Wednesday, September 23, 2009

#26 1000-Word

TITLE: The Yankees--The Voyage Around Cape Horn
GENRE: Historical Fiction


April first through fifth, 1872

He was a sailor bold and true,
To my aye storm a-long!
A good old skipper to his crew;
Aye, aye, aye, Mister Storm a-long.

Traditional Halyard Chantey

Isaac Griffin

Captain Isaac Griffin, master of the ship, Providence, watched his shadow precede him in the mid afternoon sunlight. His mind instinctively knew the direction and strength of the wind upon his face and the direction his shadow stretched, east by east north east, on the pavement. As he approached the tetra style portico of the Christison home, he noted his shade stretched longer than the columns of the Christison home stood high. Griffin was born in Newport, Rhode Island and thus was a New Englander, a Yankee. Had Griffin been a visitor from anywhere in the country, had he been born anywhere but Newport, the Beacon Hill home, the street, and its neighborhood might have impressed him. Home for only a week, he had been summoned by messenger to meet his partner, employer, and friend William Christison Senior, Kicking Billy. It was their first meeting in nearly two years.

Perhaps it's the winters in New England, salt cod, or just the extreme difficulty of scratching out a living here that does it, but a Yankee's sense of vision tends toward seeing the truth in its naked glory and speaking about it in blunt words. Griffin knew the Christison home was a sarcophagus, the symbol of a family's pride. The foundation for this home was money obtained from the triangular trade, cursed money from traffic in human flesh. Griffin knew the foundation was crumbling. Griffin was not superstitious, he had no prophetic abilities beyond reading a sky for the weather to come, but sensed this visit would change his life.

Griffin saw how the trees lining the street had just started to bud, their leaves awaiting warmth and sunlight to bloom. He saw tiny snow birds, juncos, still flitting beneath them. Furnace smoke drifted past him and brought the smell of rotten eggs, sulfur, to his nose. This sent him back in time by four months to Providence bound for San Francisco, then two weeks at sea from loading coal in the rain in Newcastle, Australia.

The coal had been packed tightly in his ship's hold leaving her to ride low in the water with little freeboard. Griffin remembered an anxious ship's carpenter and boatswain reporting the smell of sulfur, of smoldering coal. These men took their captain near the foremast so he too could feel the heat beneath the deck. He did on hands in knees carefully tracing the heat's boundaries on the wooden deck. He nodded to Chips and said, "Thanks." He then spoke to the mate, "Mr. Martin, heave her to."

The news spread quickly throughout the ship. Men were afraid for their lives, afraid of an explosion and fire at sea in a wooden ship.

Griffin, the first mate, Joshua Martin, and the carpenter carefully entered the hold through the lazarette. They were careful to avoid provoking an explosion. Griffin had to find the smoldering coal and jettison it overboard. A fire enclosed in a cargo hold can not be fought with water. The burning coal had to be found and jettisoned overboard.

The three men crawled nearly seventy five feet forward on their stomachs over the top of the coal in the dark and feeling for hot spots with their hands. They had barely a foot clearance between the coal and the deck over their heads. The cargo hold was hot, filled with smoke and as dirty as any mine anywhere in the bowels of the earth. If there was one hot spot, could there be others? They were nearly gagging, struggling to breath. Lanterns were too dangerous to use. The carpenter found the smoldering coal. Griffin ordered the main cargo hatch opened and began to dig to the smoldering coal with a shovel. A line was formed to pass the coal overboard. The spark may have come from a shovel or simply from the heat of the coal feeding on fresh oxygen. There was a brief, intense explosion from the methane. Griffin's right hand was burned badly, its top scared, its fingers burned where they were not protected by the shovel's handle. He screamed from the intense pain and would forever claim he had seen a glimpse of hell. His body went into shock. The carpenter carried him out of the hold through the cargo hatch and to the after cabin. He writhed from pain. The carpenter and his steward immersed the burnt hand in Griffin's own washbasin and held it there to douse the fire burning in his hand.

Griffin fought off unconsciousness and directed he be given twenty drops of laudanum mixed with red wine. This was the treatment recommended in his shipmaster's medical guide. He directed a poultice of chamomile flower be applied to his hand. When the laudanum dulled the pain he returned on deck and oversaw the removal of the smoldering coal. His bandaged hand stood out in contrast to his coal covered clothes and face. He wanted the crew to see him and to know he had not deserted them. When the crisis was over Griffin said, "She'll float now."

