Wednesday, January 22, 2014

First Two (Adult Fiction) #8

TITLE: Frozen Hell
GENRE: Historical Women's Fiction

Helsinki, Finland—December 1939

Leila stood on the train station platform, holding tight to three-year-old Taneli’s hand as she hugged Aunt Sisko. “We’ll be fine,” Leila insisted, whispering so her son wouldn’t hear. “The invasion won’t last—the Allies won’t allow it.”

Aunt Sisko sniffed, her eyes searching Leila’s as they pulled back. “But the air raids . . .” Even though her aunt spoke softly, Leila glanced down to be sure Taneli hadn’t heard. No sense in scaring him more than he already had been two days ago when they’d run to a shelter as Soviet bombers rained their cargo over Helsinki. Aunt Sisko shook her head, pleading. “He’d be safer in Sweden.”

Leila gaze strayed across the platform. Beside another train ready to depart many mothers said goodbye to their children bound for the safety of Sweden. They had cards pinned to their coats with their names, addresses, and parents’ names. Would that be enough to reunite families? Would the foster parents treat them well? Would they love the children so dearly they refused to part with them? These questions and more swirled in Leila’s mind for likely the thousandth time, like a dark mist. Heat burned behind her eyes.

“I will not send—” Leila’s voice cut off. Yet Taneli didn’t appear to be listening, intent instead on stomping patterns into a snowbank. He was the only part of her dear Jaakob she had left. A tear trickled down one cheek, followed by a second, but Leila didn’t wipe them away, unwilling to draw attention to her tears. Crying could worry her boy, and it would certainly provide Sisko more fuel for her argument: If you love him, protect him.

Yet Leila, a nurse, hadn’t been able to protect Jaakob; he’d died of pneumonia only weeks after Taneli had learned to walk. She should have been able to save her husband. Leila would not send their son away with no promise of finding him after the war. She stroked Taneli’s shoulder. “He stays with me.”


“We’ll be fine,” Leila insisted. She watched her words, careful not to say Stalin or Russians or soldiers. “They want Viipuri. They wouldn’t bomb what they want to capture, would they? We’ll be safer there than here.”

Would Taneli be safer yet in Sweden?

The thought was a mere whisper, a wisp. Leila ordered it away. God had taken her Jaakob. Surely He wouldn’t be so cruel as to take her only child, too.

Leila leaned down and adjusted Taneli’s hand-knitted scarf and fur hat. The icy temperature felt more like January than early December. Leila straightened, standing tall to show her determination. “The Lotta Svard contacted me about training other nurses. I’m sure we’ll return to Helsinki for some of the training. We’ll visit; I promise.” She hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “ That will be my contribution to the war. It’s all I can give.”

Aunt Sisko nodded. “I know.” Both women understood without another word.


  1. I would definitely keep reading this.
    That being said, I might take another look at your opening sentence. You have three-fold action (standing on the platform, holding the hand, hugging the aunt) as well as introducing us to three characters (Leila, Tanelia, Sisko). That's a lot of work for an opening sentence, especially for a work that you know is going to be a little more heady than a contemporary first-person.

  2. I absolutely love this. I would keep reading.

    I agree with the above comment re: the opening sentence. I also thought this sentence was a little awkward. "No sense in scaring him more than he already had been two days ago when they’d run to a shelter as Soviet bombers rained their cargo over Helsinki." Is there a way to break it up? Can she remember what she saw instead of talking about it? Same thing with her husband - I wonder if it would be better to show what happened to him later instead of saying it upfront (of course, maybe you do).

    But, overall, excellent job.

  3. This is very well done. I won't re-hash the opening sentence as you already know to fix it. The rest, however, was well done, and I can sense a mother's fierce determination to keep and protect her child. I would read on.

  4. Wow. What a tough choice your MC has to make. The concept is enough to keep me reading. One thing I would watch is your use of italics to emphasize (i.e. "not"). The reader can get the emphasis on her own. Also you might want to look at the last sentence again. It's not clear to me what the two women understand.

  5. Oh, I just love this! Immediately gripping and so lovely!

    A few nitpicks:

    No sense in scaring him more than he already had been two days ago when they’d run to a shelter as Soviet bombers rained their cargo over Helsinki. - This line reads long and awkward for me. I would consider breaking it into two and smoothing it out. Or reordering it as "No sense in scaring him more than when the Soviet bombers rained their cargo over Helsinki two days ago."

    The third paragraph should start with Leila's rather than Leila.

    The dark mist and heat behind her eyes - GORGEOUS wording here. Love.

  6. I love this. Love! I have a sneaking suspicion I know who wrote this; even so, I'm very glad to read an excerpt. So many historical details set the scene. The dialogue tells us enough without being info-dumpy. I really like the visual of children with cards pinned to their coats with identifying information. It shows us a visual and evokes emotion, since we know based on history some of these kids might not make it back home.

    I like that the driving tension here is more internal and personal, to show the human effects of war. The line about God surely not taking her only child is surprisingly effective given this is the first two pages.

    Only a few nitpicks: "Leila gaze strayed" needs an apostrophe + s. The next line beginning with Beside is missing a verb or a comma somewhere; I'm not getting the flow. When it says "They" had cards pinned, I would say the children, or "Little boys and girls" just to clarify it isn't the women, since the women who said goodbye were the subject of the previous sentence.

    This is totally a style preference, but usually when the character asks a question of themselves or the plot this can be rephrased as a statement which reads a little stronger. It calls for a deeper exploration into those questions and what they mean to the character. Maybe you don't want to go there so soon, but something to consider.

    A few spots some minor tweaking could pare the sentences down. "Leila leaned down and adjusted" could be "Leila adjusted" and "Leila straightened to show her determination" (omitting "standing tall" for redundancy).

    This is a very engaging opening. I tend to like 20th-century historical, so the setting immediately interested me. I was really captivated by Ruta Septy's "Between Shades of Gray" which also takes place in Europe during WWII.

  7. Overall, I thought this worked well, and I liked the fact that it will take place in Finland, rather than England, France or Germany. My suggestions would be to tighten up the writing, and perhaps work in a bit more description to replace some of things you're telling us.

    You could cut 'as they pulled back' in parg 2, as well as 'Even though her aunt spoke softly.'

    The 'No sense in scaring him . . . sentence could be reworked to read smoother.

    You could cut the whole 'Yet Leila, a nurse ...' parg and just keep the ending dialogue. It's there for the reader and could come out in a more natural way later.

    You might introduce the other train and the mother's and children earlier so she only has to give them a glance later. You could also show us some snow on the ground, maybe some frosty breath to get in the cold instead of telling us - The icy temperature felt more like January than early December.

  8. The previous comments have all been much more favorable than my humble opinion. We all want to help improve each others' work so I am putting in a contrary voice.

    I had to read it more than once to discover that the aunt is leaving. I first thought they were there to send Taneli away. In the end, I discover that Leila and her son are leaving (I think.)

    You begin with a touching scene (much covered in movies and literature)so you need to put an original stamp on it.

    What do you mean by Aunt Sisko "sniffed?" You might be implying that she disagrees with Leila but it also sounds a bit like sniffing because she is crying. And what do you mean by her eyes "pulling back.?"You could make the discussion between the two women more of an argument.

    The back story about being a nurse and the husband dying feels plunked down to me.

    You have the premise of a good story. Give it your best work.