Friday, December 2, 2011

#3 Historical Fiction: The Secret History

TITLE: The Secret History
GENRE: Historical Fiction

Theatre tart turned Constantinople’s premier courtesan, Theodora must decide what’s more important: pleasing the emperor who claims to love her or keeping the son he can never know about.

My life began the night death visited our house.

I lay on the straw pallet with my sisters and listened to Comito grind her teeth and Anastasia’s even breathing in the dark. An animal snorted in the distance, probably the scraggly new bear Father had acquired to train for the Greens, a beast scarcely fit for the spectacle of the Hippodrome. The fleas were bad tonight and Constantinople’s sticky heat made the stench of the nearby garbage heap especially pungent. I missed our old home in Cyprus, the salty smell of the Mediterranean and the cicadas’ screams amidst the olive trees. Our ramshackle house near Constantinople’s amphitheater could scarcely compare.

There was a shuffle in the dark—possibly a rat—but then my father grunted.

“Quiet, Acacius.” My mother giggled. “You’ll wake the girls.”

She gave a little moan as I snuggled into Anastasia’s bare back, hoping for more dreams like last night’s fantasy of roasted goat with mint yogurt. Comito claimed I made cow eyes at the butcher’s son when Mother sent us to collect our monthly grain ration today, but in truth I was more impressed with the fresh leg of goat hanging from his stall than the cut of his calves under his tunica. It seemed like years since we’d had meat.

“Acacius.” My mother’s tone was the same she used when my father came home after too much wine at the Boar’s Eye. There was another sound, a thud like a sack of flour hitting the ground. “Acacius!”


  1. The imagery you evoke is wonderful and feels very fitting for Ancient Constantinople.

    It's been a while since I read ancient historical fiction, but this entices me to read on. (Also, it makes me hungry. Which is impressive, considering I'm a veggie.)

    The only real comment I have is the title. It doesn't tell me anything about the story... and it's the title of a best-selling novel by Donna Tartt. So I wonder whether or not you might have to rethink that. :)

  2. Very nice! I agree with the previous comment about the title, since it's already been used. Love the first line, the setting, the backstory you've established in a short timeframe. My only stumble was the word "lay" in the second sentence, one of those rare words where tense is ambiguous. Great job.

  3. You had me at Theodora. =) She's a great historical figure.

    To be honest, that got me past the first sentence, which I found overly vague and portentous. Even just a little bit more specificity about the nature of the death (it's not even sure whether it's unexpected! --could be a natural death) or the impact/relationship to the person dying (a stranger dying on the doorstep vs. a death in the family) would've helped me here.

    Your writing did the rest of the job from there, though. I loved the atmospheric paragraph about Constantinople vs. Cyprus; the little setting details about food and the mix of typical sibling interaction. Would definitely keep reading.

  4. Oh, my goodness. Wonderful premise. I'm usually bored to tears by historical, but this hooked me.

    Okay. Great first line.

    Such wonderful scene setting. And you have framed this page so expertly - with the combination of the first and last line, I have no choice but to read on. This would have me hunkering down with your book for sure.

    SO MUCH LUCK to you!

  5. Really love everything about this. Great writing, sensory details, and an interesting premise. Thumbs up!

  6. Love it. The comparison between her old and new home shines. You have the story set clearly and you say so much with so little.

    Great job. Good luck!

  7. Love ancient Constantinople and Theodora's story, and you've started at a really pivotal part of her life. I do wonder if you're trying to pack in too many historical details at once, like having her dream of a quintessential Byzantine dish; but that's a matter of personal taste. So to speak. :) Anyway, I think there's a lot to be said for this setting and I'd probably buy it!

  8. Im a big fan of the historicals, and found this thime period to be an intriguing setting. Not the usual historical setting, and I liked that about this piece.

    I did feel that while some of the descriptions offered in the first few paragraphs were lovely, they weren't anything that "hooked" me. It felt just a bit heavy on backstory and internal explanation. The active bits were enough to keep me intrigued and invested in what was being laid out for us.

    I am intrigued to see where the first line of the first line of the MS -- which was super strong, ties into teh rest of the story.

    Best of luck with the auction!