The odor from the neighborhood furnace was harmless enough; a source of domesticated heat, but it had triggered the memory of the fire. It would be a permanent memory which would haunt him until death freed him from it.

Griffin still could not accept the damage to his hand. He reached for the brass knocker on the Christison door with his burned hand which was covered by a black leather glove. He saw his fingers touch the brass but felt nothing, no warmth, no cold, not even the smoothness of the polished brass. He attempted to close his fingers and saw them close around the brass clapper. The first sense of pain came from the scarred flesh on the top of the hands and covering his fingers. It was inelastic and stretched only so far. This pain was uncomfortable. When he pressed his fingers to close more, the pain shrieked from the damaged tendons and injured nerve endings causing him to strain to keep from wincing. The brass lion's head remain unmoved.


  1. Hello, my hat is off to you for having the courage to post your writing. You have a lot of enthusiasm for your subject, and it makes me wonder if you ever sailed or lived in New England.

    This is a good start, but doesn't look like it's ready to send out yet.

    My constructive criticism: you don't seem comfortable in your "writing skin" yet. I see lots of telling that could be showing. When Griffin stands on the sidewalk and remembers the trip, I would be a lot more engaged if you really took me there. You could make a whole chapter out of a few paragraphs.

    There's an old book called JOURNEY -- I can't remember the author -- that was published maybe in the 1950s or '60s. You might look it up in the libarty. It's a novel about the sea, and men who make their living on the sea. The book has lots of good examples of showing instead of telling.

    Good luck!

  2. Not hooked. Sorry. The telling and the scenery prevented me from knowing the MC.

    This also needs to be tightened. For example "His mind instinctively knew" should be "He knew" IMHO. Also, "saw" is not needed. Just give us what he saw.

    Long paragraphs are more difficult to read. Instead of one thick paragraph, make it two or three.

    His scarred hand caught my interest. Perhaps you'd want to start when he reaches for the knocker, and explain what happened to his hand later.

    I hope this helps.

  3. Too many details crammed in early on. I'd skip the first three paragraphs.

    Or, oops, now that I see that this isn't what the book is about at this point - instead condense the next six paragraphs to something like "His hand had been badly burned in a shipboard fire." You can later do a flashback to this scene if needed.

    But mixing the intricate details of the present (tetra style portico, traffic in human flesh, juncos, smell of rotten eggs) and the details of the past (the fire incident) makes for a very rough start.

    You may have a great story here, but it needs to move along rather more briskly.

  4. That book about the sea that might give you some inspiration is not Journey -- it's VOYAGE, A Novel of 1896, by Sterling Hayden.

  5. I would suggest you rewrite the entire opening. There's lots of good stuff here, but you've told us everything, instead of shown us, which makes for bland reading.

    As an example, I'll use the flashback since most of the opening dealt with that.

    You spent five paragraphs building up a scene that could have been filled with tension, but which is just basically facts. And the culmination was - There was a brief, intense explosion from the methane.

    What you need to do is show us that scene. In detail. Let us see Griffon solving the problem step by step. You've told us, but you haven't shown us.

    Griffin carefully enters the hold through the lazarette. What does that mean? Did he raise a hatch gently? Did he tiptoe down a flight of stairs? I have no idea what a lazarette is, and if you described the scene, your description would let me 'see' the lazarette and I'd know what you're talking about. And let us know what Griffin is thinking and feeling.

    They were careful not to provoke an explosion. Again, what does that mean? Show us. Do they take off their shoes and coats, to avoid setting off sparks from the buttons on their coats or the buckles on their shoes? Are they making sure they don't touch anything? Show us what that means.

    And show us the explosion. That's the big deal in this scene. Did the surrounding coal blast into the air? What did it feel like to Griifin? Did he feel the heat on his skin? Did it take his breath away? What happened to the ship? Did the deck or hull splinter apart?

    Imagine this as a movie. If you saw this on a movie screen, what would you see? That's what you need to describe. You have to turn all the words into images that readers can picture in their minds. And you have to do that for almost everything. Not just the explosion. That's what will bring this piece to life.

