself into the story to tell us stuff, rather than staying true to the MC.  The writing seems to WANT to be third person, despite being written in the first person.  For example:

"I wondered if I should vomit."  (Really? Or perhaps she felt the urge to vomit? Or held back the urge to vomit? But "wondered"?)

"I groaned and my fingers lifted..."  (Her fingers lifted magically?  Or did she feel her face, scared at what might have happened?  It feels very disembodied and distant from the MC..I get the marionette quip, but in this particular action, it felt off.)

"Violet was sixteen years and nearly as tall as me."  (Weird to mention this now, in the urgency of the moment...maybe it was to tell us that Violet was too unwieldy for the MC to move?  But it would be better to show us her struggle than drop such details here.)

"...who was unshakeable at the courthouse..."  (Would she really be thinking this in the moment?  Like, there's a fire and they are desperate to get out, and she's thinking about how he's not as unflappable here as when he is acting as a lawyer or something?)

"...and our brown housemaid..."  (This seems like someone with 21st century sensibilities speaking.  In Virginia at this point in time, slavery was very well entrenched, and I have trouble believing she would be called "brown", and very unlikely live in the house with the family....but then, again, we don't know anything about this family, so perhaps they are Quakers or something?)

Etc.

Also, something that stood out to me was at first Father "rushed in looking panicked and wild", and then he had a "dazed expression", and then "...this seemed to waken Father..."  Why did he go from having helped get Mother and Betsy out, and swatting Sarah to get her moving, to suddenly asleep on the job, so to speak?

Mostly, I think you need to start the story someplace else to establish who these characters are in our minds first.

Offline rivergirl

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Re: Hazel (Historical Fiction)
« Reply #2 on: February 18, 2020, 07:03:43 PM »
Ryan, Thanks so much for the critique.



But I had more issues with substance, partly with the way this story starts, etc.

First of all, other than the fact you called this chapter March 1775, I got very little sense in the text itself of the time period.  A couple minor details thrown in hint at it, but nothing definitive.  Her father in a nightshirt and gray hair hanging loose, perhaps..and the kitchen being outside?  (I'm not sure about that one...when were kitchens outside?  By 1775, they were commonly indoors.) But I had to force myself to imagine this being 1775 mostly because the language itself felt more modern, I guess.

I've had manuscripts rejected before by having the vernacular too strong, so I've tried to keep the 18th century speak to a minimum. I'm disappointed that all the hints of the time period were lost such as the sampler on the wall, a fire place warming the house, the trousseau, farmers throwing buckets on the house etc..I've yet to visit a large period house of this era where the kitchen wasn't outside. It's also a status symbol of the family..

Second, I'll also admit, I'm not sure this is the right place to start the story.  We have no idea who these people are, no idea who we are supposed to care about, which means I'm not as engaged as I should be at this point.  I mean, it is a house fire, and people could get hurt, but the worry that the reader should have is being told to us by the narrator (such as Mom suffering from joint ailment, but which amounts to nothing in this scene because she already made it outside).

Been thinking about this and I believe you are right. All the thoughts that i've squeezed in to tell the reader about the family and history will work better in a non-panicky situation.

Third, some of the descriptions, as a result of my second point, feel out of place in the urgency of escaping a fire and the MC worrying about her sister...for example, her noticing the "smooth papered walls" and "carefully stitched sampler", not to mention the "argument" with her father where she stops worrying about getting out, and he decides to reprimand her and she laments having no prospects of marriage.

Great point, its got to go!

I think it comes down to the fact that, at this point, I not only don't yet care about the characters, I'm also finding the author injecting herself into the story to tell us stuff, rather than staying true to the MC.  The writing seems to WANT to be third person, despite being written in the first person.  For example:

"I wondered if I should vomit."  This is actually one of the places i put in 18th century vernacular. A perfect example of why agents don't always like authentic because it interferes with flow. I'll reword so not to catch readers up. (Really? Or perhaps she felt the urge to vomit? Or held back the urge to vomit? But "wondered"?)

"I groaned and my fingers lifted..."  (Her fingers lifted magically?  Or did she feel her face, scared at what might have happened?  It feels very disembodied and distant from the MC..I get the marionette quip, but in this particular action, it felt off.)

I get this. It's written this way to avoid, I this, and I that, one of the problems of writing in first person. Agree it needs to go.

"Violet was sixteen years and nearly as tall as me."  (Weird to mention this now, in the urgency of the moment...maybe it was to tell us that Violet was too unwieldy for the MC to move?  But it would be better to show us her struggle than drop such details here.)

"...who was unshakeable at the courthouse..."  (Would she really be thinking this in the moment?  Like, there's a fire and they are desperate to get out, and she's thinking about how he's not as unflappable here as when he is acting as a lawyer or something?)
 
Yep, the addition of another scene first will eliminate all these little observations that don't belong in an urgent scene.

"...and our brown housemaid..."  (This seems like someone with 21st century sensibilities speaking.  In Virginia at this point in time, slavery was very well entrenched, and I have trouble believing she would be called "brown", and very unlikely live in the house with the family....but then, again, we don't know anything about this family, so perhaps they are Quakers or something?)

Yes, there are two inherited slaves, but as it rubs against Hazel's conscious, it makes her more comfortable to call her a servant, as most house slaves were actually called.

Etc.

Also, something that stood out to me was at first Father "rushed in looking panicked and wild", and then he had a "dazed expression", and then "...this seemed to waken Father..."  Why did he go from having helped get Mother and Betsy out, and swatting Sarah to get her moving, to suddenly asleep on the job, so to speak?

Great point!!!

Mostly, I think you need to start the story someplace else to establish who these characters are in our minds first.

Agree, thanks again!