Reader Comments on My Historical Novel

last updated: 12 September 2017 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 1017 words)

In August 2017, I posted a first chapter from a possible future book. You can read that chapter by following this link.

Having posted this chapter, many people were kind enough to give me their comments. I had some very interesting conversations with readers and want to share a flavor of those exchanges.

Several times I had the same question asked or the same point raised in slightly different ways, so I’ve taken some liberties with the questions/issues and compressed them.

I also had some comments around the history and historical accuracy which I split into a separate post that you can read by following this link.

It Seems That There’s a Lot of History…

It seems that there’s a lot of history, coming very fast…

From the second paragraph, there is much description of the street, and this description highlights the historical setting. I usually prefer to include more character information at the start, but there are several reasons for providing such a large lump of historical detail so early in the book.

The key fact we, as the reader, learn from this first chapter is that there has been a death, and a death in circumstances that appear to be suspicious. As a reader, hearing about a death, we have certain automatic reactions—call the police, is there any forensic evidence, what did the CCTV show…and so on.

I needed the reader to understand—before they learn of the death—that there are no police and there is no science. There will be no looking through phone GPS logs to see whether anyone was near the location around the time of death. Everything you might expect to happen in the twenty-first century won’t happen here.

Beyond simply letting the reader know that the setting was “different”, my aim was to get the reader into the atmosphere of 1740 London immediately. Some of the details offer interesting color, but could be ambiguous. For instance, the fireplace and the candle could easily both exist in the twenty-first century. Neither is exclusive to the 1700s.

However, the level of decay and filth on the streets, sending a boy, the absence of electricity or motor vehicles, are all indicative (but not proof) of a historical setting. But the urban context also tells us this is probably not medieval. While these two extremes don’t clearly state 1740, it does get the reader much closer to the correct period.

More About 1740 London…

A bit more about 1740 London, and the filth…

The filth has additional purposes. On one hand, I wanted the reader to understand immediately the kind of place we were dealing with—a place of great wealth, but also of great poverty. A city—at the time, the largest city in the world—which was growing at a rapid rate, but which was unable to provide the infrastructure necessary for its residents.

I wanted readers to understand—in the most visceral terms—not only the unpleasantness of the filth, but the risk to health of the London streets. I also wanted to set a theme with the book: decay. And from that second paragraph onward, everywhere we look, there is decay.

I could have pulled back and moderated the description using much easier terms such as “waste” and “scraps” and so on. To me, these kinds of words do not convey the world in which my characters are living. As descriptions, they are far too safe and non-specific—they don’t let the reader see that the simple act of walking out on the street will put a character’s life and health at risk.

Some of the Paragraphs Are Very Brief…

Some of the paragraphs are very brief, making it feel as though the text is being stretched to appear that more has been written…

The very short paragraphs are an intended decision.

I really dislike long paragraphs. To my mind, long paragraphs are pretty much the worst writing sin—they make books unreadable. With me, generally, I don’t like to exceed 100 words in a paragraph (although, I will if necessary). After that, I then like to vary the length of paragraphs.

This variation isn’t simply an implementation of randomness. I vary with a purpose. Short paragraphs (sentence-long paragraphs) give a very staccato rhythm. This can be good for speed making the read “feel” fast, and it can be good for drawing a reader’s attention to something that is important—a detail in a single short paragraph is much more likely to be noticed than one hidden in a longer paragraph.

The real irony is that I spent a long time trying to shorten the extract—it was 50% longer when first drafted—so I wasn’t trying to do that schoolboy thing 😁

I Felt the Writing Would Be Improved…

I felt the writing would be improved if the names of the two men and a few details about the men were given…

I agree that the story would be improved with the names of the two men. The trouble here is that I haven’t made a decision and all of my “placeholder” names felt wrong. I wish I had a better excuse or reasoning here, but unfortunately, I don’t.

As for the details of the two men, there are several aspects at play here.

First off, this is intended to be the second book with these characters. The first book will explain how the employee became an ex-employee. So, for some readers, these details will be known. However, for those readers who do not know, I don’t want to spend the first chapter in effect recounting the story thus far. These details will be filled in during the book, but in chapter one I’d rather pique the reader’s interest so they turn pages and keep reading.

The second aspect is why the Lord calls this man. This is another issue where I am intentionally keeping information from the reader. As before I am keeping those details so that the reader will turn pages and keep reading. The situation here is very different from that of the names—here I know what information I’m keeping back and why I’m keeping it back.

Filed under

Category: writing
Tags: historical series