Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September Secret Agent #24

TITLE: Death on the Cliffs
GENRE: Historical Mystery

The day my best friend’s father was murdered began like any other June Sunday in Camden, Maine. That is to say, ordered like clockwork and dull beyond belief.

Church at ten. An enormous Sunday dinner at one. Self-improvement at two.

With a sigh, I settled down on the porch swing and opened the book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays to “Self Reliance,” the piece I had been digesting in five-minute installments over the past month. To be frank, my attempt at these dense, scholarly essays was my friend Eugene Palmer’s idea. In his opinion, I needed to elevate my reading material, not to mention my mind, above the level of delectable dime novels like Lady Something or Other’s Secret.

I felt like tossing the book into the lilac bushes, but since Eugene was presently playing the piano in our music room, I was trapped. So, to the thump-thump-thump of a military march, I began to chew on the first sentence.

Within moments, my gaze wandered to the road, where I spotted a lone man approaching on foot. I didn’t recognize him as a local resident; most likely he was one of the visitors who flock to our hotels and grand cottages during high season. His jacket, tie and decent hat indicated a gentleman; the knapsack and walking stick spoke to his being a rusticator who enjoyed tramping the countryside. And most importantly, his tall build, blond hair, bristly mustache and twinkling blue eyes proved him young and attractive. A welcome addition to our unexciting shores.


  1. Good job on establishing the characters and setting. It's clear from the outset that we're in a different time period. I'm a bit unsure about the first line; it seems a tiny bit awkward. Otherwise, well done.

  2. Your entry really grabbed me in. I like your voice a lot. While the first sentence does grab your attention, I felt that it could have been tightened up a bit. To me, right now it reads a bit awkwardly.

    Overall, well done!

  3. There is a great deal to like here. We learn the situation in an entertaining way and something about the narrator. So don't let the following nitpicks be discouraging. I'd keep reading.

    --when is this set?
    --how old is the narrator? why does he or she have to do what friend Eugene says?
    --too much description of the stranger all at once. And can you really tell he has twinkling blue eyes from a distance?

  4. I really enjoyed your entry, and I only managed to come up with a couple of teeny-tiny suggestions. They are entirely to-taste, so of course ignore if you don't like them!

    Consider making your character a bit less negative on the first page. I love the sarcasm in the voice, but I wish it was balanced with a little bit of happiness/lightheartedness to show the reader right away that she isn't a whiner, it's just her current situation is dull. It wouldn't take much. For example, maybe give us the "real" name of a dime novel she reads rather than "lady something or others secret" which makes it sound like she's deriding it, too.

    Also--and this is entirely personal taste!--consider introducing Eugene in a way that doesn't sound like she's talking to the reader. you say "My friend, Eugene Palmer," which is exactly how she would introduce him to a stranger, but probably not how she thinks about him. Of course, this all depends on how the rest of the novel plays out--if the voice of the whole novel is geared as a conversation with the reader, than of course, ignore!!

    And lastly, I'm not entirely sure why she's trapped reading Emerson because Eugene is playing piano. Maybe clarify that a bit.

    Again, as I said, overall I really enjoyed it!

  5. I'm definitely getting a sense of time and place, and of the character. You're not wasting time getting to the stranger approaching, so that gets some momentum into the story early.

    The only thing that bugged me was the opening sentence - it's a rather cliched structure, and that put me off some.

  6. I enjoyed the hint of the mystery given in the opening sentence. I found the language and pacing to sometimes feel much more present-day than historical. (dull beyond belief, self-improvement, etc)
    I would have liked a sense of gender or age of the narrator. The only thing holding me back from fully appreciating this is that it seems like a very common structure - boredom followed by the arrival of a handsome stranger who is described in far more detail than seems natural. (twinkling blue eyes) - were it not for the mention of a murder I would have thought this opening to be for a romance.

  7. I like the pace of this. I think it fits the genre. I also think the first sentence has to go. It's a tease, I get that, but it didn't grab me. It was stated too matter-of-factly...we're talking murder right? You could use your mc to spice that up a bit...use the tone you establish for her later...the sarcasm. That would make the sentence pop more.

    Also, I have no idea what time period this is...or where we are. I understand that this is only 250 words but I think there could be some visual clues that would help establish that a bit since you've done so well with the descriptors throughout.

  8. Cut "as a local resident" because otherwise the POV is saying that they recognize him otherwise.

    I was with this up until the gentleman was introduced, which started pushing worldbuilding and details all at once. It became a bit overwrought with sentence after sentence describing the character and the area.

    I have no real sense for the time period (I'm guessing the fifties/sixties, but I'm probably wrong) or who the main character is.

    That all being said, I really liked the flow of this up until the last paragraph. Would read a bit more.

  9. I agree with the others on the first line not working to your advantage. Stories inherently start on the day when things ARE different, and the "today was like any other day" is cliche and does your story a disservice. I don't think stating that a day is dull is the best approach.

    Having said that, the rest of the entry picks up, the stage is set. I do agree that I'd like to get more a sense of the time period; the Emerson reference doesn't provide that since it's a known classic. Maybe if the character is listening to something specific on the radio, like a news bulletin about a current event, or a radio play, we can assume 1930s-40s. Any hint of the era with a specific detail, even minor, will further establish the setting.

    I chuckled at "rusticator who enjoyed tramping the countryside." That shows a flavor of voice. Nice work!

  10. You might cut the first parg because all it does is give away the fact that there's going to be a murder. It would work better, I think, if it came as a surprise. It's a mystery, and the reader may assume someone will be murdered, but they won't know who and when. ANd you show us that her life is boring so you don't have to tell us.

    Which is the next issue, I think. The whole thing is told. SHow her curled up on the swing, let us hear the piano, let the stranger appear, rather than her saying he appeared.


  11. A good opening! A good voice, conveying nicely the sense of routine and boredom leading to the excitement of seeing a stranger to break up the routine. The first sentence gives away the ghost, so to speak, and I would recommend changing it.