  9. Wow. Great scene setting and vivid imagery. In just a few paragraphs you transported me to Constantinople! Hooked!

  10. I'm going to go out on a whim here and guess that it's her mother or father who's going to die (in these circumstances, how scandalous!), but I'll also add that I'd rather you skip the first sentence (cliche) in favor of just showing it. If you took out that sentence, and then right after her mother says his name twice (your last paragraph here) showed us her father in agony, or worse, not breathing, etc... well that's much more of a bang on page 1 than just telling us her life started with death. (You could find a similar approach if it's her mother who's going to die.) Good old show vs. tell.

    The only other thing I'd say is that there are a lot of names and places to keep straight here from the start. Comito. Anastasia. Greens. Hippodrome. Constantinople. Cyprus. Acacius. Mother. And the main character. Try limiting this in the opening page to focus on pulling the reader in and keeping their attention on the important thing--that the "I" in this story is about to witness a death. You can bring the sisters in after her mother screams, or whatever happens, when the whole family is (I'm assuming) going to wake up. By then the reader should be absorbed and primed to learn more names, whereas right now it feels like you're foisting them on us all in one paragraph. Overload.

    However, a little tweaking and I think this has a good shot at going somewhere, provided the rest of the pages build off the good voice and tension you have here.

  11. Well, here's where a writer needs to learn to sift through conflicting advice (which will always happen when you ask a group of writers for feedback--they'll tend to rewrite your story to their taste.) And I'm about to add my opinion to the mixture.

    Someone commented on the vagueness of the opening line and wanted more explanation about who died, etc, but that is EXACTLY what hooked me to your story and made me read the rest. Am I right to think that the parents were "doing it" and the father dies in the "middle of the action" ;)?

    I really love this excerpt and I think it does what it needs to do (hook the reader, establish setting). I wouldn't change a thing.

  12. You've plunged me into ancient Constantinople with smells and sounds, with your protagonist's hunger and dreams. This is the goal of historical fiction, to place the reader in that time and place.

    I like the first sentence. I write dramatic first sentences myself (or try to!). You need to throw out a promise of ominous events.

    Two small things stopped me. I kept stopping on the last sentence of the first graph. It didn't quite circle back to where they were sleeping, for some reason, but felt like another place: "Our ramshackle house near Constantinople’s amphitheater could scarcely compare."

    Also it's a bit of a clash to have cow's eyes and goat leg in the same vicinity.

    Overall, I feel it might be prudent to trim the description to accelerate your first inciting event. I suspect it's right after this excerpt. Lying there in the dark not sleeping with her family might not hook some readers. Consider just a little tightening to do that.

    And the title is not there yet. Too general.

  13. You may want to work on the title - it doesn't tell me anything about the story, looking at it cold, and it doesn't enhance your log line.

    The descriptions are vivid and I get a good sense of your character's voice right away, but you lose me a little after Mom giggles.

    "She gave a little moan as I snuggled" makes these two things sound more connected than they really are. If she's trying to distract herself from listening by thinking other thoughts, or if she's always thinking about food because she's always hungry, that works, but the transition there to daydreaming about food isn't connected. Also, as mentioned above, cow eyes threw me a little - they'd mean something very different to the butcher's son. ;) The diversion to food here might draw out this upcoming inciting event a little too much.

    It's the change in her mother's tone that draws me back in. It should surprise her, too, after the giggling just above, for things to turn suddenly serious.

    Nicely done, overall. I'd keep reading.

  14. By the way - you're getting a lot of comments on the title, and I just realised you've used the translation of Procopius' Anecdota, where we get a lot of our information about Theodora. That's very clever, though it would be difficult to publish with the same title as the Tartt bestseller. Maybe an alternative translation, or simply The Anecdotes, would serve you well.

  15. I love the opening line. It kept me reading.
    The descriptions are great and I'm another one who'd rather not see so much of it in an opening but it works here. You set a good scene. Not only that but I get a real sense of the narrator's personality.

    I'd definitely want to read more.

  16. It's always so tough to crit 250 words only - and to have that short excerpt out there for public view. I don't have anything constructive to say, other than Brava!