Wednesday, January 15, 2014

January Secret Agent #42

GENRE: Historical Fiction

Winter dark comes early in the Scottish Highlands, and Duncan Ladosach MacGregor of Ardchoille judged that the low clouds, which hung like a portent over the chill waters of Loch Tay, might muffle sounds of violence as completely as the blackness now stifled sight. Leather-sheathed dirks pendant from their belts and claymores clinging to their backs, Duncan and his son Gregor had just reached the tiny settlement of Morenish and now stopped to rest in the lee of a scraggly rowan tree whose misfortune it was to have grown on a rocky, wind-racked bench above the waters of the loch.

Tossing back the fold of tartan that cloaked his head and speaking in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, Duncan turned to his son, whose prolonged silence suggested he might have reservations about this night’s business. “We’ll teach a lesson to anyone who surrenders his allegiance to Clan Gregor, lest others follow his cowardly example.”

“Certainly, Father. Unless we stand united against the Campbells, all of us shall become landless outlaws, but still . . .”

“Nay, son. There is no other way. Dun Alasdair must be destroyed. I am bent upon it, and I expect your dirk to second mine.”

Even as Gregor nodded his assent to the darkness surrounding them, he pictured the inoffensive Alasdair hunched over the warmth of a peat fire as his wife busied herself with their evening meal.


  1. Although I think you have a talent for descriptions and prose, I found this excerpt to be extremely confusing. The descriptions, though well crafted, muddled the tension of what I believe to be a dangerous situation.

    In particular, I found your opening paragraph and especially your opening line to be extremely long and hard to follow. I had to read it several times to understand fully what was going on. I'd suggest crafting a different opening that more easily grabs the reader's attention and builds the tension of the situation.

  2. Some very nice description here. The first line is a bit complex, but I liked it. Re-arranging a sentence or two in the first two paragraphs might make it flow a bit more easily (move the description of their weapons to the end of the first paragraph?)

    It's not easy setting up a scene in unfamiliar territory. It's something that historical, fantasy, and SF novels need to be able to do without bogging down the story. You do a pretty good job of it.

  3. I liked your descriptions and complex prose in the first paragraphs. But, I thought the dialogue was a little too much like the characters were speaking for the readers' benefit, because it seemed like they were exchanging information that the characters would already know. I also didn't understand the last line and felt a bit confused as to what was going on. But I do love your Scottish setting!

  4. I liked the voice and set-up here.

    The first sentence is a little unwieldy. Consider making the first clause an independent sentence.

    The son's dialogue also feels like an info dump. Consider expanding that section and let the info. flow in shorter bursts between father and son. If you re-structure it to show more conflict between the son and father, it would ratchet up the tension in the scene. For example,

    '...lest others follow his cowardly example.'

    'But father, Alasdair?'

    'Nay son. There is no other way. Unless, we stand..."

    Let father deliver the 'killing' dialogue and son deliver the doubt. Makes clearer the different characters of father and son.

  5. I enjoyed the change of pace this entry provided. I like the complex prose of Historical or Literary Fiction novels, so this seems like something I would really enjoy reading.

    You establish mood and historical setting in the opening very well, but I wonder if it is a little too expository in the dialogue in this sense. Historical fiction dialogue is very difficult to write (Lord knows I'm no expert!!) while keeping it realistic and smooth. I'm not sure that this exchange really works in that regard... I think MargotG gave some pretty solid suggestions to improve this.

    Otherwise, I would like to see where you go with this scene - and how you handle the subject matter/period from here on!

  6. 1) You don't have to put your main characters' full names in when they're first introduced - let them come up later in the narrative.

    2) Lots and lots and lots of descriptors - low clouds, chill waters, leather-sheathed dirks. You're propping up your word choice with all of those. Find a way to pick stronger words and you won't need to buffer them with adjectives.

    3) This feels to me like the Historical equivalent of opening your story with your character in their car on the way to get somewhere important. See if you can cut this and slot in the important bits in later scenes - I bet there's probably somewhere more exciting to start your story which would still give you a chance to set the scene.

  7. That first parg is a mouthful. You've packed 100 words into 2 sentences. Perhaps cut it down for easier reading. You also have a 'they' before a second person has been introduced, and a tree growing out of a bench? Is that what you mean?

    I also wonder if this is the place to start. They seem to have arrived where they wanted to go, and then settle under a tree and do nothing. Perhaps somewhere closer to the confrontation with their enemies would work better.

  8. There are some great descriptions here and I like the setting. I'd suggest trimming that first paragraph down, and varying some of the sentence lengths to help with the pacing and up the tension here a bit.

  9. Great details here; I ventured once into Scottish Historical and it took a little more effort to read, so I get that the names and descriptions might become cumbersome. I love the details about the tratan, the blets, the claymores.

    That being said, I think some of the sentences could be shorter, so ideas and information are spaced out. The first sentence is quite long and could be split into three. Winter dark comes early in the Scottish Highlands. <this works on its own. Then you can intro the character and his assessment of the land and sky. The next idea about sounds of violence could be expanded into its own sentence--we don't yet know what those sounds are, who the sounds are coming from, etc. Just a hint, that Duncan is listening for X (people/weapons/horses etc).

    The dialogue feels a little formal; maybe read it aloud and see how it could be rephrased to sound more natural, especially between an father and son.

  10. (that should be tartan and belts, sorry!)