Friday, December 2, 2011

#6 Historical Fiction: The Black Letter

TITLE: The Black Letter
GENRE: Historical Fiction

After eloping with her art instructor to conceal her pregnancy, 19th century aristocrat Sofia de Bastida y Castellanos is mistaken for a prostitute and exiled to the Galapagos Islands, where in order to survive and return home, she must outwit the colony’s tyrant leader.

Quito, 1869

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…

Sofia rehearsed the words in her mind, but couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. Her plan to memorize her confession had seemed like a good idea a few minutes ago. Only through memorization could she voice her sins without thinking, without feeling. But who was she fooling? She would never gather enough courage to tell Padre Humberto what she had done. No matter how much guilt consumed her; no matter how many more sleepless nights she had to endure.

But what if, Dios no permita, her unconscious mind betrayed her? Perhaps in her sleep as her mother stepped into her bed chamber with a candle in her hand to bid her goodnight; or what if, like one of those perturbed beings in asylums with no sense of decorum, she blurted out her sins at the dinner table as her father twisted his curly whiskers and discussed the current state of affairs under García Moreno’s mandate?

The thought was both horrifying and appealing. It would be a relief to share her secret with someone; to unravel the ball of yarn growing everyday with her lies. But if she told someone, it could only be her best friend, Mariana, or Nana Piedad, if she was in an agreeable mood. Or Padre Humberto.

Sofia de Bastida y Castellanos lifted her head and faced the statue of the Christ child standing above the altar, surrounded by angels and a sea of gold carvings.


  1. I like this, but I feel like you could tighten it a bit. The third paragraph (if you count the first sentence as a paragraph) is just Sofia thinking and you sum up her fears in the first sentence of that paragraph. I would prefer this if you cut most of the third paragraph and focused on getting us to the hook - what Sofia has done to make her feel so guilty - more quickly.

    Good luck for the auction!

  2. I like it! Nice voice. I don't think you need to cut the third paragraph. You might consider changing the "a good idea a few minutes ago" to "a good idea yesterday" or "last night" or some other timeframe. If it was a few minutes ago, I get a "scattered" impression of Sofia. Good luck!

  3. Very good. I like the historical detail. It's enough to give flavor but not so much as to confuse or weigh us down.

    It might be good to tighten this a bit though. Not much is happening and you need to get moving with the story.

    Overall, I liked it and would continue reading.

  4. I like the sense of suspense about what she has done, the driving motivation of guilt, and the Spanish interspersed with English. Cool.

  5. Amazing logline! I'd have bought the book based on that alone.

    I like this, but agree that it could be tightened a bit. A smattering of the inner monologue is good, but we already know Sofia sinned from the first line. Perhaps more on the stakes of what she has to lose?

  6. Already in this short snippet, the reader gets a strong sense of place-- which is so important in historical fiction. We're being invited to participate in an environment of striking difference to our own and authors of this kind of book are charged with the responsibility to literally 'take us there.'

    I'd definitely continue reading as, with just 250 words, the promise of accomplished reimagining is tantalizingly present.

  7. Forgot to mention, excellent title. Inherent hook and a subtle allusion to a 19th-century literary light. Overall, I feel excitement about this entry.

  8. This is the first entry I've read where I don't feel any tightening of the prose is necessary. That's not to say it couldn't be done, that you couldn't delete some of the internal angsting and get things moving a bit faster, but I like that you pause to go over her worries (blurting her secret out in her sleep!), because it gives us insight into her character while at the same time maintaining tension.

    I also love the voice here, and the premise. You manage to give enough character both to Sophia and to the time period to make me believe I'm in the moment, at the church with our protagonist. Great job.

  9. First of all, I love the pitch. It's short and sweet, and we know everything we need to know (character/quest/setting)! Nice job!
    I also like the voice, and I like to know what Sofia thinks. I like the statue detail, too. ;)

  10. Excellent writing and fantastic log line. I don't typically read historical novels, but this is really good. You may have turned me. I completely agree with everything K. Cooper said above. Best of luck!

  11. The title is really intriguing, and I love the interspersed Spanish. I like that it's her fear that her own mind will betray her that makes her act, and we get a great sense of setting and of her family through her mind's eye. I like the imagery of lies as a growing ball of yarn.

    There is inner narrative here that circles back on itself, but it feels appropriate and necessary in order to propel her to action. It could be more active sooner if she actually said that first line and then paused, and the Padre prompted her out of her thoughts, but there is also a certain flavor to watching her work herself up to it.

    This makes me want to read on, and I hope that in the next passage the dialogue scene is as full of voice, and as subtle with setting and character clues, as this is.

  12. I like the title and the logline quite a bit. I stumble a little on how eloping "conceals" pregnancy, but the part about being mistaken for a prostitute and then exiled to the Galapagos is excellent. I'd love to read a story about a woman in the 19th century trying to survive there.

    It works to open with a woman anguished over confessing her sins. The feeling of religious fervor and guilt is appropriate to the period and culture.

    There is a lot of withholding of information in this entry, though, and it makes for a partially satisfying read. I don't know what her sins/secret/lies are--though I can guess from your logline it is pregnancy. Also there are a lot of names given and we don't know who these people are, so the significance in her life is unclear.

    But overall, exciting idea for a book and good writing.

  13. It's a very unusual premise, setting-wise and that would be enough to get me to read the book.
    I'm going to disagree with the others. I don't think internal thought is the best way to start the story.

    I'd actually start with the last paragraph in this excerpt, and perhaps the first paragraph to follow.

    Nice writing. Good luck!