Wednesday, August 19, 2009

47 Secret Agent

TITLE: Mary Mary
GENRE: Historical/Women’s Fiction

Mary looked in the mirror and patted the blond curls piled on top of her head with satisfaction. “You look like a real fashion plate.” she whispered to her reflection. Three long weeks ago, she had walked from the Westland Row train terminus directly to this house and had remained cooped up within its four luxurious walls ever since with only one thing on her mind: her first afternoon off.

She had driven the other servants frantic asking questions about where she should go, what she should wear, where she might stop for a cup of tea. Imagine, she thought, me, sitting in a tea shop in Dublin? On my own! Not knowing a sinner or saint in the whole place. Not worrying about someone carrying tales back to Mammy about what the ‘upstart’ was up to this time because this was Dublin, and all the tattle-tales were a million miles away in County Longford drinking tea you could trample an elephant on and staring into the fire for signs of some new misfortune on its way. Well, it was 1913 whether they liked it or not, and there was nothing at all wrong with a girl out and about on her own as long as she wasn’t up to anything wrong. She turned this way and that, admiring the modern figure she cut. One of the other girls had shown her the new Lady’s Companion Journal she’d filched from Mrs. Fitzherbert’s drawing room and lucky thing too, otherwise she would have been wandering around the city like a red-necked twit up for the day.


  1. I'm guessing that the MC is meant to be independent-minded (for the time and place it's set) and spirited.
    Unfortunately, for me, she's coming across as a bit self-absorbed.

    Mind, that might be an unfair diagnosis on my part, given that it's only the first 250 words!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sue. I have set Mary up for an embarrassing fall after all her preening in the first couple of paragraphs.

  3. I think it might help this piece to bring in some varied sentence structure. The last sentence in the first paragraph could be broken into two or three. That might give more oomph to the emphasis on her first big day off. I also don't think you need "with satisfaction" in the first line -- I think the action of patting her curls expresses that.

    Mary's voice comes across in the second paragraph. I like the phrases of "sinner or saint" "tattle-tales" and "red-necked twit." And good job at weaving in the time and place.

    But I think the start can use even more specifics. What type of tales is she worried about people spreading? How exactly did she turn "this way and that"? What does the modern figure for 1913 look like?

    In general, I'm curious to know what Mary is up to. She certainly has a clear direction of what she wants!

  4. Thanks for your comments, Lisa. I think you're right about the 'with satisfaction' part. I knew there was something wrong there, but couldn't see it for looking. And good suggestion about breaking up the last sentence of that paragraph. I will do that.

    I did my best to fit in the bit that follows about the change from pencil-slim to hourglass in the first 250 words, but couldn't quite manage it! lol

    Your comments were really helpful. Much appreciated!

  5. In 1913 did people use the phrase red-necked twit? I doubt it.

    When you are writing about a time in the past, you have to be careful not to use modern language.

    According to Wickipedia, the original phrase red neck came from s description of the red necks of farmers. When did it morph to mean uncouth country people?

    According to another online dictionary, the word twit, meaning an insignificant, bothersome person, came into use in the 1920s.

  6. MaryMary, I know what you mean about cutting out things to get to 250 words. I'm submission #31 and did the same thing, and now I'm seeing places where I think I cut too much! Glad you found my comments helpful.

  7. Having a character staring at herself in the mirror and thinking about her backstory is a boring way to begin.

    Have her chat with another servant or something, or better yet, have her in the tea shop making a fool of herself.

    According to my copy of ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES, "red-neck" is an American, not at Irish usage.

    I've never heard the expression "trample an elephant on" so if it isn't an old expression, it makes little sense in this context.

  8. Hi Callie. I had thought to use 'red-neck culchie' but thought it would be incomprehensible outside of Ireland. I don't want to sound as if I'm giving a lecture here, but bear with me. In Ireland there has always been a fairly friendly mutual antagonism between Jackeens (Dubliners) and (Culchies) country people. Calling someone a red-neck doesn't imply 'uncouthness', rather someone who is, as you put it, a farmer, and if in a large city, as in this case, a fish out of water. Mary in my story is from Co. Longford, and is very conscious not to look like out of place in Dublin, hence her fussing in front of the mirror.
    My grandmother was a country woman, born before 1900, and used the word 'Twit' frequently. As for it's documentation, I have no idea. Thanks for your comments.

