Wednesday, February 20, 2013

February Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Cut From Strong Cloth: The Ellen Canavan Story
GENRE: Historical Fiction

Rooted to the ship’s weathered deck and holding tight to her big brother’s hand, the child riveted her gaze on the dead body. Her Da’s face, once full of laughter and mischief, now lay silent while wails drifted out on mournful ocean winds, bemoaning a death at sea.

Women she did not even know had washed his body and then dressed him in his best outfit, frayed at the sleeves, but respectably clean. Traditions mattered, even here. His funeral cloth, fashioned from a wide strip of old sail, contained a brick placed at the bottom and edges sewn together. Inside laid his lifeless body. The eyes had sunken into the skull, sallow skin drooped from the face, and arms and legs were stiff with rigor mortis. A solitary facial flap of the grimy shroud had been left untied for the family to cast one last look upon his features.

The ship’s bells began to toll, announcing the burial.

The child, Ellen, fought tears. She knew what would come next, but refused to look out at the sea. Mist dampened her thin homespun dress while the ocean continued its relentless pulse against the ship’s timbers. She did not feel the elements. Silent throughout the incantations of the priest, she stared at the wrapped corpse in front of her. Depleted of all visible emotion, her small frame trembled, but not from the wind slicing through her meager clothes. She shivered with the recognition of abandonment.

At first, a small throng had gathered.


  1. It seems like a very slow build up. I think the descriptions are nice, but I would that soon (or even within the first 250) that we would get a little more insight into our girl Ellen. Really liked the tone that the first paragraph set

  2. There's a lot of imagery here that could be trimmed away, I think. The two largest paragraphs have quite a bit of excess -- I'd go through and take a look at what you really need, what really advances the motion of the scene. You have a nice turn of phrase, but to get some momentum going, I'd focus less on evoking a tragic scene and more on the process of the tragic events. If descriptions of the ocean and the mist sneak in, then so be it, but right now they feel like the focal point rather than what they really are -- decoration.

    I'd also change the first sentence of para. 4 to "Ellen fought tears." It's pretty much implied that she's the child.

    That said, the mood is great. I just feel like it's overwhelming in its current state.

  3. I like the tone - it sets a very clear mood to begin the story.

    "Rooted" seems at contrast with a ship's deck, which I associate with movement.

    How long ago did Da die? After a couple days there should be no rigor mortis - if it's been quicker, let us know.

    I'm a little confused as to the sequence of events - he died at sea, they came back to land, women prepared him, and now he's going back to the sea? A line or two about him being taken back to the sea would be helpful. Especially since the third paragraph uses the word "burial" a little vaguely.

  4. The writing is strong but this opening could be tightened -- and still retain the wonderful imagery.

    The last sentence in the first paragraph contains wails, mournful and bemoaning -- which feels like a bit much. I was so distracted by the language that I didn't get that Da was dead. I thought he was standing beside the girl and boy.

    You could lose this line: Inside laid his lifeless body. The funeral shroud makes that apparent.

    I'd also move the last sentence in the second paragraph BEFORE the description of the eyes. Otherwise, my thought was how do you see the face if the shroud is stitched up.

    I'd love to read more.

  5. While I think the writing is strong, there is a lot of imagery/description, which didn't really allow me to connect with the characters. I felt bad for the children, but I really didn't become invested. What lead them to be where they are?

  6. It was a sad and tragic, yet lovely scene. There was just a bit much of it. By the end, I was hoping for something more to connect with Emma, but when I saw were going with more description of the funeral, I became weary.

    With historical fiction, setting really has to be almost another character, but I still need to be able to feel for the protagonist. I felt she was very secondary to the scene.

  7. I agree with most of what everyone else is saying. Too much imagery, although written beautifully. For example, the details about the funeral cloth are unnecessary.

    Try to keep some of descriptions, to leave the grim tone of the scene intact. But try not to overdo it as well. Express more of Ellen's emotions and the reaction of those around her.