  6. Hi there,
    You have a good sense of ‘setting’ here. It feels like the time and place you say it is, which is great. I like all the details, but I think for the first 1,000 pages, they might be too much. Some need to be peppered in definitely, but maybe not quite so many. I also never felt like I had a good sense of the MC, but I think you can fix it are some examples.
    Anytime you feel the need to tell us Griffin ‘felt’ or ‘heard’ or ‘saw’ anything…try and rephrase it. It takes the reader out of the story. We know that we are in Griffin’s head right now, so you don’t need to remind us with the ‘Griffin saw…’ triggers. For instance, “Griffin saw how the trees lining the street had just started to bud…” Could be “The trees lining the street had just started to bud…” That way, we are IN the story with Griffin, instead of seeing it third person.
    I also think moving the flashback to a different part of the story would help a lot. For the first chapter, it’s enough to know that he’s got a terrible burn. Make us wonder for a little while *how* he got it. THAT would make me turn the page. As it is now, I don’t know that I would.
    Keep working on this, please! It has a lot of potential. Like I said before you have a great sense of setting and you have clearly done your research. The things that need fixing are really basic and with a little bit of work, this could really shine!

  7. Thank you for sharing your work. This is an intriguing story and you have a good concept.

    The flashback is a wee bit jolting. I was expecting it to be a short--rotten eggs remind him of a fire on the ship--and then onto the partner's house.

    You might consider a prologue of the fire on the ship--lots of action and daring--then start chapter one with the visit with his partner.

    Nitpick here---isn't a sarcophagus a coffin? I don't understand the symbol of the family's wealth comment.

    Again, very good storyline with loads of potential.

    Good luck!

  8. I love historical fiction and eat up books about the sea, but I couldn't get hooked here either. Agreed with above comments about showing, not telling. Can't wait to see a more edited version as this could be a great story!

    Two recommendations for you: 1. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne and Dave King). 2. Any of James L. Nelson's books.

  9. Hey!

    Historical fiction, wow! Always a sort of Herculean task, unless you're already really familiar with the period, so awesome of you to take it on.

    There are a few instances of verb confusion, past/present you might look into. In fact, most of my criticism has to do with mechanics, because--as a reader--I'm willing to trust the voice of this passage to read further.

    Um, other things. Your sentences tend to run-on some. It might be best to find ways to shorten or separate them into more statements, because the details are getting lost in the lengths.

    Also, you have a couple of spots where I really wanted to read the text as if it were starting off a new paragraph. I remember my high school teachers telling me a "real" paragraph had at least five sentences in it, but now as an adult I see how a lot of times it's better to sacrifice the "5" rule in favor of flow. Anytime the focus or action shifts from one person or thing to another, consider starting a new paragraph.

    It always takes me a while to get into historicals, but I do like them, so I would likely continue on.


  10. The writing's not bad, and you've certainly got some interesting description going on, but the visual is very disconcerting. You've got very long paragraphs that might put off the reader. Consider breaking them up if possible with a max of around five sentences a piece.

  11. I really appreciate all of the comments. I've received some of the best criticism possible. As a result, I've redrafted the 1000 words and tried to accommodate what you've told me.

    Where possible, I've sent you an Email expressing my grattitude for the comments, interst and time.

  12. Ditto many of the comments made above. I also wanted to mention that, just looking at the entry before reading, I noticed that you favor long paragraphs. Agents and readers both like seeing "white space" on the page--shorter sentences and paragraphs help with overall flow, pacing, and comprehension.

    I'd also suggest trying to See these scenes through Griffin's POV--how he interprets the events around him. Right now, a lot of it feels as if it's the author forcing thought/impressions upon the character, rather than the character being given free reign to develop his own personality and "voice."

    Hope that helps, and best of luck on your writing!

  13. I agree with most of the others, that it is telling, not showing, and that the paragraphs were too big.

    I felt that the story moved to quick - one moment there was an explosion, the next, it all seemed to be over. You could use a couple of paragraphs explaining what happened in a bit more detail, slow it down a bit.

    Otherwise, I thought the excerpt was pretty good. Good work!

  14. My two cents. I think I would start with the fire - and really paint a strong scene full of sensory images and tension and then take him to the house.

    I noticed the redundancies in detail and too many similar sentence constructions that others have noted, and agree that they would benefit from some tightening.

    Good luck. I think you have the beginnings of a strong story here.