  9. Hi Marilynn. My mother and her entire family came from the 'country' and her children, as Dubliners, constantly teased about being a red-neck. I imagine in any country with a farming community the expression 'red-neck' would be an obvious epithet. I doubt very much if it originated in the United States, or that it's origin can be pinned down to any particular country, but its usage goes back, in my family at least, to at least the turn of the last century.
    Tea that you could 'trample an elephant on' is a common expression - tea that has been sitting in the pot for a long time, getting stronger. In this excerpt the implication is that the people Mary is referring to are in her opinion spending too much time thinking and talking about other people, so much time that their tea is strong enough for even an elephant to walk on.
    Thanks for your comments.

  10. This character sounds like one of those who's about to get her come-uppance...

    I'm tentatively hooked, but I'd hope that it looks like she'll find more important things to think about before the end of the book. :)

  11. Hi Catherine and thanks for your comments.

    I like the way you put it too! She does indeed get her come-uppance. I have put her through her paces and no mistake! She will learn plenty.

    A tentative hook is fine by me. :)

  12. I'd go with culchie - we can infer from the context what it means, and you aren't needing a specific definition here. It would also go to defining the character's voice.

    Personally, I'd cut the entire first paragraph. As others have said, looking in a mirror is a bit cliche, and you could always include the 'three weeks' bit in a revised opening. The end of the second paragraph shows that she's concerned about her appearance.

    I'm hooked! Good luck.

  13. Hi Tracey and thanks so much for your comments. I was worried that using an obscure word like that would yank the reader out of the story, but I'm completely off 'twit' now! This is a terrific way to hone the first page, isn't it? Hat off to The Authoress!

  14. I'm fairly intrigued by this opening, and would request the first 50 pages. The voice is strong and I'm particularly looking for Europe-set historicals.

  15. MaryMary, one of the best places to date and find origins of words and expressions is the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY which many libraries carry.

    I imagine there are also some excellent resources online.

    ENGLISH THROUGH THE AGES works well enough for me for checking words and expressions when I work with writing students, but I doubt it would be thorough enough for someone writing historicals.

    And, yes, linguists can trace expressions to a particular place and time in the world.

  16. Hi again Marilynn and thank you for your new comments. I have my own copy of the OED and you are quite right that there are many and varied resources online, though their reliability is sometimes in question. I would beg to differ however that Etymology or Linguistics are exact sciences, particularly when referring to the English language as it was spoken in its colonies. And even more particularly with regard to a colony which sustained its original language alongside English for so many hundreds of years. Fortunately I have a more than passing acquaintance with the time and place and people of this project, but it was very kind of you to take the time to offer further suggestions.

  17. Your story intrigues me. I would definitely turn the page to see what happens next.

    And please think about using the term 'culchie.' It would give your book an authentic flavor.

    Great comment by the Secret Agent! Good luck.

  18. Hi Glinda, and thanks so much for your comments. I think I have gotten over my reluctance to use 'culchie' and will replace 'twit' with it. It's difficult sometimes with colloquialisms isn't it? Or scientific/medical terms? You don't want to alienate your reader but at the same time, you want to be authentic if that doesn't sound too self-conscious and high-falutin'?
    Thanks so much for taking the time to make that suggestion! Very much appreciated.

  19. Hi Secret Agent. I hope I'm not in breach of Secret Agent Contest etiquette by responding to your kind comments here, but I couldn't resist any longer.

    I would be very happy to forward the first fifty pages to you!

    And thank you so much for your comments.

  20. Mary's independent spirit hooked me right off the bat. I learned from my grandmother what the atmosphere was like for an Irish woman in 1913 and I think you're right on target. Your comments like "staring into the fire for signs of some new misfortune" made me laugh and resonated with my Irish ancestry. Such jewels, however, perhaps deserve their own sentences. In other words, I think some of your very amusing and insightful images might have greater impact if you added a few more periods here and there. Otherwise, I can't wait to find out what adventures Mary will encounter.

  21. Hi Taryn Hook! Looking at the second paragraph I do indeed have some very long sentences. Definitely needs rewriting. Thanks for catching that!

    God love them, but women had a very hard time of it back in those days didn't they? Even up to the 1960's, they stayed, no, that makes it sound as if they had a choice, they were pushed into the shadows and woe betide anyone brave enough to poke her nose into the sunlight. When I think of my mother and my grandmothers and great-aunts, I'm completely at a loss as to how they got through it and with such good grace too. I know I wouldn't have been up to it. Unfortunately the past few years have seen a lot of the 'old guard' passing away and the same expression is used at the funeral and wake: "They were made of stronger stuff." By Golly, were they ever.
    Sorry for going on there. I am very grateful to you for your insight into improving this excerpt and the very kind words of encouragement. Go raibh mile a maith agat!

  22. I find it amazing that women married to a farmer (at least in Germany) were much better off only a hundred years earlier. The were solely in command of a big household, organizing everything, buying and selling surplus, and their husbands depended greatly on their aptitude. How could things change so fast into a life so restricted that women went to fight for their rights?

  23. Hi Cat, I know very little about the social history of Germany, but that is a really interesting comment. My first reaction, and it would be based on the UK, would be Victorian values. Do you know how it, Victorianism, affected people in Germany, or did they have some kind of restrictive social upheaval of their own there? The royal family in the UK were of course more German than anything else, but I never even thought about how that may have affected the huge change in how women were perceived and expected to behave during that time.
    With regard to Irish women, Catholicism had a much bigger role to play, (imo) than anything the British did. In fact, as awful as the restrictions were on women in Britain during the nineteenth century, I believe they paled in comparison with the Irish. One telling example would be I think, the way women were punished for being pregnant outside of marriage, specifically the infamous 'Magdalene Laundries'. Truly sickening that that was allowed to go on at all, and for so long and it was a by-product, no, it was the invention and creature of Irish Catholicism. Again, imo, the more political freedom the Irish wrested for themselves over their own country, the worse things became for women. I don't have the statistics to hand, but I remember reading something about the number of single Irish women and girls emigrating during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next. Of course, people in Ireland were suffering a grinding poverty (the tenement slums in Dublin were the worst in Europe), but more than that, I believe they were looking for freedom. And good for them for taking such a giant leap! That took some courage.
    Now you have me thinking about the situation in Germany. Please write a book! :)

  24. Love your voice MaryMary. I hear her loud and clear and Celt.

    I liked it as is. In fact, I'm hooked.

    If I think of anything helpful, I'll let you know. But that's my first impression and that's how I buy books.

    On "redneck," here's a little tidbit. In Elspeth Huxley's, The Flame Trees of Thika, which was set in Africa just prior to World War 1, she references this word. The Dutch African settlers used the term, rooinek, to insult the English settlers. It means, of course, redneck.

    So this expression has been around and certainly, or should I say, "certain sure," in the same time frame you're talking about.

    Keep writing.

  25. Hi Terry. Thanks for those very nice words. Much appreciated! And I would be delighted with any help or suggestions from you! When we teased my mother about being a red-neck, she always said she was proud of being from the country. And we were very proud of her too! She stood out from our friends' 'Dublin' mothers. And whenever she went back to visit her family 'in the sh-ticks', she came back with an accent you could cut with a knife. And of course we went and teased her about that too! Where would we be without our farmers? I have to tell you that in Ireland, and I can't say whether it's only there, but there is an old saying that you still hear now and again even today, 'There's no snob like a country snob.' I would hate to give the idea that they were treated as an underclass. It was and is to a lesser extent today, still a friendly rivallry.
    Thanks again for your comments Terry!

  26. I liked it! Hooked. :)

    I particularly like the title, btw.

  27. Oh Mary Mary,

    I just started looking thru these (51), since I wasn't in this contest...can't write fast enough. I'm amazed by your indepth knowledge and the engaging style in which you answer. This can only help your cause. The general rule in being critiqued, is to shut up and sit down. You are the exception.

    About twit, it shows in Webster's D. as coming to use in it's rudimetary form about 1520-30! So you have a misconception to straddle. Use twit and some will doubt, use culchie and some will stop and scratch their nogens. I don't know. I suppose something in between in the twaddle family or synonyms of twit might strike a balance. Any way you choose, you already have a winner, and any body who enjoys your strong voice will keep reading.

  28. Hi Locksley, your comments made me laugh out loud. Next time I will be good and shut up! And thanks for that interesting information on 'twit'. I am going with 'eejit' in the first paragraph which I think is immediately recognizable as Irish, and as having been around for a very long time. But culchie will drift in later, so I have my fingers crossed that the reader will do as you say, and keep reading! Really appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment.